Iran-Afghanistan Water Sharing Issues

Author: Ali Ahmad Jalali, former Afghan Minister of Interior.
The recent frosty exchanges between the Iranian leaders and the Taleban authorities in Afghanistan over water sharing disputes remind us again hat bilateral issues between Afghanistan and Iran are not of less importance than wider regional geopolitical question that affects the relationship between the two neighbors.  Issues such as border security, immigration, water sharing, narcotics traffic control, and trade and transit figure prominently in current bilateral relations. These issues have the potential to offer both opportunities for cooperation and become sources of conflict. Among these, the water-sharing issue has already shown signs of becoming a larger dispute between the two countries.
There is a long-standing dispute over water rights between Iran and Afghanistan that has been exacerbated in recent year due to prolonged drought and mismanagement of water sources. In March 1973, Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveida and Afghan Prime Minister Mohammad Musa Shafiq signed an accord that determined the specific amount of water that should flow into Iran (26 cubic meters of water per second). Yet this agreement was not ratified as the issue was delayed by other events: the 1973 Afghan coup, the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the rise and fall of the Taliban. In September 2004, Iranian and Afghan officials met in Tehran for a joint meeting within the framework of the 1973 Helmand River treaty where Iran’s annual share of 820 million cubic meters, as provided by the treaty was reaffirmed.

Despite the water sharing agreement, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani warned in 2017 that his country “cannot remain indifferent to” construction of several dams in Afghanistan that have an impact on the Iranian provinces of Khorasan and Baluchistan.[1] On the other hand, Afghanistan government officials claim Iran has been receiving 70 percent more than the amount of water initially agreed upon in 1973.[2] Furthermore, Afghan officials note that Iran has built unauthorized infrastructures diverting the water flowing from Afghanistan into manmade reservoirs on its soil that feed the Zahedan irrigation system. [3] Although 90 percent of Helmand Hamun (lake) is located on the Afghan territory the Iran-made infrastructures has dried out the wetland causing major environmental degradation.[4]

The current dispute is rooted in environmental changes, rising demands for water resources due to economic development and population growth, and water management issues. Afghanistan and Iran both have suffered from prolonged droughts over the last several years. This situation directly affected two-third of Afghanistan population in 2018-2019 while at least 300,000 were displaced as a result.[5] In Iran, the amount of annual precipitation is said to have fallen about 19 percent. The 1973 treaty notes that in case of extreme drought, when the required amount of water cannot reach the Helmand Delta, representatives of the two countries shall make the necessary adjustment for application of the treaty.[6] Since then, as Afghanistan became embroiled in war and conflict it lost control of its water flow out of the country and consequently about 70 percent of its surface water went to neighboring countries.

Afghanistan has abundant water resources. According to the World Bank, the capacity of Afghanistan surface water flowing from its three large river basins amounts to 57 billion cubic meters one-third of which (17 billion cubic meters) is currently used.[7] But with the widening development sector and population increase the annual usage will increase in the future. Now the annual per capita water availability in Afghanistan is approximately 2,500 [8]cubic meters, which compares favorably with other countries of the region. This figure is 1,500[9] and about 1000 cubic meter for Iran and Pakistan, respectively.[10]

The agriculture sector makes the highest use of the surface and ground water in Afghanistan. Over 70 percent of the population in the country lives in rural areas and is mostly dependent on the highly water-dependent agriculture sector. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s water situation is affected by climate fluctuations and water management policies. Therefore, improving its power and water infrastructure is a pre-requisite for the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan.  The surface water is a major source of energy in Afghanistan. Although the country has the potential of producing 23,000-megawatts of electricity from hydropower, the country faces an extreme shortage of electricity. With production of merely 300-megawatts of electricity, Afghanistan imports three-fourth its power from Iran and Central Asia.[11] To maximize the efficiency of water usage Afghanistan has prioritized the development of hydroelectric dams on Kabul, Helmand and Harirud rivers. In addition to two dams built in early 1950s on Arghandab River above Kandahar and the Kajakai dam on the Helmand River, Afghanistan with assistance from India completed in 2016 the Salma dam over the Harirud River, which is not included in 1973 water treaty with Iran and has begun the second phase of the development on the Kajakai dam, to harness the Helmand River. Afghanistan also is building the long-delayed Band-e-Kamal Khan on the Helmand River in Nimroz province bordering Iran.

In recent years, both Iran and Pakistan have made attempts to sabotage Afghanistan efforts to build infrastructure for its waterways. Iran has been accused of meddling in the implementation of the Salma Dam until its completion and harassing the Afghan population about using the Harirud water source that partly runs along the two country’s border. To resolve this problem, Iran and Afghanistan have a joint committee to address the water sharing issues.

Iran and Afghanistan are interrelated parts of an increasingly important and changing region. Given the geopolitics of the area, strained relations between the two nations do not serve the national interests of either one. What the two countries can gain from cooperation might be synergistically far greater than what they can achieve at the expense of each other.

[1] Ahmad Majidyar, Iran and Afghanistan at Loggerhead over Water, the Middle East Institute, July 20, 2018

[2] Zabihullah Mudabber, Afghanistan’s Water-Sharing Puzzle, The Diplomat, November 2016

[3] Research Report by Dr. Farouq Azam on Helmand water management issues, copy sent to the author London August 2020

[4] Iran Environmental Protection Official Expect a European Union grant to revive the Helmand Hamon BBC Farsi, September 22, 2020

[5] Phoebe Sleet, Water Sharing Tensions Between Iran and Afghanistan Still High as Droughts Ease, Future Direction International Pty Ltd, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia, 24 June 2020

[6] Article XI of the text of the Afghan Iranian Helmand-River Water Treaty, March 13, 1973

[7] With the usage of other ground water sources, the agricultural sector absorbs 20 billion cubic meters.

[8] Recent estimate is 1830 cubic meters per capita

[9] Asad Sarwar Qureshi, Water Resources Management in Afghanistan: The Issues and Option, International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Juno 2002. The available per capita water in Iran is around 1,500 cubic meters, which is considerably less than the 7,000m3 per capita available in 1956

[10] Pakistan Today, Per capita water in Pakistan shrinks to 1,000 cubic meter, APP., April 29, 220

[11] Ahmad Majidyar, Iran and Afghanistan at Loggerhead over Water, the Middle East Institute, July 20, 201

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