The Unsolved Problem of Iran’s Water Rights from the Helmand River

By: Dr. Zia Nizam

Tensions between the Taliban and Iran concerning the Helmand River have been escalating in recent weeks. The Iranian government has accused the Taliban of not granting them the water rights from the Helmand River, while the Taliban have argued that due to drought, Afghanistan is facing a water shortage, and that they have given Iran the appropriate amount of water from the river. The Iranian authorities have rejected this explanation from the Taliban and protested against it, asserting that the water is stored in the Kamal Khan Dam and that Iran‘s water rights have not been granted. The President of Iran has issued a stern and undiplomatic warning to the Taliban, telling them to take his words seriously:I warn the rulers of Afghanistan to give the water rights of the people and the region of Sistan and Balochistan immediately.”

In order to investigate the Taliban‘s assertion that the water supply is diminishing, the Iranian side has requested confirmation by dispatching technical personnel. However, the Taliban refused to permit them to inspect the Kajaki and Kamal Khan dams, claiming that such a provision was not included in the agreement.

Several agreements have been signed concerning the sharing of water from the Helmand River. The first agreement, signed on August 19, 1872, did not limit Iran‘s share and more than half of the water went to Iran. The second agreement, signed on April 10, 1905, allocated onethird of the water to Iran. The third agreement, signed in 1937, allocated half of the water to Iran and was approved by the Afghan Council of Ministers, but not by the National Council. This issue remained unresolved until March 13, 1973, when a new agreement was signed between the Prime Ministers of Afghanistan and Iran, and was approved by the parliaments of both countries, with the heads of government of both countries ratifying it. This treaty is still considered valid and comprehensive, taking into account all aspects of the issue, and has two attached protocols.

The provisions of this treaty are still in effect today, and both parties are committed to it. In the event of a dispute, they will refer to the same treaty. According to the treaty, 26 cubic meters of water per second, which is equivalent to 850 million cubic meters of water, will flow into Iran‘s soil annually in a normal state of water. This amount constitutes 18% of the total water in the Helmand River. Additionally, four cubic meters of water per second are given to Iran as a gesture of goodwill and brotherly interests.

According to the fourth article of this treaty, Iran‘s quota of water from the Helmand River will decrease in years of drought or water shortage. This amount of water given to Iran has been determined after careful and precise measurements, and Afghanistan is not allowed to partially or completely deny Iran of the rights stated in the treaty.

Taking into account all relevant rights, Afghanistan is entitled to use the remaining water of the Helmand River as it wishes. Conversely, the same article states that Iran has no right to claim more water from the Helmand River than the amount stipulated in the treaty. This amount is determined by the Dehravud hydrological device, which is situated above the entrance of the Kajaki Dam and is capable of distinguishing between normal and abnormal years.

In order to carry out the stipulations of this treaty, each nation shall appoint a commissioner and a deputy commissioner from its own citizens and senior officials. The responsibilities of the commissioners are outlined in Protocol One of the annexes to the treaty. They shall act as representatives of their government in all matters concerning the implementation of the treaty and shall endeavor to swiftly resolve any issues that arise from the implementation of the treaty.

In the event of a dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the articles of the treaty, the parties shall first attempt to resolve the dispute through diplomatic negotiations. If this fails, the dispute shall be submitted to arbitration in accordance with Protocol No. 2 of the Annex to the Treaty. The arbitration court shall consist of three members, with each party appointing an arbitrator and the third arbitrator, who shall also serve as the head of the tribunal, being chosen by agreement of the parties. Should the parties or either of them fail to agree, the Secretary General of the United Nations shall be requested to determine the third arbitrator. The ruling of the arbitration court shall be final and binding.

This treaty, along with its two accompanying protocols, is comprehensive and mutually reinforcing. The government of Afghanistan at the time, with patience and insistence on its stance, was eventually able to conclude such an important and comprehensive treaty, taking into account all circumstances and determining Iran‘s compensation fairly. Ways to resolve the dispute are also provided, so that disputes can be easily resolved if the parties have good intentions and there is no need for threats and coercion. However, it is regrettable that, despite citing the articles of the treaty, instead of discussing and addressing the issue of water, it is being used as an excuse to bargain over matters other than water. It appears that the parties are attempting to exploit the water issue by using ostensibly nationalist rhetoric to reduce internal pressures and arouse the national sentiments of the people. If the parties truly disagree on the amount of Iran‘s claim and how to measure it, and water is not being used as a pretext to settle other accounts, they should refer it to the arbitration court. India and Pakistan once resolved their disputes over the Indu Sea with the help of the World Bank, with the arbitration court issuing a ruling that both sides accepted. In this way, the disputes between the two countries over water were peacefully resolved.