From Antiquity to the Modern Era, control of water and its sources has long been a cause for war. Sadly, this continues to be the case even nowadays, with border clashes emerging between Iran and Afghanistan. Caught in the crossfire is the civilian population of a region that is in sore need of access to water amidst a drought in the area. This article will cover the border conflict, what the Iranian government is doing and organizations fighting to expand access to water in Iran.
The source of discrepancies lies in the river Helmand, flowing from the Afghan mountains into Iranian Balochistan. Since 1973, the Helmand River Water Treaty has regulated the amount of water that flows into Iran. Tensions still persisted, however, and after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, they surged once again. Afghanistan allegedly breached the 1973 treaty by repeatedly withholding more water than stipulated. Most recently, in May 2023, one of these clashes threatened to escalate into a full-blown war after a deadly encounter in Milak-Zaranj.
The Iranian population has been hit hard by the Afghan retention of water. Droughts in Iran have had a steady intensification pattern for the past 40 years, and this only rubs salt in the wound. The region has suffered from desertification and, with one of its primary water sources compromised, access to irrigation water could be at high risk. This issue extends to the entire nation, as Iranian water consumption per capita is significantly above its yield of renewable water sources. High consumption paired with low availability threatens to worsen access to water in Iran, with large parts of its population suffering from water insecurity.
What the Government Is Doing
With regard to the Helmand River, Iran has urged its neighbor to abide by the 1973 treaty and fulfill its obligations in international law. Nevertheless, it has also adopted a conciliatory tone to avoid the risk of escalation. An open war over water still seems unlikely, but should environmental patterns persist, it would be naïve to discard this possibility.
As for the water provision for its population, the Iranian government heavily subsidizes water prices to make it affordable to its population. While effective in achieving its goal in the short run, this policy has increased water consumption in the country. Moreover, the government’s focus on food self-reliance through subsidies has further strained water consumption in agriculture. All in all, this subsidy policy has exacerbated the country’s drought problem.
To address these issues, there have been several studies on Iranian soil to tackle these unwanted consequences and to identify more water-efficient farming methods. So far, these investigations have yielded mixed results, but even if they managed to improve efficiency, the population needs more to reduce water consumption and make access to water in Iran sustainable in time.
What Is the Role of NGOs?
Access to water in Iran is a hot topic among international NGOs. Notably, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has taken measures to alleviate the effects of drought in the region, targeting to provide aid to 916,200 people during the 2021-2022 drought season. Furthermore, there have also been efforts by Relief International to address the economic effects of droughts and help 30,000 people in need gain access to water, education and financial aid.
Prospects for the Future
Access to water in Iran is a growing issue and, as such, its government should start to pursue policies to address it more actively. Water importation or more water-efficient methods are examples of policies that, while politically improbable, could help lift some of the pressure off the population’s shoulders.
– Daniel Pereda