Can International Cooperation Revitalize Wetlands on Afghanistan-Iran Border?

by Fatemeh Aman

Efforts to revive the Hamoun wetlands on the Iran-Afghanistan border are intensifying. A recent panel at the Atlantic Council described international involvement as vital both to help resolve this environmental challenge and to raise awareness about the devastating impact of climate change on the region.

The Hamoun Lakes are transboundary wetlands that consist of three lakes: Hamoun-e Helmand entirely in Iran, Hamoun-e Sabari on the border, and Hamoun-e Puzak, almost entirely inside Afghanistan. Fed by the Helmand (Hirmand) River, the wetlands once supported great plant and animal diversity in the Sistan Basin. However, as a result of drought and poor water management on both sites, the lakes have nearly disappeared.

On the Iranian side, some of the causes are: diversion of Helmand water to fill four reservoirs in Sistan-Baluchistan, creating dykes on the Iran-Afghan border, and the Iranian Fisheries Company’s introduction in 1983 of an invasive species of fish that destroyed almost all of the reeds.

On the Afghan side, the development of dams and canals in provinces bordering Iran has lowered the Helmand’s water level. In 1998, a dispute between Iran and the Taliban regime, and the Taliban’s subsequent closure of the sluices to the Kajaki Dam, completely stopped the flow of Helmand water into Iran and Hamoun lakes for nearly four years. This coincided with one of region’s worst droughts.

The drying up of the Hamouns has hit the region’s economy hard, causing low employment, severe poverty, and more drug trafficking. It has also led to a serious public health crisis since the so-called 120-days wind, which in the past would cool the air and power windmills, has now extended to 160 days and is a source of fine dust particles and pollution.

The Helmand water is a national issue in Afghanistan and becoming a national issue in Iran. Interestingly, all Afghan governments, before and after the fall of Taliban, and all Iranian governments, before and after the 1979 revolution, have maintained the same position on water and what they considered their share of water. What currently adds to the dilemma is a persistent drought that is threatening the livelihood of the region and intensifying the dispute.

In dealing with the Hamoun crisis, both countries need international support. One positive step came when UNESCO designated the Hamoun Lakes as a UNESCO biosphere reservoir. The UN Environment Program is also working with both Iran and Afghanistan on Hamoun rehabilitation efforts. But more needs to be done.

At a recent event at the Atlantic Council, the documentary Once Hamoun depicted the transformation of what was once an oasis into an arid region. Filmmaker, Mohammad Ehsani told the audience that currently “there is a collective will in Iran and broad public awareness to resolve the environmental issues.” Recently, he continued, “a one-million-signature campaign, ‘I’m Urumia Lake’ was initiated by celebrities and called on the United Nations to help retrieve Urumia Lake.”

Other speakers emphasized the importance of international involvement and diplomacy in assisting Iran and Afghanistan to reach new agreements on water-sharing and better management of this scarce resource.

Both sides should avoid politicizing the dispute and not attempt to use it as leverage on other issues. So concludes my new paper, “Water Disputes Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan,” presented at the event. “Communication between both sides at the level of political leaders, as well as scientific, academic, and civil societies, to resolve the dispute is essential,” I write, adding that the problems of the Helmand River and Hamoun lakes are a “regional challenge that can only be resolved collectively.”

According to Masoumeh Ebtekar, chief of Iran’s Department of the Environment, some steps have been taken to revitalize the Hamouns, including removing dykes on the Iran-Afghan border, releasing 20 million cubic meters of water from the reservoirs into the Hamouns, and dredging to facilitate a better flow of water. But more needs to be done. Involving people and raising public awareness about the importance of preserving the ecosystem may be the most important step.

“Although Iran’s economy is slowly recovering from sanctions, many ordinary Iranians have not seen much benefit,” notes Barbara Slavin, the acting director of the Future Iran Initiative who chaired the Atlantic Council event. “There is a robust environmental movement in Iran and a resumption of international lending for this purpose would be a potent signal that the nuclear deal can improve Iranians’ current and future standard of living.”

Photo: Kajaki Dam on Helman River in Afghanistan, which flows into Hamoun Lake

Fatemeh Aman

Fatemeh Aman, a nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, has written on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years. She has worked and published as a journalist, and her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Atlantic Council, and the Middle East Institute’s publications. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan (2016), and co-author of Iran, Afghanistan, and South Asia: Resolving Regional Sources of Instability (2013).


One Comment

  1. It was my understanding that at the time of the Taliban government the primary problem was the major drought, less snow to melt and less runoff, so less water in the Helmand river. While the Taliban were being accused by Iran of blocking the flow of water, in fact there was not that much water to feed even the Afghan irrigation systems. At one point they even closed the large intake for the Boghra Canal (the biggest irrigation system in the country) of central Helmand to get enough water to the lower reaches to feed the smaller Afghan intakes before the river ever reaches Iran. The drought was so bad at that time that the government even trucked some nomadic sheep herds out of the desert areas that usually had some grass from the sparse “rainy season” in areas that normally get about 4 inches of rain per year. No rain so no grass and the herds got trapped out in the desert flats at one end of their transhumance migration.

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