Who Will Solve The Water Conflict Between Iran And Afghanistan – Analysis


In late May, shots were exchanged by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban near a border post in Iran’s Southwest Nimroz province. Each side blamed the other for starting the gunfight that killed two Iranians and an Afghan.

The situation was de-escalated, but it came one day after Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, accused Afghanistan of restricting the flow of water from the Helmand River, which flows from Southwest Afghanistan to Eastern Iran. (Iran’s special representative to Afghanistan claimed Iran has only received 4% of the water it is due, and its foreign minister has proposed a joint technical team address the causes of the shortage.)

Disputes over Helmand water are long-standing and in 1951 the U.S.-sponsored Helmand River Delta Commission made recommendations that resulted in the 1973 Helmand River Treaty which is the only recognized means of allocating water between the countries, though the Treaty was never ratified

The Treaty requires Afghanistan to release 850 million cubic meters of water annually from the Helmand River basin to Iran, but is flexible and provides that in low flow years Afghanistan may reduce the flow of water to Iran in proportion to a measured deviation from a normal year. The Treaty specifies the point of delivery of water and that it must be suitable for treatment for domestic or agricultural use. Afghanistan retains all rights to the balance of the water and Iran can make “no claim to the water of the Helmand River in excess of the amounts specified in this Treaty, even if additional amounts of water may be available in the Helmand Lower Delta and may be put to a beneficial use.”

Iran and Afghanistan can monitor each other to ensure that they comply with the Treaty, but the ongoing violence in Afghanistan before the NATO evacuation may have made effective monitoring difficult. Since NATO’s departure, the Taliban government may suffer from a lack of the technical skills needed to properly manage water resources. In the event of differences, the Treaty provides for an arbitration process. The Treaty has no sunset clause so exists in perpetuity. 

Aside from the current Helmand River issue, Afghanistan plans to build several dams along its rivers and the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand has caused distress in Iran which has resorted to force to stop the project. The Taliban also likely feels that due to violence and internal disorder neighboring countries have received more than their share of water and now it must reclaim its fair share of its water resources by building dams, but the Taliban did arrange a meeting between Taliban and Iranian envoys to discuss the Helmand River water rights. 

Since both sides have indicated a willingness to talk, their neighbors and supporters should encourage them to, first, make a technical survey of available water, then plan for the ratification of the Treaty and the implementation of its provisions. 

If the Taliban are slow to move out, Qatar and China could give them a nudge. The Iranian side may need encouragement from its new friend, Saudi Arabia, which can also share its expertise on water conservation. Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbor Uzbekistan is currently negotiating water access with Kabul but it can also share how it is dealing with its own water shortages by modernizing its irrigation system, and reviving the Aral Sea, the world’s best known environmental disaster.

In addition, experts at UN-Water, the Middle East Desalination Research Center, and the Asian Development Bank can be drafted to oversee a transparent inventory of water resources, audit Iran’s water records, and start training Afghan officials on water management so the country can protect its rights while respecting the 1973 Treaty.

The Taliban may hope to use water as leverage to force Iran, one of the most water-stressed countries, to recognize them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, but Iran has said Afghanistan must first install an inclusive government, and if the Taliban wants to shake off its dependence on Pakistan for access to ocean trade routes it can’t afford to antagonize Tehran. The Taliban may not get immediate recognition, but it may learn the benefit of respecting the commitments of previous governments in Kabul instead of a Year Zero approach, and can show the international community it is a mature actor that can contribute to the most the region’s most pressing problem.

The international community should temper its expectation for policy reversals by the Taliban and focus on the immediate problem which will require a lot of bandwidth that will be misused if the West’s envoys immediately start agitating about “Afghan women and girls,” forgetting that Iranian women and girls are also victims of the water shortage. The counterparties are in disfavor with Washington and its allies, many of whom will want to see both governments weakened by drought and then ripe for regime change aided and abetted by severe economic sanctions. 

If all the high-flown rhetoric like the UN’s declaration that “Access to water and sanitation are recognized by the United Nations as human rights” means anything, everyone involved needs to stick to the task at hand and not, as it often does, let “good enough” be hijacked by animosity at the bad men in the presidential palace. 

So, its “all-hands-on-deck,” and the neighbors of Iran and Afghanistan can be counted on to show up to help stabilize the region bookended by the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington and Brussels can provide badly needed expertise and resources, but will they decide to help or hinder?

This article was also published at OilPrice.com

James Durso

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.

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