Iran-Taliban Conflict Persists Over Helmand and Harirud Waters

By: Rahmat Karim Dawlat

The use of shared waters or transboundary rivers between Afghanistan and Iran has been a source of serious contention between the two countries since the late 19th century. This has become more pressing when the Afghan governments have viewed water resources in the region as a potential source of hydrocarbons. From the perspective of Afghan government officials and legislators, water is seen as a natural energy source, similar to oil and gas, that should be used to gain economic and political benefits. Iran, however, rejects Afghanistan’s claim to the water and refuses to grant concessions. In the past, the Iranian royal government had granted concessions to the Afghan royal government on multiple occasions in order to receive more water. For instance, in 1974, the Iranian government provided two billion dollars in financial aid for economic programs, such as the construction of railways and hydropower plants in Afghanistan, in order to prevent any issues with the water of the transboundary rivers of Helmand and Hari (Harirud). This situation has remained consistent throughout the subsequent governments of Afghanistan, including left-communist governments, Mujahedeen, Taliban, and Liberal-Islamist governments after 2001. The fundamental problem in resolving the water issue between the two countries stems from these views.

An accurate understanding of the nature of water contracts and their regulations is impossible without knowledge of the history of the border establishment between Iran and Afghanistan, as well as the history of the Treaty of Gandomak (1878) and the agreement which placed Afghanistan under the protection of Great Britain (1879).

After Afghanistan was placed under British protection, British military officers largely determined the country’s foreign policy, primarily focusing on resolving the border and water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran. High-ranking British military officers, Gould Smith and McMahon, arbitrated the border river dispute in 1895-1896. In 1896, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Iran and Afghanistan with the mediation of the two aforementioned officers, in which one share of the water of Helmand and Hamun reservoir was allocated to Iran, and two shares to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the issue of water use between the two countries was not resolved with the signing of the treaty, and the parties’ conflicts persisted.

In 1917, Iran and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the use of regional waters, which stipulated that negotiations on water sharing between the two countries should commence and the parties’ quotas should be re-evaluated. Despite the lengthy negotiations, no agreement was reached. To prevent the escalation of disputes, the parties signed a temporary protocol on the use of the Helmand water basin in 1937, which divided the Helmand water in Kamal Khan Reservoir equally between the two countries (50% for Afghanistan and 50% for Iran).

The Afghan government agreed not to utilize the Kamal Khan Reservoir for the areas surrounding the canal in addition to the canals that were already in existence prior to the signing of the document. However, Afghanistan constructed several streams and canals in the region despite having signed the document. Iranian officials have stated that the construction of the Qahra and Siraj canals by Afghanistan has caused a water shortage in the Sistan region of Iran. Iran has deemed this action by Afghanistan to be deceitful and in violation of the agreements of 1896 and 1937, and has attempted to initiate new negotiations to determine the rights of these rivers, but has not achieved any results.

The government of Iran during the Pahlavi era made significant attempts to address the aforementioned issue. From Iran’s perspective, the agreement that was reached with British mediation did not help to resolve the issues, but instead made them worse, and the Afghan delegation during their visit to Tehran in 1937 requested to draft and sign a new agreement.

In 1939, the Iranian ambassador in Kabul, Baqir Qasemi, signed a new treaty with the Afghan government concerning the use of Helmand water. The second paragraph of the document stipulated that Afghanistan would not construct another stream from the Kamal Khan Dam to irrigate the lands of the surrounding areas. This memorandum regulated the use of water in the shared area in accordance with accepted standards of international law. Its implementation was contingent upon the Afghan government’s approval, as Afghanistan is considered an upstream country. However, the Afghan government did not accept the agreement, demanding Iran’s assurance to recognize Kabul’s right to use the Kamal Khan Reservoir.

The authorities in Kabul requested that Iran acknowledge the Kabul government’s ownership of the Kamal Khan dam and declare it in a separate document, which would grant Afghanistan the right to construct water dams, use them freely, and even withdraw from the treaty. Iran’s refusal to recognize this right for Afghanistan and not signing a separate memorandum caused the implementation of the memorandum to be delayed for years.

