Water Problems in Asia

Iran and Afghanistan dispute over  Helmand water rights

Iran and Afghanistan dispute over  Helmand water rights

June 13 2023 

Hydropolitics Association

Tensions remain high following the deaths of troops from both sides on May 27, with Taliban and Iranian officials digging in on their positions with increased military activity and fresh warnings.

The water dispute between Iran and Afghanistan primarily revolves around the shared water resources of the Helmand River. The Helmand River originates in the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and flows through both Afghanistan and Iran. It is a vital water source for both countries, supporting agriculture, power generation, and domestic water supplies. The 1973 Treaty: In 1973, Iran and Afghanistan signed the Helmand River Treaty, which outlined the sharing of water resources. The treaty allowed Afghanistan to use a specific amount of water from the Helmand River for irrigation purposes, while ensuring a certain flow of water into Iran.

Over the years, both Iran and Afghanistan have faced water scarcity issues due to factors such as climate change, population growth, and mismanagement of water resources. Drought conditions have further exacerbated the situation, impacting agricultural activities and water availability.

Kamal Khan Dam

 Iran has accused Afghanistan of not adhering to the terms of the 1973 treaty, particularly regarding the water flow into Iran. Iran claims that Afghanistan has been constructing dams and diverting water, significantly reducing the amount reaching Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan province. Afghanistan, on the other hand, argues that it needs the water resources for its own development and agriculture.

Afghanistan has nevertheless decided to regain control of its hydraulic potential in recent years by speeding up the construction of hydroelectric dams and irrigation systems.  

The Kamal Khan Dam, which is situated on the border with Iran, was inaugurated in March 2021 on the Helmand River after six decades of construction work. 

In the meantime, the Kajaki Dam, often a bone of contention with Tehran, has also undergone major work and was recently completed.  

The Kajaki Dam  was built in the 1950s to help Afghan farmers for  irrigation The latest round of construction work was completed in July 2022, increasing output from 33 to 100 megawatts 

Environmental and Humanitarian Impacts

The reduced water flow from the Helmand River has caused significant environmental and humanitarian consequences. Wetlands and ecosystems in Iran's Sistan-Baluchestan province have been severely affected, leading to ecological degradation. The lack of water has also impacted farming communities and livelihoods in the region.

Water as a diplomatic tool 

As Afghanistan regains control over the Helmand River’s water supply, the precious resource is Some observers claim that the Taliban are using water to barter for oil, gas and electricity.  In a tweet posted by Afghan media outlet Afghanistan International, the former spokesman of the Taliban police command in Kabul is said to have admitted to using water as a bargaining chip:

Tehran, however, is far from satisfied with the current situation as it continues to claim its right to water from Afghanistan.   

"In reality, the Afghan leadership has not honoured its commitments under the [1973] treaty and has not offered the necessary cooperation to provide Iran with its legal water rights," said the Iranian foreign ministry, adding that the situation has become "unacceptable". 

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said last month his government is determined to defend Iran’s water rights, threatening action against the Taliban if they fail to release more water. Tehran has rejected Kabul’s claim that lack of rainfall and a severe drought were responsible for the lack of water flowing to Iran. 

While Iran, which shares a border of over 900 kilometres with Afghanistan, does not recognise the Taliban government, it has so far maintained friendly relations with its new neighbours. 

Tehran and Kabul immediately sought to calm things down after the exchange of fire at the border near the end of May.  

"The situation (is) currently under control," said Taliban interior ministry spokesman Abdul Nafy Takor on the day of the incident, adding that his government "does not want war with its neighbour".



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