World wars over water

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 22 Jul 2023

The world has long been embroiled in conflicts over precious natural resources. However, since the mid-20th century, countries have become more acutely aware than ever of the looming threat of water scarcity.

World wars over water
World wars over water


The burgeoning population, coupled with surging industrial operations and production requirements, have necessitated ever-increasing quantities of water. Climatic disruptions wrought by industrialisation in Europe and North America have exacerbated the crisis. Water has also been used as a source of pressure to secure other gains from different parties.

The last 70 years have witnessed a significant uptick in dam construction, a measure aimed at generating hydroelectric power and establishing irrigation networks. This has particularly been the case in nations where rivers originate, even if they do not fully capitalise on local precipitation.

Anxiety over water resources today has begun to manifest itself in the form of skirmishes that portend a catastrophic escalation, threatening to unleash interminable conflicts that will bring neither victory nor peace.

The prevailing situation is untenable, especially between neighbouring countries that rely on rivers for their water like an oasis in the desert.

Iran, a nation beset by drought for three decades, is understandably worried about the dwindling water supply from the Helmand River, which originates in Afghanistan.

Kenya is experiencing escalating societal tensions due to the depletion of Lake Turkana, which sustains the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it for grazing and hunting. The reduction in the lake’s water level is caused by the operation of the Gebe III Dam on the Omo River in neighbouring Ethiopia, which feeds a vast desert lake with over 90 per cent of its water.

Iraq and northern Syria have been under Turkish pressure since 1990 to provide oil in exchange for water. Parts of Syria have dried up as a result of its confrontation with Ankara-backed terrorist groups.

Such water-related conflicts are not exclusive to these countries alone, but instead are part of a global phenomenon affecting both the Eastern and Western nations. One solution to the world’s water crisis lies in the development of low-cost technologies to desalinate seawater. Until then, tensions and conflicts over water are likely to persist.

I - Iran-Afghanistan dispute

Long-standing disputes between Iran and Afghanistan over water rights have recently turned into deadly clashes.

The dispute between Iran and Afghanistan over rights to the water of the Helmand River that runs through the two countries reached a deadly climax on 27 May and resulted in the deaths of two people, one from each side, and two injuries, the Kabul and Tehran authorities have reported.

The fighting broke out between Iranian border guards and Taliban fighters in the Makki border area following disputes over the flow of the river. Both Tehran and Kabul have pointed accusing fingers, blaming the other for successive dry seasons that have led to reduced water levels.

Iran and Afghanistan are grappling with unprecedented droughts, with the Iranian Meteorological Institute estimating that about 97 per cent of the country was affected by drought to some degree in 2020. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has reported that Iran has suffered from multiple droughts in the past 30 years, with the situation worsening in the last decade.

Similarly, Afghanistan has been suffering from a massive drought that has prompted the FAO to appeal to the international community for assistance. Seven million Afghans who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods are threatened, it said in a report published in August 2021.

The situation is particularly dire for those among the 14 million people in Afghanistan already suffering from food insecurity, or one third of the population, it said.

Relations between Iran and the Taliban government in Afghanistan have been complicated, with Iran initially supporting Islamic groups hostile to the Taliban and not recognising the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan following the final withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

In 1998, the Taliban killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist in the Iranian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which led to tensions between the two countries.

The Iranian media at the time considered that going to war against the Taliban would be a trap that could bring together hardline Sunni Islamists to repeat the defeat of the former Soviet army in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. But Iran supported the US in overthrowing the Taliban during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, though it also granted refuge to dozens of Taliban fighters fleeing the country.

Over the years, Iran has been developing relations with successive Kabul authorities, notably during the periods in office of former Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai (2002-2014) and Ashraf Ghani (2014-2021).

But the two countries have not been able to implement the 1973 Agreement on sharing the water of the Helmand River.

With the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan for the second time in August 2021, clashes broke out over Helmand again in December of the same year, but the two sides quickly contained them.

The Helmand River originates from the south of the Hindu Kush Mountains north of Kabul and flows for over 1,000 km before draining into the Iranian Lake Hamoun near the border with Afghanistan.

It is the most important river in Afghanistan and its basin accounts for 40 per cent of the country’s area.

Under the 1973 Agreement, the amount of water allocated to Iran from the river is just over 82 million cubic metres out of a total of 5.66 billion cubic metres. However, Afghanistan has since built two dams on the Ajrandab River, the main tributary of the Helmand River, as well as the Kajaki Dam on the main course of the river itself.

Construction is also underway for the Kamal Khan Dam north of the border with Iran.

There are several rivers bordering the two countries, such as the Harirud, Helmand, and Farah, as well as smaller rivers like the Harut, Khasbush, Khash, and Budai, all originating from Afghanistan and flowing into the Bozek and Sabri Lakes located near the border between the two countries.

The Helmand River is the main source of water supply for the Sistan Plain and is a vital artery for the Iranian provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, which suffer from chronic droughts.

Disputes over the river began in 1872, but were shelved during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880).

With the first attempts at development in Afghanistan during the reign of Habibullah Khan, conflicts arose again in 1903, when the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to settle them.

Problems in sharing the water of the river under a 1939 Agreement prompted the two countries to start the Washington talks in 1955, the first round of which ended without tangible results.

However, more development efforts launched during the reign of former Afghan King Zahir Shah during the 1950s and 1960s, and other modernisation endeavours in Iran during the reign of former Shah Mohamed Reza, led Kabul and Tehran to negotiate further over water-sharing and sign the 1973 Agreement.

But the agreement was not ratified, and the 1974 coup in Kabul, leading to the overthrow of the monarchy, followed by the 1979 Revolution in Iran, put it on hold.

However, the two parties have continued broadly to adhere to it, there being no political or legal alternative.

As the dispute over water-sharing between the two countries escalates, some have warned of the risk of armed conflict. “There is no doubt that Iran is stronger than the Taliban. But even for the more powerful side, going to war is not a favourable option,” said Ahmed Selim, a professor of Asian Studies in Cairo.

“The Taliban does not enjoy popularity in Afghanistan. This is a factor that raises the fears of the Kabul rulers,” he added.

The majority of the Taliban belong to the Pashtun ethnicity that constitutes more than 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s population but has placed it in a situation of conflict with smaller ethnic groups such as the Uzbeks and Tajiks.

The extremist Sunni-Salafi ideology of the Taliban also places the Shia Hazaras in the ranks of the Taliban’s opponents.

Iran has used the Hazaras to fight in the conflict in Syria, where they participated as the Fatimid Brigade and obtained combat training in a conflict that has claimed 300,000 lives.

“This could be a weapon that Iran could use against the Taliban, but it could also provoke Pakistan, which fears that the Pashtuns will unite against the rest of the components of Afghanistan,” Selim said.

“Pakistan has a significant Pashtun population of about 25 million people, and if the Pashtuns turn from the ideology of Political Islam to nationalism, it could lead to Pashtun nationalism gaining control over the country.”

The government of Dawoud Khan in Afghanistan in the 1950s rejected the so-called “Durand Line” between Afghanistan and Pakistan that was drawn up by secretary for foreign affairs in the government of British India Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in the 19th century.

The Durand Line divides the Pashtuns between the two countries, whereas the Pashtuns want to gain control over the Pashtun-dominated regions of both.

“Iran’s involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan could potentially lead to retaliation from Sunni countries, who could mobilise extremist fighters to take revenge on Shia Iran that defeated them in Syria and Iraq,” Selim said.

“If the Taliban prevents water from reaching Iran, will Iran engage in a war that would divide it from neighbouring countries, or will it risk losing precious water that is all the more necessary at a time of drought,” he asked.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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