The Helmand River Basin Dispute

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 31° 29' 40.614", 61° 45' 43.7256"
Important Uses of Water Agriculture or Irrigation, Domestic/Urban Supply, Other Ecological Services
Water Features: Helmand Basin
Riparians: Iran, Afghanistan
Agreements: Helmand River Delta Commission, Terms of reference of the Helmand River Delta Commission and an interpretive statement relative thereto, agreed by conferees of Afghanistan and Iran, 1973 Helmand River Water Treaty


The Helmand River is shared between Iran and Afghanistan. This basin has been identified as one of the few basins in the region with an agreement governing the sharing of the river’s waters. However, despite a treaty between the two countries signed in 1973, there has been a continuation of conflict. The dispute over the Helmand River has persisted for nearly the last two centuries and includes several attempts at resolution. The tensions in the basin are liable to increase given population growth, climate change, instability in the region, and the need for economic growth. If the status quo is maintained, the dispute has the potential to escalate and be exacerbated, particularly if the region experiences continued drought. Issues within the dispute include, but are not limited to, lack of trust between the two countries, particularly over the interpretation and implementation of the 1973 Treaty, environmental and social impacts within the Sistan Delta, and push for economic development in the lower and middle Helmand Basin, particularly for water infrastructure to increase irrigated agriculture.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

The Helmand/Hirmand River Basin

The Helmand River Basin, as known as the Hirmand River in Iran, is a renewable resource highly valued by both states through which it flows. The river originates in the northeast of Afghanistan within the Hindu Kush Mountains northwest of Kabul. Majority of the discharge is from snow melt near the headwaters of the Helmand and its tributaries, as there is minimal precipitation in the lower reaches of the basin (Goes et al. 2015). From its headwaters, the river trends in a southwesterly direction for about 1,200 kilometers draining into the Sistan Depression on the Afghan-Iranian border. The Sistan Depression creates a series of terminal lakes within the endorheic basin. Typically, there are four lakes – known locally as hamouns – which are fed by the Helmand and several smaller rivers to the north of the depression. The true terminus of the river is the Gaud-e Zirreh, which is a saline lake in Afghanistan that receives flow from the hamouns during high flood years. This flushes the salt out of the hamouns, enabling them to remain as freshwater, despite the high evaporation rates of the area (van Beek & Meijer 2006; Goes et al. 2015). The four hamouns within Iran are highly variable in size, although they are generally shallow. In flood years, the lakes can merge together covering an area up to approximately 3,200 square kilometers (Dehgan et al. 2014). The wetlands created here are an important resource for both the people and wildlife who reside in the Sistan Depression region. This area has been designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention (Ramsar Secretariat 2005).

Approximately 30% of Afghanistan’s area is within the Helmand River Basin; this area constitutes about 90% of the total area, leaving about 10% of the basin area within Iran. A small portion on the southern edge of the basin lies within Pakistan; however, the dispute over the river’s waters is between Afghanistan and Iran. Over 7 million people live within the basin, 6.5 million within Afghanistan, where Kandahar is the largest city, and 400,000 within the Sistan-Baluchestan Province of Iran (van Beek & Meijer 2006; Goes et al. 2015). The Sistan inland delta resides within the administrative unit of Zabol Shahrestan in Iran. The Helmand River crosses through several provinces in Afghanistan including Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimroz. In general, livelihoods are based on agriculture in both countries where the surface water is used extensively. Most irrigation is traditional with farmer managed small systems along the valley floor in the upper basin and along the main Helmand river channel. There are six large scale irrigation projects within the basin, five within the middle section of the river and one in Iran. The productivity of the agriculture in the region is limited by the high seasonal variability of runoff, meaning that an increase in perennial irrigation storage is required for future agricultural growth (Goes et al. 2015).

Afghanistan has constructed two major dams on the Helmand, the Kajaki and Arghandab Dams, circa 1950s. These dams control seasonal flooding and release water for use during the seasonally dry times. In addition, Afghanistan has several barrages that are associated with the various large scale irrigation projects. Iran has constructed four Chahnimeh reservoirs. The reservoirs store water for the public water supply of the cities of Zabul and Zahedan as well as the surrounding rural villages (van Beek & Meijer 2006; Dehgan et al. 2014). If there is additional water available in the reservoirs, then water is released for irrigation. An additional function that is important to note is that the reservoirs regulate the flow of water to the hamouns during drought, which supports the fragile ecosystems and the livelihoods that depend on them (Dehgan et al. 2014).

History of the Water Dispute

In addition to the hydrological, demographic, and infrastructure overview described above the history of the relationship between Iran and Afghanistan is vital to fully understanding the conflict over the Helmand River. The dispute extends beyond the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, when Iran controlled the entirety of the Sistan delta and a portion of the lower Helmand basin. In the late 1800’s, Iran argued that a portion of the Afghani Sistan was rightfully Iranian territory, which lead to the involvement of the British in the border conflict. At this point in time, the border dispute was the primary aspect of the conflict between Iran and Afghanistan; however, the sharing of the Helmand’s water is closely linked to the location of the international border. Therefore, the sharing of the waters was included as part of the British arbitration of the border dispute. In 1872, the Goldsmid Arbitral Award established the border as the Helmand River and allocated equal shares of the water to both counties, while restricting the construction of infrastructure that would interfere with the “requisite supply of water for irrigation on both banks of the Helmand”(Abidi 1977; Dehgan et al. 2014). Drought and natural alteration of the river’s course, reignited the dispute, and in 1903-05 the McMahon commission again settled the border dispute and readdressed the shared waters in a similar manner to the 1872 award. However, this commission’s award was rejected by both countries.

