Iran and Afghanistan face off over sharing Helmand waters

Tensions boiled over into violence on Saturday, leaving at least three dead

KAJAKI, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 13:  British commandos descend from a mountain observation post overlooking the beginning of the Helmand River at the Kajaki hydroelectric dam March 13, 2007 in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province. Some 4,500 NATO forces are battling Taliban in the area as part of Operation Achilles, the largest NATO operation yet in Afghanistan. The main objective of the offensive is to clear Taliban from the area in order to upgrade the dam, which currently provides electricity to much of southern Afghanistan. The USAID funded project would be one of the largest development projects in Afghanistan, providing electricity to millions more Afghans. Earlier work on the dam, which was built by the United States in 1975, was suspended June 4, 2006 due to Taliban attacks.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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The Taliban authorities in Afghanistan are facing mounting pressure from Iran after lethal clashes on the border between the two sides, which reportedly led to the deaths of two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter.

Experts tell The National a major source of tension is over the flow of Helmand river water from Afghanistan, even as both countries battle drought conditions.

Iran claimed it is receiving only about 4 per cent of the total amount agreed under a 1973 treaty. The deal required Afghanistan to provide Iran an annual average of 22 cubic metres of water per second, with an additional four cubic metres per second as goodwill.

The Taliban's Ministry of Interior released a statement on Sunday, calling for dialogue and saying "looking for excuses for war are not in the interests of either side".

The Iranian government has threatened action against the Taliban, who seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021, if they fail to release more water to Iran. President Ebrahim Raisi issued similar threats on Friday during a visit to the south-eastern province of Sistan-Balochistan.

“I warn the rulers of Afghanistan to immediately give the people their water rights. Take my words seriously now or don't complain later,” he said.

One of the largest rivers in Afghanistan, the Helmand rises in the Hindu Kush mountains and stretches over 1,000km across the country before emptying into the Sistan basin in Iran. Despite the agreements, the river has been a subject of contention between the two countries on several occasions in the past few decades.

However, water management experts argue that Iranian authorities have failed to take into account the impact of climate change and prolonged droughts in the region.

“Under usual circumstances, in certain winter months, Iran may have even received three times higher than the stipulated 26 cubic metres per second, or less than two cubic metres per second during summer months,” explains Assem Mayar, an Afghan water management expert and former lecturer at Kabul University.

“However, these figures are conditional to a 'normal water year' as stated by the treaty and it hasn’t been a normal year for Afghanistan."

Afghanistan has been facing extreme drought conditions, with depleting water resources. Afghan farmers told The National they had been struggling to acquire water to irrigate their crops, resulting in lower yields.

“In the last three years, water supply from the river has reduced. Even in the districts by the river, we can’t get enough water,” said Aref Mohammad, a 28-year-old farmer from Nad Ali district of Helmand. Mr Mohammad’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

“Right now we are also using underground wells but water tables have also been getting lower every year. How can we send any water to our neighbours?” he said.

Climate change remains one main driver of the conflict, experts say. “The region suffers from a third year of drought and even though last month there were some rains that partially improved the condition compared to the year before, the situation is still drier than a normal water year,” said Najibullah Sadid, Afghan water expert and assistant researcher at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

Iran's water woes

“While drought intensity and frequency of occurrence has increased in this region, climate change has also led to increased evaporation rates in this region in particular in Nimruz and Iranian Sistan resulting in low irrigation efficiency,” he explained, adding that there was improvement in water levels in Kajaki and Arghandab reservoirs, both in upper Helmand river basin.

“But since nearly 35 per cent and 40 per cent of these dams are filled by sediment, their storage capacity is already significantly compromised,” he said.

In the last year, Mr Mohammad shifted cultivation from the banned opium crop, to growing wheat. However, water storage problems have resulted in poorer yields, forcing him to reconsider his decision and revert to the drought-resistant poppy crop.

“Our wells are drying up and barely enough water for human consumption, and most families are buying drinking water due to shortages. Besides, the costs of drilling deeper wells for irrigation are high and we don’t even have enough electricity to pump that water,” he said.

However, Iran’s unwillingness to consider climate issues has escalated the conflict, experts say.

The Iranian government has dismissed reasons for drought as “contradictory and incorrect” in a statement issued on Friday. “Numerous statements for justifying the non-delivery of the legal rights of Iran, including the issue of drought and water depletion in Helmand ... have not been yet verified by the [Iranian] experts … therefore, adopting such positions is unlawful and unacceptable,” it read.

Afghanistan has also struggled to manage water, especially in light of the changing weather patterns, contributing to its water woes. “Climate change has affected the normal water distribution; the snow now melts earlier than usual due to rising temperatures leading to unseasonal rises in water and flash floods,” Mr Mayar said. But the earlier onset of snowmelt still doesn’t replenish groundwater levels.

The Taliban’s failure to manage storage of the untimely water surge meant there was unusually high output to Iran during the winter.

“Perhaps to appease the Iranian authorities in the short term, the Taliban failed to store water in the Kamaal Khan dam and even divert it to the reservoirs, resulting in less water availability for the following months. As a result Iran received more water during the winter months than the previous years, but will not receive the same as during the summer since there is less water,” he explained.

The Taliban’s political relations with Iran improved briefly in recent months, with the Iranians handing over the embassy of the former Afghan government to the group in February. However, the recent water conflict seems to have reversed any political goodwill between the two nations.

Climate change is only going to make the situation worse, Mr Mayar said. “Water availability will be more precarious in the future impacting agriculture on both sides of the border,” he warned.

Updated: May 28, 2023, 3:55 PM