Both Iran and Afghanistan have suffered from prolonged droughts over the last several years. In Afghanistan, the worst drought in decades directly affected two-thirds of the country in 2018-19. Around ten million Afghans were severely impacted by the drought and at least 300,000 were displaced as a result. Afghanistan’s water scarcity situation is driven by a mixture of human and environmental factors. While climate change and other climate-related hazards have intensified water scarcity, human interventions have been a key driver. Unsustainable agricultural and livestock-rearing practices, budgetary deficits, years of conflict and a lack of drought management institutions have all played a role.
Increasingly frequent droughts are causing tension between Afghanistan and Iran over control of surface water resources. The Helmand River is a particular source of discontent between the two countries, with each claiming that the other takes more water than they have the right to under a 1973 water-sharing agreement. According to Iran, Afghanistan’s two hydroelectric dams have reduced water flows across the border, reduced its share of water from the river and damaged the environment. Afghanistan, meanwhile, contends that Iran is drawing more than the 26 cubic metres per second it is allocated under the agreement, by diverting water into man-made lakes.
In 2014, Afghanistan sought to prioritise the development of its water resources and the development of dams. Iran and Pakistan, its downstream (and drought-prone) neighbours, were less enthusiastic about this development, seeing it as a threat to their own economic goals. There has been suspicion in the past that Iran has supported the Taliban, partly to try and disrupt Afghanistan’s dam-building aspirations. Iran has given aid to the Taliban in the past (though their support has been less extensive than their support to Shia-backed groups), which lends credibility to the theory.
In the past, there have been encouraging signs that Iran and Afghanistan may one day co-operate over trans-boundary water issues. The Helmand River Commissioners Delegation was created several years ago and meets on a quarterly basis to promote water co-operation. Similarly, both countries have made an effort to rehabilitate the Hamoun wetlands, which straddles the Afghan-Iranian border. While these steps have shown that the two countries are capable of co-operating over water issues, mistrust is still high on both sides.
While Tehran has generally been supportive of development in Afghanistan, particularly when it would be beneficial for Iran, its need for water has undermined its otherwise pragmatic Afghan development policy. Kabul, meanwhile, has little reason to wish to negotiate the current agreement, as any negotiations could lead to the country retaining a lesser share of water that it desperately needs for economic development (the Afghan economy is largely agrarian). Afghanistan also contends that it does not have the capacity to measure inflows and outflows, thanks to a thirty-year gap in measuring data, weak technical capacity and a lack of personnel trained in international law and negotiation. That argument might be a stalling tactic, however, as the United States has offered to provide negotiators to argue Kabul’s side.
Although mistrust over water issues is high between Afghanistan and Iran, both countries urgently need to rethink their water management practices. Iran’s intensive agricultural practices have caused significant ecological damage and are key drivers of its water insecurity. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s capacity to develop sustainable practices has been hampered by decades of conflict. The uncontrolled use of water and a lack of consideration for riparians could fuel further tensions, especially when there are high levels of water stress on both sides. As long as Afghanistan and Iran fail to find sustainable solutions to their trans-boundary water dispute, these tensions will continue into the future.