Iran presses Afghanistan's Taliban to uphold water-sharing agreement

Iran presses Afghanistan's Taliban to uphold water-sharing agreement
Afghanistan is drying out Iran's Sistan and Baluchistan province in power move. / CC: NASA
By bne Tehran bureau April 24, 2024

An Iranian environmental official has accused the Afghan Taliban of intentionally redirecting overflow waters of the shared Hirmand River to prevent its inflow into Iran’s Hamoun wetlands.

Drought is causing significant problems across Iran, but the areas with the most pressing issues are Sistan and Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan. The situation has become so bad between the two neighbours previously Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited the province and issued a “warning to the rulers of Afghanistan that they should immediately honour the water rights of the people of Sistan and Baluchistan.” Raisi also told the Taliban to “take my words very seriously so that you won’t complain later.”

Arezou Ashrafizadeh, director for wetland revival at Iran’s Department of Environment, said despite good rains in the Hirmand basin in Afghanistan and the river’s rise to flood stage, manipulations in the upstream have prevented the waters from flowing along its natural course toward Iran Hamshahri daily reported on April 24.

Tehran and Kabul have been engaged in a dispute over rights to the Hirmand River (known as Helmand in Afghanistan), which originates from the Hindu Kush mountains in east-central Afghanistan and empties into the Hamoun wetlands in Iran.

Iran depends on the waters both for irrigation and preservation of the Hamoun wetlands, but Afghanistan’s construction of dams and weirs in the upstream, particularly the Kamal Khan Dam that was completed in 2021, has disrupted the inflow of the much-needed water.

Conflicts have intensified in recent years as drought conditions prevail, with Iran accusing Afghanistan of violating a 1973 treaty and urging its rulers to release the waters.

The Taliban blame the situation on climate change, claiming that lack of rainfall and a severe drought were responsible for the lack of water flowing to Iran. This is while Afghanistan has experienced days of flash floods in the past week, allowing only a meagre amount to flow downstream.

Satellite images show that Hirmand’s overflow water has been rerouted toward Godzareh Depression, covering 400 cubic metres of the salty lands with fresh water.

The water could have revived the Hamoun and prevented the valuable ecosystem from dying and turning into a source of dust storms.

Ashrafizadeh said Hirmand’s water should naturally enter Iran and feed the Hamoun Wetlands before returning to Afghanistan and reaching Godzareh, which is located at the end of the catchment area.

Godzareh is a salt marsh with no ecological value, on which no livelihood has historically depended, according to Ashrafizadeh.

Hamoun, on the other hand, is of high ecological importance as a biosphere reserve inscribed in the Ramsar Convention, she added.

She condemned the Afghan rulers’ intentional diversion of the waters, saying it was a violation of international law. “They should be asked for what purpose they do this,” she said.

Iranian environmental officials, as well as the foreign ministry, have been negotiating and corresponding with the Taliban, but apparently to no avail so far.

The Taliban are unnerving all their neighbours to their west and north following large projects to collect water.

In August 2023, the presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan gathered for an unprecedented summit in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat to discuss the Taliban’s actions to build the Qosh Tepa canal project.

The three countries are connected by the Amu Darya, the river that also marks out most of Central Asia’s border with southern neighbour Afghanistan. For decades Central Asia has drawn water from the Amu Darya for agricultural purposes, but for the first time, Afghanistan plans to do the same.

Climate change is already affecting South and Central Asia. The region has seen record temperatures the past three summers, accompanied by decreasing precipitation and melting glaciers in the eastern mountains.

In May 2023, shooting broke out along Sistan and Baluchistan’s border with Afghanistan that left at least two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter dead. There has been no further shooting, but the issue is not resolved between the two parties.

The deadly skirmish along the Iranian-Afghan border is an example of the Taliban’s uncompromising stance on water issues and something that the Central Asian neighbours will have to keep in mind when they speak with the Taliban about water from the Amu Darya.