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The water rights dispute behind rising Afghan-Iran tensions

Satellite imagery shows that Afghanistan’s Kamal Khan and Kajaki dams currently hold larger water reserves than in previous years, though experts on the Afghan side say precipitation levels – not water reserves – determine Iran’s share of the water.

On May 27, 2023, at least two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter were killed after clashes erupted near a border post between Iran and Afghanistan. Both sides accused the other of shooting first. While the cause of the clash is still unknown, it is set against the backdrop of an ongoing water dispute between the two countries.

Tensions recently arose between Iranian and Taliban authorities over water supplies from Afghanistan’s Helmand River – known as the Hirmand River on the Iranian side – to Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan province, with Iran accusing the Taliban of violating the 1973 Helmand River Treaty.


Initial statements


On May 18, a video of the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi surfaced on Twitter, in which he emphasised Iran’s right to water from the Helmand River and warned the Taliban “to take his words seriously and do not complain later that we were not told.” The video is reportedly from Raisi’s trip to Sistan-Balochistan on May 18. In the video, Raisi added, “If there is water, the people's right should be given, and we will not allow it to be wasted.”

Raisi’s statement provoked reactions from the Taliban. The Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid, tweeted an official statement on May 18, stating that the Taliban were committed to fulfilling the commitments made under the 1973 Helmand River Treaty. Mujahid added that “Iranian officials should first complete their information about Helmand water and then express their demand with appropriate words.” The Taliban also mentioned in the statement that due to the drought in Afghanistan and the region, water levels have decreased in the river, causing water shortages.

Following the Taliban’s official statement, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on May 19, calling the Taliban statement “contradictory and inaccurate”, adding that “any comments regarding lowered water levels in the Helmand Sea are not acceptable unless the experts of the Islamic Republic of Iran are allowed to visit the route and upstream of the river according to the Hirmand Treaty.


Regional tensions over water supplies became apparent in media and social media from May 18 onwards. However, according to Iran’s Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian, the issue has been on the table for months. According to the foreign ministries, the two sides had a phone call on May 17 to discuss the water issue. Media reported Iran’s concerns, including comments from the country’s Minister of Water and Energy, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, on days preceding May 18.

In parallel with the escalation of tensions, the Taliban reportedly renewed the construction of the Bakhsh Abad Dam in Farah province on May 20. The Taliban’s Economic Deputy Prime Minister, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, reportedly spoke at the opening ceremony of the dam’s tunnel construction.


Iran’s stance

Iranian authorities have taken a direct stance, accusing the Taliban of non-compliance with the Helmand Water Treaty. Specifically, they have alleged that the Taliban has failed to release water from the Kajaki Dam, situated in the Kajaki district of Helmand province along the Helmand River. Furthermore, they have insisted that the Taliban permit a visit by Iranian experts to assess the current water level at the dam.


On May 18, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Amirabdollahian, tweeted: “In recent months, I have repeatedly asked the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, Mulla Mattaqi, to fulfil his obligations according to the Hirmand Agreement and provide the possibility of visiting technical delegations and measuring the water level, which they did not. Sistan is suffering from drought. The lack of water was a technical and objective visit, not a political statement.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with media on May 18, Amirabdollahian said, “The president of this country has ordered us to use any means to solve the problem of Iran's claim to the Helmand River.”


A similar reaction came from the Iranian Ambassador and Special Representative of the Iranian President to Afghanistan, Hassan Kazemi Qomi. According to a report by the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) from May 19, Qomi reiterated in an interview that if there was water and the Taliban did not release it, they should be held accountable. Qomi has reportedly said that “according to the Hirmand Agreement, 820 million cubic metres of water should enter Iran from Afghanistan in rainy years, but last year the country received only 27 million cubic metres of water.”


The Taliban’s stance


The Taliban have declared their commitment to the Helmand Water Treaty, pointing to drought in Afghanistan and the region as the main factor preventing them from supplying water to Iran. However, they have so far rejected the idea of Iranian experts visiting the dams, as requested by Iranian officials.


Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi talked about the issue at the commemoration ceremony of the killing of the late Taliban Supreme Leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. The Taliban’s Deputy Spokesman, Hafiz Zia Ahmad, tweeted Muttaqi’s remarks in two parts on May 22. Muttaqi also reiterated that the Taliban are committed to the Helmand River Treaty. Furthermore, he indicated that “there was no water in the Kamal Khan Dam” and called on the Iranian government “not to politicise the vital issue of water.”


