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A look at Afghanistan's Hydro-hegemony Policy

11 Jun 2022 - 9:31

Four out of Afghanistan's six neighbors are heavily dependent on the country's water resources. Afghanistan's efforts to control the surface water have raised growing concerns among the downstream countries, an action that may exacerbate the regional tensions. This study shows that Afghanistan's international rivers play an important role in the economic development and political stability of the downstream countries. Therefore, the implementation of a hydro-hegemonic policy by Afghanistan - as the region's water heartland - may have devastating economic and biological consequences, and lead to fundamental changes in the demographic structure of the downstream countries.

By: Maryam Verij Kazemi

Afghanistan is a landlocked country with significant amount of water resources, which have roots in the country’s special topographic features. This comes as six out of four neighbors of Afghanistan are heavily dependent on these resources. Moreover, Afghanistan's political, security, and economic interactions at the national and regional levels, as well as the ongoing conflicts in the country have significantly affected the access of cross-border consumers. Meanwhile, Afghanistan's efforts to control the surface water have raised growing concerns among the downstream countries, an action that may exacerbate the regional tensions. Here, we study Afghanistan's international rivers and conclude that the economic development and political stability of the downstream countries are partly dependent on Afghanistan's river system. So, if Afghanistan - as the water heartland of the region - implements a hydro-hegemonic policy, it can be the origin of destructive economic consequences as well as fundamental changes in the demographic structure of the downstream countries.
Hydro-hegemony refers to the control of river basins through various controlling strategies such as resource uptake, integration and containment. Hydro-hegemonic strategies are implemented through a set of tactics such as coercion, treaties, etc., which are possible through exploiting the asymmetries of power within the weakly functioning international frameworks. These rivalries generally end in in the favor of the upstream country. Moreover, the Hydro-hegemons have a leadership power in both positive and negative forms, which can lead to cooperation and interaction on the one hand, or conflict and tension on the other.

Afghanistan's water resources
Helmand River (Afghanistan - Iran)
The Helmand River is the largest river located in the distance between the Tigris River and Indus River, which originates from the regions near the Kabul River with an altitude of 3000 meters. This river begins from the mountainous areas of Hazarajat and goes to the southwest, and then the fertile lands of Zamindawar. Around the Registan desert, the Arghandab River which is the largest sub-branch of this river joins the mainstream, and then gradually goes towards the west in the southern deserts of the country. The river goes northward near the Iran border, and before flowing into a huge lagoon called Hamun Helmand, forms about 65 km or 80 km of the Afghan-Iranian border. The whole Helmand River is about 1130 km long. This river, along with its tributaries, covers the entire southern region of Afghanistan which is ​​at least 258,000 square kilometers.
There are several human centers, including settlements and agricultural lands around the river, which indicate that the river morphology and border disputes between the two countries is of high importance to the Iranian side, especially given the fact that the source of all the river’s branches is in Afghanistan.  

Due to the flatness of the Helmand River’s delta as well as the location of the river itself as the border of the two countries, which changes in times of flood, some disputes have been emerged about the exact location of the border and its surrounding areas. Despite there are numerous agreements between the two countries, they have not yet been able to reach a final agreement on demarcation line as well as each country’s water right. The Helmand River and the shared border water resources on the one hand, and the economic dependence of the region on agriculture on the other, necessitates preparedness against changes in the river’s discharge.

Despite signing numerous treaties, there are still fundamental disagreements over distribution of Helmand’s water and other rights related to this international river. In his initial order, McMahon stipulated that Iran and Afghanistan should share Helmand’s water at the bottom of the Kamal Khan dam equally. But, later in his final vote, he reversed this decision too and allocated one-third of Helmand’s water to Iran and two-thirds to Afghanistan, at the bottom of the Kamal Khan dam. However, the Afghan government has never been committed to its legal obligations regarding the river and has always escalated the conflict by adopting wrong policies. Thus, the water crisis in Sistan and Baluchestan, in addition to its natural threats, is threatening national and International security. As a result of water shortage or drought in Helmand river, the Hamoun wetland, as an international wetland, has been dried up and this has directly affected the region's ecosystem, climate and livelihood. This issue has not only deprived Iran of the blessings of the largest freshwater lake in the country and the region, but also has turned the 120- days wind that pass over the lake, into sandstorm. In general, Helmand and its water right has still remained a factor of constant dispute in the relations of the two countries, and there is no clear prospect for its solution.  