Following the drought of 1954 and the decrease of water in Helmand, the agricultural area in the eastern regions of Iran was greatly damaged. This lack of water caused the migration of the residents of Sistan, prompting Iran to bring the issue of water regulation between the two countries to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for consideration for the first time. However, the representative of the United States persuaded the Iranian authorities to withdraw their proposal from the agenda of the meeting. As a result, with the mediation of the United States, an impartial commission consisting of three experts from the United States, Canada, and Chile as well as delegations from the two countries was formed to resolve the issue. This committee became known as the “Helmand Delta Commission”. In the plan prepared by the commission, the drinking water rights for Iran were accepted, but it proposed 22 cubic meters of water per second for agriculture, which did not meet the requirements of the Iranian government.

The negotiations between the two sides continued until 1957. Subsequently, the commission proposed that Iran should receive 26 cubic meters of water per second, which was less than the amount specified in the 1896 memorandum (one-third), but the Afghan delegation objected to this.

In 1957, Iran and the United States formed a joint commission to provide economic aid to Afghanistan, which prompted King Mohammad Zaher Shah of Afghanistan to increase the number of cubic meters of water for Iran, thus allowing negotiations between the two countries’ delegations to resume. The neutral commission held meetings with the delegations of the two countries on multiple occasions in 1960, 1967, and 1971, but the negotiations were unsuccessful due to Afghanistan having constructed two dams in the Chakhansur district of Nimruz Province. According to sources, in 1971, the flow of water from Helmand to Iran was completely cut off for 22 days, resulting in the migration of residents and the destruction of a large portion of the flora and fauna in the area.

The current situation necessitated that the parties make a final decision as soon as possible. After 19 years of protracted negotiations and the work of the neutral commission, the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty was signed on March 13, 1973, comprising a contract, a treaty, and two protocols. This agreement was signed by the Prime Minister of Afghanistan, Mohammad Musa Shafiq, and the Prime Minister of Iran, Amir Abbas Hoveyda.

In 1973, Iran allocated two billion dollars for development projects in Afghanistan, which had been established in 1954, in exchange for four cubic meters of water per second added to Iran’s rights from the Helmand River. This agreement was not implemented until the end of Mohammad Zaher Shah’s rule in 1976, when the Afghan government approved and implemented the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty.

In 1976, Iran and Afghanistan reached an agreement to carry out joint projects and build new water reservoirs in the Helmand River channel to share the water from these reservoirs. However, the political changes in Afghanistan in 1978 and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 prevented these plans from being implemented.

Despite the ongoing issue of water use in shared watersheds, negotiations and reviews of the matter were not possible due to the civil wars in Afghanistan that began in 1979, which had taken away this possibility from the Afghan governments.

Despite the fact that the issue of water use in the Helmand basin had been discussed and disputed by the two countries for years, in 1998 it became a catalyst for talks between Iran and the “Taliban regime”. The Taliban, who had not shown reconciliation and cooperation to Iran, at the beginning of their rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001) first limited the flow of the Helmand River water to Iran by blocking the Kajaki and Arghandab dams and diverting the river channel. The risk of drought was becoming increasingly severe every year, and in 2000, the flow of water from Helmand to Iran’s Sistan was completely cut off, resulting in widespread coverage in the Iranian domestic press and the international press about the Taliban changing the water channel of Helmand to irrigate poppy fields. The eastern provinces of Sistan and Balochistan and Khorasan of Iran suffered from water scarcity and ecological problems during those years. Some Iranian officials threatened that the air forces would bomb the Helmand River barriers, particularly the Kajaki and Arghandab barriers. For this purpose, war jets flew in the direction of the Helmand River for several days. This situation provided the impetus for negotiations with Taliban officials about water sharing and sending a delegation to visit the Kajaki dam. In the first round, the Taliban rejected any offer of negotiation. According to Waheed Muzhda, when this issue was raised in the meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Taliban government, none of the council members were aware of the existence of water-sharing agreements between Iran and Afghanistan. Even the Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs of the Taliban emphasized in that meeting that because the Iranians had destroyed the Shaikh Fayaz Mosque in Mashhad, they should not be allowed to use Helmand’s water at all.

