Saturday, 30 July 2016

Afghanistan risks water conflict with Iran

Published in Analytical Articles

By Sudha Ramachandran

July 30th, 2016, The CACI Analyst

Afghanistan’s damming of the Harirud River could boost agriculture and industry in the country. However, the resulting reduction in water flow to Iran could contribute to a deterioration of relations with Tehran. Afghanistan and Iran can no longer delay a dialogue on how to share the waters of the Harirud. Afghanistan has previously blamed its reluctance to engage in such a dialogue on a lack of requisite data and expertise, but can ill afford a conflict with Iran on this issue. 


in-af-damBACKGROUND: The recent inauguration of the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam in Afghanistan’s Herat province has generated optimism in the country. It is expected to produce around 42 MW of power that will light up Afghan homes and boost the country’s nascent industry, while reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on its neighbors for electricity. Additionally, the US$ 290 million hydro-power project could irrigate around 75,000 hectares of land.

Known earlier as the Salma Dam, the Afghanistan-India Friendship dam is built across the 1,100 kilometer-long Harirud River. The Harirud originates in the central highlands of Afghanistan and after flowing westward almost in a straight line to Herat, it turns northwest and north to form the border between Iran and Afghanistan and then Iran and Turkmenistan, before disappearing in the sandy wastes of Turkmenistan’s Qaraqum desert.

Hitherto, Afghanistan has received 40 percent of the Harirud’s waters, while Iran and Turkmenistan have received 30 percent each. Afghanistan’s damming of this river could result in Afghanistan’s share increasing to 74 percent and reducing Iran’s and Turkmenistan’s shares to 13 percent each.

The Harirud is a valuable resource in the region. Around 1.3 million Afghans live in the Harirud basin. Almost three times as many Iranians (3.4 million), including the residents of Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, depend on its water. Tensions between Iran and Afghanistan over sharing the waters of the Harirud have intensified in recent years. Indeed, Iranian border guards have on several occasions fired at Afghans drawing water from this river, resulting in the death of around a dozen Afghan villagers. Anticipating the implications of Afghanistan’s damming of the Harirud for its water security, Iran opposed the construction of the Afghanistan-India Friendship dam and has reportedly used Taliban fighters as proxies to carry out attacks at the dam site to prevent the project’s completion.

Iran and Turkmenistan have dammed the lower reaches of the Harirud. But prior to the construction of the Doosti Dam in 2005, they agreed to share the waters of this river equally. In contrast, Afghanistan went ahead to dam the river without discussing water sharing with Iran or Turkmenistan. Indeed, Afghanistan does not have water sharing agreements with any of its neighbors despite the fact that its trans-boundary rivers sustain large populations there. The only exception is the 1973 Treaty with Iran over the sharing of the waters of the Helmand River. Even this was never ratified by Kabul and has been repeatedly violated.

IMPLICATIONS: The implications of the reduced water flow into Iran in particular – Turkmenistan is less dependent on the Harirud – will be severe. For instance, when the Harirud dried up in 2000, Mashhad reeled under severe water shortage whereas agriculture in the Razavi Khorasan province suffered losses to the tune of US$ 4.3 million.

So how is Iran likely to respond? Some analysts say that Tehran may choose to downplay the water problem with Afghanistan as it has much to gain from a close relationship with Kabul. Indeed, India, Iran and Afghanistan recently signed a trade and transit agreement that will boost trade between India, Iran and Central Asia via Afghan territory.

However, others point to past experience to argue that Iran will not suffer the reduced water flow quietly; it can be expected to act. During the 1998-2001 drought in the region, Taliban authorities cut off the Helmand’s flow to Iran. Its impact on the Sistan-Baluchistan province was disastrous. The wetlands of the Hamun lake region, their bio-diversity and natural productivity were destroyed. The marshes turned into a dustbowl. An outmigration of tens of thousands of people followed. As fierce competition over limited resources soared, new conflicts emerged in the area. The Iranian government’s response to the crisis was swift. Besides taking the issue to the United Nations, it took matters into its own hands, reportedly by entering Afghan territory to build a series of canals to restore water flow to Iran. 

While Iran’s relationship with Afghanistan has improved since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, resulting in robust trade between the two, bilateral ties remain fragile. NATO and Afghan officials have often accused Tehran of supporting the Taliban. A major motivation for such support was to make things difficult for the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. But the Taliban militia was also useful for pressuring the Afghan government on contentious issues like river water sharing. More recently, Iran is believed to be backing the Taliban in order to weaken the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) operating in Afghanistan. The possibility that Iran will use the Taliban or other militias as proxies to push Kabul towards an agreement on the distribution of the waters of the Harirud therefore cannot be ruled out.

Afghan officials have often argued that as a predominantly rural and agricultural society, Afghanistan’s dependence on its rivers is high; hence their inability to share more water with the neighbors. However, this argument ignores Iran’s legitimate concerns and rights as a lower riparian state. Afghan officials attribute their reluctance to enter into dialogue on water sharing with its neighbors to Afghanistan’s lack of surface water data and records on demand and use of water in the country. Added to this is the problem of limited technical and diplomatic expertise, which they fear would weaken Afghanistan’s hand at the negotiating table. However, Afghanistan cannot hide behind this excuse forever, given the implications of a water conflict in a region that is already engulfed in instability, unrest and armed conflict. This underscores the need for Afghanistan and the international community to focus on building Afghan capacity and expertise on water related issues.

CONCLUSIONS: The development of hydropower projects is necessary for Afghanistan’s agriculture and industry and is key to its reconstruction. Afghanistan can be expected to construct more dams in the coming years. However, it needs to enter into dialogue on water sharing with its neighbors, who also have the right to a pre-determined volume of the waters of rivers that originate in Afghanistan. It is also in Afghanistan’s interest to resolve conflicts with its neighbors. Over the past 15 years, Afghanistan had the support of the U.S. and other major powers. This was a period when Iran was internationally isolated and grappling with the impact of crippling sanctions. With the end of the sanctions and its relations with the U.S. on the mend, Iran is today in a stronger position and could use more coercion vis-à-vis Afghanistan than it has in the past. Poor relations with Pakistan as well as Iran, the two countries that provide landlocked Afghanistan with access to the sea, is certainly not in Kabul’s interest.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher / journalist based in India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues. Her articles have been published in Asia Times Online, The Diplomat, China Brief, etc. She can be contacted at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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