Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran-Taliban Border Dispute Exacerbated by Climate Change

Iran-Taliban Border Dispute is a microcosm of the escalating conflicts stemming from drought, declining river levels, and shared water resources.

Iran-Taliban Border Dispute
An aerial view from a medevac helicopter shows the Helmand River in Afghanistan. BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, tensions have risen and frequent border skirmishes have taken place between the movement’s factions and Iranian border guards. By May 2023, the conflict escalated into violent armed clashes before both parties reached a temporary truce and held security coordination meetings.

However, the underlying causes of the border dispute remain unresolved, and the Iranian-Afghan border remains a volatile situation that could potentially trigger a full-scale war between the two sides at any given moment.

Disputes after formerly positive relationship

Prior to the U.S. forces leaving Kabul and the Taliban’s ascent to power, Iran was recognized for attempting to maintain good relations with the movement. Iran saw the Taliban as a useful ally against the American military presence in Afghanistan and an opposition to the pro-Western Afghan authority. Throughout the years of American presence in Afghanistan, Taliban members have admitted to receiving weapons and training from Tehran in exchange for targeting U.S. forces.

Before taking control of Kabul, the Taliban had no interest in provoking disputes with Tehran. Their focus was primarily on the conflict with U.S. forces and the local authority they supported. It is worth noting that before seizing power in Kabul, the Taliban had control over certain border areas with Iran, and there were no conflicts between the two parties. Thus, the presence of a common enemy, the American forces, played a role in blurring potential differences between Tehran and the movement.

However, that soon changed once the Taliban took control of Kabul, and a border dispute with Tehran surfaced regarding the sharing of Helmand waters.

The Helmand River, originating near the capital Kabul in the Hindu Kush mountain range, is Afghanistan’s longest river, flowing 1,150 km within Afghan territory before reaching Lake Hamon at the Afghan-Iranian border. This lake serves as Iran’s largest source of freshwater and is crucial for irrigation in the eastern agricultural areas.

Differences over the distribution of water from the Helmand River and Lake Hamun stem from historical issues between Afghanistan and Iran, as well as previous agreements that were never fully implemented. However, the recent escalation of border disputes is primarily a result of record-low water levels in the river and lake due to drought and reduced rainfall – a clear indication of the impact of climate change.

The falling water levels have pushed both sides to try to safeguard their respective shares of the water, despite the overall decrease in available resources, generating tensions between the two. The crisis has been further aggravated by the hardships faced by farmers in Iran and Afghanistan due to drought and climate change, intensifying the severity of the situation for both sides.

Historical background of the conflict over the Helmand River

The row over the waters of the Helmand River between Iran and Afghanistan dates back over a century and a half. In 1882, the unsuccessful negotiations on water sharing led to the referral of the dispute to the British “Goldsmith” arbitration committee, which was responsible for demarcating the border between the two countries.

Despite lengthy talks, the committee failed to reach a final agreement addressing the crisis. As a result, it issued a recommendation urging both parties to refrain from constructing new facilities or dams along the river’s course to prevent a decrease in water levels at the river’s mouth in Iran.

In 1903, British Colonel Henry McMahon was appointed to seek a definitive resolution to the dispute. McMahon proposed an equal distribution of river water between Iran and Afghanistan and urged the Afghan side to refrain from building dams that would jeopardize Iran’s water supply.

However, Afghanistan rejected the arbitration results, citing what Afghan authorities referred to as a “lack of impartiality.” From 1934 to 1939, numerous rounds of negotiations took place between the two sides, but no final agreement was reached to address the dispute.

Finally, in 1973, Afghan Prime Minister Musa Shafiq achieved a significant milestone by reaching a written agreement on sharing the waters of the Helmand River with his Iranian counterpart, Amir Abbas Howaida. This agreement marked an initial step toward addressing the water dispute between the two countries. Regrettably, the signed agreement documents were neither exchanged nor implemented due to a coup that toppled the Afghan government led by Prime Minister Musa Shafiq.

Consequently, the crisis regarding the sharing of Helmand River waters remained unresolved without a final solution. Tensions escalated between Iran and Afghanistan when President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani came to power in 2014. During this period, Afghanistan devised plans to construct numerous dams which raised concerns among Iranian authorities regarding their water security.

