More Bad News for Iran as Afghan Water Dispute Heats up

Helmand River (Wikimedia Commons)

by Fatemeh Aman

As Iran’s domestic tensions in some regions are on the rise over water shortages and persistent drought, the country has another challenge to overcome: a dispute over transboundary waters with its South Asian neighbor, Afghanistan.

The good news is that there is an agreement over transboundary waters between the two countries—in a region where almost no agreements over water exist. The bad news: the agreement has been subject to interpretations, many of which are not accurate or constructive.

As Iran and Afghanistan accuse each other of taking more water from the Helmand River than originally defined by an existing agreement, the issue is becoming political in both countries. Afghans believe there is a run-off into Iran that needs to be controlled, while Iranians complain that they are deprived of their fair share, especially because of Afghan dam-building.

An Afghan official said recently that Iran has received more than three billion cubic meters instead of 850 million cubic meters annually. Hooshang Nazeri, the governor of Zabol, a city in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, admitted that Afghanistan has also been hit by drought but insisted that Iran’s share of Helmand river should not depend on rainfall. This “26 cubic meter per second is just a fraction [of what Iran should receive],” and Iran will not stop trying to secure its rights to water, Nazeri said.

Origin of the Issue

The dispute goes back to the 1870s when a representative of the British government drew the border between two countries along the main branch of the Helmand River. It has gone through many ups and downs, and tensions have flared up occasionally between the two countries. In the recent decade, however, due to bad drought and decreased precipitation, the dispute has risen to an alarming level.

Afghanistan’s longest river, the Helmand (Hirmand in Farsi) runs 1,150 kilometers. The majority of its water derives from spring snow melt in the central highlands, irrigating Afghan provinces such as Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz and flowing into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan. The only agreement over sharing the Helmand’s transboundary water was signed in 1973 between Iran and Afghanistan.

Based on this agreement, Iran’s share is 22 cubic meters of water per second and gives Iran also the option to buy an additional four cubic meters. The agreement has been recently subject to intense interpretation as to how much each side is taking from the Helmand.

There is no accurate way of measuring the Helmand’s water at the moment since the Soviets destroyed the gauging system that the U.S. government set up in the 1970s. No information on the Helmand’s water is currently gathered. This Lack of accurate data leaves plenty of room for speculation about how much water each party has taken from the river.

The Helmand is just one of the two rivers that flow into Iran. The other is the Hari River, which is also subject to a dispute due to dam projects that India is building in Afghanistan.

Afghan government spokesman Shah Hussain Mortazavi sounded optimistic recently about the achievements of committees established by Iran and Afghanistan to investigate the current situation of the shared rivers. The Afghan ambassador to Iran also dismissed accusations that Afghanistan is withholding Iran’s share of water. Instead he blamed the lack of rainfall, climate change, and the excessive use of water as the root causes of the dispute. “Both countries are committed to the existing agreement,” he said. However, differences over water-sharing sometimes leads to accusations that Iran is using insurgents in neighboring provinces in Afghanistan to secure its share of water.

Instead of informing their public with accurate information, both sides engage in a blame game to justify their mismanagement of water and the failing infrastructure. Both sides have missed the opportunity of investing in improvements in the water system.

Only Fresh Water Source for Iranian Cities

In March this year, a heavy storm cut the flow of water to Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province and the seventeenth largest city in Iran. It did so by cutting electricity to the pipes that transfer 30 million cubic meters of water annually from the reservoirs. Located 125 miles north of Zahedan, the reservoirs were created in the 1990s and 2000s to store fresh water for several cities, including Zahedan and Zabol. The issues caused by the storm were temporary resolved by tankers distributing water.

Transboundary rivers provide the fresh water for this large region hit by drought. Some of the same precious water is also used in inefficient agriculture that produces crops that consumer a lot of water, such as wheat and pistachios.

The parliamentary representative from the cities of Zabol and Zohak, Ahmadali Keikha, criticized the dependency on transboundary rivers as the only source of fresh water for the region. “Any water-consuming activities including agriculture must be stopped,” he said. He described the drought and the water shortage in his cities as a potential “national security threat,” but blamed the situation entirely on Afghanistan for “completely controlling” the flow of water into Iran.

Both Afghanistan and Iran have failed to invest in improving their poor water management. Both countries have been hit hard by drought and rainfall shortage. As U.S. sanctions against Iran begin to take hold and international organizations are forced to cut their funding for some environment-related projects in the country, Iran needs to resolve this dispute with Afghanistan. The dispute over transboundary waters has been the single greatest challenge to Iran-Afghanistan relations. At a time when both countries need peaceful relations more than ever before, this dispute can and should be solved.

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).



  1. However, Dam-building is a failed way of water management in such climates having high transpiration rate. If it was going to yield anything then Iran with thousands of dams should benefited a little, which is not the case.

  2. There was a drought/water shortage in Helmand River during the time of the Taliban government and were accused of cutting off the water to Iran. They closed the intake gates off the Helmand into the Boghra canal (biggest irrigation system in the country) for a few days to just get enough water to the smaller intakes further south before Iran. The water was not there to get to Iran.

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