Water is the primary and irreplaceable substance in life. The rapid progress of humans since the 20th century has caused an increase in the population, leading to an increase in the demand for water and food. On the other hand, climate change brought an unprecedented water scarcity crisis in parts of the world. From 1950 to 1990, the demand for water tripled due to rapid population growth and economic development. The United Nations has designated March 22 as World Water Day to encourage the world to fight climate change and use water efficiently. The United Nations announced on March 22 of this year that more than two billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, and several regions of the world, including North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia, are facing a severe water crisis.
According to the statistics provided by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Afghanistan and its surrounding regions will face a severe water crisis by 2040. Rapid population growth, excessive use of water, drought, climate change, and decrease in rainfall are the main reasons for the water scarcity crisis in these areas.
On the other hand, water resources are not equally distributed on the surface of the earth. Many regions such as Europe and North America are not facing a serious water problem, whereas the countries of Central and South Asia and Africa are struggling with the challenge of safe water deficiency. For this reason, the conflict over water is intensifying in these countries and the governments have placed the water issue at the top of their agenda.
The soaring demand for water has brought countries into conflict with each other chiefly because the rivers as one of the primary sources of water supply are mostly located between two countries or flow in several countries.
With the decrease of underground water and the severe contamination of flowing water, the water issue has become one of the top agendas of governments in the international political scene. The importance of the water issue in the relations between countries has increased the possibility of conflict between neighboring countries. Currently, there is a water dispute between two neighbors in different parts of the world. The main cause of these conflicts is excessive use of water in the first country or the upstream country which causes water shortage in the downstream country. Sometimes, water pollution in the upper country causes the lower country not to be able to use the flowing water properly, and sometimes issues such as fishing, shipping, and river diversion also cause conflict between the two countries.
Securitizing the Water Issue
The change in the international environment after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of non-traditional actors in international security challenged the traditional definition of military and country-oriented security and caused researchers to come up with a newer and more contemporary definition of security. In the meantime, Barry Buzan was one of the first to provide a broad definition of security and, along with military security, brought issues such as personal, political, economic, social, and environmental security into the international security agenda. To this end, water has entered security discussions as a subcategory of environmental security.
From the perspective of the Copenhagen School of security studies, security is not a value-related or objective matter, but rather a construct and discourse, which implies that different actors can use language to frame non-security issues such as water security as a security concern when they feel threatened by the issue.
The lack of water in the eastern regions of Iran, especially Sistan and Balochistan, has caused the water issue of the Helmand River between Afghanistan and Iran to become a security issue. In other words, the issue of water has become securitized gaining special importance for both sides.
The Water Dispute between Afghanistan and Iran
Afghanistan does not have a serious border dispute with its northern neighbors, whereas most of its territorial dispute is with its southern neighbor Pakistan and a water dispute with its western neighbor Iran. Although the political relations between Afghanistan and Iran have always been normal and good, with the securitization of the water issue, the relations between the two countries have become tense. The water dispute between Afghanistan and Iran dates back to the time when the borders of Afghanistan were being determined during the rule of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, and it still remains unchanged.
Following that, the new governments of Afghanistan and Iran negotiated and discussed the division and distribution of the water of the Helmand River several times in different years until the two sides signed the water-sharing agreement in 1972 in the presence of former Prime Minister of Iran Amir Abbas Hoveyda and his Afghan counterpart Mohammad Musa Shafiq. This contract determined Iran’s share of the Helmand River at 26 cubic meters per second and 850 million cubic meters per year. The basis for determining the amount of this water right was based on the expert opinion of the Delta Commission in 1948 in the Iran-Afghanistan dispute and with the arbitration of the United States. The Delta Commission consisted of three technical experts from the United States, Chile, and Canada, with the management of the United States. This commission determined Iran’s share based on the estimation of the water volume in Afghanistan and the water needs of the two countries.
But now, due to the change in climate and severe drought on both sides of the border, the water issue between Afghanistan and Iran has become acute again, and the Iranians are trying to sign a new water agreement with Afghanistan. In the past years, several delegations from Afghanistan and Iran discussed the water issue, which all were fruitless. Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan are facing a severe shortage of drinking water and water for cultivation. This issue has caused the residents of this area to protest several times and demand water supply from the Iranian government. Water scarcity in Sistan and Balochistan has caused severe poverty and mass migration of people from this region.
Fadahosein Maliki, the representative of Zahedan, said that the water reserves of Sistan and Balochistan will be exhausted in the next two months, and the population of about two million in the region is facing a water security crisis. He urged that the Taliban government should be demanded to grant water rights since they seem not to have the intention of doing so. Before Maliki, Mustafa Mahami, Ayatollah Khamenei’s special representative for Sistan and Balochistan, had also said that the Taliban are the puppets of the United States and that the government of Iran must take any action to supply water using all pressure levers.
The tension between the Taliban and Iran
The question that currently concerns the minds of the majority of observers of Afghanistan and Iran issues is what will happen if the Taliban do not come to an agreement with Iran regarding the water of the Helmand River. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran has said that the water issue is at the top of the ministry’s work in 2023 and that the ministry will try to talk with the Taliban about the Helmand River. Not long ago, a delegation from Iran also arrived in Afghanistan to talk with the Taliban, but there is not much news about the results of the negotiations. In response to Iran’s request for more water, the Taliban said that the lack of water on the Afghanistan side of the border is due to low rainfall and that it is also facing a water shortage.
If the Taliban do not agree to sign a new agreement, what leverage does Iran have? Iran has had friendly relations with the Taliban so far and has handed over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban. But if the relations between the two countries become tense, one of Iran’s options will be to threaten to expel Taliban diplomats from Iran. The issue of immigrants has been one of Iran’s pressure tools for many years. Ultimately, the third pressure lever will be to support the Taliban’s opposition fronts. Because Iran is in dire need of water and it has become a security issue, it may go in the direction of using these levers. Taliban’s relations with Afghanistan’s neighbors have been ups and downs, and now if the water issue becomes serious, the relationship between the Taliban and Iran will become tense. It is worth noting that eventually Iran and other neighboring countries of Afghanistan are very worried about the closeness of the Taliban to the United States and are afraid of losing their influence on them.