Assessment of the Potential Security Challenges Posed by Water Security Between Afghanistan and Iran
Max Taylor is currently an Intern Intelligence and Security Analyst at Intelligence Fusion where he focuses on the Afghan security landscape. Max also has a Master’s degree in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Max contributes to the @AfghanOSINTTwitter account. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Potential Security Challenges Posed by Water Security Between Afghanistan and Iran
Date Originally Written: September 8, 2017.
Date Originally Published: October 23, 2017.
Summary: Whilst the relationship between Afghanistan and Iran is characterised by generations of shared history and culture, concerns over water security provide a more contemporary security challenge. Iran’s reliance on Afghanistan’s water supply and Afghanistan’s refusal to cede control over its waterways to Iran will ensure that this issue, if left undressed, will fester.
Text: Water security between Afghanistan and Iran is not necessarily a new concern, as disputes can be traced back to the 19th century when Afghanistan was under British control. However, as time has progressed, water security as a challenge facing Afghanistan and Iran has continued to grow. In an attempt to respond to the looming challenges posed by water security, both countries have engaged in various treaties and agreements which intended to ensure Iran received a sufficient amount of water. The question as to how to allocate sufficient water supply to Iran has not been simple, as the treaties designed to manage the Afghan water supply have largely failed to provide effective oversight and control. Therefore, with much of Iran’s water supply originating in Afghan sovereign territory, Iran has very little control over their own water supply. This relative lack of reliable control over their own water supply is a particularly pressing concern for Iran, and is likely to continue to dominate the Afghan-Iran relationship. This article will aim to expand upon this assumption by first examining the position from which both parties approach their water security, and will then analyse what Iran has done to address the problems it faces.
From Iran’s perspective, the forecast is somewhat bleak. A study by Dr. M. Molanejad and Dr. A. Ranjbar suggested that Iran has seen more extremes of weather as a result of climate change, such as draught, and can continue to expect additional extremes of weather. Precipitation levels recorded in Molanejad and Ranjbar’s study show that in 1998, Iran saw its lowest total precipitation since 1969, but show that such extremes are only going to occur more often. As within 10 years of the 1998 draught, a similar extreme low in rainfall was recorded which exceeded that of 1998. Furthermore, agreements such as the 1973 agreement between Afghanistan and Iran which guarantees that Iran can expect to receive 22 cubic meters per second of water from Afghanistan provide little comfort. The water allowance extract of this agreement is a static figure (albeit with the option to buy increased water allowance) and therefore does not correlate with predicted Iranian population increase. With Iran’s population expected to be over 90 million in 2021, the figures of the 1973 agreement will not be sufficient in years to come. As climate change is expected to increase the occurrence of extremes of weather, it is wise to assume that Iran’s fragile reliance on their Afghan water supply will become increasingly important.
Within this context the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) is unlikely to commit to agreements which may limit their control over their own water ways. Development of water management projects such as the Baksh-Abad Hydroelectric Station is both an effective way to win over the hearts of the Afghan population in the NUG’s ongoing conflict against the Taliban and a highly symbolic move. In Afghan provinces such as Nimroz, where agriculture characterises the majority of the province, a damming project instigated by the NUG is an effective way for the NUG to connect with a population traditionally isolated from Kabul’s central control. Construction of water management projects also acts as a symbolic gesture to the people of Afghanistan and the international community. The NUG’s leading role in organising the projects suggests to observers that the NUG is capable of rebuilding itself in the wake of decades of conflict.
With climate change promising to increase the frequency of extreme weather and the creation of additional water management projects continuing in Afghanistan, time is not on the side of Iran. Iran is not ignorant of this fact, and has attempted to assert an element of control over Afghan’s water supply. Iranian President Rouhani has attempted to voice his concerns regarding water security through traditional diplomatic means, but Iran has also been accused of pursing more covert avenues of approach. Afghan and U.S. officials have frequently accused Iran of supporting the Taliban by funding and supplying the group. As part of this support, Iran is accused of using the Taliban to sabotage key Afghan water management projects such as the Kamal Khan Dam which Iran claims will negatively affect the Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan Province. In 2011, a Taliban commander was allegedly offered $50,000 by Iran to sabotage the Kamal Khan Dam. Predictably, Iran explicitly denies that it supports the Taliban, and justifies its dialogue with the group by highlighting their common interest in combating the Islamic State.
Iran’s alleged support for the Taliban as a foreign policy tool has led to obvious implications for the Afghan-Iranian relationship. With Iranian support for the Taliban being denied by Iran, and largely conducted under the guise of plausible deniability, the Afghan NUG is struggling to bring Iran to justice for their accused support. Regardless, the sheer volume of accusations of Iranian support for the Taliban emanating from analysts, policy makers and Afghans alike adds an element of credibility to the claims. The exact nature of Iran’s support for the Taliban is unclear, as the Taliban is a largely decentralised force with local commanders having substantial autonomy. Furthermore, the Taliban’s traditional opposition to Iranian backed Shia groups in Afghanistan also holds back an ideologically supported relationship forming freely.
In order to comprehend the complexity of the issues posed by Afghan-Iranian water security, it is important to observe the subject from the perspective of both countries. Iran finds itself stuck between a metaphorical rock and a hard place, with climate change and a rising population acting as the rock, and the continued creation of water management projects acting as the hard place. On the other hand, the Afghan government is faced with a powerful Taliban insurgency and a distinct lack of public support from within more remote areas of the rural south. Therefore, improved irrigation would act as an effective bridge between the NUG and the rural Afghan population of provinces such as Nimroz. With both Afghanistan and Iran’s disposition in mind, it is difficult to comprehend how such an issue will be resolved.
 Fatemeh Aman, Retrieved 10th September 2017, from: http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/resources/docs/Atlantic%20Council-Water%20Dispute.pdf
 Dr M. Molanejad & Dr A. Ranjbar, Retrieved September 8th 2017, from: http://www.comsats.org/Latest/3rd_ITRGs_ClimateChange/Dr_Molanejad.pdf
 Parviz Garshasbi, Retrieved September 8th 2017, from: http://www.droughtmanagement.info/literature/UNW-DPC_NDMP_Country_Report_Iran_2014.pdf
 Ahmad Majidyar, Retrieved September 8th 2017, from: https://www.mei.edu/content/io/iran-and-russia-team-taliban-undermine-us-led-mission-afghanistan
 Radio Free Europe, Retrieved September 10th 2017. from: https://www.rferl.org/a/captured_taliban_commander_claims_trained_in_iran/24305674.html
This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.