The emerging dynamics for conflict and cooperation between Iran and the Taliban over the Helmand River
By Mohd Faizee
Tensions between Afghanistan and Iran over the Helmand River have been rising since the Taliban took power one year ago. Iran has been trying to take advantage of the unstable situation in Afghanistan and the limited capacity of the new Taliban government, hoping to secure water allocation rights that it has de facto already been using in the past and that it would like to institutionalize for the future. This strategy has so far been of limited success. It can, however, be expected that Iran continues to try to exploit the capacity gap and the governance vacuum in Afghanistan. This has a potential to further increase regional tensions – over water and beyond – and negatively affect populations and ecosystems on both sides of the border.
It has been one year since the Taliban took control over Afghanistan again. In this year, the tensions with Iran over the water of the Helmand River have increased. While Iran was one of the countries which developed a close relationship with the Taliban for several years and supported their rise to power, relations between the two countries, particularly over the Helmand River, are not moving in the direction Iran desired.
Iran is becoming increasingly worried and is pushing for the Taliban to take a friendlier stance on shared waters to meet Iran’s needs. The Taliban have made some concessions, albeit denying it publicly, such as keeping the gates of the recently built Kamal Khan Dam open since March 2022. This allowed for water to flow towards Iran that would otherwise be stored and, if the Taliban had the required technical capacity, used in Afghanistan. Iran is not satisfied with these actions, however. The country has therefore called for the Committee of Ministers, a bilateral mechanism stemming from the 1973 Helmand River Treaty, as a means to push the Taliban regime towards increasing the water provision to Iran in order to meet Iran’s growing needs.
This raises several questions: What actions are the Taliban really taking in the Helmand River Basin? And what actions are they able to take in light of their limited human, technical and financial capacity? Will this lead to an increase in water use in order to support domestic development? Does Iran see the lack of human, technical and financial capacity as an opportunity to permanently increase higher water shares from the Helmand River? And what role does the broader context of bilateral relations – such as the historic mistrust between both sides – or regional relations more generally play?
This article sheds light on the complex situation emerging in the Helmand River Basin by assessing the unfolding conflict, existing cooperation mechanisms and their current (mal-)functioning in light of the changing dynamics in bilateral relations since the Taliban’s takeover. The article also notes that options for conflict mitigation exist – especially in the context of broader regional relations over other issues – but need to be applied in good faith by both sides.
The current situation – Ambiguous relations between Afghanistan and Iran over water and beyond
In the years prior to the takeover of Kabul, Iran was among the few regional countries that publicly engaged with the Taliban and developed close relations with the group. Iran hosted Taliban representatives for meetings and supported the group in regional talks, more publicly after the Peace Agreement between the Taliban and the US was signed in Doha. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan last August came as a surprise to Iran – as it did for most people around the world. While the Iranian government was pursuing its broader strategic goal of evicting the US and its allies from Afghanistan, it did not want the Taliban to hold too much power, especially given the bitter history with the group back in 1990s and the religious ideologies of the two sides which are largely at odds. This was a difficult balance to strike.
Since the takeover by the Taliban one year ago, Iran’s relations with the group are becoming increasingly problematic. The Iranian government has already had several clashes with the Taliban along the border. Several contested issues between the countries – from the millions of Afghan refugees in Iran to illegal border traffic and smuggling remain unresolved or have even deteriorated.
A rise in water-related tensions
In the midst of these rising tensions, the dispute over the Helmand River is now daily news. And it seems to have increased in recent weeks. The dispute has even led to local violence, e.g. when in an incident in January, 2022, the residents of Zabol city in Iran resorted to violence and attacked the trucks of Afghan traders demanding their water allocation rights from the Taliban.
On July 27th 2022, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, during a Cabinet meeting, ordered the Foreign and Energy ministers to rigorously pursue Iran’s water share with the Taliban regime. On the same day, the Taliban re-inaugurated the second phase of the Kajaki Dam. The Kajaki Dam project aims at generating an additional 100 MW hydropower and storing one extra Billion Cubic Meter of water behind the already existing dam. However, the dam will only be able to generate the targeted electricity and store additional water when the construction work to raise the height of the spillway crust is completed, which the Taliban are currently working on. This has increased concerns in Iran that the water flow to Iran might be further decreased, affecting the already problematic domestic water security in the country.
