Tension has prevailed over the Iran-Afghanistan borders that span over 900 kilometers upon pressures put by Tehran on the government of “Taliban” regarding the former’s share of water from the Helmand River that flows into Hamun Lake in Iranian Baluchestan province.
Iranian Armed Forces Spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi stated last week that the whole world is fueling the dispute between Iran and Afghanistan.
In mid-May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi issued a warning to the Taliban: honor Afghanistan’s water-supply agreement or face the consequences.
A well-known Taliban figure offered a mocking gift of a 20-liter water container in response and told him to stop making terrifying ultimatums.
About a week later, a skirmish erupted on the border, leaving two Iranian guards and one Taliban member dead. The Taliban sent thousands of troops and hundreds of suicide bombers to the area, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg, claiming the group is prepared for war with Iran over a water dispute.
After two decades fighting the US, Taliban leaders now find themselves sparring with neighbors as the realities of global warming hit home. The dispute with Iran over depleted water resources is further destabilizing an already volatile region.
“The water shortages in the Helmand River basin are a result of climate change as the country heats up and suffers huge excesses of rainfall followed by terrible dry spells,” said experts. “Temperatures in the country are up 1.8C since 1950.”
Iran signed an agreement in 1973 for Afghanistan to supply a stipulated amount of water a year in “normal” climate conditions from the Helmand, a more than 1,000-kilometer waterway that runs from the Afghan Hindu Kush mountains through the country and into Iran.
The water from Afghanistan’s longest river is critical for agriculture and consumed by millions of people on both sides of the border, according to Bloomberg.
Iran argues the Taliban reduced the water supply since it returned to power and isn’t keeping Afghanistan’s side of the bargain.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in a press conference last week that “preliminary agreements are in place” with the government of Taliban over Iran’s rights to water from Helmand, without providing further details.
“Take my words seriously,” Raisi, Iran’s president since 2021, said during a visit to Baluchestan, the country’s poorest province, which was hit hard by the water shortage. “I warn the officials and rulers of Afghanistan that they should honor the water rights of the people of Baluchestan.”
Taliban spokesmen Zabihullah Mujahid and Bilal Karimi didn’t respond to calls and messages seeking comment.
Mujahid said in May Raisi’s comments were inappropriate and could harm ties.
Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi contends the issue only occurred because of drought, and Afghanistan respects the agreement.
But despite the call for diplomacy, the Taliban prepared for war. As well as soldiers and suicide bombers, its rare military deployment also included hundreds of military vehicles and weapons left behind by the US, the person said, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
“Both sides can make a case to justify their positions,” said Omar Samad, a senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank the Atlantic Council and former Afghan envoy to Canada and France. He pointed to Afghanistan’s “protracted state of crisis” and Iran’s need for water at a time of drought.
If neither wants to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, it will be “politically irrational and lead to regional destabilization at a time when neither side can afford conflict,” he said.
Iranian lawmakers said in June the situation in Baluchestan is so dire that a “humanitarian disaster” will occur if people don’t get access to water, according to local media.
More than 10,000 families fled the province’s capital in the last year, according to a report.
At least 300 towns and cities in Iran face acute water stress as the planet gets hotter. The Iranian authorities are facing charges of water mismanagement especially regarding the construction of dams.
Some 20 million people moved to cities because the land is too dry for farming, according to one academic.