Water Crisis as a Political Mean
By: Samad Payenda
Water has been a vital part of the development of civilizations since ancient times, and has been the source of both conflict and war. Along rivers, gardens and cities have been built, but also bloodshed and betrayal. Utilizing water is relatively easy and inexpensive compared to other natural resources, and does not usually require drilling, purification, and storage. Rain falls freely on mountains and plains, and the law of gravity causes it to flow into valleys. People’s main job is to direct and distribute water, which is often associated with tension and conflict, both within a village, province, country, and between countries. The conflict between upper and lower waters is not limited to the Helmand River, and wherever water flows, negotiations and disputes over the direction and quantity of water are also present.
The dispute between the neighbors is not typically only related to water, but can also be a result of political differences, romantic rivalry, family animosity, and property disputes, which are often disguised as water issues. The water crisis in Helmand is also related to water and some politics, as well as other non-water factors. Recently, there have been numerous technical and legal discussions concerning the agreement between Afghanistan and Iran regarding the water share in the Helmand River. In this context, we will consider the potential non-water factors of the water conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban while examining the water crisis and the location of the Helmand River.
The Real Water Crisis
Climate change in our era has accelerated to such an extent that it can be felt without comparing the current situation to the testimony of our ancestors and surviving documents from past centuries. During our teenage and adolescent years, wherever we have been on earth, weather conditions and water accessibility have changed so much that it provides evidence of unusual and unstable weather conditions without reading the analytical reports of governments or concerned institutions. However, to gain a more accurate understanding of what is happening to the climate and water in these years, it is advisable to pay attention to some facts published by renowned international institutions.
The United Nations Water has stated that climate change has both direct and indirect effects on water, which can lead to unpredictable consequences. According to a report from UNICEF, the increase in temperature has caused disruptions to the water cycle and rainfall patterns, resulting in water shortages, droughts, floods, and irregular precipitation, making it increasingly difficult for people to survive.
According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) report for 2022, approximately two billion people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, and nearly half of the population experiences water shortages for at least part of the year. Unfortunately, the situation is not improving. Countries are unable to agree on common measures to address this crisis, and as population increases and climate change intensifies, the water problem becomes increasingly complex.
Over the past two decades, groundwater storage (soil moisture, snow, and ice) has decreased by one centimeter annually, leaving an irreparable effect on water security. In the next century, these reserves will be drastically diminished, significantly impacting the lives of one-sixth of the world’s population, particularly those living in valleys and near rivers that originate from snow-covered mountains and glaciers. Additionally, life on the coasts and areas affected by sea level rise will become increasingly difficult. Climate change will also have an effect on water quality, with continuous flash floods and rising water temperatures leading to further water contamination. Undoubtedly, the agriculture and food security of billions of people will be affected by this change.
According to the United Nations Water report, the dangers caused by floods have increased 134 times from the last year of Taliban rule to the first year of their return to power, and the duration and number of droughts have increased by 29% in the two decades between these two points in time.
Afghanistan in the Critical Zone
On May 25th, 2023, Reuters released a brief report on the risks associated with the depletion of water and energy resources in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush regions. The report stated that climate change has caused disruption to the water system in this densely populated area, thus posing a threat to the energy security and economic development of sixteen countries. The Himalaya-Hindu Kush Mountain range is the source of water for ten sea basins, and the livelihoods of 1.9 billion people from Afghanistan to India and from India to China depend on these large water sources. According to the China Water Risks Think Tank, melting glaciers and extreme weather fluctuations have created “serious threats” to the inhabitants of this region. The Ganges and Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh, the Indu Sea in Pakistan, the Yangtze and the Yellow Sea in China, and the Helmand and Amu Rivers in Afghanistan are among the ten significant rivers that were the birthplace of great civilizations and now the lives of almost two billion people depend on them.