Already on the next day following a call between the Iranian Foreign Minister and Taliban Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs on July 28th 2022, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement informing about the visit of the Iranian Minister of Energy to Kabul to discuss Iran’s water rights under the 1973 Helmand River Treaty.
The background: A water-insecure basin with poor transboundary cooperation
Communities along the lower reaches of the Helmand River in both countries are highly dependent on water from the Helmand River. Sistan and Baluchistan province of Iran is a Sunni and Baloch dominated and highly marginalized province in Iran. The province is also a main route for drug trafficking and has a relatively volatile security situation compared to other parts of Iran. Since 2007, the entire province has been designated by the Iranian government as a prohibited area for the Afghan refugees due to security concerns. While Baloch minorities living in the region in all three countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran keep close ties, unlike the Baloches in Afghanistan, their co-ethnics in Iran and Pakistan have long been struggling to achieve some level of independence or autonomy from the central governments. Marginalization and poor development have reinforced this perception in those countries. In addition, Baloch and Sunni minorities in Iran feel even further segregated by the religious Shia government in Iran.
Fearing that the water shortage the region is facing would spark instability, the Iranian government has over the years invested in water infrastructure for agriculture expansion and provision of subsidies for agriculture products for these marginalized communities in Sistan to prevent any internal displacement and possible backlash. As a result of this policy and due to a general lack of economic diversification in the region, communities in the wider Sistan have become extremely dependent on scarce water resources from the Helmand River and lack economic alternatives, which makes them highly vulnerable to any changes in water availability – whether due to natural reasons or increased uses in upstream regions in Afghanistan.
On paper, water allocation is clearly defined: The Helmand Water Treaty signed in 1973 between the two countries allocates only 22 Cubic Meter per second in normal or above normal years distributed over the different months of the year (Art II), and an additional amount of 4 m3 per second as a sign of “goodwill and brotherly relations” (Art II) to Iran. Article I defines the normal water year as a year in which the river flow is at or above 5.6 Billion Cubic Meters at the Dehraud Station upstream of the Kajaki Dam. The treaty also stipulates that during the years in which the flow at the Dehraud Station is below normal, the Iranian water share will be decreased proportionately.
This water allocation is based on the recommendation of the neutral commission of three jointly agreed upon international experts in 1950 in which the irrigation limits in the Delta region in both countries were determined based on the available water resources. However, Iran did not agree to 22 m3 per second, but later agreed to the deal when an additional 4 m3 per second was allocated to it. This was done in the context of a broader package, also including development assistance by Iran to Afghanistan and Afghan access to Chah Bahar and Bandar e Abbas sea ports, highlighting the strong interdependencies between water and other matters of bilateral relations. This agreement did, however, not materialize due to ensuing political instability in both countries.
The overutilization of water resources in the Sistan region has also come to the detriment of environmental condition in the shared wetlands, which has caused the local communities with growing health, economic and social problems.
As part of its investment in Sistan, Iran has built four shallow artificial lakes called Chah e Nima in the border area, with twice the capacity of Iran’s annual share from the river, to ensure water availability throughout the year by storing high volumes of floods and diverting the river into these artificial lakes. The stored water would provide a certain level of reliability for domestic and irrigation use, particularly when the river flow decreases or varies due to climate variability. In addition, numerous deep wells have been dug, mostly in vicinity of the wetlands to provide more water for agricultural use in Sistan. Transfer and desalination of water from the Oman Sea has also been among the options which the Iranian government has been working on to alleviate the growing water scarcity of the Sistan and Baluchistan and adjacent provinces.
The Helmand River is historically also susceptible to frequent floods with destructive impacts in both Afghanistan and Iran. Most of the flood water used to flow towards Iran due to limited water storage capacity in the Dahla and Kajaki dams. With the inauguration of the Kamal Khan Dam, this scenario has changed. The Kamal Khan Dam, with a small storage capacity, doesn’t not store but diverts the floods and the main stream of the river for irrigation in the Nimrooz province of Afghanistan, protects downstream regions from destructive impacts of floods, and only allows a regulated and relatively modest flow towards downstream areas.
