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USF forum sees untapped potential in Afghanistan

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:30 AM
TAMPA -

A trillion dollars worth of gold, copper, rare earth metals, petroleum and natural gas.

That's what Department of Defense officials estimate sits below the surface in Afghanistan. But all those resources are worth nothing if they can't be taken out of the ground, Jack Medlin, the U.S. Geological Service's Afghanistan Project Lead, told an audience at the University of South Florida on Tuesday.

Between security concerns, inadequate transportation, rampant corruption and a lack of water needed to sustain mining operations, the hidden treasures might stay that way, Medlin said.

"If you can't get it out of the ground, it's just a resource," he said.

Medlin was speaking at a panel on mining in Afghanistan during the second day of a three-day USF conference called "Water: The Key to Regional Stability Thru Sustainable Partnerships."

The conference was the culmination of a three-year effort by Thomas J. Mason, a USF professor in the College of Public Health and a world-renowned leader in the field of environmental epidemiology.

"From water springs all life," Mason said before the session started.

And a lot of potential trouble on the horizon, Mason said, pointing to a recent U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment that predicts water shortages will lead to more tension and conflict in the future.

Working with Mohsen Milani, a professor of politics and chair of the USF Department of Government and International Affairs, Mason assembled representatives of industry, the military and academia to look at how water is used in Afghanistan for agriculture, energy and mining.

When the U.S. Geological Service returned to Afghanistan in 2004, it found few improvements since the days of Alexander the Great.

In the ensuing years, using state-of-the-art imaging systems, the USGS was able to map out 24 mineral-rich sections of Afghanistan, many of them containing "world-class" levels of gold, copper and rare earth metals. U.S. scientists also found enough petroleum and natural gas to provide much of the energy Afghanistan needs.

"It's not a Saudi Arabia or Kuwait," Medlin said. "But there is enough to meet demands."

Getting at the resources will require tremendous investments in infrastructure and security, Medlin said. And while details of a recent agreement with China to run a copper mine are secret, it is unclear if the Chinese will be able to make it work, Medlin said.

Charles A. Mousannar, executive vice president for growth regions and construction at AMEC Environment and Infrastructure, urged the Afghan government to turn down any deals that don't protect the environment and don't place Afghans in the lead when it comes to construction. He said his company's experience in the country shows Afghan residents can handle complex construction projects.


haltman@tampatrib.com 813-259-7629

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