Hari River (Afghanistan-Iran-Turkmenistan)
The Hari River is one of the international rivers located on the border of Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. The river originates from the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan, and then reaches the Afghan-Iranian border near the city of Taybad after passing 650 km. In Iran, several seasonal rivers join it, and then this river forms the 107 km long border line between Iran and Afghanistan until it reaches the Zulfiqar Strait (which is the intersection of the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan).The Hari River meets Kashafru in Khatoun Bridge and is called Tajan from then on. Tajan forms 117 km of border line between Iran and Turkmenistan.

The total area of ​​the Hari catchment is 84,387 square kilometers, of which 45% is located in Afghanistan, 35% in Iran and 20% in Turkmenistan, according to the FAO.
Moreover, Iran and Turkmenistan have built a dam on the Hari River called the Friendship Dam. Afghanistan has also announced that it intends to build at least two dams on the river. One of these dams is called the Salma Dam which is located 170 km away from Herat. The main purpose behind construction of this dam is to store water for irrigation and electricity generation. The second dam called Jedvad Dam is also under investigation. The construction of these two dams can have a negative impact on the Friendship Dam and its water quality. In that case, some of the goals of the Friendship Dam will face serious obstacles. Following the reduction of inflow into the dam, water storage and providing agricultural water for the Sarakhs plain will face some limitations. Meanwhile, the serious shortage of drinking water in Mashhad, Iran, which many hoped to be solved by exploiting the dam, enters a critical situation again. These problems and their consequences can threaten the human security of the region. Afghanistan's actions come as the country shows no interest in participating in the tripartite meetings over the exploitation of the Hari River. Undoubtedly, if in response to Afghanistan's uncoordinated actions, Iran and Turkmenistan also implement unilateral plans, complex problems will arise in the region that would benefit none of these three countries.

The Hari River’s basin has an undeniable impact on socio-political relations and, most importantly, the environment and economy of the people of the eastern regions of Iran. During these conflicts, they have suffered the most damage, including the spread of drug trafficking among the residents. Moreover, from an environmental point of view, the Karakum Basin will dry up as a result of Afghanistan’s measures and many creatures that were living in this lake and its basin will be become extinct. Also, this drought will lead to different environmental disasters such as sandstorms, which will affect the neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. It should be noted that the consumption of the Hari River’s water in Afghanistan is higher than other countries in the region. In the field of hydropolitics, political factors are effective in increasing hydropolitical disputes. In this regard, the views of political leaders, dam constructions, changes that happens in the river’s path for agricultural purposes in Afghanistan, political problems and foreign interference in Afghanistan's affairs are other hydropolitical challenges that exist between Iran and Afghanistan.

Farah River - Harut River - Khashroud (Afghanistan - Iran)
The Farah River, which originates from the southern slopes of the Band-e Bayan Mountains (Ghowr province), passes the southwest city of Farah and, after passing a 560-kilometer route towards southwest, first enters the northern part of the Hamoun wetland, known as Hamoun Sabouri, and then joins the main part of Hamoun. The Farah River receives water from the Ghowr and Malman rivers. The river experiences great fluctuations over different seasons. The water level increases in spring as a result of flood, which makes the river impassable. Therefore, this issue is considered as a constant threat to the rural communities that depend on the river’s water for irrigation.

The river is a reliable source of hydropower generation and has high potential economic benefits, which have so far been hampered due to political instability. For many years, the option of ​​building a dam over the Farah River and above the Farah city, an area which is called Bakhshabad, for the agricultural purposes had been on the table of Afghan officials. Finally, the construction of the Bakhshabad Dam with capacity of 1 billion cubic meters was started in 2019 by the order of Ashraf Ghani, the then president of Afghanistan. However, due to the developments that have recently taken place in the country, only a minor part of the executive work of this dam has been done so far.

The Harut River, which belongs to the Helmand catchment, is about 400 km long. The river goes from its source, the Siah Kuh Mountains, to the Hamoun wetland. The river enters the main body of Hamoun wetland after irrigating the fertile plains of Shindand. The Hamoun wetland is consisted of three wetlands named Puzak, Sabouri and Hamoun Helmand, which join each other at the time of water intake and form the joint wetland of Iran and Afghanistan.

