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Iran/Afghanistan: Still No Resolution For Century-Old Water Dispute

Iranian farmers are dependent on the Hirmand River for agriculture Iran and Afghanistan have been involved in a long-running dispute over access to the Hirmand River (a.k.a. Helmand River), which originates in mountains northwest of Kabul and flows some 1,000 kilometers before reaching Iran. Its waters are essential for farmers in Afghanistan, but it feeds into Lake Hamun and is also important to farmers in Iran's southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province.

The dispute between Iran and Afghanistan can be traced to the 1870s, writes Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, chairman of the Urosevic Research Foundation of London and professor of geopolitics at Tehran University, in a study for the United Nations Environment Program ( At that time, Afghan rulers believed they could use the waters of the Hirmand River as they saw fit. Afghanistan was a British protectorate, furthermore, and British boundary arbitration officers drew borders without making accommodations for the division of water resources. More disputes arose when the river changed its course in 1896.
Karzai blamed the drought for the lack of water, adding that they are waiting for seasonal rainfall so the water will resume flowing.

A treaty on the river's water was signed in 1939 by the governments of Iran's Reza Shah Pahlavi and Mohammad Zahir Shah, his Afghan counterpart. Yet the disputes continued because the Afghans refused to ratify the treaty. Afghan and Iranian delegations traveled to Washington in 1959 to discuss the issue but had no success.

Iranian Minister of Court Asadollah Alam wrote in his diaries in March 1969 that Kabul would agree to ensure water flow to Iran only in exchange for credit facilities, improved access to Iranian ports, and development assistance ("The Shah and I," Alinaghi Alikhani, ed., London, 1991). And, when the Afghan legislature discussed a new agreement on the Hirmand River in October 1972, Tehran feared that it would be costly: Iranian monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi said, "authorize [the Iranian ambassador to Kabul] to make the payoffs if you really think they're necessary."

Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveida and Afghan Prime Minister Mohammad Musa Shafiq signed an accord in 1973 that determined the specific amount of water that should flow into Iran: 26 cubic meters of water per second. Yet this agreement was not ratified, either. Resolution of the issue continued to be delayed by other events: the 1973 Afghan coup, the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the rise and fall of the Taliban.

Improved Afghan-Iranian Relations

Relations between the Iranian government and the Taliban regime were troubled, and the two sides did not reach an accord on use of the Hirmand River's water. The Taliban's ouster and friendly relations between the governments of presidents Hamid Karzai and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami suggested that the situation would change for the better. This would be a welcome development, as a multiyear drought had seriously affected the entire region.

Good Kabul-Tehran relations did not translate into improved water flows for Iran, however. "The least we expect is implementation of the accord signed between Iran and Afghanistan before the Islamic revolution in Iran," parliamentarian Alaedin Borujerdi said on 1 September 2002, IRNA reported. And parliamentarian Gholam Hussein Aqai, who represented the Sistan va Baluchistan Province city of Zabol, also decried the Afghans' failure to provide water despite a new agreement reached during President Khatami's 13 August 2002 visit to Afghanistan, "Entekhab" reported on 1 September 2002.

A small amount of water from the Helmand River reached Iran on 25 October 2002, but Iranian officials complained that it was not enough for farming. Then it stopped completely. Kabul had agreed to release 1,000 hours of water flow, "Iran" reported on 6 November 2002, but it turned the tap off after just 240 hours. Parliamentarian Abolqasem Mokhtari, who represented Sistan va Baluchistan Province at the time, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he did not know whether the Afghan government was responsible for blocking the water or if Afghans were diverting the water for farming.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said during a November 2002 telephone conversation with Karzai that Afghanistan must honor the existing agreements regarding the river. When the two met in Bonn the following month, Karzai blamed the drought for the lack of water, adding that they are waiting for seasonal rainfall so the water will resume flowing. When the water flow resumed in mid-December, Iranian officials said the volume fell short of agreed levels.

In September 2004, Iranian and Afghan officials met in Tehran for a joint meeting within the framework of the 1973 Hirmand River treaty. Deputy Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian told IRNA on 8 September 2004 that the two sides were preparing for the implementation of the treaty. He said that under normal circumstances, Iran's annual share is 820 million cubic meters. Ardakanian added that decisions made at the meeting will go into effect on 22 September, when the "water year" begins.

No Relief In Sight

As of early 2005, the dispute over the waters of the Helmand River seemed no closer to resolution, according to statements by local Iranian officials. The Friday Prayer leader in Zabol, Hojatoleslam Gholam-Reza Dehqan, said in his 7 January sermon that Afghan officials should respect Iranian river rights, IRNA reported. Sistan va Baluchistan Province Governor-General Hussein Amini made the same point on 1 February, IRNA reported. He said Afghanistan should live up to the commitments in the 1973 treaty.

National officials also are aware of the issue. Deputy Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian said on 8 January that people in Sistan va Baluchistan should consume water more carefully, IRNA reported. At the end of the month, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said during a visit to the Milak border crossing that Afghanistan should fulfill its commitments on use of the waters, ILNA reported on 27 May.