The Politics of Water Security between Afghanistan and Iran

1 March 2012 FDI Team

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Key Points

  • Increasing development and water consumption in upstream Afghanistan negatively affects water supply to Iran, thereby exacerbating latent tensions between the two countries.
  • Iran perceives the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Afghan side of the basins as a direct security threat.
  • There is no active agreement between Iran and Afghanistan over the management of shared water resources in the Helmand and Harirod-Murghab river basins.
  • It is unlikely these points of friction will be resolved without concerted and proactive collaboration between the two countries.
  • In addition to political tensions, climactic changes alter patterns of water flow and availability in the shared basins, leading some farmers to claim that insufficient water supply encourages them to plant poppy, a hardy crop.
  • Increasing human strain on the Sistan wetlands due to mass migrations is unsustainable and may lead to a major environmental disaster.



Disagreements between Afghanistan and Iran over the sharing of the Helmand River have been brewing since the ‘Great Game’ of the 19th century. Back then the problem was considered dual – that of border delineation and the respective shares of the two countries in the waters of the Helmand[i]. Today the problem of transboundary water management festers beneath the otherwise cordial relationship between Afghanistan and Iran. The points of friction now also encompass the other shared water resource, the Harirod-Murghab basin. At stake are the livelihoods of the inhabitants of both basins, the environmental integrity of the region, especially the volatile Sistan wetlands, and the development of hydro-electric power from these shared rivers.

This paper provides an introduction into the complexities of some of these bilateral issues.

The Helmand River Basin

The Helmand River Basin is home to more than seven million people[ii]. The Helmand River originates in the Paghman Mountains northwest of Kabul and flows 1,150km to Iran. The Helmand River Basin constitutes some 45 per cent of Afghanistan’s surface area but the river contributes only around 10 per cent of the country’s total water resources[iii]. Of that contribution, some 97 per cent is used in the agricultural sector on the Afghan side of the border and around 80 per cent on the Iranian side[iv]. Yet the amount of irrigated land in the Helmand River Basin is limited by a lack of sufficient dams and reservoirs to control the water flow during dry and wet years. Some farmers have claimed that insufficient water supply encourages them to plant poppy, a hardy crop[v].

Afghanistan River Systems