Status of the Helmand River Treaty – Persistent non-implementation and continued conflict
Although the treaty nears its 50th anniversary in 2023, it has still not been fully implemented. The Dehraud station has only been built in 2021, just before the Taliban’s takeover. The three delivery points at the border where Iran should receive its water allocation rights have also not been constructed yet. While the political instability and prolonged conflict in Afghanistan hindered the full implementation of the treaty, Iran also had limited interest in fully implementing it. This is because the status quo favours Iran, providing it with an unhindered flow from the river due to Afghanistan’s inability to manage, develop and store its share.
Another important aspect of the tensions since some years is Iran’s quest to secure an environmental flow to the Hamoun wetland, one of the four interconnected transboundary wetlands, which Iran has registered under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Over the past years, the transboundary wetlands in the border region have diminished, resulting in ecological, socioeconomic and health problems to the local residents on both sides of the border. While climate change is a major factor, significant diversion of river flows towards artificial lakes or Chah e Nima and extraction of water from these wetlands over the years also expedited their disappearance. For example, since the construction of the Chah e Nimas, particularly the fourth and last one with a live capacity of 750 MCM in 2007, the wetlands barely received water from the Helmand River. However, the other rivers in the basin inside Afghanistan namely Farah Rud, Khash Rud and Hatrud continues to pour into the Puzak and Saberi wetlands along the shared border. Nevertheless, the water continues be extracted from these wetlands and used in agriculture in the region.
This all occurred while Afghanistan could barely develop the basin due to the prolonged conflict, and the capacity of the existing water storage infrastructure, namely the Kajaki and Dahla dams, decreased due to sedimentation, and while irrigation infrastructure was destroyed due to the war and a lack of maintenance. Due to lack of proper water management, major cities in the basin, such as Kandahar, are facing looming domestic water shortages, and Zaranj city on the border with Iran, still purchases truck water from across the border for domestic use when there is no water in the river. And this situation continues, as Afghanistan desperately needs socioeconomic development opportunities, but the Taliban government’s capacity to manage and develop water resources remains limited.
What is the Iranian government really after?
Iran’s concerns over its water share have not been as serious since the time it has secured its water rights under the 1973 treaty and demand continues to grow in Iran. Now with the Kamal Khan Dam on lower reaches of the Helmand River, upstream Afghanistan has the ability to divert water share even though it needs more years to develop infrastructures for utilization of such diverted water. This translates into what would be the actual concern for Iran: Decrease in the river flow and literally no flood water anymore. The situation would be even more challenging for Iran when its water share is proportionately lowered at the time of drought. Such decreases, despite being compliant with the treaty under its below-average flow provision, would have significant impacts on Iran, not only hydrologically, but also possibly including security and social repercussions. Uncertainty regarding the timing of the river flow and releases towards Iran would add yet another challenge. Kamal Khan Dam provides Afghanistan with the complete control over the flow of the river. Now under the Taliban’s control, Iran would have to look to the Taliban, once their sworn enemy, to provide them with timely and sufficient amount of water. Increasing climate variability and Taliban’s lack of water management capacity further increase Iran’s anxiety as well as its vulnerability.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, it will take time for Iran to adjust its utilization to its water rights under the treaty by significantly cutting its agriculture use in the Sistan area. Developing an alternative for its growing water needs would ostensibly require more time and resources. Furthermore, Iran’s investments in agriculture infrastructure on the Helmand River would become useless. Developing alternative livelihoods, providing subsidies, or displacing affected population would come with significant economic and security costs for the Iranian’s government – in particular in light of the already dire economic situation, not least due to the sanctions.
In order to compensate the lower flow in the Helmand River during the past year, the Iranian government has already started to transfer the reserved water from the fourth Chah e Nima, which is larger and shallower, to other Chah e Nimas to decrease evaporation and has reserved water for agricultural and domestic uses. In addition, more deep wells have been dug by the Iranian authorities to extract groundwater in the border area and around the shared wetlands, further threatening the possible revival of shared wetlands in the future.