In contrast to the Amu River, the Helmand River flows mainly within Afghanistan. According to figures published in 2009, the Helmand River basin encompasses approximately 45% of Afghanistan’s land and only 10% of the country’s water resources, with nearly 10 million people living in the area. This river was a vital artery of ancient Sistan and the center for the formation of renowned civilizations. The fame of Asia’s hive in the past was attributed to Sistan due to the blessing of this river.
The formation of new borders in the second half of the 19th century, under British supervision, resulted in a part of the Helmand River area becoming a part of Iran. It took nearly a century for the border to stabilize and for an international agreement on the water to be reached. Construction of the Kamal Khan Dam began in 1936 and was completed in 2021, shortly before the Taliban regained power. Iran has consistently protested against the construction of the Kamal Khan Dam, viewing the agricultural and water projects along the Helmand River with suspicion, and the Iranian government has even been accused of supporting armed attacks against this project during the last stage of its construction.
Disputes concerning this water have been ongoing for almost 150 years, and only Iran remained silent when Afghanistan had no government and the water flowed freely across the border with minimal regulation. However, these tensions are not always related to the water and the lives of the inhabitants of the Helmand region; sometimes the water is used as a tool for political bargaining beyond its practical uses. It is also employed for internal purposes and as a tool for propaganda and political scheming. In recent tensions, non-water-related signs may also be sent.
The Other Side of Water Dispute
During his visit to Sistan and Balochistan on May 18, 2023, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi issued a warning to the rulers of Afghanistan to ensure the water rights of the people of Sistan and Balochistan province, urging the Taliban to take his statements seriously in order to avoid any future grievances.
In Sistan and Balochistan, there have been numerous demonstrations against the Iranian government in the past year, which have been met with harsh reactions from the Iranian government. Two weeks prior to Raisi‘s visit, the media reported that twenty individuals had been executed in the province within a five–day period. The following day, a news report of Mawlawi Abdul Hamid, the Imam of the Sunni Makki Jame Mosque in Zahedan, was published, in which he accused the Iranian government of having a penchant for execution. He stated that the Iranian government was created to carry out executions.
Mawlawi Hamid declared that the Iranian government had been punishing and executing its opponents while falsely accusing them of drug trafficking. He posed the question to Iranian officials, asking “What government kills its own people? This much killing is not right. Please cease the executions. It is not acceptable to strike someone who is protesting without a weapon. Allow them to speak.”
In order to conceal internal issues and divert public opinion, governments often employ a variety of subsidiary topics and generate manageable tensions. Inciting prejudice and national animosity, with the intention of alleviating the pressures within the country, is a common practice in politics. In this regard, the President of Iran, in order to demonstrate his government‘s dedication to aiding the people of Sistan and Balochistan, transformed the relatively straightforward water issue, which he could have addressed through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, into a heated media debate between Afghanistan and Iran.
As time passed, it became clear that the harsh statements had no effect on the water supply, and were met with a lukewarm response from Kabul and Kandahar. The Taliban, who were preoccupied with internal tensions, facing pressure from the public and international organizations, replacing the Prime Minister and other officials, and negotiating with the Americans, Qataris, and the United Nations, viewed Raisi‘s verbal disputes over water not as a threat, but as an opportunity to protect the national interest.
War Lobbyists in Tehran
Conflicts in the warm Sistan region during the season when farmers are in need of water are not unexpected; however, the manner in which the issue was raised, the language used to propose it, and its timing with the commencement of a new round of talks between the Taliban and the international community (the United States and the United Nations) as well as the visit of Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar to Kandahar, leads one to suspect that Iran’s warning is not only about water but also carries more significant political messages.
Tehran‘s warm reception of the Taliban‘s ascension to power has raised suspicions that Iran is attempting to embrace certain factions of the Taliban in the aftermath of the withdrawal of American forces, and to support the group that played a role in the downfall of a democratic process and returned Afghanistan to the status quo in Iran‘s vicinity. In the political tradition that the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to uphold, leaders are not chosen through elections and democratic laws do not enter the legislative bodies.
