04/19/2023, 12.38
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Between Tehran and Kabul the feud for control of the Helmand River reopens

It is the longest waterway in Afghanistan, from the capital to the marshy areas across the border in south-eastern Iran. A 1973 treaty regulates the sharing of resources, but the Kamal Khan dam has revived the dispute. In recent days, a meeting at the level of foreign ministers took place in Uzbekistan.

Tehran (AsiaNews) - Between Tehran and the Taliban in Kabul there is a renewed clash for control of the water resources linked to the Helmand river, the longest in Afghanistan and the main tributary of the Sistan basin. A strategic course in a region thirsty for water and among the most affected by climate change, which for a good part of its length is not salty and can therefore be exploited for agriculture.

The river along which numerous dams stand, experts point out, is of fundamental importance not only for the Afghan populations, but for the Iranians themselves in Sistan and Baluchistan, in the south-east of the country. 

In recent days, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he had discussed the issue with his Taliban counterpart Amir Khan Muttaqi during a summit in Uzbekistan. The Tehran diplomatic chief added in a message on social media that he had 'emphasised in detail' the issue of territorial and exploitation claims. The other side, he concluded, pledged to respect the Islamic Republic's 'rights' over the waters and the parties 'agreed to act immediately' on the proposal. 

The two senior officials met last week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and the cooperation between Tehran and the Taliban leadership that controls the country. The two neighbours are mired in a long-running dispute over shared water resources, with the Iranians accusing Kabul of restricting the flow of water from the Helmand River by building more dams along its course. 

The river rises from the Hindu Kush mountains near Kabul and then flows south along a 1,127 km route to the wetlands and marshlands of Hamoun in the Iranian provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan. According to a 1973 water-sharing agreement, Afghanistan is obliged to drain an average of at least 820 million cubic metres of water per year to Iran.

Last July, Amir-Abdollahian warned his Afghan counterpart that the unresolved dispute over the exploitation of water resources could affect cooperation between the two countries because it was an 'important indicator' of the Taliban government's commitments.

This warning came just a short distance from President Ebrahim Raisi's exhortation to the Foreign and Agriculture Ministries, in which he called for the "rigorous pursuit" of what he called "water rights" between Iran and Afghanistan. 

Tehran shared close relations with the Taliban before their return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021. Since then, relations have been undermined by frequent border skirmishes and the persistent dispute over water resources.

According to the latest available data, provided by the previous government in Kabul and published by the Ministry of Water and Energy, Afghanistan uses only 20 per cent of its water resources, with the remaining surface water going to neighbouring nations, including Iran and Pakistan.

In March 2021, Afghanistan inaugurated the controversial Kamal Khan dam, one of the main points of contention with Tehran over the control and exploitation of the Helmand river and, according to the Iranian side, in blatant violation of the 1973 treaty.

For Kabul, however, it represents a solution to the region's many infrastructural and agricultural challenges, as well as providing farmers in Nimruz province with a steady flow of water and electricity. The river is considered a trans-boundary course and the two neighbours are legally bound to share it according to the principle of fair and reasonable use.

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