Iran-Afghanistan Water Conflict Needs A Permanent Solution

February 15, 2024

The transboundary water dispute between Iran and Afghanistan is historical. Both neighbouring countries have been dealing with the water-sharing dispute somewhat without progressing towards a permanent solution. The problem is centred around the Helmand River, which starts from the Hindu Kush Mountains near Kabul and streams into Iran's Hamoon wetlands in Sistan and Balochistan province (southeast of Iran). This river was defined as the territory of Iran. Until 1857, Herat was part of Iran, and only after Iran and Britain signed the Paris Treaty of 1857 did Iran abandon its claim. So, based on the 1857 Treaty of Paris, Herat was separated from Iran, and after this, water sharing from the Helmand River became a source of controversy between Iran and Afghanistan. Yet, in the 1973 Helmand River Treaty, Afghanistan was required to provide Iran with an average annual supply of 820 million cubic meters, which was not fulfilled according to Iran's expectations. In other words, this legal arrangement itself, over time, turned into a source of dispute over its equitable and reasonable utilization principle. Iranian authorities argue they receive far less water than what was agreed in 1973. They also believe the Kamal Khan dam, opened in 2021, has significantly reduced the Helmand River's flow into Iran. A few months before the Taliban's second takeover (August 2021), Ashraf Ghani (former Afghan President), at the opening ceremony (March 2021) of the Kamal Khan dam on the Helmand River, said, "While Afghanistan was still committed to the 1973 treaty, anything beyond that needs further discussion." He added, "Iran should give Afghanistan oil in exchange for additional water from the Helmand River." The tone seemed to be arrogant, and this led to a strong reaction among the Iranians. Essentially, the water shortage has brought about major problems for the people of Sistan and Balochistan (Iran), leading to the gradual drying of Hamoon wetlands, creating drought, environmental issues, insecurity, terrorism and forcing a large number of the locals (Sistani) to migrate to other parts of the country. Some Iranian senior officials have issued warnings which made the situation worse, prompting reactions from the Taliban. In turn, a wave of anger and dissatisfaction among the people and the media in Iran have raised against the Taliban.

Meanwhile, two parliamentarians from Iran's Sistan and Balochistan province proposed to close the Afghanistan Embassy [under the Taliban administration] in Tehran. There was also an acknowledgement from like-minded persons that opening the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan Embassy in Tehran was a mistake. Consequently, the Taliban responded that ''most of Afghanistan is experiencing drought. Water is not at the level where it can reach Iran.'' One Taliban official has commented, "While Afghan residents in Helmand are experiencing water scarcity, Iran insists on receiving its water rights based on the 1973 Treaty." In a Kabul press conference, Abdulsalam Haqqani, the deputy of the Taliban's environmental department, said, "21 million people in Afghanistan are facing a shortage of drinking water due to climate change." Despite that, the Taliban asserts from time to time, Afghanistan has allowed water flow to Iran. However, Iranian experts believe Afghanistan did not have the means to control excess water in the form of flood water from the Helmand River. Presently, with the construction of dams and diversion canals, even the overflowing water from the flood does not flow to Sistan and Balochistan. Aerial photos show on the way to the water source to the border of Iran, lands that were dry before have now turned into green fields.

Several suggestions have been proposed to solve the Iran-Afghan water conflict, briefly discussed in the following manner. A joint session has been proposed among the local elites in both areas. It is being argued that given the traditional fabric of the society, Iran's tribal chiefs or Sunni religious leaders may play a more decisive role than that of the government officials in resolving the water dispute. Another group of experts believe diplomatic communications on shared water should be extended. Filing a lawsuit in international forums regarding Iran's right to water is another proposal around the corner. At the same time, international mediators can assist in bridging the gaps and offering proper solutions. Few believe Iran should prevent the creation of dams on seasonal rivers upstream of Hamoon wetlands. Others believe Iran should focus on the growth and development of industries that Afghanistan requires most; this may influence the attitude of the Taliban towards Iran. The experts also believe Iran should go for the exploitation of underground water in the region and invest in water infrastructure such as reservoirs or irrigation systems. Transferring fresh water from the Oman Sea to Sistan is another scientific solution.