Vakil Ahmad Mutawakkel, the head of Taliban’s foreign affairs, facilitated the visit of an Iranian delegation led by Gholamreza Bahrami, the head of the Afghan affairs staff at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. This was the first time an Iranian government delegation had visited Afghanistan since the Taliban had come to power. The delegation visited the Helmand watershed, including Kajaki, Dohla, and Darvand reservoirs, and met with Taliban officials. Through guiding the delegation to the drought-affected areas, the Taliban sought to demonstrate that the lack of water flow from the Helmand River to Sistan and Balochistan, Iran, was due to drought, low rainfall, and climate change, rather than the closure of the water channel or the alteration of its route to water poppy fields.

At the meeting between the Iranian delegation and Taliban officials, no document was signed concerning the determination of the water rights of the two countries, as the government of the Taliban was not officially recognized by Iran. Consequently, signing an agreement with the unrecognized government of this group in Kabul would be seen as recognizing the legal sovereignty of the Taliban. As a result, Iran proposed to sign a document on water use and border cooperation between Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan provinces and Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, which are on the same border, but this was rejected by the Taliban.

In its formal report on its trip to Afghanistan, the Iranian delegation confirmed that the flow of water in the Helmand River was 42.8 cubic meters per second, and the Kajaki Dam had one billion cubic meters of water storage. Consequently, on September 14, 2001, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations wrote a letter to the UN Secretary-General, expressing dissatisfaction with the Taliban government’s actions, as they had blocked the flow of water from Helmand to Iran by closing the Kajaki Dam.

Throughout the Taliban’s rule, verbal tensions arose due to water issues such as salinization of fertile lands, climate change caused by dehydration, and the drying up of the Hamun Basin. An Iranian delegation visited Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, and Nimroz to negotiate on this matter, yet no agreement was reached. The issue of water and the regulation of the use of the shared water areas of the two countries was used as a basis for Iran’s talks with the Taliban, yet the water problem during this period (1996-2001) was left unresolved for future governments.

On September 25, 1904, British officer McMahon wrote a note indicating that the primary issue concerning water sharing began when the British-backed Afghan leaders declared the Helmand River an internal river and asserted exclusive and exceptional use of the water, which is contrary to international standards that classify the Helmand River as a transboundary River. Iranian researcher Attaullah Abdi has noted that the Afghan side has consistently taken advantage of the situation and has demonstrated limited compliance with agreements that could create a stable and secure environment in this matter.

Iranian officials allege that Afghanistan’s water policies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had disastrous consequences for agriculture in the east of the country, particularly in the provinces of Sistan and Balochistan. According to information from Iranian sources, drought and dehydration caused some people of Sistan and Balochistan to abandon their villages, migrating to Golestan, Khorasan, and Mashhad.

The evacuation of border villages and residential areas posed security issues, making it difficult for Iran to safeguard its borders. Furthermore, the evacuation of border villages increased the expenditure on border security and the deployment of armed forces in uninhabited areas. On the other hand, the migration of residents of areas affected by water scarcity and salt marshes to the neighbouring provinces caused the problem of population growth, employment, and accommodation provision.

Iranian researchers believe that the continuation of Afghanistan’s water policy in the areas of the Helmand, Hari, and Hamun Rivers has caused salinization of the land, disruption of the ecosystem in the region, decreased life expectancy, loss of flora and fauna in the eastern part of Iran, and exacerbated unemployment, migration, soil erosion, and chaos among the residents. Furthermore, the risk of conflict and war over the water issue is likely to remain unchanged in the future.

In 2001, the Taliban was overthrown and an interim administration was established, providing the opportunity to negotiate a solution to the water crisis in accordance with international agreements between the two countries. In March 2002, during President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Tehran, he and Seyyid Mohammad Khatami signed a “Cooperation Document” which highlighted the implementation of the 1973 treaty on the sharing of Helmand water between the two countries in its 13th paragraph.

