Zahra Tohidi

Water Crisis and the Future of Iran-Afghanistan Relations

Date of publication : August 1, 2017 23:43 pm
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A general view of the Salma Dam which was opened by the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Herat, Afghanistan on June 04, 2016

The recent speech by President Rouhani at the international conference on ‘dealing with sandstorms’, stating that “we cannot be indifferent to what is destroying our environment… the construction of numerous dams in Afghanistan, such as Kajaki, Kamal Khan, Salma and others in the north and south of Afghanistan, affects our Khorassan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces” has attracted much attention to the issue of water control, and provoked widespread popular protests and even the Afghan government’s reaction, so that even on Friday, July 7, a protest rally was held in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province, with rhetorics against Iran. However, the question is that why for a country that has 75 billion cubic meters of fresh water, and has about 57 billion cubic meters of surface fresh water per year, and uses only 20 million cubic meters, the issue that the neighboring countries use the same water is disturbing and creates tension? How can this growing crisis be managed?
 
Analyzing the Water Crisis
 
Since the supply of fresh water is only 3% of the total amount of water on the planet, it is predicted that 45% of the world’s 9 billion people will face water shortages in 2050. Many experts believe that the water issue has a lot of potential for creating tension and conflict. This tension can also occur in relations between Iran and Afghanistan, so the two countries should seriously consider ways to manage it peacefully.
 
A report released by the US space agency in the early summer of 2013 evaluated that water scarcity in the Middle East over the next 30 years will be “critical”, and considers water as the biggest challenge facing countries in the Middle East. The studies suggest that due to the condition of the ozone layer as well as the diversion of the earth from its rotational direction around the sun, 45 countries are facing a severe drought, and Iran ranks in fourth place in the list of 45 countries at risk. The average rainfall in Iran is one-third of the world’s average, in other words, its average evaporation is, 3 times the global average, about 900 mm. In such circumstances, adopting wrong food security policies based on internal self-sufficiency, overusing underground water resources, and promoting agriculture in areas with no agricultural production capacity have resulted in the fact that now many bodies of water of the country such as wetlands and main rivers disappear and, on the other hand, the country’s underground water resources have faced with a sharp decline, and according to NASA, Iran will experience a very special situation and crisis in the future, with much larger dimensions than the current situation.
 
Disagreements between Iran and Afghanistan over Water
 
In theory, the issue of water has a lot of potential for creating disagreements and even conflicts between countries. In this regard, the British geographer, Peter Haggett, has outlined 12 geographic factors which cause tension and controversy among neighboring countries, out of which 6 factors are the sources of tensions that occur over water resources. These factors include: 1. the tendency of the landlocked country to have access to the open seas via the territory of the neighboring country; 2. disagreements over the distribution of water; 3. redirecting the border river, 4. disagreements over exploitation of resources of shared lakes; 5. snatching water from upstream river, and 6. cloud seeding.
 
Recently, the Afghan officials argued many times that based on an agreement signed between the two countries in 1972 on the distribution of the water of Helmand River, Iran should use a minimum water of this river. Based on this agreement, out of the total volume of 176 cubic meters of water per second in Helmand River, Iran’s water right is only 26 cubic meters per second, equivalent to 820 million cubic meters per year, or equivalent to 20 percent of the water of this river.
 
It is worth noting that Helmand River (approximately 1100 km), originating from the mountains of northwest Kabul, is the longest river in South Asia, and is considered the largest river of the Iranian plateau with a watershed area of ​​350,000 square kilometers.
 
President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has paid special attention to the project of the water management in this country from the beginning of its coming to power. In this regard, he spoke last year of the country’s serious decision to construct the third phase of the Kamal Khan dam in Nimroz province, at a distance of 100 kilometers from the border with Iran; a dam whose construction plan goes back to decades ago under the presidency of Mohammad Dawood Khan in the country, which was stopped shortly after its inception.
 
In addition, the construction and drainage of the Kajaki dam in Helmand province, with a capacity of 1,800 million cubic meters, has dramatically reduced the volume of water entering from Helmand River to Hamun Lake. It is also necessary to pay attention to the issue that several pumps have been installed along the river in order to pump water to poppy fields in the province.
 
In fact, when entering Iran, Helmand River is divided into two branches: “Paryan” and “Sistan” rivers. The water of the “Paryan River” flows first on a 20 km- long route from the Iranian-Afghan borderline, and then reaches Hamun Lake after bypassing the soil of Afghanistan. The “Sistan branch” of the Helmand River, after passing about 70 kilometers across the plain of Sistan, eventually leaks into Hamun Lake. One of the disagreements between Iran and Afghanistan is created here over the issue that Iran believes that the people of Sistan and Baluchistan have the right to use the water of the Helmand River, which originates from Helmand, and they cannot be deprived of this right, and this water right must be determined again in a new agreement in compliance with international conventions, while the Afghan government does not accept this issue, and considers that Iran’s water right from Helmand is only 26 cubic centimeters per second.
 
This aggressive behavior is shown at a time when the government of Afghanistan estimates that about 50 billion liters of water originating in Afghanistan, worth $50 billion, go to the five neighboring countries as free, and Pakistan has the largest share of this water. Pakistan receives 36% of its water supply from outside its borders, 20% of which is provided by Afghanistan alone, while Pakistan has, since 30 years ago, violated international rules on landlocked countries, and has blocked Afghanistan’s full and unconditional access to the port of Karachi.
 
The Need to Resolve the Dispute
 
It is important to note that the fair use of the shared water basin by neighboring countries is in the interests of all parties, because the issue of shared waters resources, due to factors such as national security concerns, economic opportunities and environmental issues, links the interests of these countries, and spread the effects of these factors beyond their national boundaries.
 
The key dilemma in how to manage the water of Helmand River is that the issue of Helmand water in Afghanistan, both before and after the fall of the Taliban, has become a national issue; on the other hand, this issue also holds true about Iran, whether before the Islamic Revolution or after that. Recent drought cases and the resulting environmental threats have been added to this dilemma.
 
Therefore, it is necessary to adopt a collaborative approach with attention to environmental crises that go beyond the borders of either Iran or Afghanistan and threaten the entire region. In other words, this issue has now gone beyond a mere technical issue between the two countries, and has become a strategic issue; a problem that requires a solution from the two countries at the strategic level. Therefore, it is imperative that the parties drop the charges against each other, and use diplomacy to manage this issue and, ultimately, shape the win-win situation for using water resources.
 
© The International
 
 
Zahra Tohidi, an expert on Afghanistan, is the fellow at Center for Strategic Research. 
 
 
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