The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Taliban, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, recently participated in an interview with Afghanistan International on May 22. During the interview, he reiterated the Taliban's commitment to the water treaty and acknowledged that the ongoing drought had resulted in insufficient water in the Helmand River. However, he also claimed that Iran had benefitted from the Helmand River three to four times more than what was agreed upon in the water treaty during the 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan. In addition, Stanikzai said that military centres and dams are sensitive areas, and the Taliban does not accept visits from "foreign delegates."


The Taliban Spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid also told BBC Pashtu that the Helmand Water Treaty did not cover the proposed visit of Iranian experts to the dams.


The Taliban’s senior and high-ranking authorities have been diplomatic in their approach and lenient in their language. However, low-ranking Taliban and their supporters have reacted differently.


A video by former Taliban official and social media influencer Mobeen Khan gained the most attention. In the video, Mobeen Khan ridiculed the Iranian president's remarks or “warning”, saying, “There is no water in Helmand. We will get them clean water from Logar. But don’t warn us as we get scared.” He adds: “Mr President, don’t attack us. There is no water. Here, I will bring you a bucket of water.” In the video, Mobeen Khan has a yellow bucket of water in hand and stands near a water reservoir. The video was shared on a Youtube channel, attributed to Mobeen Khan, and widely disseminated on social media.


Meanwhile, on May 20, an account attributed to the Taliban’s District Chief for the Ahmad District of Paktia province, Abdul Hamid Khurasani Badri, tweeted: “It's been a long time since we fought. We're hungover. May the grace of God allow us to face Zoroaster's generation [referring to Iranians] on the battlefield. We will teach them a lesson again, God willing. The countries that did not learn from the failure of the West should be taught a lesson.”


The Taliban reportedly ousted Khurasani shortly after, though, in an interview with Hasht-e-Subh Daily, he claimed he resigned due to “internal disagreements with the Taliban leadership.”

After several days of tensions, Iranian authorities reportedly met with the Taliban on May 22; however, there was no information about the discussions during the meeting.


Satellite imagery shows water build-up, but drought ongoing


At 1,300 kilometres, the Helmand River is Afghanistan’s longest river and the only one where Afghanistan has stipulated a formal agreement with a neighbouring country. However, among the various dams constructed on the Helmand River within Afghan territory, the Kajaki and Khamal Khan dams have recently emerged as focal points of discussion and concern raised by Iranian authorities.


On May 18, the Spokesperson of the Iranian Space Agency, Hossein Dalirian, tweeted that satellite imagery findings show that Afghan authorities have prevented water from reaching Iran by diverting the water path and creating numerous dams in certain areas. He also declared their readiness to share the data with the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Meanwhile, claims supported by satellite imagery have surfaced on social media, showing more water reserves in the Kajaki Dam this year than last year.


AW analysts obtained satellite imagery of the two dams in May 2021, 2022 and 2023. Comparing the images below, there seems to be more water storage in the Kajaki Dam this year than in 2021.


Figure: Satellite imagery of Kajaki Dam on May 20, 2021 (left) and May 20, 2023 (right).


Similarly, images of Kamal Khan Dam (below) from May 2021, 2022 and 2023 show more water reserves in the dam in 2023 than last year. The figure below compares the water reverses in the dam on May 20, 2021 (left) versus May 20, 2023 (right).


Figure: Satellite imagery of Kamal Khan Dam on May 20, 2021 (left) versus May 20, 2023 (right).


The figure below is satellite imagery of the same dam in May last year, showing less water in the area compared to May this year and May 2021.


Figure: Satellite imagery of Kamal Khan Dam on May 20, 2022.


Some experts on the Afghan side believe that based on the water treaty between the countries, the amount of water reserves does not necessarily determine Iran’s water share. Instead, they believe the determining factor is the amount of precipitation and rainfall. Afghanistan has experienced heavy drought since 2021, attributed to the La Niña phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which has meant drier and warmer wet seasons. According to USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network, precipitation deficits between October 1, 2022, to January 31, 2023, were as large as 25 to 40 percent of average, limiting the build-up of reserves in glaciers, snow and ice which can feed irrigation in spring and summer.


Afghan Witness will continue to monitor the situation.

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