The opening of the Kamal Khan Dam in March 2021 reignited an old dispute between Iran and Afghanistan over the allocation of water in the Helmand River. The river is considered to be one of Afghanistan’s natural lifelines. It’s the country’s longest and runs into Hamoun Lake, which lies on the border between the two neighbors.
At the inauguration of the Kamal Khan Dam, then-President Ashraf Ghani said, as summarized by media at the time, that “Afghanistan would no longer give free water to anyone, so Iran should provide fuel to Afghans in exchange for water.”
Less than six months later, Afghanistan came under the control of the Taliban.
According to Kabul, the dam was built to solve many of the region’s vast infrastructural and agricultural challenges. However, Tehran has attempted to halt its construction for years, maintaining that it would interrupt the water supply that feeds the Hamoun wetlands.
In late July 2022, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian warned his counterpart, Afghanistan’s Amir Khan Muttaqi, that prohibiting Tehran from its rightful access to the Helmand River will only cause further strain to an already splintered relationship. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, too, urged serious action.
This back and forth circles a critical question: Is Afghanistan legally permitted to divert the natural course of the Helmand River? Before we begin, let’s underscore the key elements of the existing bilateral accord.
An Overview of the Helmand River Treaty
According to the Helmand River Treaty of 1973, Afghanistan must deliver water from the Helmand River to Iran at a rate of 22 cubic meters per second per annum with an additional four cubic meters per second for “goodwill and brotherly relations.” This would supply Iran with an annual average of 820 million cubic meters or 556,000 acre-feet under normal conditions.
But although the treaty guarantees Iran’s access to the Helmand River, Article V gives Afghanistan full rights to the remaining water supply. Article V begins by stipulating Iran’s rightful allocation as specified in the previous articles. However, it continues by stating that Afghanistan “shall retain all rights to the balance of the water of the Helmand River and may make such use or disposition of the water as it chooses.”
The final paragraph of the article emphasizes that Iran is only entitled to the specified amount of water agreed upon, irrespective of whether “additional amounts of water may be available” and may “be put to beneficial use.”
Thus, Afghanistan unequivocally has unilateral rights over the remaining water supply of the Helmand River. This means that it has the power to implement agricultural, hydroelectric, and reservoir projects as it sees fit.
Afghanistan’s sole responsibility is to not to pollute the water or take any action that will deprive Iran of its water rights entirely or partially. Article V must be read along with Article II (Iran’s water rights), III (monthly distribution), and IV (i.e., climate change). An argument based on the first paragraph of Article V without considering the full context of the Treaty and its other provisions will end in unreasonable conclusions.
Dam Development in a Shared Watercourse Under Customary International Law
That the Helmand River Treaty permits Afghanistan the right to pursue developmental projects over the remaining waters is incontrovertible. However, the question remains whether the development of dams or canals is permissible under customary international law.
The Helmand River is considered to be an international or transboundary watercourse. The two neighbors are therefore legally obligated to share the river’s waters. The principle of equitable and reasonable utilization and the no-harm rule are regarded as the cornerstones of international water law and were included in the U.N. Watercourse Convention in 1997.
According to the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization, all states are obligated to “use an international watercourse in a manner that is equitable and reasonable vis-a-vis other states sharing the watercourse.” The no-harm rule requires states not to cause significant harm to other states. More precisely, “riparian countries should not use their territorial waters in ways that cause damage and undesirable impact to downstream co-riparian countries.”
Indeed, states have a right to an equitable share of a shared river. But the term “equitable” must not be confused with “equal.” Every state has the right to use water equitably, but is not entitled to an equal share of the water. Therefore, under customary international law, it is permissible for Afghanistan to develop projects on the Helmand River, so long as they do not cause significant environmental damage to its neighbors.
It should be stated that without clearly understanding the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization, every activity will be deemed a violation. Such a strict interpretation is neither supported by state practice nor by case law.
To conclude, neither the Helmand River Treaty nor customary international law denies Afghanistan the right to construct the Kamal Khan Dam. It is not a violation of the two aforementioned components of international law. Instead, the Helmand River Treaty gives Afghanistan an absolute right to use the remaining water of the Helmand River as it chooses.
What Needs to Be Done?
Clearly, the passage of the Helmand River Treaty in 1973 did not lead to a peaceful resolution between Iran and Afghanistan. The terms of the agreement have repeatedly been violated, according to Tehran. But Kabul has always insisted that these claims are baseless.
On many occasions, Iran complained that the proper allocation of water was not delivered. This complaint was made at a time when the Helmand River Basin was under drought, which severely reduced the river’s flow. These complaints are not new; however, they need to be addressed.
To solve this impasse, Afghanistan and Iran must jointly determine places of delivery and construct joint hydrometric stations as defined under Article III of the treaty. Joint hydrometric stations will settle the issue of the amount of water that is required to be delivered to Iran. Each issue has been addressed by the Helmand River Commissioners, who have convened at least 25 times in the past 20 years.
Iran has always been against the building of joint hydrometric stations. The reason is that Iran had been receiving more water during normal and above-normal water years. The construction of joint hydrometric stations would regulate their water share more strictly.
An agreement was reached to build joint hydrometric stations in the 21st meeting of the Joint Committee of Commissioners of Helmand River. However, it remains on paper only. Similarly, in August 2022, Afghanistan and Iran again agreed to a timeline for the construction of joint hydrometric stations. But experience shows that such a project will take years to complete.
Also underway for Afghanistan is the rebuilding of the Dehrawood Hydrometric Station, which was destroyed in 2021. The Dehrawood Hydrometric Station will regulate and monitor Iran’s share of the Helmand River.
In the meantime, Iran should stop digging wells and installing heavy-duty water pumps along the river. Iran has expanded its irrigation and installed pumps, through which it diverts 26 million cubic meters of water annually to Zahedan. Such projects will only increase Iran’s water demand. Furthermore, Afghanistan should register the Gowd-e-Zera lake as an international wetland as it is considered to be a part of the Hamouns.