Water Wars: Drought, disputes, and deadly skirmishes between Iran and the Taliban

F.M. Shakil, The Cradle, June 1, 2023 —

Recent border clashes have escalated tensions to a critical point between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban over Iran’s unfulfilled water rights. Do the Taliban have a deeper motive, and what are their demands?

Long spells of drought in Afghanistan and southeastern Iran have reignited a decades-old dispute between the two countries over the equitable distribution of water from the Helmand River, which originates in the mountains north of Kabul, and flows through much of Afghanistan before emptying into the Sistan wetlands in Iran.

One factor contributing to the dispute is the incomplete Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River, a project initiated by the United States in 1950 that has remained inconclusive despite successive deadlines issued by Washington and aid agency USAID.

But the dam has been “successful” in depriving Iran of its water rights, with the reservoir’s significant water storage capacity leaving very little for Iran’s marshes. The situation worsened between 1998 and 2001, when Taliban officials, during one of the worst droughts in the area, cut off Iran’s access to water via the Kajaki Dam.

As a result, the Hamoun Lake area experienced severe dust storms, exacerbating Iran’s public health crisis. To make ends meet, thousands of people from the Hamoun Lake area were forced to leave for the cities.

Iranian agonies

As Afghanistan’s longest river, the Helmand stretches 1,150 km from the majestic Hindu Kush Mountains to the once-captivating Hamoun Wetlands in Iran’s Sistan Basin, and holds immense significance. It generously provides around 40 percent of the country’s surface water, shaping the livelihoods and ecosystems of the region throughout history.

Once upon a time, this area was a thriving habitat for a diverse array of flora and fauna. But sadly, the construction of numerous dams and canals in Helmand, Nimruz, and Kandahar has gradually dwindled the flow of water, resulting in the near disappearance of the Hamoun lakes and their unique vegetation and species.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, the inauguration of the Kamal Khan Dam by former pro-US Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in March 2021 has posed further challenges for Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan Province. This dam has also caused harm to the lower Helmand River dam built in Nimruz. As per the provisions of their 1973 agreement, Kamal Khan marks the point where Iran and Afghanistan share the Helmand River’s resources.

Dubbed a diversion dam with a detour road, the Kamal Khan Dam redirects spilled water to Afghanistan’s Gowdzare salt marsh, leaving Iran with a mere trickle from the Helmand’s precious flow. Iran’s Kabul Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi has expressed concern about this water imbalance. Recent negotiations between Iranian officials and the foreign ministry of the Taliban government have revealed that technical issues with the Kamal Khan Dam have led to increased water wastage.

Border skirmishes

On 27 May, despite repeated assurances from Kabul and warnings from Tehran with regards to the latter’s water rights, tensions finally erupted between Iran and the Taliban. The two sides exchanged heavy gunfire on the border resulting in two or three casualties on both sides before matters de-escalated.

Indian-American political scientist and the University of Delaware professor Dr. Muhammad Abdul Muqtedar Khan tells The Cradle that some social media posts showed the Taliban making extensive use of weapons abandoned in Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union, NATO, and most recently, the US, who unceremoniously withdrew its military forces in August 2021.

“American tanks, machineguns, and an obsolete Soviet howitzer measuring in at 122 millimeters (mm) D-30 are among the weapons that the Taliban brought to the Iran-Afghan border. It was as if American and Soviet military hardware were facing off against Iranian troops.”

The border clashes came hours after Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, met with an Iranian envoy to Afghanistan to discuss the Helmand River water-sharing agreement, according to an Afghan foreign ministry official. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency confirmed the meeting and stated that “issues between the two countries will be resolved more effectively through dialogue.”

The source of the problem

The sudden and reckless reaction from Kabul regarding the water rights dispute with Iran can be attributed to several factors, says geopolitical analyst Andrew Korybko. He tells The Cradle that the Taliban’s motivation for engaging in a border clash with Iran can be understood through four key reasons.

First, he argues that the Taliban may believe that such a clash could pressure Iran into publicly recognizing its government as a precondition for negotiating the 1973 agreement. By demonstrating its military prowess, the Taliban aims to strengthen its position and set the stage for future political negotiations.

The second goal may be “to strengthen the Taliban’s grip on the country’s population and factions. A conflict with Iran was meant to appeal to nationalism and ultra-sectarianism.”

Third, “the Afghan-Pakistani border has calmed in recent weeks. This suggests an Afghani agreement or a secret accord may have been reached with Pakistani officials, which is damning for the Taliban’s image at home. Thus, the latest Iran problem may be intended to distract public opinion.”

Fourth, and last, the Taliban may anticipate that their skirmishes with Iran would garner the approval of the US. They hope that such actions would lead to the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets and a gradual rapprochement between the Taliban and Washington.

“Given these four goals, the Taliban started this crisis to consolidate control at home and gain international prominence. Iran can only defend itself until the Taliban gives up,” Korybko maintains.

Taliban’s negotiations with Iran

Interestingly, just a week prior to the border clash, the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, assured Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian via phone that the Taliban government would meet its obligations under the 1973 treaty and reaffirmed its intention to resolve all issues through negotiation.

