Troubled waters between Afghanistan and Iran as border troops clash over the Helmand River
By Mohd Faizee, Susanne Schmeier; IHE Delft
On Saturday 27 May, Iranian and Afghan border guards exchanged gunfire, that, according to reports, killed and injured several people including civilians. The standoff occurred amid an escalation of tensions between the Taliban and Iran over Iran’s water rights from the Helmand river. Earlier on 18 May, during a visit to Sistan and Baluchistan province, the Iranian president warned the Taliban to comply with Iran’s water rights . Iranian foreign minister added that Iran would exert pressure against the Taliban if needed. The Taliban responded by reiterating their commitment to the 1973 water treaty and indicated that the basin is experiencing a dry year due to climate change impacts.
Since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, Iran and Afghanistan have clashed on several occasions despite otherwise having relatively good relations. In 2022, residents of Iran’s Zabul province, attacked the trucks of Afghan traders near the border during a demonstration to demand more water from the Helmand River. This water scarcity was partly due to delayed precipitation in the upper part of the basin, but also due to the diversion of a large volume of water at Afghanistan’s Kamal Khan Dam towards its Goud e Zere wetlands in.
The dispute was temporarily solved after the talks between the two foreign ministers and the Iranian water minister's visit to Afghanistan in August 2022. An increase in precipitation, including an unusually long monsoon in eastern and central Afghanistan during the second half of 2022 and improved political ties were among factors adding to the stability. The Taliban allowed water to flow from Kamal Khan towards Iran while publicly denying they did so, while Iran handed over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban's representatives.
However, these improved relations were not reflected at the technical level: water commissioners from both sides have failed to reach to any agreement during their three meetings held since Taliban took power in August . In a recent meeting held in May 2023 in Kabul, the Iranian delegation requested to visit Kamal Khan and Kajaki dams to verify the Taliban’s claims of the decrease in river water. The Taliban rejected the request. The Iranian news agency, Irna, however, published what it said was satellite images from Kajaki Dam to show water behind Kajaki and Kamal Khan dams. Relations over water thus continue to be a central point of contention in the bilateral relations.
A historic perspective
The Helmand River, which is dependent on runoff from the mountains in central Afghanistan, has historically been prone to periodic floods and droughts. Climate change impacts have intensified the situation leading to often conflicts and disagreements over the water particularly during droughts. Nevertheless, Afghanistan and Iran have always disagreed over the volume of water Iran received under the 1973 Helmand River Water Treaty, which gives Iran the right to 820 million cubic meters of water in normal years. As per the treaty, the volume will be proportionately decreased when the total flow of water in the river is less than normal thus below 5.6 billion cubic meters. The normal year is determined based on the flow measurement at Dehraud Station in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province and water rights delivery have to take place at three mutually agreed points along the shared border while jointly monitored and measured.
However, no data is available from Dehraud Station, which was destroyed during the war in Afghanistan and there are no mutually agreed delivery points. This has led both sides to base their arguments on contested water flow data they have unilaterally collected. While the instability in region has previously been the main hinderance for cooperation, it was also in Iran’s interest to keep the current status quo. The lack of water infrastructure in Afghanistan during decades of war and conflict has provided Iran with surplus water that it has used.
The inauguration of Afghanistan’s Kamal Khan Dam in March 2021, near the Iran border, changed this status quo. The dam has the capacity to divert a large portion of the river flow, particularly during high floods from Iran towards Afghanistan’s Goud e Zere wetlands, depriving Iran of peak flow. This capacity was used during the peak flow in 2022. Due to lack of management capacity by the Taliban, this water remaining in Afghanistan, however, was not put to productive use. This illustrates how Kamal Khan Dam can be a source of contention but, if managed cooperatively and efficiently in a joint planning approach, can also be a source of mutual benefit. This does, however, necessitate technical capacity and joint planning – based on the willingness to cooperate –but in the current situation, this seems rather unlikely.
Water management in Afghanistan
Afghanistan under the Taliban is suffering from an extreme level of bad (or inexistent) governance and a lack of proper state functioning across all services and sectors, including the water sector. The persistent water crisis in Afghanistan has further deteriorated under the Taliban. While only one among many challenges the Afghan people face, the lack of access to water supply and sanitation, the mismanagement of already scarce water resources and the inability of the regime to respond to water-related disasters and the impacts of climate change are adding yet another burden on individuals, but also the entire society.
Based on a 2023 UN report, the country faces unpreceded level of economic and humanitarian crises with two thirds of the population – or almost 30 million people, in dire need of humanitarian assistance. The international community’s engagement with the Taliban has mostly focused on addressing the humanitarian and the rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic situation. Engagement beyond this remains extremely limited.
