Water and (in-)security in Afghanistan as the Taliban take over
The takeover by the Taliban not only affects people’s immediate lives and security, but will also have long-term implications for the country’s and the region’s water security.
By the Water, Peace and Security (WPS) team
The takeover by the Taliban not only threatens people’s lives, security and fundamental freedom, but also significantly increases risks of water insecurity both immediately and in the long term. While our hearts and minds are with the people struggling for survival and freedom in Afghanistan today, we should not forget that the implications of the imminent Taliban rule will add yet another challenge to the long-term future of the Afghan people, and possibly also to the entire region’s stability.
The water situation in Afghanistan is dire
Years of war and instability have affected the Afghan water sector. Afghanistan experiences a relatively favorable water endowment of 75 billion m3 of accessible water and has a prime upstream location on the rivers it shares with neighboring countries; but it is the crumbling water sector and severe shortcomings in water resources management that leave the country in a horrible state of water stress (see Figure 1 of Baseline Water Stress below) and the population in dire need for water. This scarcity occurs despite all efforts to rebuild the country, including its water sector, over the past 20 years. More than 70% of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, with available drinking water often contaminated. Demand continues to grow, especially in urban areas. Rampant internal displacement due to the recent Taliban advances will only worsen this situation over the coming months.
Continuous water shortages due to water mismanagement – combined with the effects of climate change – have also affected the agricultural sector and thus food security. Accounting for 90% of the country’s water use and employing 80% of the population, the agricultural sector is unable to provide sufficient food for Afghanistan’s population, partly due to water shortages. One-third of the Afghan population suffers from acute food insecurity. Afghanistan is a hunger hotspot today and this insecurity is expected to rise as agricultural production falls due to increasing instability. Immediate and more long-term humanitarian crises are likely to arise – especially if international donors and aid organizations stop their emergency relief and support due to political reasons or simply because engaging on the ground becomes too dangerous.
Ongoing Water Insecurity
Persistent water insecurity – among numerous factors – has played a crucial role in Taliban recruitment. In areas of poor water security, young men deprived of economic opportunities — due to declining agricultural opportunities — often see joining the Taliban as the only way to provide for their families.
In addition, the government’s inability to address water and food insecurity has contributed to government delegitimization, indirectly supporting the Taliban as it presents itself as a legitimate alternative.
The Taliban have also benefitted considerably from influencing the mirab, local informal and traditional water management institutions, to act in their interests. These local governance arrangements have persisted as an effective means for water allocation on the ground and have received considerable support from the last government under President Ghani as well as the Western donor community. The Taliban have managed to undermine them by supporting farmers to turn to poppy production, which is illegal under Afghan government rules. As poppy increasingly became the only viable crop under drought conditions, it left farmers with limited cropping choices, pushing them closer and closer to illicit groups. Afghanistan is already the world’s number one opium producer, contributing more than 90% of the world’s illicit heroin and more than 95% of the European supply. The likely expansion of this under the Taliban will lead to a further surge in the global heroin trade and may consolidate Afghanistan’s (and the region’s) position as a drug trafficking hub. While growing poppy can earn the Taliban a considerable profit, it will not feed the Afghan people.
Water Management Challenges
The Taliban's takeover presents a continuation of water management challenges related to Taliban strategies in the past. While the Taliban have been using water governance arrangements in their favor and seem to be well aware of the role of water resources in people’s lives and livelihoods, they lack the ability and the willingness to manage those resources in favor of the population.
The situation is changing as now the Taliban are taking over the country’s water problems. Instead of playing the role of disrupters, they will be facing the consequences of the country’s dire water situation. So far, little to nothing is known about the Taliban’s strategy for addressing the country’s dire water situation, but what is known does not look good. Below, we extrapolate what Taliban water policy may look like, based on their past takeover.
First, all advances in attempting to reform and strengthen water resources governance in Afghanistan – albeit of limited effectiveness – will likely be reversed. This includes promising attempts such as the revision of the country’s water law in 2009 and the development of river basin management plans for the country’s main basins, based on improved data and analyses supported by the international community. Steps were also undertaken to support more equitable rights for women, including in access to water and sanitation. It remains to be seen how Sharia law – which includes provisions on the use of water resources – will be able to govern the complex water challenges of the country. But it seems clear that the sole reliance on traditional governance arrangements will be insufficient to address the problems of water allocation, water over-abstraction and water pollution in the country – let alone the consequences of climate change.
Drought-related food insecurity has already been a key driver of mass internal displacement. In 2018 alone, 22 out of 34 Afghan provinces were hit by drought, forcing more than 300,000 people to move internally for food insecurity reasons. Food security, combined with the Taliban’s inability to effectively govern water resources in all parts of the country due to a relatively small number of officials and even fewer well-trained ones, lays the groundwork for new local conflicts over water resources (adding to existing conflict, as shown in Figure 2, the Water, Peace and Security (WPS)’s global early warning tool below).
