- Water tensions between Iran and Afghanistan go back decades.
- Climate change and plunging river water levels mean the situation will likely get worse.
- Grappling with sanctions and severely weakened economies, both countries are already under significant pressure.
Iran and Afghanistan are going head to head over control of the supply of a crucial resource that's shrinking by the day: water.
Violence along the border between the two tumultuous countries flared up in recent weeks, stoked by a dispute over the water flowing from Afghanistan's Helmand river into Iran. Tehran says Afghanistan's Taliban government is deliberately depriving Iran of sufficient water supplies in order to bolster its own; but the Taliban says there isn't enough water anymore to begin with, thanks to plummeting rainfall and river levels.
Iranian and Afghan border guards clashed on May 27, exchanging heavy gunfire that killed two Iranian guards and one Taliban soldier and wounded several others. Both sides blame each other for provoking the fighting, which has thrust the region's water issues back into the spotlight.
The situation risks destabilizing an already poor and water-deprived part of Iran, where serious protests against the government have taken place in recent years.
"The water dispute with Afghanistan is not something Iran can take lightly," Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC. "Water resources in Iran are under severe pressure and water stress has been a trigger of large-scale civil unrest in recent years."
In the summer of 2021, protests began in Iran's western Khuzestan province over water shortages and subsequent power outages as hydroelectric power stations ran out of supply. Dubbed "the uprising of the thirsty," the demonstrations soon spread to several cities around Iran including the capital Tehran, and drew a heavy government crackdown that ended in both police and civilian casualties.
Grappling with U.S. sanctions, a severely weakened economy and a continuing anti-government protest movement, Iran is already under significant pressure. "With the authorities still struggling to keep a lid on nationwide protests," Soltvedt said, "a water security crisis in eastern Iran would come at a particularly bad time."
The 580-mile border between Afghanistan and Iran is porous and crawling with crime, predominantly coming from the Afghan side into Iran. Afghanistan has been wracked with instability and war for decades, and the ruling Taliban government derives a significant part of its revenue from illicit trades.
"Iran's Afghan border has always been its most vulnerable," said Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center. It's host to "a number of issues including narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, and terrorism" — but is simultaneously an all-important source for water, Alam said.
Water tensions between the two countries go way back. In the 1950s, Afghanistan built two major dams that limited the flow of water from the Helmand river into Iran. This angered Tehran and threatened relations, ultimately leading to the signing of a treaty in 1973 that allotted Iran 850 million cubic meters of Helmand water yearly.
But subsequent revolutions, invasions, wars and dramatic government changes in both countries meant the treaty was never fully implemented.
"Since the 1973 water treaty between the two, they have come close to war a number of times due to various Afghan governments using Iran's water vulnerability as a leverage on bilateral issues," Alam said.
Scientists have long warned that climate change increases the risk of wars and refugee crises as countries fight over the natural resources they need to live.
"The disagreements over water allotments for the Helmand River are hard to overcome because neither country has the ability to bring more water to the region," said Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Rane. "It's already an extremely dry area, but issues like climate change and overfarming are making it worse."
"In a way," he said, "it's a classic driver of conflict, a competition for a scarce resource neither side can live without."
In mid-May, a Taliban press release expressed Afghanistan's support for the 1973 treaty, but said: "Since there has been a drought in Afghanistan and the region in recent years and the water level has dropped … provinces of the country are suffering from drought and there is not enough water. In such a situation, we consider Iran's frequent demand for water and inappropriate statements in the media as harmful."
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in response, told Afghanistan's leaders to take his words "very seriously," saying "I warn the rulers of Afghanistan to give the rights of the people in [the Iranian border regions of] Sistan and Baluchistan immediately." A Taliban commander hit back, saying there was no water for them to give Iran and warning, "Do not attack us. We are not afraid."
Tehran then made a statement emphasizing the fact that it doesn't recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's ruling body. The back-and-forth only heightened tensions, and some worry that May's border shootout could be a sign of worse to come.
Rane's Bohl expects the issue to fester as "water scarcity is a very complicated problem that requires extensive and expensive infrastructure investments to overcome, neither of which heavily-sanctioned Iran or Afghanistan is in a position to fix," he said.
He expects flare-ups between the two to continue, as well as continued interruptions to Afghanistan's water supply — bad news for an already desperately impoverished country.
That "could harm Afghanistan's farming output over time and damage its already frail economy and worsen food shortages," Bohl said.