Khashroud, with a length of 380 km, is located in the catchment area of ​​Helmand and Hariroud. This river flows to the east of Hamoun Puzak with a width of 300 to 700 meters. The origin of this river is Siah Kouh. Khashroud flows from northeast to southwest and irrigates the lands of eastern Nimruz and its most important cities, Khash (which is located in the southern delta of the river) and Nishak (known as Kadeh, located north of the river). During most of the year, the canal of this river never widens and is limited to a narrow water in the bed of the river or a few deep pits. Khashroud is much smaller than the Farah River and most of its water is used for irrigation.

However, in the case of the Farah River and the Harut River, which, after the Helmand River, have the largest volume of runoff among the rivers that lead to the Hamoun wetland, no agreement has been concluded between Iran and Afghanistan so far, and that is why the Afghan officials have designed different development plans for these two rivers. This comes as the Hamoun Sabouri is considered as part of the Hamoun wetland, and rehabilitation of the Hamoun wetland needs the Hamoun Sabouri’s intake which is important for both Sistan and Afghanistan- a country which hosts two thirds of Hamoun.

Morghab River (Afghanistan-Turkmenistan)
The Morghab River, 850 km long, originates from the Paropamisus Mountains in central-western Afghanistan, especially the Morghab region. This river has taken its name from the Morghab district, Ghowr province. The river flows towards northeast of Herat and sinks into the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan after several splits. The Morghab River is the second largest river of Turkmenistan, which irrigates about 10,000 hectares of Afghanistan's agricultural land and then forms a 16-kilometer border between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Morghab is one of the most water-rich rivers of Afghanistan which originates from two different branches. The northern branch starts from the eastern slopes of Tirband Turkestan in the Cheras region and joins its southern branch after passing through different regions. The second branch of Morghab starts from the eastern end of Firuzkuh, the capital of Ghowr province, and Sandiz and after going through different areas, joins the "Tirband Turkestan" branch. Then, the second branch goes towards the west through Raghaskan and Gorgin, and passes through Charsadda and flows towards the areas of Badghis. In this route, the rivers of Ghalmin, Shovij, Kodian also join the Morghab River. The river erupts in June and July, and the water level rises several meters, which causes extensive damage to the surrounding farmland. Despite the fact that the Morghab suburbs are among the most deprived areas in Afghanistan due to the lack of attention on the side of Afghan officials, it enjoys high potential in generating hydropower through construction of dams and power plants. However, due to the topographic conditions of the Morghab River, Afghanistan's use of the river is very limited, thus there is little room for cross-border disputes.

Amu Darya River (Afghanistan - Tajikistan - Uzbekistan – Turkmenistan)
The Amu Darya River, which is located in west and northwest, is formed by the confluence of the Vakhsh and Panj rivers, which originate from the glaciers of the Pamir, Tienshan, and Hindu Kush mountains in the east. This is the point after which it is called Amu Darya. The Amu Darya river is 1,415 km long, which, if measured from its original source (the Panj River in the Pamir Mountains), reaches to the number of 2,450 km, of which about 1,126 km runs along Afghanistan's northern borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The average annual water flow (discharge) of the Amu Darya River is estimated at 73.6 cubic kilometers with a storage capacity of 24 billion cubic meters. The Amu Darya basin is hydropolitically divided into two distinct parts: the mountainous feeding area and the desert drainage area. With a drainage basin of ​​309,000 square kilometers, the Amu Darya River is the largest and most water-rich river of the region, parts of which can be navigated along the shores of Sher Khan and Hairatan, through which Afghanistan's trade exchanges with the Central Asian countries are being done.

About 1126 km of the Amu Darya River forms the northern border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The highest level of the Amu Darya’s water is respectively formed in Tajikistan (72.8%), Afghanistan (14.6%) and Uzbekistan (8.5%). The river used to flow into the Caspian Sea for a period of time, but later changed its course. Now it joins the Syr Darya River and then flows into the Aral Sea. Today, although the main route of the river goes towards the Aral Sea, all of its water is consumed along the route for the agricultural purposes.

