Iran and Afghanistan have been at odds over the Helmand River for decades. Now the conflict threatens to escalate – because both countries are struggling with drought.
A decades-old water treaty between two countries, a government that insists on it, and the climate crisis that is making water less: This is roughly the equation that has been driving the conflict over the Helmand River between Iran and Afghanistan in recent weeks has tightened. Recently there have even been deaths in clashes at the border. Is the first modern climate war looming here?
At more than 1,000 kilometers, the Helmand is the longest river in Afghanistan. It rises in the Hindu Kush mountains and flows into Lake Hamun in Iran. During a severe drought between 1999 and 2001, the lake dried up – with fatal consequences for nature, agriculture and the population in a region that is already characterized by poverty.
Now the sound around the water inflow of the lake intensifies again. Afghanistan uses the Helmand for the drinking water supply, power generation and irrigation for agriculture – including for the cultivation of poppies. The sale of the opium obtained from it is an important source of income for the Taliban. To do this, the river is dammed with the Kayakai and Kamal Khan dams.
Dispute over a 50-year-old contract
There is actually a decades-old pact with Iran: in 1973 it was agreed that at least 850 million cubic meters of water per year must be let through to Iran.
But there has been a long-standing dispute over the treaty – so far, not a single Afghan government is said to have actually adhered to it. The long war since 2001, the seizure of power by the radical Islamic militia in August 2021 and the humanitarian catastrophe in the country have made a solution difficult in the past.
In mid-May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sent clear words to the Afghan Taliban government – there was clearly not enough water arriving in Iran. During a visit to the southeastern province of Sistan and Balochistan, he said Afghanistan must “immediately fulfill the rights of the people of Sistan and Balochistan.” The rulers in the neighboring country would have to comply with the 1973 treaty. “We will not allow the rights of our people to be violated.”
Raisi was accompanied by his Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. This became even clearer: he expressly threatened “uncooperative” Taliban leaders with the use of “means of pressure.”
Ridicule and appeasement from Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, the Iranian threats initially sparked ridicule. A video went viral of a senior Taliban “offering a bucket of water” to the Iranian regime: “Don’t attack us! We’re scared!” he sneered.
Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Chan Muttaki, on the other hand, appealed for leniency: the country wanted to stick to the 1973 agreement, but like the rest of the region it was struggling with a drought as a result of the climate crisis, he explained. As a result, it is currently impossible for the authorities to allow sufficient water to flow into the neighboring country. Iran’s leadership should “adjust its expectations,” Chan said in a video message. In the past two years, Afghanistan has taken steps to solve the problem. “However, the force majeure exceeding human capacities due to climate change needs to be understood.”
The Iranian foreign ministry contradicted shortly afterwards: The Taliban’s claims about the drought and reduced water levels could not be confirmed by Iranian experts. The attitude of the Afghan rulers is therefore “unlawful and unacceptable”. The regime had previously demanded that Iranian experts be given access to the dams in Afghanistan to check the water level. The Iranian state news agency IRNA published images of the reservoir that were intended to refute the Taliban’s claims.