From this perspective, Iran vehemently opposes the construction of new dams in the Helmand, Hari and Hamun Rivers. The Iranian authorities have argued that the Salma Dam (Salma Reservoir) in the Hari River watershed and the completion of the Arghandab power plant in the Helmand River would lead to increased salinization of land in the Khorasan and Sistan and Balochistan provinces of Iran, posing a significant economic, social, ecological, and security risk.

In 1992-1995, Hamid Karzai, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, wrote a letter of protest to the Foreign Ministers of Iran and Turkmenistan, expressing the country’s concern over the construction of the “Doosti” Dam in the north of Khorasan Province in the Hari River, which Iran had begun in 1993. In the letter, Karzai highlighted the potential for misunderstandings in the future due to a lack of water, should Afghanistan resume the construction of the Salma Dam, which had been halted due to civil wars. Following the completion of the “Doosti” Dam by Iran and the Republic of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan resumed the construction of the Salma Dam.

In 2005, the Republic of India invested in the Salma Hydroelectric Power Plant in the Hari River, which had been suspended for 40 years, and the project was put into operation in 2017.

The Hari River’s water traverses the boundary between two countries and reaches the North Khorasan Province of Iran. Iran is concerned that, with the construction of additional dams in the Hari River basin, the Khorasan Province will experience the same outcome as the Sistan and Balochistan Province.

The regulation and utilization of water in the Hari basin between Afghanistan and Iran differ from that of the Helmand basin due to the lack of a memorandum of understanding. Iran’s attempts to negotiate and reach a consensus have been unsuccessful thus far. The Afghan side has intentionally postponed the commencement of negotiations concerning the joint regulation of water in this region.

Iranian experts and researchers have presented various proposals to the Iranian government in order to improve intergovernmental relations between the two countries and resolve the issue of transboundary waters. The major options that have been suggested include political pressure on the Afghan government, the use of armed forces, and the employment of Afghan immigrants in Iran.

The use of water in shared areas between Iran and Afghanistan has been a topic of discussion and debate between the two sides throughout the modern era, with the Iranian side consistently attempting to include the water issue in the agenda of intergovernmental negotiations and meetings.

Feda Hossein Maliki, Iran’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan (2013-2008), stressed that the Helmand water issue was one of the most pressing matters on the Embassy’s agenda when he arrived in Kabul. Maliki described the water issue as being very sensitive and problematic in both Iran and Afghanistan, and he attributed this sensitivity to foreign intervention in the matter. Recalling his meetings with Afghan officials, Maliki mentioned the issue of selling water from Helmand to Iran, and, according to the information provided by Hamid Karzai, he suggested that this was an attempt by the Americans to damage the relationship between Iran and Afghanistan, but the issue of purchasing and selling water was not raised in official negotiations.

Many Afghan officials recalled this issue, however, according to Maliki, the first action he took was to reinstate the water commissioners of both countries who had been overseeing the implementation of the 1973 treaty. These commissioners had ceased to function during the Mujahedin regime and later during the Taliban regime.

Iran is attempting to alter the terms of the 1973 treaty to its advantage, as it is not content with the amount of water predicted for the regions of the country to conduct agricultural activities and generally sustain the natural flow of human life, plants, and livestock. Iran has taken every opportunity to resume negotiations in order to draft a water-sharing agreement.

During his first visit to Iran, former Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta reported that his counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, asked him at the beginning of his speech to consent to the formation of a joint commission to discuss Iran’s water rights in Afghanistan. Spanta declined to agree to the establishment of an intergovernmental commission, citing that Afghanistan had not conducted any scientific research on the legal issues of the Hari River and the amount of water that flowed to Iran and Turkmenistan. This caused the Afghan Foreign Minister to remove the issue from the agenda of bilateral meetings, which resulted in discomfort and even anger in the Iranian delegation. According to Spanta, his meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad was held in a cold atmosphere due to this.