At the same time, the Iranian government has been unable to impose an effective water efficiency mechanism on farmers, or reduce agricultural land, fearing backlash by local communities that could challenge the stability of the Iranian regime. For instance, despite various commitments made during the Helmand River Commission meetings, the Iranian government was unable to remove the installed water pumps by residents along the border despite various attempts. This is an issue Afghanistan consistently complained about, since it was depriving the residents of the Kang district of Afghanistan from water when the river flows back to Afghanistan.
The reserved water in Chah e Nimas would provide Iran with a timeframe to adjust its use to the lower volume of available water but once the reserved water in Chah e Nimas is used up, the Sistan region would entirely become dependent on the flow of the Helmand River, whose timing and volume is extremely susceptible to climate variabilities and management skills of the Taliban. There is even a greater fear among the residents of the Sistan region that the Taliban might even block the water flow at some point, as the Iranian government claimed Taliban did in 2001 when the region was experiencing severe drought. This would be a violation of the Helmand River Treaty, as even in a time of severe drought, Iran is still entitled to its water share, be it proportionally reduced.
The incomplete irrigation schemes below the Kamal Khan, Kajaki and Dahla dams are likely to progress now, under the improved security situation by the same group that was preventing such projects just a year ago. Progress will, however, depend on the expertise and financial resources available to the Taliban. These projects, once completed, would increase water use in Afghanistan, which translates into reduced water availability for downstream regions.
Iran is now trying to use its influence to limit water resources developments in Afghanistan. Given Iran’s influence on Afghanistan, its water rights will most likely continue to be provided under the Helmand River Treaty, which the Taliban has already promised to honour. However, a reduced amount of water, especially when coupled with a dry spell, would continue to negatively affect downstream communities in both Iran and Afghanistan. The Taliban’s lack of water management skills, combined with increasing climate variability and Iran’s inability to effectively and swiftly adapt to the new reality, would add more complexities to the already dire situation.
For years, Afghanistan has been seen as the main culprit for water shortages in the Sistan area to divert Iran’s public opinion, mostly of the Sistan residents, from the Iranian government’s own failure to address the water scarcity and the inclusive development of the entire province of Sistan and Baluchistan in general. Previously, the Iranian government’s propaganda that development activities in Afghanistan are supported by the US and NATO with the aim to harm the Iranian government, had found the open ears of Iran’s public. Now the Taliban, taking into account their bitter history with Iran, seem to serve the same purpose.
With the political instability in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s desperate struggle for recognition and lack of technical expertise, perhaps it is the Iranian government’s best shot to secure more water from the Helmand river, which would not be possible under a different scenario. In order to achieve this, Iran has requested a Committee of Ministers meeting, a new turn in the relations between both countries over water. This begs the question: What is the Committee of Ministers and would it help Iran in achieving its goal(s)?
The “Committee of Ministers” as a novel approach by Iran
Since the collapse of the Afghan government, Iran has held two meetings of the Helmand River Commission with the Taliban. No agreement was reached in these meetings. Despite persisting disagreement over the amount of the water Iran receives annually from the Helmand River, neither side had ever called for the Committee of Ministers before. Iran’s requests for the Committee of Ministers comes at a time when Afghanistan lacks a legitimate government and most of its technical capacity has fled the country after the Taliban’s return. The Committee of Ministers, specified in Art 10c of the first complementary protocol of the Helmand River Treaty, stipulates it shall convene “…either in an emergency or when the members of the Joint Committee cannot reach agreement.”
Despite the Taliban’s frequent commitment to honour the Treaty, it is highly unlikely that the Committee of Ministers would agree to anything which would translate into more water to Iran. Most importantly, Art V of the Treaty stresses that “Iran shall make no claim to the water of the Helmand River in excess of the amount specified in this treaty, even if additional amount of water may be available in the Helmand Lower Delta and may be put to a beneficial use by Iran”.
