New USGS Report and Maps Highlight Afghanistan’s Mineral Potential, But Obstacles RemainJuly 27, 2012 By Keenan DillardTwo maps released to the public for the first time this month illustrate the vast wealth of mineral deposits in the war-torn nation of Afghanistan. The maps, created through a joint effort from the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Defense Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, are the first of their kind to provide large-scale coverage of a country using a technology called hyperspectral imaging, which measures the reflectance of material on the Earth’s surface simultaneously across a continuous band of wavelengths broken up into 10 to 20 nanometer intervals. More than 800 million individual pixels of data were collected during a period of 43 days in 2007 by a NASA aircraft. Each data point was then “compared to reference spectrum entries in a spectral library of minerals, vegetation, water, ice, and snow in order to characterize surface materials across the Afghan landscape.”
Accompanying the release of the maps is a USGS study, completed in September of 2011, that largely confirms earlier reports from the DOD and USGS on the size of Afghanistan’s untapped mineral resources. The first reports received widespread media coverage last year, and updated estimates indicate that upwards of $900 billion worth of mineral reserves are present in a number of different forms including copper, iron, gold, and, most notably, more than one million metric tons of rare earth elements.
Scientists involved with the project believe that there may be even more reserves awaiting discovery. “I fully expect that our estimates are conservative,” said Robert Tucker from the USGS in an interview with Scientific American. “With more time, and with more people doing proper exploration, it could become a major, major discovery.”
Over the course of the study, scientists from the USGS and Afghan Geological Survey combined the newly-created spectral data with existing maps to identify 24 areas of interest (AOIs) that warranted hands-on investigation.
The two hyperspectral maps illustrate different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Shortwave infrared wavelengths reveal carbonates, phyllosilicates, and sulfates, while visible and near-infrared wavelengths show iron-bearing minerals, which yield products ranging from copper to rare earth elements and uranium. Each map classifies 31 different types of materials by color.
Although the hyperspectral maps only show mineral deposits on the surface, geologists were able to estimate what lies beneath by combining new data with samples previously taken from trenches, drill holes, or underground workings at the AOIs by Soviet and Afghan scientists. According to the USGS, “A number of the AOIs were field checked by USGS and DOD geologists between 2009 and 2011, and the previous geologic interpretations and concepts were confirmed.”
Actual Extraction: Not Easy
Afghanistan has been “scouring the globe for investors to develop its mines in an attempt to lift one of the world’s poorest nations out of misery through investment,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Contracts have already been awarded to China and India to develop copper and iron mines, respectively, and another round of bidding is currently in progress for four unexploited sites that are being closely eyed by countries such as the United States, Australia, and Turkey.
But significant hurdles remain in the quest to turn Afghanistan’s buried minerals into a steady source of income for the government and the Afghan people. Security is still a major concern and United States will pull out a vast majority of its combat troops by 2014. The government has established a Mines Protection Unit to guard sites where ground has already been broken, and plans to increase the size of the unit as necessary to provide security for all mining projects nationwide. For now the Afghan Ministry of Mines is only taking bids for projects in the more secure northern part of the country, where deposits of copper and gold are located. As the nation develops and stabilizes, massive resources of rare earth elements located in the notoriously volatile Helmand Province will open for bids.
Security isn’t the only factor affecting the country’s mining prospects. “If you want to do mineral resource development, there are two things you need to pay attention to: water and energy resources. Where is the power going to come from? You can’t develop these large mineral deposits without energy,” said director of the USGS program in Afghanistan, Jack Medlin, in an interview with EARTH magazine.
There are also the traditional pitfalls of developing extractive industries, especially in poor and conflict-prone countries, including corruption, inequity, land disputes, and environmental degradation. And the fact that Afghanistan is landlocked, making supply lines in an out of the country difficult (as the United States has discovered).
Despite the many hurdles, there is plenty of optimism for an Afghan future brightened by mineral wealth. The new data shows that previous reports of substantial resources were not far off, and the Afghan economy, which for years has relied on opium as its biggest export, could certainly use the help. “The prognosis is extremely encouraging and could play a significant role in recovery from decades of war,” USAID advisor Wayne Pennington told EARTH.
For the full resolution versions of the hyperspectral imaging maps (~90MB each) see here and here.
Keenan Dillard is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and an intern with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.
Sources: Afghan Geological Survey, Afghan Ministry of Mines, Christian Science Monitor, U.S. Department of Defense, EARTH, The New York Times, Scientific American, U.S. Geological Survey, The Wall Street Journal, World Bank.
Image Credit: USGS.