During the call, Amir-Abdollahian raised the issue of Iran’s water rights and warned that Iran’s water share of the Helmand River is a “serious demand” of Tehran that could undermine bilateral relations.

The top Iranian diplomat stressed the need for the full implementation of a 1973 water-sharing treaty between Iran and Afghanistan, under which Iran is annually entitled to receive 820 million cubic meters of water from the Helmand River.

He suggested that a joint technical committee analyze the state of Afghanistan’s water resources, given that due to decades of instability and conflicts in Afghanistan, the 1973 agreement has never been fully implemented.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan explains to The Cradle that drought conditions have persisted in both nations for the past decade:

“Ninety percent of Iran’s population and farmers may have experienced water scarcity. Afghanistan has the same problem. Iran and Afghanistan base their water distribution on the Helmand Water Sharing Agreement of 1973, which is similar to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan. According to Iran, Afghanistan is breaking the terms of its water sharing deal by not letting water flow to Iran.”

While negotiations between the two sides are ongoing, he says the question remains as to whether the Taliban will stand by the agreements signed by the previous Afghan government or renege on those promises.

“The war euphoria created with battle songs in Kabul and the fiery speeches made by hard-core Taliban militants is, of course, something to be worried about,” he adds.

‘We will conquer Tehran’

Tensions between Kabul and Tehran have reached such a height that Taliban officials have begun making aggressive statements in response to Tehran’s demand for a fair water distribution formula. General Mobeen, a member associated with the influential Haqqani network and spokesman for the Kabul security department, was quoted by local news outlet Afghanistan International, stating, “For every 10 liters of water, we need 20 liters of fuel from Iran. Iran owes us 75 billion US dollars for the water that flowed into Iran over the past 40 years.”

Online supporters of the Taliban have also contributed to the heated rhetoric on social media, recently sharing a song and video urging Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob – Afghanistan’s acting defense minister and son of the Taliban’s late founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar – to confront Iran.

The song emphasizes the necessity of standing up to the Islamic Republic, boldly proclaiming:

“We are a government; we have power … If we do not stand up to Iran, we will not be the government of the country, says our leader, Mullah Yaqoob. Our commander, Mullah Yaqoob, will stand up to Iran because we are not slaves.”

It is worth noting that even Taliban factions that had significant differences with the Taliban leadership have now emerged to issue threats against Iran. Abdul Hamid Khorasani, a former deputy police chief for central Panjsher province who faced allegations of murder, extortions, hostage-taking, and drug smuggling, released a video message that quickly went viral on social media.

In his message, Khorasani warned Iran not to underestimate the Taliban’s power, stating, “You are behind the curtain with the westerners; we are real Muslims; if the elders of the Islamic Emirates allow us, we will conquer Tehran.”

However, London-based Arabic daily Rai al-Youm warns of a sectarian agenda behind the new, escalatory rhetoric surrounding the water dispute. A 28 May editorial notes the dissatisfaction of certain external parties over the groundbreaking Iran-Saudi rapprochement, which has effectively sidelined negative Sunni-Shia narratives in the region, saying:

“The United States was defeated and lost more than two trillion dollars after twenty years of occupying Afghanistan. It now wants to retaliate by igniting a sectarian war between the Taliban Movement and its most dangerous enemy, Iran. Sadly, there are some Arab parties and even countries that support this blood-ridden scenario from behind the scene.”

Prioritizing water security

Water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan have a long history, dating back to the British rule of Afghanistan in the 1870s. During that time, a British officer demarcated the Iran-Afghanistan border at the main branch of the Helmand River.

Efforts to resolve the conflict began in 1939 when Reza Shah Pahlavi’s government in Iran and Mohammad Zahir Shah’s government in Afghanistan reached a convention on the distribution of the river’s waters. However, the Afghan government did not ratify this agreement.

In 1948, a new attempt to settle the water dispute took place in Washington. Iran and Afghanistan appointed a three-person commission to investigate the matter and provide recommendations, based on an American proposal. The Helmand River Delta Commission published its report on 28 February, 1951, proposing that Iran’s share of the Helmand waters should be twenty-two cubic meters per second.

A significant breakthrough was achieved in 1973 when Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveida and his Afghani counterpart Mohammad Musa Shafiq signed an agreement allowing for the transfer of 22 cubic meters of water per second from Afghanistan to Iran. It also offered the potential for Iran to receive an additional 4 cubic meters per second during “normal” water years. In return, Iran granted Afghanistan access to the ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar without further requirements.

However, various political and security circumstances in both countries hindered the ratification and full implementation of the agreement: The 1973 Afghanistan coup d’etat, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the subsequent rise of the Taliban in 1995.

The water dispute between Iran and Afghanistan persists, driven by a combination of geopolitical, and internal factors. De-escalation and diplomacy should be prioritized, as they serve the interests of both countries in reaching a mutually beneficial solution.

Kabul should also acknowledge Tehran’s recent statement expressing non-recognition of the government of the Islamic Emirate as a warning of more serious consequences if Iran’s water security continues to be undermined and disregarded.

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