The Taliban will continue to insist on what has already been discussed at the Joint Committee and at the deputy minister level. Namely, jointly building three points for water rights delivery, based on which the flow can be measured at the border. With the Helmand River running through the heartland of the Taliban and their poppy production industry, any release of water from the Kajaki dam for Iran’s sake might be difficult specially if it is perceived by the public as a compromise with Iran. Taliban’s lack of legitimacy at the eyes of Afghan public and their lack of capacity to effectively manage water resources further reinforce their strict stances on water cooperation with Iran. Having said that, the conflict will likely aggravate, especially if another dry spell follows and Iran’s water share is subsequently affected.
In the likely event of an impasse in the Committee of Ministers, both sides shall seek for a solution through diplomatic channels (Article IX). For such diplomatic channels, the Taliban might put the recognition of its regime by the Iranian government as a precondition, something which might put Iran in a difficult position. Using ‘Good Offices’ of a third party and referring the dispute to an arbitration court are the next steps specified in the Treaty (Article IX). Moreover, in the absence of the joint measurement for water distribution and sharing, any claim by Iran regarding its water rights would be hard to substantiate and the issue will likely ultimately be referred back to the terms of the treaty and would require its full implementation.
The current geopolitics of the region will require the Taliban to appear as a trustworthy partner for regional countries. Iran’s leverage over the Taliban has so far led to the opening of Kamal Khan gates for months. However, this has seemingly not satisfied Iran’s need nor met its expectations thus far. Ultimately, a breakthrough guaranteeing Iran additional water from the Helmand River can come from Iran itself. Trade, transport, energy export and even virtual water trade would be possible options that could help both countries addressing their problems beyond the terms of the Treaty. Such cooperation and benefit sharing would be possible even without touching the treaty, something that is considered as disadvantageous by Afghanistan.
The changing flow pattern in the Helmand river due to increasing climate variability and rising temperatures, requires water management skills and expertise which the Taliban currently lack. Nevertheless, enhanced storage capacity upstream at the Kajaki and Dahla dams would potentially ensure a longer flow towards the Kamal Khan dam and subsequently towards Iran and the shared wetlands. A better water management and storage in upper part of the basin Afghanistan would require investments, benefits of which would also be seen in lower regions including in Iran. The Taliban have already signalled their intention for cooperation, announcing that once controlled by dams, they can trade water for oil. However, the Taliban’s lack of capacity and legitimacy, especially in the eyes of Afghans, coupled with historical mistrust and ideological differences between Afghanistan and Iran might prevent such a collaboration to take root smoothly.
Assessing the latest developments over the Helmand River in the context of Iran-Taliban relations, it becomes clear that Iran’s primary concern about its water rights could be addressed by the Helmand River Treaty itself. Once (and if) the three water delivery points along the border are constructed and joint measurements are made, Iran can base its claims if it doesn’t receive its water share under the Treaty. While Iran has been favouring the status quo in the Helmand River Basin, the construction of the Kamal Khan Dam and its diversion ability has completely changed that status quo in favour of Afghanistan, now under the Taliban. Iran’s dependency on surplus water flowing towards it has put its local population at greater risk. Putting the blame on the seemingly unreconcilable Taliban regime might help the Iranian government at home, but it does not solve the underlying problem.
By exploiting the gap created by the political transition in Afghanistan, combined with the Taliban’s lack of expertise and legitimacy, Iran hopes it can now secure additional water from the Helmand River and possibly an environmental flow for shared wetlands. However, Iran’s approach to this matter by calling for the Committee of Ministers might not help it move forward. If it fails to reach an agreement, the next step envisaged by the treaty would be good offices by a third party, followed by an arbitration procedure, which might ultimately underscore the need for full implementation of the treaty. The lack of human and technical capacity on the Taliban’s side and the importance of the Helmand River for the Taliban, which runs through the areas where many of their fighters and commanders come from, may discourage Taliban from engaging with Iran. However, developing a benefit sharing package, particularly for communities living throughout the basin, would facilitate cooperation over the Helmand River while helping both sides in overcoming the trust issue.
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.