Afghanistan’s Water Plans Complicated by Worried Neighbors


More than 40 years ago, the Soviet Union attempted to harness hydropower to modernize Afghanistan. Between 1960 and 1968, they poured money and technical knowledge into the 100-meter Naghlu gravity dam outside Kabul and a village for its workers called Sharnak. Although the town has been damaged and the boons of modernity remain elusive for many Afghans, the dam remains a crucial source of power for the capital and is the largest power plant in the country with an installed capacity of 100 megawatts.

Today, as Afghanistan continues its development with hopes of a brighter future, issues of water management and governance are once again rising to the fore. Industries that are crucial to Afghanistan’s economic growth, such as agriculture and mining, depend on effective water supplies, while a number of factors are increasing stress, including climate change, mismanagement, and population surges as refugees return home.

Afghanistan is completely landlocked and has few reservoirs. Consequently, while it has adequate water flow, thanks to the many headwaters in its high mountains, it lacks the capacity to store, use, and manage those flows. Meanwhile, scientists estimate that the need for water in the Kabul Basin will increase six-fold over the next 50 years as levels of available water decline due to increasing temperatures and climate change.

The current government, with the help of international partners such as the Asian Development Bank, which recently announced a $100 million grant for irrigation systems, hopes to improve water infrastructure to head off these problems.

But there are simmering transboundary water tensions throughout Central Asia. Afghanistan’s neighbors have historically laid claim to the waters that flow from the Hindu Kush Mountains and as Kabul appears poised to develop its water infrastructure substantially for the first time, its neighbors worry their shares may be diminished.

A Neglected Sector

Decades of war have caused extensive damage to Afghanistan’s infrastructure, leaving only 20 percent of the rural population with access to clean and viable water sources, one of the lowest percentages in the world. Bombing and shelling have destroyed many irrigation works, and the various administrations that have ruled pockets of the country at different times have put little emphasis on rebuilding, including the Taliban.

Under these circumstances, questions of water usage and ownership have taken on additional importance, especially in agriculture. An estimated 80 percent of Afghans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and 95 percent of water usage is for agriculture.

Only 5% of development funding over the past decade has gone to water

With such a disproportionately large national dependence on farming, one might think water management has been a priority. But only five percent of development funding over the past decade has gone to the water sector, according to the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

Assessments of Afghanistan’s infrastructure therefore point to the need for many new small and large dams to produce power and capture irrigation water. As the government turns to it, there will be new diplomatic challenges accompanying this task.

Disputes over water have been common in Central Asia for centuries. The only treaty Afghanistan has in place to specify water allocation with a neighbor is with Iran, and it has not been without complications.

Water allocations from the Helmand River, which crosses into Iran, have been contentious since at least the 1800s. The 1973 Helmand River Treaty was supposed to solve that. It specifies Iran is to receive 22 square meters per second of flow from the Helmand Basin, with an additional 4 square meters per second thrown in for “goodwill and brotherly relations.” But Afghan officials have stated that Iran is receiving far more than that allocation and announced plans to construct or renovate several dams in the basin. Afghanistan needs the power from the Helmand, while Iran needs drinking water.

The problem is further complicated by the ecologically sensitive Sistan wetlands or “Hamoons.” The Sistan region is one of the most arid on Earth. The Hamoon wetlands, which are protected under the Ramsar Convention, depend on water from the Helmand and its tributaries for their existence. Without adequate flow, the Sistan region could see higher temperatures and waterfowl would lose a critical stop during seasonal migrations.

Amidst a Contested Region

Perhaps due to the difficulties of the Helmand treaty, Afghan officials have been wary of signing new water agreements elsewhere. In response to recent news that Pakistan may be drawing up a new treaty for the Kabul River, the Afghan deputy minister of energy and water flatly denied it and said they would not sign “any agreement on sharing of water” if it harmed the country’s national interests.

But new water treaties are exactly what’s needed. The Soviet Union heavily influenced water allocation in this region and there have been few formal efforts to update cross-border agreements since its collapse.

In 2013, Afghan officials accused Pakistan of aiding an attack on the Afghan-India Friendship Dam

With Pakistan, there have been disputes over the Kabul River since partition. Thirteen dams planned on the Afghan side are estimated to reduce the river’s 17 million-acre feet of flow across the border by up to 17 percent.

Elsewhere, Afghanistan has raised concerns about the Dasu Dam, a World Bank-funded project under construction on the Indus River. Afghan officials say there have been no cross-border consultations or a proper environmental assessment, while Pakistan has dismissed objections pointing out that as Afghanistan is neither an “upper or lower riparian country on the river” it should not be concerned with the project.

Further complicating the relationship is the involvement of India. India has pledged to help Afghanistan build a new reservoir on the Kabul River as a sign of friendship. And last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated what is known as the “Afghan-India Friendship Dam,” or Salma Dam, in Herat Province on the Hari River.

The new dam, reportedly capable of generating 42 megawatts of power and irrigating 75,000 hectares of land, has created tension on several fronts. Turkmenistan and Iran have expressed concerns about their shares of water being diminished, and Pakistan has opposed it due to its rivalry with India. In 2013, Afghan officials said they stopped a Taliban plan to blow up the dam with 2,860 pounds of explosives and that the attackers had received help from Pakistani intelligence.

Better Late Than Never?

Afghanistan has the right to develop its water resources, which have for so long been neglected. But without treaties in place to assure its neighbors their supplies are secure, each step of the way will be met with resistance and fear. Much like in other conflictive and stressed basins in the world, preventative hydro diplomacy is necessary to avoid future conflict and pave the way for sustainable and peaceful development.

New water treaties, with Pakistan most urgently, but also Turkmenistan, Tajikistan for the Panj/Amu Darya River Basin, and Iran, are critical to success. It might be most advantageous to begin with Iran, says the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman.

“Given how ugly relations have become with Pakistan, you just don’t want to go there right now, even on a relatively soft issue like water,” Kugelman says. “It’s much safer to talk water with Tehran, which is an easier diplomatic lift because bilateral relations are relatively cordial.”

The Afghan government would also do well to involve communities in the planning process to ensure buy-in and avoid local conflicts, and perhaps to explore a joint commission to create an institutionalized regional framework for water management. Ideally, a commission would involve all riparian nations in the region and discuss issues impacting water scarcity – such as climate change, population growth, mass migration, agricultural and potable water needs – that could exacerbate conflict in the near future.

Elizabeth B. Hessami, J.D., LL.M., is an adjunct professor of environmental governance at Linfield College and visiting attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.

Sources: Al-Monitor, Ariana News, BBC Uzbek, Center for Afghanistan Studies, The Christian Science Monitor, Civil Service India, The Diplomat, Duran, EastWest Institute, Gerda Henkel Stiftung, International Water Law Project, Journal of Sustainable Energy, Khaama Press, Ministry of Finance (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), OneWorld South Asia, The Third Pole, U.S. Department of State, Wadsam.

Photo Credit: Kajaki Dam, Helmand Province, March 2013, courtesy of Musadeq Sadeq/U.S. Department of State.