Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

The Long Winding River: Unravelling the water dispute between Afghanistan and Iran

Mhd Assem Mayar Roxanna Shapour 2 min

Afghanistan and Iran have been at loggerheads for much of this year over the Helmand River and its water. As the region grappled with a punishing drought for the third year running, the two neighbouring countries have been locked in a tense melee over shared transboundary rivers. While Iran seeks to assert its rights over water from the Helmand River based on the 1973 Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty, Afghanistan maintains that there is simply not enough water to provide Iran with a greater amount. AAN guest author, Mohammad Assem Mayar, looks into what has driven the recent upsurge in the long-running dispute over water between these two countries and provides insights into how their ‘water relations’ might develop.

An aerial view of the Helmand River, Helmand province. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP, 8 November 2011.

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As drought continued to exact a heavy toll on the human and natural environment for the third year running, the dispute between Kabul and Tehran, now well into its second century, over water once again took centre stage in 2023. Iran complains that it has not been receiving its fair share of the Helmand water and has highlighted the damage done to its agricultural sector and the devastation wrought on the Hamun Wetlands. Conversely, Kabul argues that decades of inadequate water management under successive ineffective Afghan governments, with water flowing downstream unchecked, has meant that Iran has been getting more than its share. Now, after three years of punishing drought, according to Afghanistan, there is simply no more water for Iran to have.

This report:

  • Examines the geographic and environmental nature of the Helmand River Basin and its vital importance to communities on both sides of the border, before delving into the factors driving the most recent dispute between Afghanistan and Iran;
  • Traces the history of the water dispute between the neighbours back to the late 19th century when the border was first established and looks into the various attempts to settle the issue since that time;
  • Hones in on the existing legal frameworks, especially the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty (hereafter referred to as the Helmand Treaty), which is the only operative agreement defining how water should be shared and what Iran’s rights amount to;
  • Examines Afghanistan and Iran’s attempts to secure additional water from the Helmand River;
  • Looks at the divergent interpretations of the Helmand Treaty and why it has never been fully implemented in the half-century since it was signed.
  • Concludes that the current dispute may ease in the short term if winter rains fall heavily, as predicted. However, the climate crisis will bring more frequent droughts of increasing intensity to this region, putting more pressure on people and governments already struggling to balance water needs against diminishing water resources. This report presents some ideas as to how the impasse could be resolved, including some technological innovations and changes to water usage aimed at reducing demand.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour, Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark

* Dr Mohammad Assem Mayar is a water resources management expert and former lecturer at Kabul Polytechnic University in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Müncheberg, Germany. He posts on X as @assemmayar1.

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Drought Helmand River Iran Islamic Emirate Kajaki Dam Taleban Taliban water


Mhd Assem Mayar

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Roxanna Shapour

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