Huda al-Husseini

The Conflict Begins to Emerge, from Iran and Afghanistan

On May 27, the AP reported that fierce clashes between the Taliban and Iran erupted on the Iranian-Afghan border on Saturday, killing and wounding troops on both sides.

Tensions over rights to shared waters have been rising sharply for months, and after culminating in the recent border clashes, the armies of both countries have been put on high alert. At its core, this is a conflict over shared water resources. The Helmand River, which is essential to the livelihoods of the people living in this arid region and lies on a geopolitical fault line, is the main point of contention.

The Helmand River at the heart of this dispute is 1,000 kilometers long. It begins in Afghanistan and stretches into the drought-prone eastern provinces of Iran. Historically, this river has been a vital source of water for both countries. It is crucial to agriculture and electricity generation, and therefore to people’s livelihoods in this arid region.

Nonetheless, water scarcity, as well as climate change and the recurrent droughts it has caused, have aggravated matters.

Iran has been hit particularly hard. It has been suffering from severe water shortages for over three decades, leaving an estimated 97 percent of the country suffering from water scarcity, according to the Iran Meteorological Organization. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, a country that also has a scarcity of water, has had to deal with drought for the third consecutive year.

The 1973 bilateral treaty that outlined each country’s rights to the Helmand River complicates matters further. Despite the treaty, Kabul’s desire to build a dam on the river to generate electricity and irrigate the water has infuriated Iran. The dam has sparked a new series of disputes over the interpretation and implementation of the treaty.

Their row recently descended into violence. Iranian state media accused the Taliban of firing the first shot, a claim refuted by the Afghan authorities. Each country has presented a divergent narrative regarding what happened; Iran reported taking significant damage and casualties, while Afghanistan used a softer tone and downplayed the ferocity of the conflict.

Tensions remain high. The Melak border crossing, a route crucial to trade between the two countries, has been temporarily closed. Moreover, these skirmishes could well make things even worse for the 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran, exacerbating their already precarious situation.

The confluence of climate change, geopolitical interests, and historical grievances paint a complicated picture that could undermine bilateral relations between Kabul and Tehran.

The repercussions of the border clashes could stretch far beyond the Helmand River. Since both countries are seemingly on a collision course, regional powers will probably be pulled in. China, a pivotal actor in the region, has maintained ties with the Taliban government. It thus has a major stake in Afghanistan's political and economic trajectory.

Beijing hopes to see a safe Afghanistan where it can access the mineral wealth scattered across the country, as well as build land infrastructure projects linking the three countries (China - Iran - Afghanistan). Beijing’s plans would be put on shaky ground if a clash were to break out between the two countries, as would its status as the most influential mediator between Afghanistan and Iran.

Given that both Iran and Afghanistan have no real alternatives to China, the prospect of more Chinese investment, particularly in sectors such as energy and infrastructure, could impel them to agree to a solution.

On the other hand, given the root cause of the conflict and the millions of Afghan refugees in Iran, UN mediation is also expected to play a vital role in pushing for them to take a political approach. According to reports, short-term measures will include agreeing to a cease-fire and enhancing diplomatic channels to defuse tensions. In the long term, a sustainable water-sharing framework will be developed. It will account for climate change and other factors putting a strain on water supplies that had not been considered in the treaty that Tehran and Kabul signed in 1973.

Given the implications of climate change, resource scarcity, and geopolitical interests, the Helmand River dispute is likely to go on until a mutually acceptable solution for the 1973 bilateral treaty is found and ratified by both sides. Reports add that given its growing diplomatic influence and its recent track record in the region, China is likely to mediate, pressuring both sides to agree to a solution so that it can see the benefits of current and future projects.

In any event, the ongoing water dispute between Afghanistan and Iran presents a stark picture of the aggravating global struggles for resources that are being depleted by climate change and population growth. In fact, the manner in which these countries (under the watchful eye of regional powers and international bodies) address this dispute could well set a precedent for other water disputes we are bound to see breaking out elsewhere very soon.