Deadly Afghanistan-Iran border flare-up highlights scarcity crisis

Iran and Afghanistan are vying for control over the supply of a crucial resource that is shrinking day by day: water.

Violence along the border between the two tumultuous countries has erupted in recent weeks, fueled by a dispute over water that flows from Afghanistan’s Helmand River to Iran. Tehran says the Afghan Taliban government is deliberately depriving Iran of sufficient water supplies to bolster its own; but the Taliban say there is not enough water left to begin with, due to falling rainfall and lower river levels.

Iranian and Afghan border guards clashed on May 27, exchanging heavy fire that killed two Iranian guards and a Taliban soldier and injured several others. Both sides blame each other for instigating the fighting, which has thrust the region’s water issues back into the spotlight.

Risk of destabilization in Iran

The situation risks destabilizing an already poor and water-deprived part of Iran, where serious protests against the government have taken place in recent years.

“The water dispute with Afghanistan is not something Iran can take lightly,” Verisk senior Middle East and North Africa analyst Torbjorn Soltvedt told CNBC. Maplecroft. “Water resources in Iran are under severe pressure and water stress has been the trigger for large-scale civil unrest in recent years.”

In the summer of 2021, protests began in Khuzestan province in western Iran over ensuing water shortages and power outages as hydroelectric power plants ran out of supply . Dubbed “the uprising of the thirsty”, the protests quickly spread to several cities across Iran, including the capital, Tehran, and led to a heavy government crackdown that resulted in police and civilian casualties.

Struggling with US sanctions, a severely weakened economy and a continuing anti-government protest movement, Iran is already under significant pressure. “With authorities still struggling to contain protests nationwide,” Soltvedt said, “a water security crisis in eastern Iran would come at a particularly difficult time.”

A dangerous frontier

The 580-mile border between Afghanistan and Iran is porous and teeming with crime, mostly coming from the Afghan side towards Iran. Afghanistan has been plagued by instability and war for decades, and the ruling Taliban government derives a significant portion of its revenue from illicit trade.

“Iran’s Afghan border has always been the most vulnerable,” said Kamal Alam, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. It is home to “a number of problems including narcotics, human trafficking and terrorism” – but is simultaneously a very important source of water, Alam said.

Tensions over water between the two countries go back a long way. In the 1950s, Afghanistan built two large dams that restricted the flow of water from the Helmand River to Iran. This angered Tehran and threatened its relations, eventually leading to the signing of a treaty in 1973 that allocated Iran 850 million cubic meters of Helmand water per year.

But subsequent revolutions, invasions, wars and dramatic changes of government in both countries meant that the treaty was never fully implemented.

“Since the 1973 water treaty between the two, they have repeatedly come close to war due to various Afghan governments using Iran’s water vulnerability as leverage on bilateral issues,” Alam said. .

Climate change and worsening threats

Scientists have long warned that climate change increases the risk of wars and refugee crises as countries compete for the natural resources they need to live.

“Disagreements over water allocations for the Helmand River are difficult to overcome as neither country has the capacity to bring more water to the region,” said Ryan Bohl, senior analyst for the Middle East. East and North Africa at Rane. “It’s already an extremely dry region, but issues like climate change and overexploitation are making it worse.”

“In a way,” he said, “it’s a classic driver of conflict, a competition for a scarce resource that neither side can live without.”

In mid-May, a Taliban press release expressed Afghan support for the 1973 treaty, but said: “Since there has been a drought in Afghanistan and the region in recent years and the the water level has gone down… the provinces of the country are suffering from drought and there is not enough water.In such a situation, we consider as harmful the frequent demand for water from Iran and the declarations inappropriate in the media.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in response, told Afghan leaders to take his words “very seriously”, saying “I warn the leaders of Afghanistan to give the rights of the people by [the Iranian border regions of] Sistan and Balochistan immediately. A Taliban commander retaliated by saying there was no water to give Iran and warning, “Don’t attack us. We are not afraid.”

Tehran then issued a statement emphasizing the fact that it does not recognize the Taliban as the ruling body of Afghanistan. The back and forth has only heightened tensions, and some fear May’s border shooting could be a sign of worse to come.

Rane’s Bohl expects the problem to escalate as “water scarcity is a very complicated problem that requires large and costly infrastructure investments to overcome, which neither Iran nor Afghanistan, strongly sanctioned, are unable to resolve,” he said.

He expects the outbreaks of violence between the two to continue, along with continued disruptions to Afghanistan’s water supply – bad news for an already desperately impoverished country.

This “could hurt Afghanistan’s agricultural production over time and damage its already fragile economy and worsen food shortages,” Bohl said.

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