Building Dams on Rivers and Damming Iran's Relations with Afghanistan

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Amanollah Shafaei

Afghanistan announced its separation from Iran in 1747. Since that time and almost up to the end of the 19th century, diplomatic relations between the two countries were influenced by the policies of two superpowers of that time, that is, Britain and Russia. However, since the beginning of the 20th century, especially following the independence of Afghanistan in 1919, the country gradually took control of its foreign policy. In general, during most part of the 20th century, the two countries of Iran and Afghanistan, which have common history and culture, did not face major insurmountable diplomatic challenges. This was quite the opposite of Afghanistan’s diplomatic relations with Pakistan, which deeply suffered after the so-called Durand Line was drawn by Britain as the border between the two South Asian countries. Perhaps, since the middle of the 20th century up to the present time, when undeveloped countries became familiar with techniques used to contain and manage surface waters, the issue of how Afghanistan and Iran should take advantage of the flow of Harirud and Helmand rivers turned into a relatively serious challenge in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Both these rivers cross Afghanistan’s soil before reaching Iran.

During the 1940s, this issue turned into a preoccupation for then monarchial rule of Iran since the livelihood of people in a number of Iranian provinces was dependent on water from those rivers and also as a result of climate changes and alterations in policies adopted by governments in Afghanistan. Finally, a special commission known as the Helmand River Delta Commission was established in 1950s, through which the two countries decided to follow up on this issue until they reach a legal agreement. As a result, the monarchial governments of the two countries reached an agreement in 1973, which was signed by Iran's then prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveida, and then prime minister of Afghanistan, Mohammad Musa Shafiq. According to this agreement, Afghanistan accepted to receive a certain sum of money from the Iranian government and, in return, give at least 850 million cubic meters of Helmand River’s water to Iran. The two countries, however, later underwent violent developments, including two destructive coups d’état in Afghanistan in 1973 and 1978, as well as the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which greatly overshadowed the aforesaid agreement.

In view of the fact that Afghanistan has been plagued with political instability for a few decades and power has changed hands several times among various political currents, it was not practically possible for the two countries to implement that agreement. However, following the fall of the Taliban and emergence of a new government in 2001, the country’s new government was offered with a new opportunity to focus on the management of surface water resources. To do this, the governments of Hamid Karzai and his successor, Ashraf Ghani, have resumed dam construction projects, which had been mothballed since the rule of the country’s former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. Construction of Salma dam on Harirud by India, development of Kajaki dam and construction of Kamal Khan dam on Helmand River have been among the most important of those projects. However, implementation of these projects in Afghanistan has stirred great concern among Iranian officials. During recent years, people in some western and eastern Iranian provinces have been severely nagged by the problem of haze and dusty air while many lagoons and vast farmlands in these provinces have lost their main functions and gone dry.

Iran has blamed part of this crisis to what goes on beyond its borders, that is, where such countries as Iraq, Turkey, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Afghanistan have caused problems for the Islamic Republic by building dams and containing upstream water resources. In a conference held in Tehran on July 3-5, 2017, themed “International Conference on Combating Sand and Dust Storms,” Iran's President Hassan Rouhani blamed the two countries of Turkey and Afghanistan for implementing these dam building projects, noting that the Islamic Republic could not remain indifferent to construction of Salma, Kamal Khan and Kajaki dams in Afghanistan. His remarks elicited sharp reactions from Afghanistan’s officials and civil society alike. People in Helmand province and Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul held protests against Rouhani's remarks while state officials, especially Afghanistan’s energy minister, also reacted to Iranian president’s statements.

It seems that dam building in Afghanistan is going to be followed with dam building in diplomacy. If this problem does not receive serious attention from both sides, it can affect diplomatic relations between the two countries in other fields as well. Of course, officials of the two countries have frequently emphasized in past years that the agreement signed in 1973 must form the basis of interactions between the two neighbors. Iranian officials, however, believe that dam construction in Afghanistan is against the letter and spirit of the said agreement. This comes while Afghans have been emphasizing that their country is totally entitled to take control of management of surface water resources within its territory and dam building projects are not at odds with the contents of the 1973 agreement. They also emphasize that during past decades, Iranians have used more than their fair share of Helmand River’s water due to various political crises in Afghanistan. There are fears that continuation of such disputes between the two countries’ officials could lead to dangerous escalation in their diplomatic relations as well. Of course, high-ranking officials from the two countries have so far shown self-restraint and have prevented this dispute from spilling over into other fields of diplomacy. However, it seems that the two countries can no longer remain silent on this issue and let it be resolved in time. Therefore, the following proposals are offered in order to resolve this challenge:

1.     Both sides emphasize that the contents of the 1973 agreement must form the basis of the two countries’ interactions. However, building dams on rivers, which is seen as a new problem, can be interpreted in different ways by the two countries. It would be wise to form a commission comprising international legal experts from the two countries to discuss legal aspects of this issue and, if need be, amend the aforesaid agreement.

2.     It would be suitable for the two countries’ scientific and academic institutions to discuss the existing dispute between the two countries and basically the issue of each country’s share of regional water resources. Holding bilateral and regional meetings and conferences can not only tone down tensions between the two countries, but can also lead to expert and scientific solutions.

3.     The existing challenge between the two countries is a totally legal matter. As a result, both sides must continue diplomatic contacts in order to prevent further escalation of the existing dispute and avoid any harmful measures outside the diplomatic framework. Some informed sources are worried that the challenge of dam building between the two countries can harm such major economic projects as development of Iran's Chabahar port and will also provide terrorist groups with good grounds to boost their activities on both sides of the common border.

4.     Although official diplomacy is usually given precedence in international relations, experience has shown that public diplomacy can be at times quite successful as well. Given the presence of the Baluch ethnic group on both sides of the common border between Iran and Afghanistan, and in view of strong family relations among them, the potential provided by culture of tribal elders can be also used in order to settle disputes over water resources.

5.     The challenge caused by dam building projects is not limited to relations between Iran and Afghanistan. This issue has led to many diplomatic disputes between other countries as well. As a result, it would be quite suitable for Iran and Afghanistan to follow up on this issue through diplomatic channels in order to determine its fate at regional and international levels. In the meantime, intervention by the United Nations in this case can help take it to a peaceful settlement.

6.     Afghanistan is a country without access to free waters and, for this reason, has no access to unending water resources. Therefore, in view of the common historical background and extensive cultural commonalities between the two countries, on the one hand, and grave social and economic conditions in Afghanistan, on the other hand, it would be advisable for the Islamic Republic of Iran to help Afghanistan in the management of its water resources by taking part in dam building projects in that country in view of Iran's engineering potentialities. This issue will not only reduce tensions and build trust between the two countries, but also help fair distribution of water from Harirud and Helmand rivers.

7.     On the other hand, the government of Afghanistan must understand Iran's sensitivity and concerns about drying of Hamoun international lagoon, environmental hazards such as dust storms, infertility of farmlands, and the impact that such issues have on the livelihood of millions of Iranian people in Khorasan and Sistan and Baluchestan provinces. Afghanistan must also understand that the country’s dam building activities will not only harm Iran, but will have dangerous environmental and social consequences for the Afghan people as well. Therefore, in view of numerous commonalities between the two nations and in order to show respect for the principle of good neighborly relations, Afghanistan must not allow building dams on the country’s rivers to lead to building dams on the two countries diplomatic relations as well.


*More by Amanollah Shafaei:
*The Challenge of Establishing Domestic Security in Afghanistan: 



*Photo Credit: Internationalwaterlaw

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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