Resources & Climate

Transboundary Water Sharing: Iran and Afghanistan

in Program

By Andrew Houk – The ability to harness Afghanistan’s rivers for hydropower and agriculture is a critical element of its economic development, but it also risks reducing flows for its downstream neighbors. In the third spotlight of a series examining Iran-Afghan relations, we consider Iran’s dilemma between its water security and the development and stability of its neighbor.

For millennia, the rivers formed in the mountains of central Afghanistan have sustained life in its western territories.  In an otherwise arid region, the control of water has been a point of tension since the modern borders were established in the mid-nineteenth century.  Five rivers comprise this relationship:

  • The Helmand, Farah, Khash, and Ardaskan (Harut) rivers run south-west and meet on the border to form the Hamun Lakes in the Sistan Basin near Zabol, Iran.
  • The Harirud (Tejen) river flows westward before bending north to define the Iran-Afghan border, eventually emptying into Turkmenistan.

Afghanistan lacks the ability to fully exploit its rivers. After thirty years of war, the existing water infrastructure has eroded. This deficit in water management capacity exacts a heavy toll, exacerbating unemployment, food insecurity, water disputes, and the production of crops that can compete with illicit drugs. Without the means to store and divert water, existing infrastructure is vulnerable to devastating seasonal floods and droughts. Afghanistan also needs electricity, which only reaches 6 percent of its rural communities and 15 percent of its urban population.

Infrastructure and water management are thus a key part of the Afghan National Development Strategy. At least five major projects promise to transform the economies in their surrounding areas; all have been delayed due to Taliban attacks.

At the same time, Afghanistan’s development has consequences for Iran’s eastern provinces.

On Iran’s southeast border, Afghanistan’s rivers replenish the Hamun lakes which provide nearly one million Iranians with water for drinking, crops, and protein (fish and animal fodder) as well as flushing accumulated salt from the lakebeds and moderating the climate.  When an extended drought completely evaporated the lakes in 2001, the ecosystem collapsed, unemployment rose, and 124 villages were abandoned as sandstorms blasted the region.

In northeast Iran, 3.4 million Iranians rely on the Harirud river basin for water. This includes the population of Mashhad (2.4 million), who depend on water pumped 182 km from the reservoir of the Doosti dam to supplement their declining ground water levels strained by a tenfold growth in population.

Already managing the challenges of refugees, drug trafficking, and restive minority populations, additional food and water scarcity, unemployment, and human migration would further destabilize Iran’s eastern provinces.

Historically, cooperation and trust between Iran and Afghanistan on the issue of water has been limited.  With the exception of an unbinding 1973 water accord that defined an acceptable rate of discharge from the Helmand, there are no formal water-sharing agreements. Trust was further eroded when the accord was breached by Afghanistan during a drought from 1998 and 2002. The development of more water infrastructure in Afghanistan, unbounded by agreements, will increase Iran’s vulnerability.

To secure its water interests, Iran appears to have adopted a paradoxical strategy similar those observed in Lebanon and Iraq. While pursing its interests through legal channels, it has employed less legitimate operations to serve as reminders in Kabul and Washington not to disappoint Tehran. 

Iran’s official policy is to reach formal agreements and to pursue the benefits of cooperation, such as flood and drought control, political stability, and regional economic development.  Since 2003, Iran has entered into a UN partnership to protect the Hamun lakes and established an Iran-Afghan commission to negotiate the discharge flow of the Helmand River. In late 2010 energy ministers from Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan agreed to establish a tripartite “supreme water council” that will reconvene in Tehran in April 2011.  

At the same time, there are reports that Iran may be using the Taliban as proxies to disrupt Afghanistan’s water projects. Many local Afghans believe that attacks on construction sites are enabled by Iran. Both the provincial governor and police chief of Farah have publically claimed to have intelligence implicating Iran, and caches of Iranian manufactured arms and explosives have been found in the vicinity of the dams. These speculations are also consistent with US reports that Iran’s Qods Forces have provided select Taliban with limited training, arms, and plastic explosives since 2006.

Iran’s collaboration with the Taliban, despite the political risks, is indicative of its urgency to enter into binding water sharing agreements while Afghanistan’s water management capacity is low.  At a time when Iran is weakened by international isolation, Tehran not only jeopardizes relations with India (the funder and contractor for the Salma dam), but also its endeavors to export electricity and hydropower stations to Afghanistan. 

Despite Tehran’s surreptitious approach, its water security concerns are legitimate and deserve serious consideration. Moving forward, intentional steps to address Iran’s concerns would be a productive start toward an optimal regional solution, the development of equitable water management regulated by legal cooperation agreements.  


 Photo Credit:  Band-e Amir Lake in the central mountains of the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, October 2007 (By AfghanistanMatters)




Referenced Works:

Afghanistan Environment Report, (UNEP) 2008

Making the Most of Afghanistan’s River Basins: Opportunities for Regional Cooperation. By Matthew King and Benjamin Sturtewagen. (EastWest Center). February 2010

Water Security and Scarcity: Potential Destabilization in Western Afghanistan. By Alex Dehgan and  Laura Jean Palmer-Moloney (a Joint White Paper by SMA and USACE), January 2010


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