The expansion of farmlands, with the aim of providing the region’s food security and increasing hydropower generation, have prompted countries along the Amu Darya river to seek greater exploitation. It has led to many disputes between countries, including Tajikistan - Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan - Uzbekistan over construction of dams. For example, the Rogun Dam, with a potential generation capacity of 3,600 megawatts as well as the Sangtuda 1 and 2 power plants and the Narek power plant are under construction in the region. Tajikistan can use the Rogun Dam as a leverage against Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is deeply concerned because Tajikistan has the most consumption of the Amu Darya River, and Uzbekistan, where 75 percent of the population lives in the rural areas, is concerned about its consequences. Uzbeks, on the other hand, argue that the distribution of Amu Darya’s water between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is unfair because 14 million people in Uzbekistan rely on the water of the Amu Darya River, while this number in Turkmenistan reached to only 4 million. In addition, Uzbekistan must irrigate more land. This comes as Turkmenistan uses over 30 square kilometers of water but its per capita consumption is about twice that of Uzbekistan due to its very poor water management.

Moreover, the Karakum canal is a challenging issue among the regional countries. The construction of the largest artificial lake in the Karakum desert, called the Golden Age Lake, has destroyed the northwestern part of the Karakum desert and its native flora up to 3500-4000 kilometers.
The flow of the Amu Darya River is projected to decline up to 30% by the middle of the 21st century due to the melting of glaciers, compared to the average flow that was observed over the past decade. As a result, the risk of flooding in spring and drought in summer around the Amu Darya basin in the coming years is not far-fetched. This will directly affect the livelihood of the 26 million people that are living in the Amu Darya basin.

In general, the downstream countries are reluctant to raise the non-water issues in the process of addressing the region's water challenges and problems. This comes as any effort to promote water diplomacy and develop Central Asia’s water strategy without considering the interests of all the regional countries will definitely be futile. These interests have been geopolitically institutionalized in Central Asia, and the most prominent feature of them is connection between energy and water. In fact, the Soviet Union's energy-water exchange system (given the decision of its leaders to increase the amount of cash agricultural products) is not a choice but a geopolitical imperative.

Kabul River (Afghanistan - Pakistan)
The Kabul River or Kabul Sea originates from the Hindu Kush Mountains and receives significant amount of water from the Kunar River. It is joined by several small rivers which originate from Pakistan's Chitral region and then flows through eastern Kabul and Jalalabad, before entering Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Kabul River is reinforced by the Swat River and its tributaries before flowing into the Indus River.

The tributaries of the Kabul River water sources, which connect to the Kabul River from Paghman and Maidan Wardak Mountains, merge with the Logar River. In Surobi, the Panjshir River joins these water sources and after going through Nangarhar and Kunar, finally reaches to Pakistan. Of course, the Logar River does not have so much water and most of its water is used for irrigation. The Kabul River’s basin accounts for about 12 percent of Afghanistan's territory, and the river’s discharge is generally 33 to 460 cubic meters per second, which has dwindled during the recent droughts. The Kabul River’s basin has five main catchments which are about ​​76,908 square kilometers, of which 14,000 square kilometers are located in Pakistan and 62,908 square kilometers in Afghanistan.

The Kabul River provides a quarter of Afghanistan's fresh water. Five million people in Kabul and Jalalabad are dependent on this river for their water needs. Moreover, due to severe electricity shortage in Afghanistan, experts have designed more than 20 small and medium hydropower projects for this region, including 12 dams. However, they have been unable to provide the funding needed to build them.

In Pakistan, the Kabul River and its tributaries are used to supply the drinking water of more than two million people in Peshawar as well as irrigation of the fertile Peshawar Valley. In North Waziristan, the Kabul River supports a 250-megawatt hydroelectric dam in Warsak, built in 1960. The Kabul River and its tributaries are very important for the Indus River. Pakistan has built the Warsak Dam (its only major dam) on the main path of the Kabul River, which irrigates Peshawar, Charsadda and Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 44% of the total arable lands are irrigated, and 16.92% of them are irrigated by the Kabul River.

Following a significant reduction in the Kabul River’s flow, Pakistan's agricultural sector - which accounts for more than one-fifth of the country's GDP, supplies raw materials for the country’s agricultural exports and supports half of businesses - is seriously in danger.
Pakistan often predicts a sharp imminent drop in the Kabul River’s flow as a result of diversions that happen by the Afghan officials for multi-purpose power generation, storage and irrigation projects in the Kabul basin. Pakistan claims that India has backed Afghanistan’s proposals for dozens of multi-purpose projects and has promised to finance them. According to the media reports, the two countries had agreed to jointly build a large 1,200-1,500-megawatt hydroelectric project on the Kunar River, but no follow-up appears to have taken place.

