Dispute over Water Rights between Taliban and Iran

In recent days, Iran’s representative in Afghanistan has expressed dissatisfaction over Iran’s water quota from Afghanistan. Some in Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly have also expressed anger at Afghan immigrants, who are allegedly consuming more water than what is entering Iran from the Helmand River! This debate is not new and has occasionally been silent or publicized over the past few decades. The issue has different dimensions: legal, related to international law; political, related to the foreign policies of the two countries; developmental, related to developmental projects in each country; environmental, as rivers existed before the formation of current state borders and ecosystems are tied to them; and climatic changes, which are happening worldwide, requiring a fresh approach, both legally and scientifically.

Historically, rivers in our region—long plagued by recurring droughts—have been a lifeline for inhabitants and the ecosystem that naturally formed around them. Over the past century, the mechanization of agriculture, energy production from natural resources, and related advancements have placed water resources management and water diversion dam construction on governmental agendas. As the source of several regional rivers, Afghanistan has inevitably faced water-related tensions with most of its neighbors. Its position as the weaker party has often compelled it to enter negotiations and agreements from an unequal standpoint, hindering progress toward a lasting resolution.

The wars erupting over four decades ago presented neighboring countries with a golden opportunity to exploit Afghanistan’s transboundary waters with little to no accountability.

One factor contributing to neighboring countries’ reluctance to resolve the Afghan crisis and establish a stable government is the issue of water. Iran’s recent backing of the Taliban, facilitating their rise to power, partially aimed to deter the formation of a legitimate, people-based Afghan government—an illegitimate and discredited government being easier to manipulate. Although complaints from Iran regarding reduced Helmand water levels in certain years may hold some validity, climate change and decreased rainfall aren’t transgressions for which Afghanistan should bear the cost.

Iran’s ineffective utilization of natural resources has led to significant wastage of water, including that entering from the Helmand and other Afghan rivers. Multiple reports indicate the unprofessional use and squandering of these waters, especially in the Sistan regions.

Any agreement struck with an illegitimate administration of Taliban lacks legal validity and may spark increased tensions in the future. The current strife with the Taliban does not signify a shift in Iran’s approach to this group, and won’t impact Iran’s fundamental policy towards them. Thus, no new expectations should be set.