AFGHAN DAM GENERATES ELECTRICITY, HOPE, AND TENSION OVER WATER RIGHTS AT THE AFGHANI-IRANIAN BORDER
BY BRANKA ANDJELKOVIC AND HUMAYOON BABUR
Source: The pasific council magazine
translated in farsi: shershah nawabi
Nizamuddin Khan, 35, an Afghani shopkeeper, survives on 200 afghani ($2.59) per day. He lives on the outskirts of Zaranj, the capital city of Nimruz, where nearly half of all residents face a shortage of potable water and agriculture. The province is located in the southwestern part of Afghanistan to the east of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province. Khan has five children. He pays 50 afghani ($0.83) each day for water access on behalf of his nine family members. His children are attending primary and secondary school. He said there is “no water at school, I have to buy it. Otherwise, [the money] should be paid for their medications.”
On Wednesday, February 3, Kamal Khan Dam (KKD) reservoir filled with water. Afghans across the country were applauding, but four decades into the prolonged war-ravaged country it is slim progress. The $250 million infrastructure project is located in Chahar Burjak District on the Helmand River and it could irrigate 174,000 hectares of desert land and generate 9 megawatts. It also raises water disputes with Iran.
“[The] agriculture sector will be developed in Nimruz, business activities will also increase, and jobs will be created for the people,” said Zmarial Ahadi, governor of Nimruz province.
“I am very happy today as I saw the waves of Kamal Khan and a 700-year-old dream of Afghanistan was accomplished today,” said Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan.
Ghani’s “hydro-diplomacy” and managing water resources is having a big impact as his fragile state strives for stability and looks to mitigate escalation with Iran and Pakistan over water scarcity. Nizam Khpulwak, the Afghanistan National Water Affairs Regulation Authority spokesman, said that the dam will officially open in the next few days. Mohammad Ibrahim Amini, a resident of Nimruz, said, “This is a moment of happiness. This is good news for farmers because we will have water in every season to expand our agricultural production and get rid of foreign products.”
FROM WAR OF WORDS TO CONFRONTATIONS OVER WATER ALLOCATION AND AVAILABILITY
Afghanistan and Iran signed a water treaty in 1973 over sharing the Helmand’s transboundary water. Based on this agreement, Iran’s share is 22 cubic meters of water per second. Recently, climate change has affected water capacity, spiking tensions, and the Helmand River has become the epicenter of a growing aggravation between the two countries.
“We cannot be indifferent to what is destroying our environment. The construction of numerous dams in Afghanistan, such as Kajaki, Kamal Khan, Salma, and others in the north and south of Afghanistan, affects our Khurasan and Sistan-Baluchistan province,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani incorrectly asserted at a conference on combating sand and dust storms in July 2017.
Mohammad Assem Mayar, Ph.D., a lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University and a researcher at the University of Stuttgart in water resources management, said that Rouhani’s reference was to the Euphrates River, which significantly reduced Iraq’s water supply and carried winds from Iraq to Iran. The wind corridor between Iran and Afghanistan is from north to south. It does not transport dust to Iran.
“It could create an opportunity to cooperate on the problem itself, as Afghanistan can sell the water for a while to Iran,” Mayar said. “The dam can also prevent dust storms in the area.”
Afghan officials have alleged that Iran used the Taliban to attempt to stall the construction of Kamal Khan Dam in October 2020. At least six security personnel were killed in an attack by the Taliban,” said Nizam Khpulwak, spokesman for the National Water Management Authority.
In 2011, a Taliban commander reportedly claimed that Iran offered him $50,000 to blow up the dam. In an email, Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said, “With the completion of the Kamal Khan Dam, we are very happy. The construction of the dam is an important infrastructure for the future and prosperity of Afghanistan.” Mujahid added, “Islamic Emirate is committed to maintaining the country’s public facilities and considers it its duty to protect it.”
AFGHANI PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI’S “HYDRO-DIPLOMACY” IS HAVING A BIG IMPACT AS HIS FRAGILE STATE STRIVES FOR STABILITY AND LOOKS TO MITIGATE ESCALATION WITH IRAN AND PAKISTAN OVER WATER SCARCITY.
Further, Iran needs more water from Afghanistan for environmental purposes, said Abbas Araghchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister for political affairs, in a July 19 interview with TOLOnews, the nationwide channel.
“There is a water right for Iran, and there is a water right for Afghanistan, and there is a water right for nature,” Araghachi said.
In the past, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a speech in the Iranian Parliament, warned of reciprocity against Afghanistan over the issue of water rights should Afghanistan continue to disregard Iran’s demands. “At this point in time, we are left with one option, and that’s reciprocity; that is, to take tough measures in certain areas of Afghanistan,” Zarif said. Perhaps he is referring to putting more pressure on Afghan refugees in Iran.
It is not the first time Iran is threatening their sovereign neighbor to the east, Afghanistan, for unreasonable demands regarding sharing water from the Helmand River.
Abdul Farid Zikria, president of OBO Water & Energy Engineering, who holds a Master’s in Nuclear Engineering, and former Afghanistan ambassador twice to the UAE, said that from the onset of the 1973 treaty, Iran knew that one day Afghanistan would be able to manage the flow of the Helmand River.