Regarding the suggestions mentioned above, there seem to be several obstacles preventing a permanent solution to the water conflict. First, no doubt, the local elites' role is decisive in many domains, but when it comes to the water problem, their role does not appear to be determining. Arguably, the water conflict between Iran and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not merely about water; instead, it has far greater dimensions, which are now beyond the local elites' influence. It has been reported the Taliban, which controls the boundary areas with Iran, are not inclined to allow natural water flow into Iran. The Taliban, which mainly are said to be the Haqqani Network, have great influence in Afghanistan. Despite the US officials' denial, reportedly, the Haqqani group received support from the US. In a nutshell, the water problem, probably as a US strategy, sounds to be elevated to engaging Iran with the Taliban militarily. We witnessed that when Iran warned the Taliban over the water problem, it prompted reactions not only from the Taliban but also from American officials, calling it aggressive. Hence, we may claim it is naïve to believe the water conflict is just a water issue.

Moreover, water disputes have become a national matter for Afghans. Local elites may not resolve a national matter of such scale. Second, without powerful bargaining chips, diplomatic communications will not be effective; for effective diplomacy, Iran needs an authority vacuum in the region and some scale of military and economic might. However, engaging the Taliban militarily or restricting them economically may prove counterproductive. Third, filing a lawsuit in international forums for Iran's right to water or the role of international mediators is ideal. Still, the question is, to what extent do the international forums act independently? The anarchic nature of the international system should not be underestimated. Not to be missed. However, evidence indicates the efforts of international organizations, particularly UNESCO, the Ramsar Convention, the UN Development Programme, the UN Environment Programme, and the Global Environment Facility, have failed to create an integrative regional/basin-wide plan for cooperation and management of the Helmand River and the protection of the Hamoon wetlands. Fourth, Iran is in no position to prevent the creation of dams (inside Afghanistan) on rivers upstream of Hamoon wetlands. This will equal the declaration of war; an offensive approach will not help Iran solve the problem. Fifth, the issue of Iran's investments in Afghanistan to win over the Taliban in resolving the water dispute seems immature, too. The problem with Afghanistan is that this country is unstable; due to instability, regimes or governments change occasionally. In addition, since Afghanistan is a failed state, most of the Afghan leaders who intend to survive in power rivalry are the acting puppets of the more extraordinary powers. To what extent this situation will cost or benefit Iran is debatable and unpredictable.

Nevertheless, some of the above suggestions might be helpful but will not solve the problem permanently. Iran must focus on a permanent solution. Iran is required to develop a well-planned approach to deal with the water problem once and for all. It should invest in water infrastructure and, as experts believe, should work on transferring water from the Oman Sea to Sistan. In doing so, the government should invite highly qualified experts and support them to apply their expertise. The problem with Iran's government is that there is little connection between Iran's research section and government apparatus. Research centres follow their way, and their way usually ends up in journals and libraries; the research findings do not find their way into the executive bodies. Otherwise, Iran and the Taliban should conclude a win-win situation. In international politics, states usually think about their interest. It is unfortunate that, in many cases, treaties may not be implemented due to various reasons. In the case of the 1973 Treaty, as some experts believe, this treaty lacks the potential to tackle the actual water problems. It is an agreement only for issue-specific water divisions. The 1973 treaty seems ill-equipped to cope with water conflicts. If Iran is to resolve the water dispute, it has to let the Taliban benefit in some way or other. 

Selected References: 

  • Brunnée, J. (2008). Law and politics in the Nile Basin. In Proceedings of the 116th Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. Cambridge University Press.
  • Malyar, I. (2016). Transboundary Water Institutions in Developing Countries: A Case Study in Afghanistan. United States: Oregon State University.
  • Nagheeby, M. (2024). The Worst or the Best Treaty? Analyzing the Equitable and Reasonable Utilization Principle in the Legal Arrangements of the Helmand River. Asian Journal of International Law, 14 (1), 25-44.
  • Nagheeby, M., & Warner, J. (2022). The 150-Year Itch: Afghanistan-Iran Hydropolitics Over the Helmand/ Hirmand River. Water Alternatives, 15 (3), 551-573.
  • Reuters. (2023, August 11). Prolonged drought deepens Afghanistan'sAfghanistan's humanitarian crisis. US News.
  • Shroder, J. F., & Ahmadzai, S. J. (2016). Transboundary water resources in Afghanistan: Climate change and land-use implications (1st ed.). Netherlands: Elsevier.
Author Note
The Author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Islamic Azad University, Zahedan & Head of the Iranian Association for West Asian Studies, Sistan and Balochistan (Iran). Views are his own.