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Water Wars: Afghanistan and Iran’s Deadly Border Flare-up Spotlights Scarcity Crisis

Iran and Afghanistan are going head to head over control of the supply of a crucial resource that’s shrinking by the day: water.

Violence along the border between the two tumultuous countries flared up in recent weeks, stoked by a dispute over the water flowing from Afghanistan’s Helmand river into Iran. Tehran says Afghanistan’s Taliban government is deliberately depriving Iran of sufficient water supplies in order to bolster its own; but the Taliban says there isn’t enough water anymore to begin with, thanks to plummeting rainfall and river levels.

Iranian and Afghan border guards clashed on May 27, exchanging heavy gunfire that killed two Iranian guards and one Taliban soldier and wounded several others. Both sides blame each other for provoking the fighting, which has thrust the region’s water issues back into the spotlight. 

Risk of destabilization in Iran

The situation risks destabilizing an already poor and water-deprived part of Iran, where serious protests against the government have taken place in recent years. 

“The water dispute with Afghanistan is not something Iran can take lightly,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC. “Water resources in Iran are under severe pressure and water stress has been a trigger of 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.
A Taliban fighter stands guard at the entrance gate of the Afghan-Iran border crossing bridge in Zaranj, February 18, 2022.

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 supply. Dubbed “the uprising of the thirsty,” the demonstrations soon spread to several cities around Iran including the capital Tehran, and drew a heavy government crackdown that ended in both police and civilian casualties. 

Grappling with U.S. sanctions, a severely weakened economy and a continuing anti-government protest movement, Iran is already under significant pressure. “With the authorities still struggling to keep a lid on nationwide protests,” Soltvedt said, “a water security crisis in eastern Iran would come at a particularly bad time.” 

A dangerous border

The 580-mile border between Afghanistan and Iran is porous and crawling with crime, predominantly coming from the Afghan side into Iran. Afghanistan has been wracked with instability and war for decades, and the ruling Taliban government derives a significant part of its revenue from illicit trades.

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

In this picture taken on February 17, 2022, Afghan migrants ride in pickup trucks through a desert road toward the Afghanistan-Iran border in Nimruz. - In Zaranj, a border town in southwestern Afghanistan, people smugglers say the flow of would-be exiles now reaches 5,000 to 6,000 a day -- four times more than before the Taliban's return to power in August. - TO GO WITH Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran-migration by Romain FONSEGRIVES and Qubad WALI (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) / TO GO WITH Afghanistan-Pakistan-Ir
In this picture taken on February 17, 2022, Afghan migrants ride in pickup trucks through a desert road toward the Afghanistan-Iran border in Nimruz.

Water tensions between the two countries go way back. In the 1950s, Afghanistan built two major dams that limited the flow of water from the Helmand river into Iran. This angered Tehran and threatened relations, ultimately leading to the signing of a treaty in 1973 that allotted Iran 850 million cubic meters of Helmand water yearly. 

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

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

Climate change and worsening 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 allotments for the Helmand River are hard to overcome because neither country has the ability to bring more water to the region,” said Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Rane. “It’s already an extremely dry area, but issues like climate change and overfarming are making it worse.” 

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

In this photograph taken on March 21, 2021, a general view of the hydroelectric Kajaki Dam is seen in Kajaki, northeast of Helmand Province. - In the heart of territory under siege from the Taliban, one of Afghanistan's most important hydroelectric dams is at the centre of a power struggle that symbolises the battle between the government and insurgents.
A general view of the hydroelectric Kajaki Dam in Kajaki, northeast of Helmand Province, Afghanistan on March 21, 2021.

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 … provinces of the country 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 Afghanistan’s leaders to take his words “very seriously,” saying “I warn the rulers of Afghanistan to give the rights of the people in [the Iranian border regions of] Sistan and Baluchistan immediately.” A Taliban commander hit back, saying there was no water for them to give Iran and warning, “Do not attack us. We are not afraid.”

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a meeting with Cuba's president Miguel Diaz Canel (out of frame) at the Revolution Palace in Havana, on June 15, 2023. Raisi is on a diplomatic tour of Latin America with stops in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba --all the target of US sanctions. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP) / "The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by YAMIL LAGE has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [June 15] instead of [June 14]. Please immediately remo
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi in Havana, Cuba on June 15, 2023.

Tehran then made a statement emphasizing the fact that it doesn’t recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s ruling body. The back-and-forth only heightened tensions, and some worry that May’s border shootout could be a sign of worse to come. 

Rane’s Bohl expects the issue to fester as “water scarcity is a very complicated problem that requires extensive and expensive infrastructure investments to overcome, neither of which heavily-sanctioned Iran or Afghanistan is in a position to fix,” he said. 

He expects 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 harm Afghanistan’s farming output over time and damage its already frail economy and worsen food shortages,” Bohl said.

Source : CNBC