“Unfortunately for us, we were not able to manage the flow of the Helmand River due to various conflicts in the country,” he said.
He added that Iran could easily get more water if they pay Afghanistan a fair price. Many countries in the world offer their excess water for a mutually agreeable price.
“We buy oil from Iran, and Iran can buy water from us. I don’t see any need for deterioration of the relations between two countries,” Zikira said.
Water management is an essential element of Afghanistan’s strategy for its economic development. The country cannot afford to witness nearly 79 percent of its waters flowing into neighboring countries while suffering economically by importing three-quarters of its electricity and a significant portion of its food needs from its neighbors.
WATER MANAGEMENT IS AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF AFGHANISTAN’S STRATEGY FOR ITS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.
“Iran should respect and honor the terms of the treaty and stop the blame game on others for their own failed water management strategies,” Zikira said.
Following the country’s provisions of the 1973 treaty, the flow of Helmand River is considered the “lifeline of water” in Afghanistan and covers nearly 40 percent of the surface areas of the country.
The Helmand River’s flow to Iran is conditional on the annual state of water, climate conditions, and rainfall. The parties can build mutually agreed upon facilities in compliance with the parties’ share specified in the treaty.
“A number of dams were constructed and water pumps installed that have never been agreed upon by the Afghan side,” Zikira said. He added that for nearly 45 years since the water treaty has been signed, Iran has been getting up to three times more water from the Helmand River than it is allowed.
He said the Iranian officials’ understanding of justice is unclear. “Disregarding the terms of a treaty is not considered preservation of justice by any book of law. I am certain that the Iranian officials are well aware of Afghanistan’s proud history.” If “reciprocating measures” such as the expulsion of refugees or more support to armed groups are used as scare tactics, the sign of which “we are already witnessing,” it should be clear that “Afghan people will never succumb to injustice and unreasonable demands or pressures.” However, in situations where there is no rationale, reasoning, or legal justification, threatening statements also mean a breach of legal obligations, non-observance of the principle of good neighborliness, and bullying.
Zikira noted that Iran should use the established mechanisms included in the agreement’s provision to resolve the disputed issues. “After more than four decades, the Afghan government is seriously trying to bring change to the lives of its people, and a successful implementation of any agreement requires both sides to fully adhere to the terms of their deal.”
AFGHANISTAN PLUNGES INTO DROUGHT
Afghanistan experienced extreme droughts in 2018, and an estimated 13.5 million Afghans remain severely food insecure. A third of Afghans have migrated or been displaced since 2012. In recent years, the rainfall pattern has been changing due to deforestation, environmental degradation in a fragile ecological setting, and decades of conflict. Two out of three patches of glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains have melted. Snowfall is replaced by rainfall. Flash floods severely damage farmers and inhabitants; old data says roughly 80 percent of the Afghan population depends on agriculture.
“This year  is hotter than previous years,” said Gul Agha, 33, a taxi driver in the capital city of Kabul. Afghanistan’s climate is continental, with temperatures ranging from 30°C in summer to -20°C in winter. New data suggests that after two relatively good years, the country faces a moderate-to-high drought risk for the new year . A report by the Afghanistan Analyst Network states that half of Afghanistan’s agricultural land depends on spring rainfall, which has become less reliable because of climate change.
On Friday, the Taliban released a statement asking clergies to lead prayers for rain, a practice that is customary in Islam. Famine is expected this year in Afghanistan.
Today global warming is a crucial issue, and all nations are attempting to increase environmental zones to mitigate the impact of climate change by planting forests or increasing farming areas.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS A REAL THREAT. ITS IMPACTS ARE VISIBLE ON VITAL WATER RESOURCES IN AFGHANISTAN.
“It may affect Iran because of the loss of the agricultural land to desert. But this is our water [right] to erect dams on our water,” said Farid Atef, an environmentalist who regularly writes about climate change.
“Access to good irrigation water can contribute to poverty reduction, and to moving people from ill-being to well-being,” Atef said, adding that the KKD can significantly reduce poverty in Nimruz province.
Afghanistan remains largely dependent on foreign aid. Its poverty rate was expected to reach over 70 percent in 2020. Widespread poverty and corruption drive people to buy and sell kidneys illegally—that business is booming in the western city of Herat.
Now climate change is a real threat. Its impacts are visible on vital water resources in Afghanistan.
“Neighboring countries should rebuke fueling instability in the area,” said Najmudin Najm, a horticulturist who runs an agriculture business in Nangarhar province.
Nevertheless, to prevent a worst-case scenario, “greenery” would be the only solution to reset rainfall patterns and elevate water reservoirs. “They should invest and revive Afghanistan’s forests.”
Branka Andjelkovic is a Pacific Council member, a senior consultant at the UN Development Programme, FCG, and SIPU International, and an international development professional.
Humayoon Babur is a fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism who works for Pasbanan Media Group in Kabul and has written about a wide variety of topics in Afghanistan, from combat and car bombs to corruption and the effectiveness of foreign aid.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.