The situation puts the Taliban's frantic attempts to gain legitimacy among Afghans, including within their own ranks, to the test. In this context, the management of water resources, particularly those in the Helmand River, is crucial. The river runs through provinces, including Uruzgan, Kandahar, and Helmand, that are Pashtun-dominated areas and the Taliban's "heartland,", the home region of many of their senior leadership and foot soldiers. Local communities in the area depend on irrigation for their primary means of subsistence but frequently experience water shortages. The area’s poppy fields are the source of the Taliban's rich drug trade. UNODC reported an increase by 32% in the poppy production under the Taliban in 2022, most of which stems from areas in the Helmand River Basin. The river’s water sustains a poppy cultivation that is key to not only to the Taliban’s finances, but also to its individual members and to its supporters.
In the hostilities with Iran over the Helmand River, the Taliban are positioning themselves as the defenders of the rights of communities – and it uses social media to mobilize public support. Thought this may bolster its local support, this populist position makes the Taliban’s strategy and cooperation with Iran even more challenging specially as the group tries to gain legitimacy across the region.
International and domestic concerns interact
The lack of technical expertise on the Taliban side, while in the short term beneficial to Iran, together with increasingly changing flow patterns of the Helmand river, cause extreme anxiety on the Iranian side. The situation is exacerbated by the shrinking of the four artificial lakes or Chah e Nimas in Iran. Those were built in Sistan near the border, with a capacity two times larger than Iran’s annual rights from the river, to store water of the Helmand River during peak flow while protecting the downstream regions from flood. The reserve water in these artificial lakes provides resident of Sistan with reliable water resources throughout the year, at times even when the main river has fallen dry.
If these lakes completely dried up, water supply in Sistan region would depend on the Helmand River’s flow variability and the Taliban’s water management expertise and willingness and their relations with Iran. Iran’s investments over the years in flood management and storage as well irrigation networks in Sistan would also be in vain. However, Iran’s alternative plans to supply water resources to the region, such as digging deep wells or desalination and transfer of water from Oman sea, do not seem promising either as it would only provide a relatively small volume of water to Sistan, 120 mcubic meters annually, at high costs and environmental impacts. This is while some experts estimate that the Sistan region would need at least cubic meters of water annually.
In addition, the Sistan region, where the Helmand River ends, is an underdeveloped and marginalized region of Iran populated with indigenous Baloch tribes. Both ethnic and religious minorities, Baloch relations with the central government in Iran have often been subject to ups and down. With the Helmand River being the main source of freshwater for these communities, the notion of water security in Sistan is strongly tied to the concept of national security of Iran and subject to concerns of the central government in Teheran over social instability, especially in the current situation with protests riddling the government since 2022.
Fearing social unrest by the resident of Sistan, such the more conflictive narrative applied by the Iranian government towards Iran helps diverting the public attention towards the Taliban and away from domestic water management challenges in Iran. The situation and the notion of national security also seem to adequately justify the new water supply projects in the area that the current administration in Iran is implementing, despite concerns regarding their cost effectiveness, sustainability, and environmental implications.
Although Iranian government supported Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the religious ideologies of both are highly irreconcilable. In addition, the historical mistrust with the Taliban seem to support Iran’s anxiety over Taliban’s behaviour in the Helmand river basin. The mistrust is when in 2001 Iran accused the first Taliban regime of closing the gates of Kajaki Dam and cutting off the flow of the river towards Iran which affected downstream regions in Sistan.
Dispute likely to continue unless negotiations become more fruitful soon
Given the importance of the Helmand River for both Afghanistan and Iran, the two countries’ dispute over water rights is likely to continue. While implementation of the existing treaty would bring more transparency in water rights delivery, it might not serve the broader interests of both sides. Iran’s water rights seem not to fulfil its current needs and the lakes are likely to further shrink, particularly when the water volume decreases due to climate change. For Afghanistan, the complex social context in the Helmand basin and the important profit from poppy cultivation will likely continue to define Taliban’s’ approach in the Helmand river.
The Taliban’s lack of water management capacity, combined with climate change, will continue to affect communities on both sides. The situation is likely to intensify during the drought periods predicted to frequently occur in the region. New and different approaches to negotiations between both sides are therefore urgently needed, as are measures to improve water management and adapt to climate change– for the sake of riparian people, economies and ecosystems, but also in light of broader regional stability considerations.
The WPS blogs provide insights into recent developments relating to water, conflict, security and peace. These blogs reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily of the WPS partnership or its donors.