Afghanistan's responsibility towards shared ecosystem
It is the duty of the both countries of Iran and Afghanistan to preserve the shared wetlands. The entry of human borders into this area has had very serious consequences for both sides. The continuation of the current situation in the Sistan region will have adverse effects for both sides.
By: Dr. Hojjat Mianabadi, Seyedeh Zahra Ghoreishi
Afghanistan's extensive efforts in exploiting water resources and shared transboundary rivers, especially in the Helmand and Harirud basins, have raised serious concerns about protecting and using water in a sustainable, equitable, and peaceful way for people and ecosystems in the shared regions with Iran. In this report, in addition to reviewing the latest measures carried out by Afghanistan and outlining some of the most important plans of the country regarding the Helmand transboundary basin and its sub-basins, the consequences of these actions will also be explained. It will also be shown that how the nature of the Afghan government’s decisions, which are contrary to the sustainable development indicators, will lead to fundamental economic, political and environmental problems for shared region, and its consequences in the long run will affect the "society" and the "environment" of both countries.
Afghanistan is consisted of five main basins: The Amu Darya basin, the Northern basin, the Harirud-Murghab basin, the Helmand basin and the Kabul basin. Moreover, there are four non-drainage areas in Afghanistan: Registan, Registan Sadi, Dasht-e Naomid and Dasht-e Margo. Out of Afghanistan's five main basins, four basins of Amu Darya, Harirud-Murghab, Helmand and Kabul are considered as transboundary river basins, in all of which Afghanistan enjoys an upstream location. These climatic and hydrological conditions have made the Afghan governments, especially the government of Ashraf Ghani, to use the issue of water as a political tool against its neighboring countries, including Iran and Pakistan. According to Shroder and Ahmadzai (2016) more than 62 dams have been built in Afghanistan
Helmand international basin
The Helmand river basin (Fig 1) is shared between Afghanistan (82%), Iran (15%) and Pakistan (3%). The total inflow of the Helmand basin’s rivers, which are originating from Afghanistan, is estimated about 10 to 17 billion cubic meters per year, of which the share of the Helmand river (at the Kajaki dam) is estimated about 6 billion cubic meters per year.
Figure 1-Location of the Helmand River Basin shared between Afghanistan and Iran (Mianabadi . et al., 2020)
An important point about Afghanistan is that despite having several transboundary river basins, the country has only signed a single cooperation agreement with Iran over the Helmand basin (Helmand Treaty, 1973). In other cases, due to the upstream location of Afghanistan, the country has so far abstained to negotiate over other basins.
A notable point about the Helmand Treaty is that it is only limited to use of the Helmand river and does not include other important rivers of the Helmand basin - including the Khash River, Farah River, Arghandab and Adraskan - which play a key role in the life of the Sistan and Hamoun wetlands.
Water infrastructures in the Helmand basin
According to studies, more than 19 water projects (including dam, diversion dam, water transmission canals, and so on) have been carried out in the Helmand basin. Some of these infrastructures are: The Kajaki dam on the Helmand River, which is located 65 km downstream of Dehravod district; the Arghandab dam reservoir on the Arghandab River in northern Kandahar; the Chakhansur dam; and the Siraj and Baghra canals. Moreover, the Kamal Khan dam on the Helmand River has been recently inaugurated by the president of Afghanistan.
An important point in hydropolitical issues of Helmand basin is that Afghanistan, in addition to extensive dam construction on the Helmand transboundary river (such as Kamal Khan Dam and the complementary phase of Kajaki Dam), is constructing new dams on other branches of the Helmand basin, including Khash River, which have a significant role in the life of Sistan and Hamoun wetlands, but they are not included in the 1973 joint agreement between Iran and Afghanistan.
The 560 km Farah River is one of the most important and effective rivers and tributaries of the Helmand basin that plays an important role in the downstream basin life, especially the Hamoun wetlands. The average annual inflow of this river is estimated at 1200 million cubic meters per year, which is the second most important and water-rich tributary of the Helmand basin after the Helmand River. As mentioned earlier, this river is not part of the Helmand Treaty and, hence, there is no contract or agreement between Iran and Afghanistan on the exploitation of this river.
The Afghan government is currently completing the Bakhshabad dam on the Farah River. Since this dam has been built on one of the most important tributaries of the Helmand basin which is not covered by the Helmand Treaty, its construction can have grave consequences for the region, because the capacity of this dam is equivalent to 98% of the average annual inflow of the river (measured in 1970s). By this dam, the Afghan government intends to add more than 41,150 hectares' new lands to the agricultural areas of the region and improve the irrigation of about 27,440 hectares of the existing lands. The construction of this dam and expansion of agricultural lands in this basin can reduce the water flow of the Farah River downstream by at least 25 to 51 percent.
Increasing the Irrigated agricultural areas
Figures 2-1 to 2-3 show satellite images of increasing agricultural areas in Afghanistan’s basins from 2001 to 2020. By analyzing these images, it would be clear what effect the water projects built in Afghanistan over the past two decades have had on increasing agricultural areas and, consequently, increasing water consumption in the country's basins. As can be seen in these pictures, the amount of the areas under cultivation in Afghanistan's basins, especially the Helmand basin, has increased significantly in the last two decades.