In the past two decades, Afghanistan has taken a different route since the two Taliban emirates. There have been debates concerning the presence of Iranian advisors in Kandahar and Kabul, and it appears that Tehran is collaborating with the Taliban to establish a system of controlling and repressing the media, as well as forming a militia devoted to the Taliban leader. However, in recent weeks, there have been clear indications of a shift in Tehran‘s policy towards the Taliban, or at least doubts about the continuation of that policy.
In a recent interview with the Tahreriah Institute of Studies, Abolfazl Zohrevand, the former ambassador of Iran in Kabul, expressed his disappointment with the continuation of Tehran‘s current policy against the Taliban. He urged the Iranian government to support the Taliban‘s opponents and criticized Raisi‘s position on the water issue as fruitless. He did not believe that it would be possible to solve the water problem with the Taliban, and instead suggested that they should work to establish a government in Afghanistan that is able to fulfill its obligations. He further argued that water diplomacy should not only focus on the technical aspects of water, but should also be part of the macro diplomacy of the country, and called on the Iranian government to support a government and movements that are committed to their past agreements.
Zohrevand‘s assertion that the Taliban have been returned to power by the Americans and that Iran has entered the game on the ground orchestrated by the United States appears to be more than just his personal opinion. Given his relationship with Iran‘s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and security forces, it appears that he is speaking on behalf of a faction that is attempting to become more active in Afghanistan and against the United States. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been involved in wars for four decades, both directly and as a proxy, in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, and even North Africa, in addition to the eight years of fighting with Iraq and Saddam Hussein within and around its borders.
In recent years, Iran has been able to take advantage of its oil income to create powerful military forces, arms production, and trade networks. This has enabled Iran to become a major player in the wars in Syria and Iraq, in cooperation with Russia, with hundreds of thousands of domestic and foreign–trained forces mobilized. Now that the wars in Syria and Iraq have died down, this powerful machine and influential networks are looking for a new context in which to use their force.
It is not only in Iran that the influence of war lobbies and arms industries is both specific and common; this is also true in other countries that have powerful war industries and networks, and strong relationships have been established between their arms factories and their economy and politics, including the United States. It is no coincidence that the flame of wars in which the United States has been directly or indirectly involved for nearly a century has never been extinguished. Over the last 50 years, the main focus of these wars has been Afghanistan and the Middle East, and whenever the fire of war dies down in one place, it flares up in another; the war in Ukraine after the surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban and the end of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq is the latest example.
Now that the war in Ukraine is escalating and Iran is unable to intervene directly, Iranian lobbies and networks that benefit from the war are eagerly awaiting the opening of a new arena. This is evidenced by the recent statements of Iranian authorities and the in–depth interview of Zohrevand, indicating that pressure is mounting in Tehran to undertake preparatory work and prepare for a proxy war in Afghanistan.
Zohrevand requested that the Iranian government make preparations for a proactive regional role, in the event that the United States‘ plan to destabilize Pakistan is successful. He noted that the Russians view northern Afghanistan as their sphere of influence, and will not permit any actions that are contrary to their interests. Although he did not specify where in Afghanistan Iran‘s sphere of influence lies, he did suggest that Iran should assist in the formation of a government in Afghanistan that is capable of fulfilling its obligations, supporting the resistance front and the opposition of the Taliban, and aiding millions of Afghan immigrants in integrating into society, thereby implying support for a proxy war.
It is not possible for Iran to single–handedly initiate a war in Afghanistan; however, if Russia, China, India, and the United States are not content with the status quo, then the Iranian government will continue to fuel the war as it did during the Jihad, civil wars, and the Taliban insurgency. If the conflict in Ukraine eventually ends and arms and war lobbyists seek a new battleground, could Afghanistan and Central Asia not be included in their plans? What measures can be taken to avoid entering a new period of violence?