During the second Iranian presidential debate on May 5, a candidate from the conservative camp raised an issue of great importance and political sensitivity: Iran’s disappearing water reserves.

Mostafa Mirsalim, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance and the candidate of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party (ICP) criticized the “weakness” of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani’s government in negotiations with Afghanistan about securing Iran’s rightful share of water from the Helmand River.

“Our Sistan region has turned into a desert because we did not get our right [share of water],” Mirsalim said.

The mention of the country’s environmental challenges, including water shortages and the lack of proper water management, should be welcomed in this campaign season. But while the issue is real, politicizing water sharing between Iran and Afghanistan could make a lasting resolution harder to reach.

The conflict over the Helmand River and the Hamoun Lakes could reshape Iran-Afghan relations and become a major source of conflict between the two countries. This, in turn, can give rise to more security concerns in the region.

The Hamoun Lakes are transboundary wetlands fed by the Helmand (Hirmand in Persian) River. The Helmand, which is 1,150 kilometers long, is Afghanistan’s largest river. It is the main source of irrigation in Afghanistan’s Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces and Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan.

The Hamoun wetlands, which once supported broad plant and animal diversity and was the main source of the region’s economic viability, have nearly dried up due to climate change, dam construction and other poor water management practices.  This has led to large population migrations, high unemployment and increased drug trafficking.

Serious public health challenges have exacerbated the situation. Sand storms are on the rise and the so-called 120-days wind — a source of cool air and power for windmills in the past – are now lasting 160 days and have become the source of pollution and diseases.

There is an existing agreement between Iran and Afghanistan that was signed in 1973 by then Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda and Afghan Prime Minister Musa Shafiq. The treaty was an achievement considering the fact that many other countries in South Asia lack any agreements over water at all.

According to the agreement, Iran’s share of the Helmand was to be 22 cubic meters of water per second with an option for Iran to buy an additional 4 cubic meters. However, this agreement was not ratified and events such as a 1973 coup in Afghanistan, Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban prevented the dispute from being resolved.

In years with adequate precipitation, the dispute attracted little attention. However, in recent years, due to the drastic impact of climate change on the region, the problem has intensified and become more difficult to address.

A number of reasons that have contributed to Hamoun’s drying up.  Among them are: mismanagement of water in both countries, construction of dams and canals, diversion of Helmand water to fill four giant reservoirs in  Sistan-Baluchistan, creating dykes on the Iran-Afghan border as a mean to make it more difficult for drug traffickers to enter Iran, and the Iranian Fisheries Company’s introduction in 1983 of an invasive species of fish that destroyed almost all of the reeds.

Another reason for Hamoun’s drying up was a dispute between Iran and Afghanistan in 1998 during the Taliban regime. Closing the sluices of the Kajaki Dam by the Taliban, which coincided with a persistent drought in the region, prevented the flow of water to the Hamouns until 2002.

A constant blame game played between the two countries has highly politicized the issue. Iranians accuse Afghans of not giving Iran a fair share of water. Afghans countercharge that Iran is taking more water than stipulated by the 1973 treaty. The dispute has occasionally spilled over into the sensitive topic of harsh treatment of Afghan refugees in Iran.  Some have suggested that Afghanistan should use Helmand water as leverage to pressure Iran for better treatment of Afghan refugees.

In recent years steps have been taken to revitalize the Hamouns, among them releasing several million cubic meters of water from the reservoirs into the wetlands. Dykes on the Iran-Afghan border, which were used to slow down the flow of water into Hamoun, have been removed. On the international level, there have been efforts to elevate the Hamouns crisis from a domestic to a regional and international issue. In March 2016, Hamoun was designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which should promote conservation.

All Iranian governments since 1979 have pursued essentially the same policy when it comes to Helmand water. In recent years, Iran and Afghanistan have agreed to assign experts and invite international organizations to address concerns regarding the ecosystem of Gow-I Zerreh, the lowest part of the Sistan Basin, and the Hamouns.

During the presidential campaign, there has been significant difference in conservative and pragmatist approaches to water sharing with Afghanistan. President Rouhani said in his recent campaign video, “God be my witness, just like Urumieh Lake, we have also been working on revitalizing Hamoun Lakes.” 

His reference was to Lake Urumieh, in northwestern Iran, once one of the largest lakes in the entire Middle East but depleted by climate change and poor water management.  According to Masoumeh Ebtekar, chief of Iran’s Department of the Environment, efforts to revitalize the lake have been successful and the water level is rising to its highest in recent years.

It is vital that Iran and Afghanistan intensify their interactions regarding the Hamouns and resolve the dispute over water sharing. Climate changes have hit both countries very hard and the prospect of improvement is not bright. Therefore, it is essential that they reach an understanding to mitigate the impact of climate change and equitably distribute Helmand’s precious water.

Fatemeh Aman is an expert on the Middle East and South Asia. She has worked as a journalist, media and political analyst, and has written widely in English and Persian on Iran, and South Asia. She is a frequent contributor to Jane’s publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst and Jane’s Intelligence Review, and appears often on Persian and English-speaking media outlets. She is the author of the Atlantic Council’s 2016 report “Water Dispute Escalating between Iran and Afghanistan.”