The Pakistani officials and experts have repeatedly suggested that an agreement to be signed between Afghanistan and Pakistan on how to share the Kabul River’s water, but this request has gone unanswered by Afghanistan. Cooperation over the Kabul River will serve the interests of both countries. However, given the widespread doubts among Afghans about Pakistan's honesty, negotiating a water agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be easy. What is clear is that climate change and its subsequent water shortage could worsen the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and therefore signing a treaty over the Kabul River seems unavoidable.
Research analysis
As the research findings show, any disruption in the system of Afghanistan’s rivers will create critical conditions for the consuming countries. Therefore, Afghanistan can use water as a powerful strategic weapon against its neighbors. It is also a good opportunity for the extremist groups to pursue their own interests in the neighboring countries by creating environmental terrorism and chaos. However, this would be a geopolitical risk for Afghanistan, because it would force the consuming countries to form a political-security alliance to reduce the existing threats, which could lead to major changes in Afghanistan's establishment. At the same time, by reducing the level of water that goes to the neighboring countries, a fragile natural environment would be created, which would have an adverse effect on the region and is considered a cross-border threat that could affect Afghanistan too.

However, Afghanistan, as the upstream country of these rivers, believes that it has the right to exploit the surface water by building dams and canals. Over the past years, Afghanistan’s efforts to build small and big dams over the border rivers and their tributaries have paved the way for deterioration of relations with the neighbors. But what is clear is that, due to the declining river levels caused by climate change, Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule will pursue a policy of hydro-hegemony to bring neighboring countries into line with the political behavior of Afghanistan's leaders. This can greatly put serious pressure on the economic-political power of the water-consuming countries; such as migration of the residents of eastern and southeastern parts of Iran and the emptying of a large part of the lands, which would prepare the ground for more tension and border changes.

Thus, the policy of hydro-hegemony will give Afghanistan a multi-layered bargaining power (in political, ideological, economic, commercial, cultural and social dimensions) and can form a compromise approach toward Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as part of an immunity strategy. This can affect reaching an agreement over fair distribution of water in a short period of time. Although hydro-hegemons can work together multilaterally and expand their interactions, such an issue would not be very effective in the present-day Afghanistan because it has been influenced by the extremist foreign policies. By pursuing a policy of hydro-hegemony, Afghanistan can force the consuming countries to accept its one-sided strategy, and thereby increase its influence in the region.

In general, resolving the effects of hydro- hegemony in the shared watersheds in which an upstream country intends to unilaterally use the rivers regardless of its consequences in the downstream countries, will be very difficult. It is true especially in a country like Afghanistan, in which different political and ethnic parties and armed groups are fighting over power distribution; because each of these groups can invalidate all the water-related multilateral agreements and treaties by using the dams and large transboundary rivers that are under their control as a leverage. Although Afghanistan's crisis-ridden political and economic situation makes it largely impossible to use this tool, no one should ignore the implicit cooperation among trans-regional interventionists and extremist groups who intend to use water as a powerful weapon against the neighboring countries. These Interventionist positions, along with the pluralism of leadership and mismanagement that exist in Afghanistan, would make any compromise over water distribution more difficult, pave the way for the emergence of hydro-hegemonic tendencies and create a dangerous situation for the downstream countries.
Recommendations for Iran to get out of Afghanistan's hydro-hegemony
The biological foundations of eastern and southeastern parts of Iran depend on Afghanistan's water management, and any violation of water sharing policies will have irreparable consequences for Iran. Therefore, the following recommendations are proposed as an anti-hydro hegemony strategy, in a bid to enable Iran to meet its water needs:
* Intelligent management of water resources, using passive defense, using experts in various production and service sectors to manage the damages and crises;

* Implementation of Spatial planning plans, using new watershed management methods in the arid and desert areas, development of urban-rural-agricultural wastewater infrastructure;

* Promotion of modern agriculture through using low irrigation methods, changing the patterns of cultivation, and cultivating low- consumption crops;

* Construction of canals in the path of seasonal floods, construction and development of large water reservoirs in the path of water canals, and management of aquifers.
Maryam Verij Kazemi, is a geopolitical analyst

Story Code: 3114

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Institute for East Strategic Studies