May 28, 2024

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Caught in an endless loop: The complex water dynamics between Iran and Afghanistan

The international media and various think tanks had extensively covered the deteriorating water relations between Afghanistan and Iran, particularly concerning the Helmand River.

The Helmand/Hirmand River, a transboundary river flowing along the Afghan-Iranian border, originates in the majestic Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan and stretches for 55 km.

It eventually merges into the Sistan Delta. With an average surface water availability of 9552 million cubic meters (Mm3) per year, the Helmand River carries great significance. Based on the 1972 Helmand/Hirmand treaty, Iran has secured a commitment from Afghanistan to supply them with an average of 22 cubic meters per second (m3/sec) during normal or above-normal water years. For friendly relations, an additional 4 m3/sec also promised to be provided. These allocations add up to approximately 820 Mm3 per year.

To put it into perspective, this constitutes around 8.5% of the total average surface water availability in the entire basin or 14% of the 5661.71 Mm3 measured at the nearby Kajaki Dam. 

Numerous reports, including one published by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2011, have warned of escalating disputes and insecurities in the region due to Afghanistan’s dam development plans. These reports have depicted a potential threat to regional stability and highlighted the emerging conflicts over water. 

Speech acts, which have the ability to shape social realities, play a crucial role in changing international relations. This was exemplified in 2021 when Afghanistan’s president at the time, Mr. Ghani, made a significant statement during the inauguration of the Kamal Khan Dam near the Iranian border. Mr. Ghani explicitly declared that Afghanistan would no longer provide free water to anyone and emphasized the need for discussions on water allocation beyond the agreed quota. He even suggested that Iran could receive more water if it offered oil in return.

Ultimately, in January 2022, the river’s flow was diverted to block water from reaching Iran and the Hamoun Wetlands. Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, issued a warning to the Afghan officials in May 2023, urging them to respect the water rights of the people of Sistan. Although Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, argued that the water scarcity issue is a consequence of drought and that Afghanistan is committed to upholding the agreement, the Taliban mobilized military forces, including weaponry and vehicles left behind by the United States.

According to Iran’s special representative for Afghanistan, Hassan Kazemi, a recent visit conducted by Iran’s technical team to the Dehravoud water measuring station, which serves as the benchmark for assessing normal, wet or dry water year. Observations and measurements made by experts indicate that the current water flow at the station during August 2023 falls below the monthly average for a normal water year. It should be noted, however, that this assessment is limited to this specific month and any drawing conclusions regarding dry, normal or wet year, as per the 1972 Hirmand Treaty, based on this data alone would be premature. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that Iran’s allocated share of water has yet to be delivered, said Hojat Mianabadi, a faculty member of Tarbiat Modares University and expert on water diplomacy.

The already-constructed dams and ongoing projects on the Helmand River Basin, including the Kajaki Dam, the Dahla Dam, the Kamal Khan Dam, and the Bakhshabad Dam, have raised concerns in Iran. The populations in the river delta regions of Nimrooz Province in Afghanistan and the Sistan region in Iran heavily rely on the Helmand River for domestic water supply and agricultural irrigation. Iran has implemented various projects, such as the Chahnimeh Reservoirs, to manage its water resources. However, its complete dependence on upstream water sources requires the maintenance, or even reduction, of irrigated lands in the Sistan area. Iran argues that the current water allocation from Afghanistan is insufficient to meet the domestic, agricultural, and ecological needs of its poorest areas. Conversely, Afghanistan, also dealing with poverty and poor living conditions, claims that it requires the same water resources for its socio-economic development, particularly for post-civil war economic recovery. The river is also crucial for sustaining the transboundary interconnected Hamoun Wetlands and the Goad-e-Zereh depression, which are essential parts of the river delta from an environmental perspective. Efforts have been made to include Afghanistan in international initiatives to revive the Hamoun Wetlands, but Afghanistan has not responded positively so far.

Drought periods, whether caused by nature or human activities, have historically played a crucial role in conflicts and cooperation surrounding the Helmand River. While conflicts have traditionally arisen during drought periods, both sides have managed to keep them under control and adopt a limited cooperative approach. However, both Afghanistan and, notably, Iran, appear dissatisfied with the level and outcomes of cooperation. Recognizing the threat to its national security, Iran had reportedly called upon the United Nations Security Council since 2001 to intervene in the water disputes with Afghanistan. Iran also proposed a joint study in 2019 to establish a platform for mutual water cooperation and find solutions for common water and environmental problems but Afghanistan did not respond favourably to the initiative. Subsequent agreements were made in 2020 and 2021 to conduct a joint geological survey of the Helmand River in the border area. While negotiations have continued with gradual progress, the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021 followed significant uncertainties about the future of relations between Afghanistan and Iran. The situation remains ambiguous without a shared goal, vision, or common norm addressing the interests and identities of both countries regarding the Helmand River Basin.

Given Afghanistan’s regional geopolitical situation, which has shaped its development and conflicts, the country has become a target for superpowers with security interests in the region. This intense geopolitical competition appears to overshadow all aspects of Afghanistan, including water resource management. As a landlocked country striving for development, Afghanistan sees unilateral water development as a strategic policy to address political failures and meet socio-economic demands. This reflects the significance of water as a high politics issue for both Afghanistan and Iran. Conflicting interests arise from historical use, environmental considerations, nationalism, and development.

Afghanistan, as an upstream country, is hesitant to openly negotiate on transboundary waters out of fear of losing control over the river and limiting its use for national development. On the other hand, Iran, as a downstream country, seeks cooperation to fulfil its domestic, agricultural, and environmental water demands. It is important to recognize that not all forms of cooperation are beneficial to all parties involved, and disputes may lead to more equitable arrangements. Cooperation over the Helmand River has even invalidated a legal treaty, calling for a re-evaluation of underlying disagreements. 

There are also other serious controversies between Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries regarding transboundary waters, often involving high-level political and security discussions. Knowing the significance of the Harirud River to Iran and Turkmenistan, correspondingly, Afghanistan has the ability to strategically manipulate water flow or restrict access as a means of coercing these two countries into making certain concessions or negotiating terms in its favour.

Iran and Turkmenistan have been substantial providers of Afghanistan’s electricity, acknowledging the significance of neighbourly relations and shared water resources. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s failure to uphold the rights of these two countries over Harirud River may also have detrimental implications for their bilateral ties. Consequently, Iran and Turkmenistan are actively pursuing negotiations with Afghanistan, with the objective of establishing a common legal framework that ensures the equitable release of water from the Harirud River to meet their respective needs. 

The question remains whether Afghanistan will pursue the strategy of sailing of water, and if so, whether Iran will accept this decision. Alternatively, Iran may propose alternative solutions, such as desalination or transferring water from the Oman Sea, to break free from the cycle of hope and despair surrounding water availability. Nonetheless, Iran, despite having the capability for desalination, is advocating for its rightful share of water from the Hirmand River. Afghanistan, on the other hand, appears to be seeking to engage Iran in a trade-off involving water, oil, and electricity, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of the 1972 Hirmand water treaty. This scheme is seen as an attempt by Afghanistan to entice Iran into a trap, jeopardizing the existing treaty. Iran is determined to engage in negotiations based on equitable sharing of water resources.

 Aylin Javadi is Environment researcher 

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