At a meeting of the National Security Council of Iran with the official delegation of Afghanistan in Tehran, Mohammad Boroujerdi, the head of the International Affairs Commission of the Iranian Parliament, highlighted the Hari River and noted that the Egyptian president had spoken about Sudan’s plan to construct a diversion dam on the Nile Sea, and that Iran would bomb this section. This statement was a clear warning to Afghanistan to not proceed with the construction of the Salma Dam in 2008. This anxiety of the Iranian authorities demonstrated the gravity of the water issue in inter-governmental contexts. It is likely that bilateral relations would become more strained due to the intensification of the water dispute.

Fada Hossein Maliki reported that the primary purpose of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Kabul on April 26, 2010, and his meeting with Karzai was to discuss water regulation in Helmand, particularly the provision of water to Sistan and Balochistan and the prevention of the Hamun reservoir from drying up. This was due to a drought that had threatened the region, and if the water flow of the Helmand River was restricted to Sistan and Balochistan in the last months of spring and first summer, it could have caused the destruction of plants and animals around the Hamun reservoir. At the meeting, Ahmadinejad asked Karzai to initiate water regulation negotiations and help to save Hamun. Karzai promised that Hamun would not be left without water, but no agreement was reached at the start of negotiations on the water issue.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Karzai reminded Ahmadinejad that Iranian delegations that visit Kabul, regardless of their purpose, always begin by discussing the Helmand River. Even if the issue of the United States and NATO presence is also on the agenda, they ultimately focus on the Helmand water. Karzai stated that he had discussed this matter with Maliki and promised that, if Afghanistan had any water left, it would be shared with Iran.

In 2007, the Afghan government adopted the National Water Resources Strategy Plan, which highlighted the importance of regional collaboration in the management and utilization of transboundary waters. The strategy proposed cooperation with neighboring countries in the exploitation of water resources without damaging the regional ecosystem. Following the principles outlined in the National Strategy, the Afghan Parliament approved the “Water Law” in 2009. The National Strategy for the Use of Water Resources was eventually transformed into the Coordinating Office of Water Resources.

The Afghan authorities sought to reassure Iran that the border regions would not be deprived of water with the implementation of large irrigation projects and the construction of power plants by accepting the principles of regional coordination in the use of water reserves. However, Iran attempted to compel Afghanistan to abandon the construction of the Salma hydroelectric power plant in the Harirud River through various means and intermediaries. The Afghan press reported that in 2011-2010, Iran endeavored to delay the completion of this section by offering concessions to Indian companies responsible for the Salma project. Even the media labeled certain members of parliament from Herat province as collaborators in these Iranian programs.

Iran had also restricted the transfer of materials necessary for the construction of the Salma power plant through its territory under any pretext. According to sources, Indian companies had been transporting these materials through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan and from there to the site of the Salma building in western Afghanistan. Additionally, there were several explosions at the site of the Salma power plant, resulting in the death of guards of the reservoir building. Although the Taliban group claimed responsibility for it, the local press reported on the possibility of these groups being affiliated with Iran. During the implementation of this project, Indian experts had to stop and restart it multiple times. Despite these issues, the construction of the reservoir was eventually completed. This dam is 107 meters high and 550 meters wide, with the capacity to store 514 million cubic meters of water and the ability to generate 42 megawatts of electricity.

The construction of this reservoir enabled Afghanistan to monitor and regulate the use of water in the Hari River basin, thus endangering the irrigation programs and the functioning of the Doosti power station on the border of Iran and Turkmenistan, which was built at the end of the water channel of the same river. Afghanistan is able to use the water of this basin as a political tactic and pressure lever on its neighbor, should the need arise, as Iran does not have any agreement with Afghanistan regarding the use of water in the Harirud River basin as a means of legal pressure against Afghanistan.

In the political literature and press of Iran and Afghanistan, the term “silent war” has become commonplace to describe and express the water dispute between the two countries. In the context of the use of water reserves between the two countries, the dispute has been ongoing in such a way that, in the past years, due to the publicity of the armed war, the water disputes were not raised, but now there is talk of serious conflicts and violent clashes, which researchers had predicted years ago. The water debate and the resumption of the creation of the commission and pressure levers during the governments of Ashraf Ghani and Hassan Rouhani have also been repeated.

