In terms of having water resources, Afghanistan has a considerable advantage in comparison to its neighbors. However, war and other various factors have limited the country’s ability to make use of these resources. Water infrastructure—including dams, water storage tanks, irrigation and water supply networks, hydrometric stations and metrology systems, and sewage and sanitation systems—is limited and inefficient. According to a 2008 census, out of approximately 8 million hectares of arable land, only 1.8 million hectares are cultivated, and forest cover is 3%. Access to electricity and safe drinking water is limited even in large cities; the development and management of water systems in production, distribution, and consumption is not well integrated. There is no management or operations technology available, and the existing infrastructure does not meet the needs of the people. The Afghan people’s share in water resources has seen nothing but devastation caused by seasonal rising waters, soil erosion, and floods in big cities. According to official figures and statistics, Afghan people take advantage of around 30% of Afghanistan’s water resources; the rest is used by neighboring countries or not used at all.
Iran and Afghanistan share two water resources. One is the Helmand Basin, the legal status of which was determined in the 1351 treaty, which assigned 26 cubic meters of water per second in a normal year to Iran’s Sistan province. For many years, however, Iran has not only taken many times more water than the amount the treaty allocates, but the country has also stored additional water in the half-wells of Afghanistan’s Zabul province. Additionally, Iran did not accept the amount of water the treaty afforded them, requesting more water from Lake Hamoun.
The second shared water resource is the Hari-Rud River. Although the river originates in Afghanistan and only two of its branches reach Iran and Turkmenistan, in the early 2000s, Iran and Turkmenistan came to a mutual agreement to use the river without the consent of Afghanistan. These two countries have built a number of dams on the river without considering Afghanistan’s need to access the resource.
In the absence of a legal system and formal agreement in Afghanistan’s east and south, Pakistan has tried to exploit the Kabul River basin unilaterally, at full capacity, engaging in such activities as building the Dasu Dam.
However, Afghanistan, a poor country, is poised to use hydropolitics and water dependency to achieve a much higher position in the region, such that war and conflict will have fewer effects on its geopolitical situation. In a new era in which national security threats have been changing from political and military threats to environmental and economical ones, Afghanistan’s unilateral dependency on its neighbors will change to a bilateral dependency that will allow diplomacy to bring peace and security to the region.
Najeeb Fahim has been lecturer at Kabul University since 2004. Besides, he has worked in key Ministerial positions over the last decade. Since 2004, he focused on water studies and its role in Afghanistan’s foreign relations. His most notable books on water refer to “Water; conflict of interests between Afghanistan and its neighbors”, “The legal statues of the Helmand River” and “The Legal Status of the Amo Darya River”. In addition, he wrote various articles for newspapers and numerous academic conferences. Mr. Fahim holds an M. A in International Law.