Iran-Afghanistan: water dispute over Hirmand or Helmand River

By: Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Sea

Hirmand or Helmand River in the borders of Iran and Afghanistan is a potential point of conflict on scarce water resources of the region between the two countries. It has a long history of agreements and conflicts. Iran will most probably make its assistance to the landlocked state of Afghanistan dependent of cooperation of Afghan Government on the water share of Iran from Helmand. In 1969-1973, Iranian diplomats were engaged in intense negotiations with Afghan counterparts over the waters of Helmand. Iran had the upper hand and, legally, was in a position to push for a fair share of the water. Disregarding the ongoing negotiations, however, the Shah of Iran, prompted by the sensitive political situation in Afghanistan, decided to grant a major concession to the Afghans. Immediately after the political decision, Iran and Afghanistan signed the 1973 treaty on the Helmand River, thus formalizing Iran’s unequal share of the waters.

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 pay offs 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. (1) >Relations between the Iranian government and the Taliban regime were troubled, and the two sides did not reach an accord on use of the River’s water. During the Taliban rule (1994-2001) the water of Helmand or Hirmand to Iran was completely cut. 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. “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. (2)

The parliamentarian Gholam Hussein Aghai, 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. (3)

In September 2004, Iranian and Afghan officials met in Tehran for a joint meeting within the framework of the 1973 Helmand 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.(4)

The issue is still pending and has potential to turn into a more serious conflict due to the pressure that Iran feels in the Sistan and Baluchistan area.

In 2009, Shariyari the Representative of Zahedan in the Islamic Assembly of Iran [Majles] has said: “it is close to one month that the Government of Afghanistan has stopped the water of Helmand from reaching Iran and the agricultural activities around Zabol [in Iran’s Baluchistan and Sistan Province] is seriously damaged… In 1973 Teary of Iran and Afghanistan on Helmand, it is provided that: annually 850 million cubic meters of the Helmand belong to Iran. However, Afghans believe that Iran’s water share includes the spring floods, but Iran rejects this. The most important issue is the lack of a state control on the Afghan side over the course of Helmand River. Therefore, irresponsible elements are making channels and stealing the water of Helmand for their own purposes. The water of Kajaki Dam is used to irrigate the poppy plantations that are out of the supervision and control of the Afghan government. ” (5)

The Research Center of the Iranian Majles has reported that all treaties of Iran and Afghanistan regarding the waters of Helmand River has been concluded contrary to the international regulations on the international rivers and asked for revision of them in the light of new realities.

The report says: “at the moment the 1351 [193] Treaty is valid and although the treaty has many shortcomings and generally it is arranged in favor of the Afghans and against the rights of Iran, the Afghan officials do not implement it and Iran is not actually getting the meager rights it has under the treaty.” (6)

According to Hassan Ghashqavi, the Spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign affairs: ” the Tenth Meeting of the Helmand Waters Commissioners was held in Kabul (2009) and the Iranian delegation protested strongly to the stopping of the water from Helmand and asked the Afghan Government to act to its commitments on the basis of the 1973 Treaty of Helmand….he added that the issue of Iran’s share from Helmand will remain in the agenda of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” (7)

Iran is committed and interested in helping the development process in Afghanistan. Iran has taken part and made commitments for helping Afghanistan. The most recent case was participation of Iran in the Hague Conference in 2009. The roads and transportation system of Iran is the best way of helping the land locked Afghanistan.

However, the serious sufferings of the people of Iran in the Sistan Province due to the shortage of water that has historically flowed to their lands can create serious obstacle in the relations. As the water conflicts are getting more serious in the region (and in many other places), the Iranian government may find it difficult to help the Afghan Government in the developmental projects while they deny what the Iranian side considers as its fair share of the Helmand River.

Iranian Baluchistan is also one of Iran’s poorest and most underserved provinces. Tehran has great difficulty administering law and order in the region, having to rely instead on harsh security crackdowns that alienate the public. Given its poverty, lawlessness, and porous border with Pakistan, Iranian Baluchistan has emerged as a smuggler’s paradise, a reputation that has made it both a regular target of the Iranian security services and an attractive base for enterprising criminals. (8) The activities of Jundollah group (Army of God) according to Iran, is “an extremist Sunni/Wahabi terrorist organization with links to Al-Qaeda, based in Baluchistan of Pakistan.” Iran has regularly accused Jundollah of receiving support from US, British, and Saudi intelligence in an effort to destabilize the Islamic Republic from within by fomenting ethnic and sectarian strife) in the area, is basically benefiting from bad economic conditions of the people dependent on agricultural work in Baluchistan and the flow of Helmand water to the area is getting more political dimensions for both sides.

Apparently the Iranian Government insists that the provisions of the 1973 Treaty on Helmand can the basis of the cooperation between the two sides and the Afghan side believes that the treaty was not ratified by the Parliament of Afghanistan and it is null and void. Treaty was priding that 26 cubic meters of water per second should flow to Iran. The treaty was in fact concluded by the mediation efforts of the US and its negotiations took place with the US help.

In this case of the annulment of the treaty, the situation should return to the Status Quo Ante or the exiting situation before the treaty. Also, the two sides have formed joint commissions to look into the water conflicts and they have made the 1973 the basis of their efforts. According to the International Law on the legal regime of the international rivers the riparian states have clear rights that should be observed. Upper riparian states are under an obligation not to prevent such waters from flowing to lower riparian country. (9)

Thanks to the financial institutions that act as the specialized agencies of the UN (especially the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) the international law on the international rivers has improved. The reason for serious involvement of such agencies in the concerned subject is that they do not give loans to states who intend to violate the riparian rights and when they give the loan make it conditional on observation of those rights.

The Afghan side believes Iran has taken the instability of Afghanistan for getting more of the Helmand water. They believe Iran has made several channels from the Helmand, while according to the 1973 Treaty they could have two channels only. The Afghan side believes that Iran is depositing the waters near Zabol. (10) Also, the 1973 treaty provided that Iran “buys” some of the waters of Helmand from Afghanistan and the Afghan side believes that Iran is not paying for those parts.

It seems that both Iran and Afghanistan look at the 1973 Treaty as something imposed on them. At the same time, they have acted as if the treaty can be “saved”.

According to Hirmand (Helmand) River Water Treaty 1973 between Iran and Afghanistan and with regards to its Protocol No.1, both countries have participated Hirmand (Helmand) River common commissioners sessions since 2003. During above sessions two countries try to solve problems about Iran water rights based on monthly table of water distribution (Protocol No.2) and also other common activities in the river. (11)


(1), 9/8/2005

(2) , 9/8/2005

(3) , 9/8/2005

(4) , 9/8/2005

(5) Tabnak ,

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