At the international conference on “Combating Dust”, the President of Iran, Rouhani, declared that they cannot ignore what is damaging their environment. He went on to explain that the construction of numerous dams in Afghanistan, such as the Kajaki, Kamal Khan, Salma, and other dams in the north and south of Afghanistan, will have a drastic effect on Khorasan, Sistan, and Balochistan.

Ali Ahmad Osmani, the former Minister of Energy of Afghanistan (2015-2018), responded to Rouhani’s statements by asserting that Afghanistan had no need to engage in any negotiations regarding the water issue with Iran, and further added that Iran had damaged the ecosystem of the region through the unsystematic and excessive construction of dams, leading to the salinization of the lands in the Sistan and Balochistan provinces of Iran. Afghanistan alleged that Iran had built approximately 400 medium and small water dams in the four shared water basins of Helmand, Hari, Petergan and Khawaf, which was the primary cause of water shortage in other areas. Afghanistan, in contrast, had only four water dam construction projects in these four areas.

Some high-ranking Iranian officials believe that the water dispute between Iran and Afghanistan could lead to armed conflict. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has made a threatening statement regarding the water disputes with the neighboring country, suggesting that Afghanistan could be the source of water disputes with Iran in the future.

An analysis of the current situation and available documents indicates that the utilization of the Helmand water basin, the failure to adhere to the stipulations of the 1973 agreement, and the effects of climate change, drought, and the associated fluctuations in water levels in the basin are the most influential factors in the political relations between Iran and Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, Afghanistan has been in a more advantageous position than its western neighbor, Iran, due to its status as an upstream country.

Constructing new reservoirs, repairing and refurbishing the current water dams, particularly commissioning the Salma hydropower plant with a 107-meter dam, will enable Afghanistan to regulate the water in the shared basin, monitor it more closely, and adjust the amount of water to be transferred to Iran as desired.

Based on the results of research and investigations, it can be concluded that Afghanistan does not view the new water regulation agreement of the shared basin as being beneficial to them, and thus, they are refusing to begin negotiations on another document in this field and are instead emphasizing the implementation of the existing agreements. The regulation of water in shared basins by building water reservoirs and the comprehensive financial and military support of the Western countries to the Taliban allows Afghanistan to postpone the signing of a new treaty with Iran.

It is important to note that there is an agreement between Afghanistan and Iran concerning only one shared water source, the Helmand River. However, there are a total of six shared small and large public areas between the two countries, with no agreement on how to utilize them. These six rivers, which originate in Afghanistan and flow into Iran, are the Helmand (Hirmand), Arghandab, Hari, Khashrud, Farah, and Sabzevar (Esfazar) Rivers.

Consequently, resolving the issue for Iran hinges on granting concessions to its eastern neighbor in order to acquire a larger portion of the oversight and regulation of water in shared regions.

It can be concluded that the use of pressure, military threats, and other economic, drug, and immigration-related levers in a situation where the Taliban are supported by Western countries and the United States has caused increased tension in the relationship between Afghanistan and Iran, and will not help to resolve the water regulation issue. Finding common solutions is necessary to solve the water problem between the two countries. Examining the experience of Central Asian countries in regulating the use of water reserves could be beneficial and effective for Afghanistan and Iran. To begin, it is essential to form a joint intergovernmental organization to preserve the Hamun between Iran and Afghanistan with a legitimate system, similar to what the Central Asian countries did in the early 1990s to prevent the drying up of the Aral Sea by establishing the Inter-Governmental Foundation to Save the Sea. The dispute over the use of water reserves between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which lasted for years, was eventually resolved through the building of trust between the parties and through negotiation and understanding. The political experience of the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, and the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, demonstrated that if the two countries have the will to cooperate, they are able to solve the issue of regulating the use of water resources in the region and other problems without the intervention of a third party. Utilizing this experience could be instructive for Afghanistan and Iran. Nevertheless, the issue of using common waters will remain a significant factor in the future events of the two countries.