The increase of agricultural areas in the Helmand’s sub-basins is also presented via satellite images. As shown in Figures 3-1 to 3-5, among the various Helmand’s sub-basins, the Farah River basin has witnessed the highest growth of irrigated lands in recent years compared to other sub-basins of Helmand.
Hamoun's water rights in other sub-basins of Helmand
According to above analysis and statistics, despite the great importance of the Helmand River, other tributaries of the Helmand basin have also a serious role and impact on the life of the Sistan and Hamoun international wetlands, the most important of which is the sub-basin and river of Farah. Unlike the Helmand River, this river and other rivers of the basin are not covered by the 1973 Helmand Treaty. Therefore, the construction of water structures such as the Bakhshabad dam as well as the significant growth of irrigated lands can have very serious effects over the downstream regions.
In this regard, although the Helmand River Delta Commission in 1951 emphasizes only over the supply of water for a limited area during the drought, a review of the provisions presented on pages 97-99 of the Helmand river Delta Commission report could clarify part of the issue:
Article 157: An analysis of the flow into the lakes in Iran has been made in connection with the study of the water requirements for irrigation, although the relationship between the two is only incidental. These lakes are of primary importance in the maintenance of their surrounding marsh areas upon which the cattle of certain tribes are normally pastured. During dry periods of low- river runoff the lakes shrink to small size and the people have to move. In years of flood, the rise in water surface extends the borders of the lakes and the people have to move again.
Article 158: At the time of McMahon Mission immediately following a severe drought, there were some 15,000 cattle in Sistan dependent upon these marshes for their pasturage. That Mission estimated that in good years, after the herds had had time to build up, there might be as many as 34,000 head of cattle in these marsh areas. The herds at this time are probably not greater than in the better years in the past. The only cattle in any numbers seen by the Commission while it was in the field were near the village of Adimi, northwest of Zabol.
Article 159: No adequate data are available as to the average water surface area covered by the lakes nor how extensive the marsh areas around the lakes might be. However, the return flow, including wastes from the lower ends of the canals, will average more than 200,00 acre feet from the irrigation in Iran if the traditional diversion requirements of Sistan are supplied. In addition, there is the runoff from the streams that enter the Iranian lakes from the north and west which is substantial.
Article 160: Just as these lakes have become practically dry in the past, it is equally true that they may be expected to do so in the future. Also it is a fact that floods may be experienced in the future, although not with the same frequency as in the past. As the lakes fluctuate between periods of high and low water, the marshes surrounding these lakes will also expand and contract. These tribes' dependent upon them will find it necessary to move from time to time, although any stabilization of the irrigation should improve their condition, and the construction of dams upstream will undoubtedly afford some relief from the smaller floods.
Article 161: The full requirement for irrigation in Sistan as presently practiced is 550,000 acre feet, which is undoubtedly as much or more water than at any previous time has been beneficially used for irrigation. Recognition is made of past uses in the flooding of the marshes upon which cattle are normally pastured. Thousands of acres of this marsh land can be maintained for the continued pasturage of cattle from the return flows and waste resulting from diversion of the full traditional requirement for irrigation, supplemented by the inflow from other steams which enter the lakes from the north and west. All water in excess of this 550,000 acre feet which has passed through the canals and distributaries in Iran to the lakes has served no useful purpose but has been dissipated into the air by evaporation. The alleviation of floods in the lower river would do much to stop this tremendous waste of water, at the same time making the water more readily available for irrigation use.
According to the Report of Delta Commission about the environmental needs of the Hamouns, in 1951 the water that was entering the Hamouns as well as the environmental needs of the wetlands were considered as wasted water; because the incoming water gets out of access, and in view of the members of the commission, the lack of direct use of wetland water by humans is considered a waste. However, the Article 161 of the report states that part of the environmental needs of the Hamouns are met by flows from other rivers in the Helmand basin, such as the Farah or Harut rivers. Therefore, the construction of a dam on other rivers in the Helmand basin (such as Bakhshabad dam on the Farah River), which are a vital resource for the Hamoun wetland, is contrary to the verdict of the commission (which was accepted by Afghanistan). This comes as Afghanistan's constructions over other branches of the Helmand basin which are not covered by the 1973 agreement, including the construction of the Bakhshabad dam and the expansion of agricultural lands in the Farah river basin, could have far more severe effects on water, food, environmental and human security of the downstream areas.
In addition to the importance of water for the life of the 5,000-year-old inhabitants of the Great Sistan and Helmand regions, the Hamoun international wetlands are of economic, social, cultural, ecological and vital values. These wetlands are common human heritage and should have an undeniable water right from the water resources of the Helmand basin. Regarding the cultural value of the Hamoun wetland, we can refer to its religious, historical and socio-cultural importance. The responsibility of preservation of the region’s human and environmental life, including the Hamoun international wetlands, is on the shoulders of the two countries of Iran and Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, achieving a sustainable progress in the region will be possible only through reforming policy approaches in Great Sistan as well as emphasizing the rights of the residents on the both sides of Sistan. Otherwise, numerous international experiences have shown that the environmental issues will not remain limited to the man-made borders, and the consequences of wrong policies will involve all the residents of the region.
Dr. Hojjat Mianabadi,is an Assistant Professor, Department of Water Engineering and Management, Tarbiat Modares University eyedeh Zahra Qureishi,is an M.A graduate of Water Resources Management, University of Tehran