Iran’s Cross-Border Water Crisis Ignored Amidst Domestic Unrest
The focus on Iran’s water crisis has increased due to the escalating effects of climate change and rising temperatures, particularly its domestic effects and the resulting socio-political unrest. However, the effects of this crisis on Iran’s relations with its two important neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, are frequently only lightly touched upon or completely ignored in these discussions.
Iran is experiencing a severe water crisis that has been made worse by climate change, poor water management, and rising temperatures. In the southern provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan and Khuzestan in the southwest of Iran, where extreme heat combined with diminishing water supplies is causing significant hardship, the situation is particularly critical. The crisis, which experts refer to as “water bankruptcy,” is the result of ineffective water management practices that have increased resource depletion and overconsumption.
Inaction on the part of the government has exacerbated social unrest among Iranians, sparked demonstrations, and increased sociopolitical instability. Many people living in rural areas cannot afford to buy water from a store or have it delivered. Authorities have issued warnings in some areas that municipal water supplies will run dry by September.
The domestic situation in Iran as a result of the growing water crisis is undoubtedly bleak. However, it is critical to understand that given the ongoing water disputes and the lack of any formal riparian law to serve as a resolution framework, this issue goes beyond Iran’s borders and has the potential to escalate tensions with its neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The consequences of Iran’s water crisis on a regional scale
Iran has launched a massive dam-building initiative to redirect water from the Arvand, Karkheh, Karun, and Sirwan rivers to other drought-prone provinces across the nation to address domestic water shortages. These initiatives, which call for the construction of 109 small dams, are described by the government as “modern” irrigation strategies meant to lessen the effects of the country’s current water crisis.
However, this strategy of restricting the Arvand, Karkheh, and Karun rivers’ outflow into Iraq has significantly exacerbated the region’s water shortage crisis. This has had a significant negative impact on the water supply in Iraq and interfered with the irrigation systems for the country’s farms.
Along the Bahmanshir River, a tributary of the Shatt al-Arab River, Iran has also been building canals. This has resulted in an extension of the Thalweg line, which marks the border between Iran and Iraq, of about two kilometers in the direction of Iraq. Due to these problems, some of Iraq’s vast oil facilities have begun to extend into Iranian territory. Artificially changing this border could result in a conflict over the Shatt-al-Arab’s access and borders, as well as the contamination of Iraq’s water supply.
Significant water supplies from the Sirwan, Alvand, and Little Zab rivers, which originate in the Zagros Mountains, have also been blocked by Iran. Nearly two million people in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) rely primarily on these rivers for their livelihood, making the situation critical for the locals. Iran has built 16 dams on the Sirwan River, including the Daryan Dam in Kermanshah Province, as well as the 47 km long Nawsud Water Tunnel to divert water that would otherwise flow to the KRI to other Iranian cities. The Halabjah governorate in KRI, which depends entirely on the river for its drinking water as well as its agriculture and fishing industries, is expected to be severely impacted by the construction of the Daryan dam and Nawsud tunnel.
The construction of a dam by Iran on the Sirwan River has additional repercussions for Iraq. The project puts the $173 million Halabjah-Sirwan drinking water project’s impending completion in jeopardy. Additionally, it has an impact on groundwater use, fishing, farming, and the ability of the Darbandikhan Dam to support irrigation, with particular consequences in the Halabjah governorate and Central Iraq. Additionally, it will change the climate and biodiversity of the area, especially in the Sharazur region of the KRI. The dam would also disrupt religious harmony because it might be seen as the Shiite-Islamic Republic withholding water from the KRI, which has a majority of Sunnis.
In parallel, a similar water dispute over the Helmand River is developing on Iran’s eastern front with Afghanistan. The Helmand River dispute dates back to the 1940s and 1950s when Afghanistan constructed the Kajaki, Kamal Khan, Selma, and Grishk dams on the river that restricted the water flow into Iran. The Helmand River flows through Afghanistan from the Hindu Kush mountains into southeastern Iran. Millions of people on both sides of the border depend on the river as a vital source of water for agriculture, fishing, and human consumption.
The main cause of the disagreement is the lack of a shared riparian law between the two countries. The Helmand-River Water Treaty (HRWT), which Afghanistan and Iran signed in 1973 and which stipulated that Iran would receive a share of 26 cubic meters per second from the Kajaki dam, was neither ratified nor put into effect. In February 2021, a new agreement based on the HRWT terms was signed, but the dam disputes persisted. When the Kajaki Dam was finished in March 2021, Afghan government officials declared they would stop allowing more water to flow to Iran, a decision that came to pass in May 2023.
As a result, the Taliban government stopped sending water to Iran, which caused a sharp drop in water levels and the subsequent drying up of the Hamoun Wetland in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan. Iran claims that the Taliban are restricting the flow of the Helmand River in violation of the HRWT; however, the Taliban refute this claim, claiming that there is not enough water in the river due to the lack of rainfall. The president of the Islamic Republic, Ebrahim Raisi, warned the Taliban not to violate Iran’s water rights. In retaliation, a Taliban representative made fun of Raisi in a video by offering him a gallon of river water and joking, “Take this and don’t attack us!” We’re frightened! The Taliban’s mocking gesture makes it abundantly clear that Afghanistan is unwilling to negotiate with Iran over the use of the Helmand and Harirud rivers.
The future of Iran and Iraq’s transboundary water cooperation appears bleak, and issues with water resource management could lead Iran to completely disregard Iraq’s interests. If this happens, there may be a major water dispute between the two nations very soon. The Taliban-led Afghanistan and Iran have slim chances of cooperating on cross-border water projects, raising the possibility of future conflict.