The takeover by the Taliban also implies a further reduction of technical capacity in water management. There is little to no expertise among their ranks when it comes to managing water resources, operating water infrastructure or organizing water allocation at various governance levels. Experts from the previous government – at all levels – are trying to leave the country or are no longer able to work. As a result, the Taliban will continue to struggle to find such expertise to maintain – let alone develop – water resources management in the country, unless done so by force. This seems to be happening in parts of the country, where Taliban fighters are forcing government officials to remain in technical positions to ensure basic services. Further, the Taliban’s stance on key modern technologies suggests that instruments for addressing water insecurity, especially in times of climate change, won’t be available either. It remains to be seen whether any assumption that the Taliban might have reversed their strictest stances on modern technology in order to cement their power is actually true.
These capacity challenges will affect water resources management through qanat or karez (a traditional canal system for irrigation) as well as the mitigation of conflicts among different water users at the local level. When the Taliban took over control of Dahla Dam in Kandahar Province in May 2021, the government withdrew irrigation experts that were managing the dam. Those experts did not return to the dam, even after being asked to do so by the Taliban in order to ensure water flows to farmers. This left flows from the reservoir interrupted, threatening the crops during the main growing season. Capacity challenges will also affect the relations between Afghan provinces that already compete for water, which may escalate as governance deteriorates and people’s needs rise.
Water as a Weapon
Another worrisome development is the Taliban’s repeated use of water (and water infrastructure) as a weapon, which can be expected to continue if civil war unfolds. For instance, in May 2021, the Taliban cut water to more than 800 families in the Badakhshan District during their advances in the region. Taliban policies have also targeted dams as symbolic objects of water infrastructure. During the same time period, the Taliban took control of Dahla Dam in Kandahar Province. And in their advances towards Herat, they attacked the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, the main provider of water – especially for irrigation – and power for hundreds of thousands of people in Western Afghanistan, with considerable casualties and some attacks hitting the dam itself, most likely leaving major damage to the structure.
Likewise, their ability to respond to water-related disasters is minimal. During recent flooding in the Nuristan Province at the end of July 2021, the Taliban denied government staff access to areas devastated by flash floods, which killed more than 150 people and left houses and property damaged. They did not provide emergency relief, leaving people in despair.
All of this comes at a time when most of Afghanistan has been suffering through a serious drought, severely affecting people’s food security and mere survival. These consequences will also contribute to migration flows out of Afghanistan, as even those whose lives aren’t directly at risk of Taliban violence see no other option for survival than leaving their homes for other areas, either within their country or beyond. This has the potential to put additional strain on countries already struggling with an influx of Afghan migrants. In 2020, Afghanistan was the second largest source of irregular migrants to Europe via the Western Balkan route, with numbers likely to increase due to Taliban takeover.
Water Insecurity in Neighboring Countries
Water insecurity and imminent Taliban rule also present significant challenges to Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, especially Iran. Both the Harirud and the Helmand Rivers flow from Afghanistan into Iran. Iran has always opposed the construction of Afghan dams, due to fear of reduced water flows into Iran. There have even been claims that Iran has supported the Taliban's attacks against dams. However, the Taliban's supervision over these dams could also have disastrous consequences for downstream Iran if continued violence or lack of maintenance resulted in dam failure.
In January 2021, the Taliban and Iranian governments made arrangements ensuring Iranian access to water from shared rivers, in case the Taliban gained control over these areas. Around the same time, the Iranian government also pursued similar negotiations with the Afghan government, leading to an arrangement on the basis of the earlier 1973 Helmand Treaty, to secure water flows from Afghanistan. In March 2021, then Afghan President Ghani declared that Afghanistan would not continue to provide water for free, but would require oil in exchange for the Helmand River’s flows. It remains to be seen how Iran will react to any changes the Taliban will implement to the flow of water to Iran. This further complicates political tensions, potentially increasing numbers of Afghan refugees in Iran and concerns about trafficking across the border.
Afghanistan’s Water Future
The future of Afghanistan seems highly uncertain. Immediate help to the Afghan people, especially those particularly vulnerable to the Taliban, is essential.
It is clear that the takeover by the Taliban will significantly challenge the water and food security of the country’s population. These insecurities increase the likelihood of water-related conflicts, adding to the already extremely fragile situation in the country, and intensify the risk of tensions with neighboring states over shared water resources. Moreover, a further deterioration of the already inefficient and ill-functioning water sector will have long-term implications that span far beyond a potential Taliban rule.
While focusing efforts on protecting the lives of Afghans who are most threatened by recent events is of utmost importance, water insecurity and its ties to conflict should not be ignored by the international community.