Technical Approach Needed to Resolve Helmand Water Conflict

By: Sayed Zaman Hashemi

For centuries, water has been a key factor in forming the social, economic, and political structures of nations and in the development of human civilization around the world. For hundreds of years, Afghanistan has been irrigated in a traditional manner, using simple tools and without the aid of technology. Despite the abundance of water resources, the people of Afghanistan find themselves in a similar situation to the Israelites in the Bible the country‘s rivers flow freely across borders and are exploited more by other countries than by Afghanistan itself. The main beneficiaries of these resources are Iran and Pakistan. With the start of Afghanistan‘s ambitious hydrological projects, the potential for increased tension with Afghanistan‘s northern neighbors is also increasing.

Afghanistan‘s primary water sources, including the Amu, Helmand, Kunar, and Kabul Rivers, all flow out of the country‘s borders and into the soil of its neighboring countries. Iran has been significantly benefiting from the abundance of water from the Helmand River, while Pakistan has been largely profiting from the Kunar and Kabul Rivers. Both countries have been utilizing these resources for a prolonged period of time in order to sustain their agriculture and economy, as well as to satisfy their water needs. Meanwhile, the people of Afghanistan often experience a lack of water resources, particularly during droughts.

Over the past two decades, Afghanistan has sought to manage and control its water resources more effectively. The construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal from the Amu River and the creation of several power dams and water diversion dams in the west and south of the country serve as a good example of this. The purpose of constructing the Qosh Tepa Canal is to meet Afghanistan‘s irrigation needs and increase the agricultural production and economic growth of the country. The creation and establishment of electric and water dams also demonstrate that less water will flow to neighboring countries, which had been used in an unrestrained manner for many years. This will lead to increased tensions and could potentially become a source of disputes and water conflicts.

In the arid regions between Afghanistan and Iran, which are characterized by a lack of water, access to adequate water resources and the receipt of water from Afghanistan have been of great interest. In particular, the Helmand River, which is a crucial source of water for much of Helmand province and the Sistan and Balochistan region of Iran, has been a source of longstanding conflict between the two countries. Recently, the issue of water has become a source of serious tension and even warnings from the leaders of both countries.

The Helmand River is one of the longest rivers in Afghanistan, originating from the Hindu Kush mountains and flowing southwestward into Sistan and Balochistan, Iran, before joining the Hamun wetland. This river and its tributaries are essential for the agriculture and livelihood of the people in the region, yet its water has been a source of diplomatic tension between Afghanistan and Iran for over a century.

In 1872, a treaty was signed between the governments of Iran and Afghanistan, granting Iran the right to construct canals from the Helmand River for the purpose of improved water utilization. However, the agreement was not sufficiently precise or tactful in regards to Iran‘s water rights in the Helmand River, leading to ambiguity in the text and controversial interpretations between the two countries, resulting in further conflicts.

In the decades that followed, disagreements between the two countries intensified, culminating in the signing of the Helmand River Treaty in 1973 by Musa Shafiq, the Prime Minister of Afghanistan, and Amir Abbas Hoveida, the Prime Minister of Iran. The purpose of the treaty was to divide and allocate water resources between the two countries. Unfortunately, the dispute remained unresolved due to the ambiguous language and lack of technical parameters for water sharing, resulting in further tension between the leaders of the two countries.

Over the past two decades, Afghanistan‘s efforts to regulate the water of this river for irrigation and hydroelectricity have been met with resistance and opposition from Iran, due to worries about a potential decrease in water supply to Sistan and Balochistan. Climate change, consecutive droughts, the drying up of the Hamun wetlands, population growth, and the development of agriculture in the provinces along this river in both countries have exacerbated this tension.

Iran‘s worries stem from the potential consequences of water shortage in Sistan and Balochistan province, which is heavily dependent on the Helmand River for agriculture and the maintenance of its delicate ecosystem. The decline in the water flow of the Helmand River towards Iran has caused the Hamun wetlands, which were once magnificent, to become arid, resulting in severe dust storms, displacement of people, and the proliferation of diseases.

Afghanistan asserts its right to use its own water resources to promote economic growth, provide adequate water and electricity for one of the world‘s poorest countries and its burgeoning population. In recent years, Afghanistan has experienced severe droughts, resulting in crop failure and food shortages, necessitating the importation of a large amount of raw materials from abroad. Consequently, exploiting more water from the Helmand River is seen as a key part of resolving these issues.

The reactions of neighboring countries in the last two decades have made the situation more complex, as Iranian officials have consistently expressed their opposition to any attempts by Afghanistan to limit their water resources. The primary argument has been the potential effect on the water resources of neighboring countries and their water rights in terms of water security and environmental equilibrium.

The water crisis in Afghanistan is linked to a fundamental truth in border water management: while rivers do not recognize political boundaries, humans must. To ensure effective management of water and healthy stewardship of natural resources, it is necessary for all countries to act fairly and minimize the environmental and economic repercussions in one of the world‘s poorest countries.

Resolving the Helmand River water dispute necessitates a precise technical equilibrium between Afghanistan‘s entitlement to utilize its own water resources and Iran‘s water rights based on the 1973 agreement in order to avert natural and humanitarian crises in the region. Climate change, drought, and water level decline necessitate the urgent requirement for effective water management strategies between the two countries.

In my opinion, warnings and threats will not be effective in achieving a viable solution; however, technical and financial cooperation between the two countries could be instrumental. This could include joint investments in effective water management technologies and infrastructure, such as modern water supply and irrigation systems, to reduce seabed water losses for the benefit of farmers in both countries. Unfortunately, the current rulers of Afghanistan lack the national and international legitimacy, as well as the tact and sufficiency, necessary for the effective management of the country‘s water resources.

Furthermore, the mediation of impartial international organizations can be beneficial in tackling this intricate matter. International organizations, with their proficiency in water management and familiarity in settling disagreements concerning water between countries, can offer an unprejudiced outlook and guide the shared water to move towards an equitable and sustainable agreement.

The dispute between Afghanistan and Iran over the Helmand River water serves as a reminder of the global challenge of managing border water resources. This situation highlights the potential for water, a vital resource for life and prosperity, to become a source of tension and conflict between countries, unless it is managed through peaceful means and joint technical and technological cooperation, with a view to the future.

Resolving water disputes is not a simple task, but necessitates mutual comprehension, technical and financial collaboration, and international arbitration. Investing in efficient water management technologies, modern irrigation systems, and infrastructure can assist Afghanistan and its neighboring countries in taking advantage of water resources. Simultaneously, Afghanistan must formulate its water management policies to guarantee sustainable water utilization that benefits its citizens and contributes to the nation‘s economic growth.

The primary difficulty lies not in the water itself, but in how governments can effectively and safely administer this invaluable resource for the benefit of their citizens. Water can be a source of collaboration and shared prosperity, rather than a source of discord and separation. Although the rivers of Afghanistan traverse its boundaries, they must first and foremost satisfy the water requirements of the land and its inhabitants.