Afghanistan-Iran border flares up spotlight

Norman Ray

Global Courant

Kajaki Hydroelectric Dam in Kajaki, Afghanistan in Helmand Province on June 4, 2018 in Kajaki, Afghanistan. (Photo by Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2018/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Orbital Horizon | Copernicus Sentinel Data 2018 | Gallo Images | Getty Images

Iran and Afghanistan are battling for control of a vital resource that is dwindling by the day: water.

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Violence along the border between the two tumultuous countries has flared in recent weeks, sparked by a dispute over the water flowing from Afghanistan’s Helmand River to Iran. Tehran says the Afghan Taliban government is deliberately depriving Iran of enough water supplies to support its own country; but the Taliban say there isn’t enough water to begin with, thanks to plummeting rainfall and river levels.

Iranian and Afghan border guards clashed on May 27 and exchanged heavy gunfire that killed two Iranian guards and a Taliban soldier and wounded several others. Both sides blame each other for provoking the fighting, which has brought back the spotlight on water issues in the region.

Risk of destabilization in Iran

The situation threatens to destabilize an already poor and water-poor part of Iran, which has seen serious anti-government protests in recent years.

“The water dispute with Afghanistan is not something Iran can take lightly,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, chief analyst for the Middle East and North Africa region at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC. “Iran’s water resources are under severe pressure and water scarcity has been a trigger for large-scale civil unrest in recent years.”

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the entrance gate of the Afghan-Iran border crossing bridge in Zaranj, February 18, 2022.

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Wakil Kohsar | Afp | Getty Images

In the summer of 2021, protests began in Iran’s western Khuzestan province over water shortages and subsequent power outages as hydroelectric power stations ran out of supplies. Dubbed “the uprising of the thirsty,” the demonstrations quickly spread to several cities in Iran, including the capital Tehran, sparking a heavy government crackdown that ended in both police and civilian casualties.

Struggling with US sanctions, a seriously weakened economy and an ongoing anti-government protest movement, Iran is already under great pressure. “With authorities still struggling to contain nationwide protests,” Soltvedt said, “a water security crisis in eastern Iran would come at a particularly bad time.”

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A dangerous frontier

The 580-mile border between Afghanistan and Iran is porous and teeming with crime, which enters Iran mainly from the Afghan side. Afghanistan has been plagued by instability and war, and rule, for decades The Taliban government derives a significant portion of its revenue from illegal trade.

“Iran’s Afghan border has always been the most vulnerable,” said Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. It plays host to “a number of problems, including narcotics smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism” — but at the same time is a very important source for water, Alam said.

In this photo, taken on February 17, 2022, Afghan migrants drive in pickup trucks along a desert road toward the Afghanistan-Iran border in Nimruz.

Wakil Kohsar | Afp | Getty Images

The water tensions between the two countries go way back. In the 1950s, Afghanistan built two large dams that restricted the flow of water from the Helmand River to Iran. This angered Tehran and threatened relations, eventually leading to the signing of a treaty in 1973 that allocated Iran 850 million cubic meters of Helmand water annually.

But subsequent revolutions, invasions, wars and dramatic changes of government in both countries meant that the treaty was never fully implemented.

“Since the water treaty between the two in 1973, they have come close to war on a number of occasions as various Afghan governments used Iran’s vulnerability to water as leverage for bilateral issues,” Alam said.

Climate change and increasing threats

Scientists have long warned that climate change increases the risk of wars and refugee crises as countries fight over the natural resources they need to live.

“The disagreements over water allocations for the Helmand River are difficult to overcome as neither country has the ability to bring more water to the region,” said Ryan Bohl, a senior analyst for the Middle East and North Africa at Rane. “It’s already an extremely dry area, but issues like climate change and over-building make it even worse.”

“In a sense,” he said, “it’s a classic driver of conflict, a competition for a scarce resource that neither side can do without.”

A general view of the hydroelectric Kajaki Dam in Kajaki, northeast of Helmand Province, Afghanistan on March 21, 2021.

Wakil Kohsar | Afp | Getty Images

In mid-May, a Taliban press release expressed Afghanistan’s support for the 1973 treaty, but said: “Since there has been a drought in Afghanistan and the region in recent years and the water level has dropped, the country’s provinces are suffering from drought and there is not enough water. In such a situation, we consider Iran’s frequent demand for water and inappropriate statements in the media as harmful.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in response told Afghan leaders to take his words “very seriously”, saying: “I am warning the rulers of Afghanistan to protect the rights of the people in (the Iranian border regions of) Sistan and to give Baluchistan immediately.” A Taliban commander hit back saying there was no water for them to give Iran and warned “Don’t attack us. We’re not afraid.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Havana, Cuba on June 15, 2023.

Yamil Lage | Afp | Getty Images

Tehran subsequently issued a statement stressing that it does not recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s governing body. The back-and-forth traffic only heightened tensions, with some worrying that May’s shooting at the border could be a sign of worse.

Rane’s Bohl expects the problem to fester, as “water scarcity is a very complicated problem that requires extensive and expensive investment in infrastructure to solve it, neither of which can solve heavily sanctioned Iran or Afghanistan,” he said.

He expects the flare-ups between the two to continue, as well as continued interruptions to Afghanistan’s water supply – bad news for an already desperately impoverished country.

That “could hurt Afghanistan’s agricultural output over time and harm its already weak economy and exacerbate food shortages,” Bohl said.

Afghanistan-Iran border flares up spotlight

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