Subsequently, the Taliban targeted some of these water projects, leading Afghan authorities to accuse Iran of financing and supporting these operations, with the alleged intention of depriving Afghanistan of its rightful share of the Helmand River waters.

Concerns and mutual accusations after the Taliban’s return

Following the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan in 2021, tensions between Afghanistan and Iran resurfaced for similar reasons. Iran accuses the Taliban of altering the natural flow of certain tributaries of the Helmand River and increasing water storage in dams along the river, thereby reducing the water flow into Lake Hamun in Iran. Iranian authorities claim that they currently receive only 4 per cent of their agreed-upon share of the river’s water, as specified in the 1973 agreement, which has yet to be fully implemented.

On the other hand, the Taliban refute these allegations, asserting that they benefit from the same historical volume of water that Afghanistan has always received, with no increase in allocation. They attribute the decrease in water volume flowing into Iran and the declining water level of Lake Hamun to drought, insufficient precipitation and the overall reduction in the Helmand River’s water volume.

Thus, it appears that the Taliban are trying to safeguard their access to the same volume (not just a percentage) of Helmand River water, despite acknowledging the decrease in flow, which inadvertently leads to a scarcity of water reaching Iran.

Additionally, Iranian authorities harbor suspicions regarding the Taliban’s new projects in western Afghanistan, particularly the construction of dams and water canals along the river’s tributaries. These projects further restrict the volume of river water flowing into Iran.

Currently, Iran’s focus lies on establishing technical systems within Afghanistan along the river to monitor water levels and redefine the water allocation between Iran and Afghanistan based on the new measurements. This contradicts the Taliban’s current approach, which is rooted in benefiting from the historical water share of Afghanistan, regardless of the river’s current reduced water levels.

Furthermore, Iran calls for exercising control over the river’s sources and tributaries that flow from Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from depleting river water beyond Afghanistan’s customary allocation.

Social and economic crises exacerbate the problem

The dispute over the waters of the Helmand River is further aggravated by crises arising from drought and water scarcity. Iran has been grappling with severe drought for several years, leading to water shortages in more than 24 of its 31 provinces. Moreover, the water storage levels in dams have plummeted to less than 49 per cent of their total capacity.

In May 2023, the water levels in dams dropped significantly to 24.95 billion cubic meters, marking a considerable decrease from approximately 35.18 billion cubic meters recorded during the same period the previous year. The severe drought in Iran has emerged as a significant crisis, particularly for rural communities, given that over 90 percent of the country’s water is consumed for irrigating agricultural lands.

The water crisis and the depletion of lakes have incited numerous waves of protests in various regions of Iran over the past few years, particularly in areas where unemployment rates have surged, coinciding with the shrinking of cultivable land. The Iranian regime’s current strict stance toward the Taliban is primarily motivated by the link between this issue and social and food security in vast portions of eastern Iran that rely heavily on the waters of Lake Hamun and the Helmand River for irrigation purposes.

It is evident that the Iranian regime has started associating the economic consequences of the drought crisis with political stability, particularly in light of the recent surge in popular opposition against it. It is worth mentioning that Lake Hamun is situated within the Baluchistan Governorate, which experienced violent demonstrations in 2022, demanding the overthrow of the Iranian regime, as part of the nationwide wave of protests. Iranian opposition figures highlight that a third of protest-related deaths in Iran occurred in this specific province, as the severe economic conditions exacerbated the public’s disapproval of the Iranian regime’s policies.

Faced with social and economic crises resulting from drought and low rainfall, the Taliban also find themselves grappling with similar challenges. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has highlighted the impact of drought in Afghanistan, leading to a substantial rise in food prices due to a decline in agricultural production rates.

Moreover, the drought has triggered extensive unemployment within Afghan farming communities, placing half of the population at risk of starvation. Currently, 6 million people teeter on the brink of famine, while 1 million children face acute malnutrition. Similarly, the Taliban, like Iran, are compelled to escalate their actions to address the demands arising from its reliance on the waters of the Helmand River.

The conflict between Iran and the Taliban serves as a microcosm of the escalating disputes between nations stemming from drought, declining river levels, and the growing need for local authorities to negotiate shared water resources.

The crucial issue lies in both sides focusing solely on finding temporary solutions to mitigate short-term border conflicts, without genuinely addressing the root causes of this territorial dispute. Consequently, the crisis will persist in the long run, exacerbating local tensions between rural communities on both sides of the border.

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