By: Pir Mohammad Mollazehi
Kamal Khan Dam is part of a project of water management of Helmand River. Kajakai Dam has already been built 800 km upstream and other dam construction projects are under scrutiny, all of which aim to implement effective water management in Helmand basin. So far, so good. But, the issue of Helmand water management has other dimensions that, if not addressed, could turn the opportunities into threats. One of these sensitive issues is the water right of the Iranian part of Great Sistan and Hamun Lake, which, despite the 1973 agreement between Iran and Afghanistan, have not been fully operational due to various reasons. The inauguration of Kamal Khan Dam took place amid the joy of the people by Mr. Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan. Despite the positive and negative initial perceptions, I think it is extremely important.
The president of Afghanistan referred to two important issues during the opening ceremony of the Kamal Khan Dam:
First, Afghanistan's adherence to the 1973 Iran-Afghanistan treaty. The fact is that the Kamal Khan Dam and its high capacity in water storage has provided a historic opportunity for the Sistan water right and the Hamun water right in its Iranian part to be operationalized in a regular and trustworthy manner. The fact that Mr. Ashraf Ghani has confirmed Afghanistan's adherence to the 1973 agreement is a positive and important step that has also been welcomed by Iran.
Second, Mr. Ghani also said that if Iran needs more water, Afghanistan is ready to exchange it for fuel. Although this part of Mr. Ghani's speech was misinterpreted and raised concerns, he kept the door open for dialogue.
But why is Kamal Khan Dam both an opportunity and a threat? To understand this, we need to take a realistic look at the dual nature of the Helmand delta basin.
A: Integrated natural geography
The water basin of the Helmand delta has an inseparable natural geography as well as an integrated and intertwined destiny. The Helmand delta is actually composed of three interconnected parts: The Sistan plain and Hamun Lake, which are located in the national territory of Iran and Afghanistan, and Gude -zereh depression, which is located in Afghanistan and receives Hamun’s excessive water via the Shileh canal.
B: Integrated human geography
The fact is that the water basin of the Helmand delta has historically been inhabited by the people from a single cultural and historical lineage, and the dividing political boundaries have not been able to damage this inherent unity and connection. The people of the Helmand delta have an integrated destiny and this is an undeniable fact.
Given these facts, we can return to our initial question regarding the opportunities and threats of the Kamal Khan Dam. In my opinion, Kamal Khan Dam is an opportunity, provided that:
The water management of Helmand basin is viewed in accordance with the integrated nature of its human and natural geography and the two countries of Afghanistan and Iran enter into a constructive interaction regardless of the separating political point of views. Helmand has seen many wet and dry seasons. So, cooperation over Helmand’s water should be organized in a way that it secures the needs of both Sistan and Hamun basin under any natural condition.
Nimruz province, where the Kamal Khan Dam is located, is the closest province of Afghanistan to the strategic port of Chabahar, where different transit projects are being implemented. Therefore, this province can connect the landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia to the port of Chabahar and open waters via Milak Bridge on Helmand River. Ashraf Ghani’s referral to the Nimruz province as the landing place of Chabahar is important in this regard - a remark that will promise a long-term cooperation between the two friendly countries and a sustainable development.
But at the same time, the Kamal Khan Dam will be threatening if:
Be caught in possible political divisions and distance from its unifying nature. The fact is that Sistan and Hamun does not have the capacity to be separated by political borders. Any unbalanced water distribution and partial management in Helmand water basin can affect the whole of Sistan and its neighboring provinces, from Kandahar in the east to Herat in the west of Helmand water basin in Afghanistan as well as Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan and its neighboring provinces such as South Khorasan, Razavi Khorasan and Kerman in the form of dust and the 120-days wind.
Any divisiveness regarding the Helmand watershed, is in contrast with its integrated nature and could fuel the flames of unnecessary political differences between Iran and Afghanistan. The importance of this issue is in the fact that Iran and Afghanistan are located in the dry belt of the earth which has the most fluctuations in term of rainfall. Meanwhile, the environmentalists predict even worse years in terms of rainfall for the earth's dry belt due to the global warming and believe that any mismanagement of water in the shared rivers between two or more upstream and downstream countries could lead to a war over water resources.
Given these considerations, it appears that Iran and Afghanistan have no choice but to cooperate over water management in the Helmand watershed. Kamal Khan Dam is now completed and has created the opportunity for joint management. The water right of both parts of Sistan and Hamun, which are located in the national territory of Iran and Afghanistan, are vital for both sides. This fact must be properly understood and the two countries of Iran and Afghanistan must plan in such a way that they could prevent the destructive floods in the wet seasons, and fairly manage the stored water in dry seasons. This would be possible only when the two countries enter a trust building process, get access to real information regarding the facilities and natural limitations of Helmand's annual discharge, and have the possibility of continuous verification and exchange of information.
In this regard, some specific recommendations can help to the governments of Iran and Afghanistan:
The two countries of Iran and Afghanistan should use the opportunity that is created by the inauguration of Kamal Khan Dam and appoint a joint panel consisting of experts from the foreign ministries of the two countries, environmentalists, lawyers, and local officials to take a serious, new and practical step.
The two countries of Iran and Afghanistan must establish a permanent secretariat that can monitor the water management of the Helmand delta and prevent any disagreement.
The Kamal Khan Dam as an opportunity to meet the needs of the Helmand basin in both the Iranian and Afghan parts of Sistan and Hamun, and Chabahar as a port in the Indian Ocean have the potential to help the fair management of water and minimize the environmental dangers on the one hand, and to take Afghanistan and Central Asia out of the current geographical siege and connect them to the international open waters on the other hand. It is clear that the realization of such a goal is possible only through constructive cooperation and interaction between Iran and Afghanistan, and there is no other option.
The first necessary condition for the formation of such a process lies in having a correct view towards the opening of the Kamal Khan Dam and committing to the water right of Sistan and Hamun in its Iranian part.
Pir Mohammad Mollazehi, is an Iranian Expert in South Asia