As international forces leave Afghanistan, a flood of disputes over water resources threatens to be the main source of regional conflict.
Afghanistan is looking for ways to harness the potential offered by its water resources, and has major infrastructure projects in the works. But neighboring downstream countries depend on that same supply and fear that any reduction in the flow of water from Afghanistan could have detrimental economic and geopolitical effects.
As Kabul has made clear that it intends to go ahead with its plans for hydroelectric dams and irrigation systems, hostilities have flared up. Iran and Pakistan allege the infrastructure projects will cause humanitarian upheaval. Kabul, meanwhile, accuses the two countries of orchestrating violence in the country to hold up its water projects.
With the sides failing to come to an agreement over the distribution of cross-border water supplies, the escalating diplomatic fallout has already led to reports of violence along their borders. Recent developments have only added weight to fears that the unresolved disputes could provoke armed conflict.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking during an open debate hosted by Afghanistan Radio and TV (RTA) and the BBC on March 18, accused Iran and Pakistan of sabotaging Kabul's efforts to build dams and control its hydro resources.
"Yes, there are interferences from our neighbors to interrupt work on water dams in Afghanistan," Karzai said angrily during the debate.
His comment came a day after a meeting of the country's Security Council in which Karzai ordered the Interior Ministry and the National Directorate for Security, the country's spy agency, to launch an offensive against "foreign-affiliated groups who are sabotaging" water projects across the country.
Mohammad Nader Baluch, the deputy of the provincial council in Nimroz Province, located along the border with Iran, says Iranian forces regularly make illegal incursions into the region. The motive, he says, is to hold up infrastructure projects.
"[Iran] is conducting military operations in Nimroz. For example, with the Kamal Khan Dam and other infrastructure projects, they're trying to halt work there. They're trying to intimidate the companies who are working on the projects in order to stop them from working," Baluch said.
For decades neighboring countries never had to worry about water flowing from Afghanistan because the country's infrastructure was essentially nonexistent. As Iran and Pakistan built dams and irrigation systems, Afghanistan saw some two-thirds of the water flowing from its lands drawn off to benefit foreign lands.
That is not to say there were not any water-infrastructure projects before 2001. The United States and the Soviet Union funded numerous projects, some of which are currently being revived after years of war and neglect.
New Hydro Projects
Afghanistan, along with the international community, set out to address this following the fall of the Taliban in 2001 by funding dozens of water projects, putting it on a collision course with its neighbors.
Rainer Gonzalez Palau, a social and strategic infrastructure specialist at NATO's Civil-Military Fusion Center in Afghanistan, says the explosive atmosphere will only be defused if Afghanistan and its neighbors can reach an agreement over the distribution of shared water resources.
Iran, which shares two rivers with Afghanistan, is the only country Kabul has a water treaty with. But the agreement, which was reached in the 1970s, has barely been applied and there are still disputes over the terms of the agreement.
"Without any bilateral treaty that regulates uses of water it's difficult to control the utilization of transboundary water resources by each country," said Palau in an e-mail to RFE/RL. "It is essential that equitable bilateral water-sharing agreements are applied, not only as a prerequisite for geopolitical stability but also to ensure sustainable environmental and human development in the region."
Palau, who notes his views are personal and do not represent those of NATO, says Afghanistan's rich water resources have the potential to be one of the main drivers of economic development and poverty reduction in the country.
"It has been estimated that $1 invested in water and sanitation generates between $3 and $34 in the agricultural and industrial sectors, contributing to increased production and productivity, as well as in health and poverty eradication," Palau says. "This is extremely important for Afghanistan, as agriculture, which largely depends on water availability, generates an important piece of its GDP and means subsistence economy for many of its households."
One of the largest projects begun is the Salma Dam, which is being built by India in Herat Province. The $180 million project will reduce the amount of water that runs from Afghanistan's Harirud River to Iran and Turkmenistan from around 300 million cubic meters per year to just 87 million.
The dam has the potential to produce around 40 megawatts of electricity and irrigate around 80,000 hectares, double the amount of land currently available to Afghan farmers.
The project, however, is years behind schedule and its costs are multiplying by the month. Afghan officials have even gone as far as saying Tehran's diplomatic meddling has caused the huge delays.
It's not the first time Afghan officials and media have lobbed accusations at the country's neighbors over water issues.
Afghan media reported in 2011 that a local police unit was attacked by Iranian forces after they tried to stop the Iranians from diverting water from the Sikhzar canal. The 30-kilometer canal, located in Nimroz, was built in 2010 at a cost of $700,000 provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Afghan media have also alleged that Iran has tried to disrupt the construction of Salma Dam.
Tehran has rejected all allegations that it is meddling in Kabul's water projects. Iranian state media have even accused Afghanistan of being ungrateful and not appreciating Tehran's contributions to rebuilding the country.
On the Afghan-Pakistani border, tensions are also high. Local villagers accuse Pakistan's security forces of firing rockets on villages in eastern Afghanistan to disrupt the construction of dams.
Afghanistan is constructing several major dams on the Kabul and Kunar rivers, which flow downstream to Pakistan. If completed, the projects will reduce Pakistan's water supply from Afghanistan by 15 percent, according to local officials. That has not sat well with Pakistan, which is already facing a major energy crisis.