The history and politics of the legal and institutional arrangements in the Helmand River Basin

The 1,300 km Helmand River originates in the Hindu Kush mountains west of Kabul in Afghanistan. Near Qale Bist, the river’s major tributary, known as the Arghandab River, joins the Helmand River. Crossing southwest, then north, it forms 55 km of the Afghan-Iranian border and ultimately ends in the 18,000 km2 Sistan delta, where it forms a large complex of three main interconnected wetlands, the Hamoun-e-Puzak, Hamoun-e-Saberi, and Hamoun-e-Hirmand, and subsequently overflows to the south into the Gaud-e-Zirreh. While most of the river basin is located in Afghanistan, a large part of the delta, in particular the Hamoun wetlands, is located in Iran. See Figure 10.1 below for a map of the basin.

The Helmand River, with an average surface water availability of 9,552 million cubic meter (MCM),1’ is considered the lifeblood of one of the poorest regions of both riparian states. The water resources of the HRB are used extensively for irrigation and are crucial for Afghan and Iranian farmers alike. In addition, the Helmand River is a critical resource for sustaining the transboundary Hamoun wetlands, which, from an environmental perspective, are the most important parts of the river delta. The livelihood of people living around the Hamoun wetlands is extremely dependent on the water resources of the Helmand

The Helmand River Basin

Figure 10.1 The Helmand River Basin.

River, supporting activities such as fishing, reeds harvesting, and bird hunting. Only the Iranian side of the wetlands is listed under the Ramsar Convention and recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2016.12 However, the Hamoun wetlands have gradually diminished, seriously threatening the ecosystem and livelihoods of local communities, which puts public pressure on the Iranian government.

Both Afghanistan and Iran have unilaterally implemented water development projects with the aim of achieving their respective “hydraulic missions.” According to Vincent Thomas and Manijeh Mahmoudzadeh Varzi,13 Afghanistan currently uses surface water mostly for agricultural purposes (with explosive growth in opium cultivation),14 yet the total irrigable 250,219 ha cannot be irrigated to its full extent while also suffering from a lack of proper infrastructure to secure drinking water. In addition to operating the Kajaki Dam and Dahla Dam since the 1950s, Afghanistan currently plans to develop several other dams like the Kamal Khan—which is upstream near the Iranian border—and increasing the storage capacity of the Kajaki Dam in order to expand irrigated areas. A further dam that is under construction is the Bakhsh Abad on the Farah River. The dams are also considered for generating electricity.

These unilateral dam developments and irrigation expansion in Afghanistan, particularly for opium cultivation, have always attracted sharp criticism from Iran. It blames Afghanistan for not respecting the treaty and downstream rights, and the needs of the Hamoun wetlands in particular. These concerns were expressed by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran at a United Nations (UN)-backed conference on sand and dust storms in Tehran; showing his deep concern by remarking that “building dams [in Afghanistan]15 without studying environmental aspects is damaging for the region.”16 In response to these criticisms, Afghanistan argues that, “Iran has no right for water more than the allocated amount in the treaty.”17 A few days after Rouhani's speech, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said that “water is another major resource for Afghanistan,” and that “we are already investing in dams and irrigation infrastructure to raise agricultural productivity, and as technical designs are completed we will be accelerating investment in this sector that is key for both growth and poverty reduction.”18

Iran started to develop reservoirs in the early 1980s in order to secure water for the livelihoods of local residents, particularly in harsh times of drought. Four reservoirs known as Chahnimeh have been developed for securing drinking water and the agricultural demands of 120,000 ha. Despite the government’s effort to conduct several projects to increase efficiency and decrease the total irrigated lands in Sistan plain, in order to align the water demand with the allocated waters provided for in the treaty,19 it has not yet fully achieved the desired goals.

In a similar vein, and in response to the Iranian concerns, Afghanistan blames Iran both for exceeding its allocation of water under the treaty and mismanagement that, the Afghan government argues, negatively affects the Hamoun wetlands. Iran has rejected this accusation and asked Afghanistan to be committed to the treaty and cooperate over the protection of the transboundary Hamoun wetlands.

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