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A water war between Afghanistan and Iran

A water war between Afghanistan and Iran
Clashes erupted once again between Afghan and Iranian border security forces in the Afghan border province of Nimruz on 27 May 2023, resulting in the deaths of two Iranian security forces and one Taliban border guard. Both sides blamed each other for the incident, with the Taliban accusing Iran of firing first and Iran accusing the Taliban of violating a water-sharing treaty. The clashes are the latest in a series of tensions between Afghanistan and Iran. In recent months, Iran has accused the Taliban of violating a 1973 water-sharing treaty between the two countries by blocking water flow from the Helmand River, which flows from Afghanistan to arid eastern border regions of Iran, a powerful regional player with a long history of involvement in Afghanistan. The Taliban is a relatively new and untested government, and it is unclear how it will respond to the challenges it faces from Iran and other regional powers. The situation in Afghanistan is complex and volatile. Despite their relatively peaceful relationship and lack of significant territorial conflicts, Afghanistan and Iran are facing an escalating dispute over the distribution of water resources from the Helmand, a crucial water source supporting essential functions such as irrigation, agriculture, and drinking water for both the countries. Over the past years, the river basin has encountered a series of droughts, compounded by impacts of climate change, posing challenges for both sides in effective management of the water source. Afghanistan’s act of constructing the Kamal Khan dam near the Iran border has exacerbated the situation. Iran, currently facing critical water shortages in 270 cities, has expressed concerns about this dam and there are reports of potential missile strikes to destroy it. This escalating situation raises the possibility of a full-fledged war over water, which could go down in history. A network of dams

The construction of dams on the Helmand River poses a complex challenge with wide-ranging implications, especially for Iran as a downstream country heavily dependent on the river for its water supply. Afghanistan has built multiple dams along the Helmand, mainly to meet irrigation and hydropower needs. These dams have given rise to significant concerns regarding water control, environmental impact, and regional security dynamics. Some of the major dams along the river are as follows:

  1. Built in 1945, Grishk Dam has a power generation capacity of  1.2 MW.
  2. Built in Kajaki district of Helmand province in 1953, Kajaki Dam has a power generation capacity of 151 MW.
  3. Built near the border with Iran in 2021, Kamal Khan Dam has a power generation capacity of 9 MW.
It’s important to note that not all dams have a similar impact. Their effects are contingent upon factors such as dam design, operation, and the level of cooperation between upstream and downstream countries in managing water resources.

Water as a political tool Tensions have exacerbated between Afghanistan and Iran over the river, with Iran accusing Afghanistan of using the river as a political tool, suggesting that Afghanistan is manipulating water flow to exert pressure on Iran. In Afghanistan, there is already a backlash against Iran due to its treatment of Afghan refugees and forced repatriation of migrants. Some in Afghanistan posit that Iran is leveraging the refugee issue to put pressure on Afghanistan, prompting Afghanistan to consider using water as a leverage to improve Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees. This complex interplay highlights how shared water resources can intersect with political agendas and humanitarian concerns, potentially leading to strained relations and negotiations between neighboring states. Impact on India and China Tensions between Afghanistan and Iran can have significant implications for India and China, considering their respective interests and investments in the region. India has enjoyed positive relations with both countries and has made substantial investments in Afghanistan, including the construction of the Salma Dam. In Iran, India has invested in the development of the Chabahar Port, which holds strategic importance for trade and connectivity. Any conflict or dispute between Afghanistan and Iran could disrupt India’s ongoing projects, impact economic interests, and jeopardize regional stability, prompting India to prioritize the prevention of such conflicts. China has been actively expanding its influence in Afghanistan and Iran through investments in infrastructure projects and its Belt and Road Initiative. China's long-term plans in the region could be affected by tensions or conflicts. Both India and China have vested interests in avoiding any water-related conflict or war as it can put their investments at risk and disrupt the overall peace and stability of the region. Conclusion The Afghan-Iran dispute over water has regional implications that can transcend beyond borders, with political factors often complicating the situation further. It is important to prioritize collaboration over competition and focus on long-term water management strategies that ensure equitable and sustainable use of resources. The water crisis between Afghanistan and Iran is a significant challenge that, if left unresolved, can escalate into a conflict over water resources. However, it is important to note that there are viable pathways to address this crisis. Ultimately, the way forward requires a combination of diplomatic efforts, sustainable water management practices, and regional cooperation to ensure the equitable and sustainable utilization of shared water resources. By addressing these challenges proactively and collaboratively, Afghanistan and Iran can promote peace, stability, and mutual benefits and the wider region. The author is the Director of Research at the Indo-Pacific Consortium of Raisina House, New Delhi. He tweets @The_China_Chap. Views expressed are personal