Following the Iranian coup-d’état in the 1920s, Iran and Afghanistan approached Turkey as a neutral power to assist in the border and water dispute. During these negotiations, a resolution to the border dispute was agreed upon by both parties. In reference to the water conflict, the resultant Treaty of 1938 embodied the Goldsmid Award, where the two countries agreed to share equally the lower waters of the Helmand and not to construct new infrastructure that would impact the water supply. This treaty, however, while agreed to by Afghanistan, was never ratified (Abidi 1977).

In the 1940s, Afghanistan sought US technical and financial assistance in constructing dams and irrigation projects along the Helmand; Iran saw these projects in violation of the 1938 Treaty. Both countries accepted US mediation of the conflict in 1947 (Abidi 1977). The negotiations established a Neutral Technical Commission for the Helmand River Delta in 1950. The commission’s report allocated 22 cubic meters per second to Iran during normal years, however both countries again rejected the report continuing the dispute over the waters (Dehgan et al. 2014). Given the intermittent nature of drought in the basin, the conflict was seen as a low priority for many years as there was little incentive to settle the issue.

In 1971, unprecedented drought significantly impacted the amount of water that Iran received spurring bi-lateral negotiations. In 1973, the two countries signed the Helmand River Water Treaty, which allocated water consistent with the 1950’s commission’s recommendation, but allowed for the reduction of water released to Iran in dry years proportionate to the climatic conditions (Abidi 1977). This treaty was ratified in 1977; however, it has only been minimally implemented given the subsequent Iranian revolution, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, civil war in Afghanistan, US invasions of Afghanistan, Taliban control, and continued tensions in the region (Dehgan et al. 2014).

Helmand River Basin Water Conflict

Since the ratification and enforcement of the 1973 Helmand River Basin Treaty, the agreement has been touted by some scholars as a positive example of a water sharing agreement in a region with few successfully shared transboundary waters (Vick 2013). However, despite the existence of the agreement, the dispute over the Helmand waters has persisted – if not escalated – given political, economic, and climatic factors impacting the use or potential use of the river.

Historically, the conflict has coincided with the international border dispute. This aspect of the conflict has de-escalated with the focus shifting towards the dispute over the Helmand’s water. The periodical nature of the attempts of resolution – 1872, 1905, 1938, 1950, and 1973 – of the water conflict has been spurred by reoccurring drought within the basin. The current iteration of conflict is consistent with this trend, as a significant drought occurred from 1999 to 2009 (Houk 2011; Dehgan et al. 2014). This drought increased the tensions between the two countries over the shared waters. However, additional factors are also driving the conflict, beyond the climatic and hydrological variability that is normal in the basin.

With the withdrawal of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan, stabilization and reconstruction are the focus for the government of Afghanistan. These efforts are focused on the development of agricultural projects and water projects that include withdrawal, diversion, and storage in the middle and lower reaches of the Helmand River (Dehgan et al. 2014). The planned development projects in the lower and middle Helmand Basin trends with the projected population growth in the same region. This will increase the demand for domestic water supply, including business and increased food production.

Iran is concerned that these efforts will reduce the water security in the Sistan delta, which is a volatile region within the state. The Sistan and Baluchestan province is the most marginalized region in the country with a strong Sunni majority, counter to the state’s Shia majority. The lower reaches of the Helmand Basin within both Iran and Afghanistan are characterized by sectarianism and tribalism; therefore, preserving the internal political stability in this area is important for the nation-states. The states’ should therefore be concerned with preserving water security in this region given the potential destabilizing effect a loss of water security could have on internal politics. While the population in the Sistan delta is considerably smaller than the Afghani population within the basin, the Sistan region is nearly completely dependent on the Helmand River to meet its needs, as there is limited alternative sources of water. Currently, Iran uses 80% of the downstream flow of the Helmand for agriculture, as the region is economically important as a “bread basket” of Central Asia. These economic drivers for conflict over the waters is further compounded by climate change. Predictions cite a decrease in precipitation and an increase in temperature, in addition to rapid glacial melt at the headwaters. Importantly, the timing of water in the system is also predicated to change, which could be more impactful as a stressor for conflict than the decline of overall water quantity.

Political factors are also driving the conflict. From 1999-2009, Taliban controlled Afghanistan cut off water completely to Iran, resulting in the hamoun lakes completely drying up, causing collapse of the ecosystem, increasing poverty and unemployment, and abandonment of 124 villages because of sandstorms (Houk, 2011). Iran views this as a breach of the 1973 Treaty creating a further loss of trust between the two states. Iran’s vulnerability will increase with Afghanistan’s planned construction of new water projects and agricultural development. For example, Afghanistan has begun construction of the Khamal Khan Dam on the middle Helmand which would impact the flow to Iran. Iran also views this as a violation of the 1973 Treaty. Afghanistan also believes that Iran is violating the treaty by consuming more water than is allocated. Furthermore, Afghanistan has accused Iran of pressuring Afghanistan to negotiate on the shared waters through reduction of oil sales to the country; they have also accused Iran of supporting the Taliban in the destruction and delayed construction of the Khamal Khan Dam and other water development projects (Houk 2011; Aman 2013).

This conflict is steeped in historical mistrust and intermittent political conflict that resulted in the previous attempts at resolving the conflict at the state to state level. This most recent iteration of the dispute has escalated beyond conventional politics towards unstable politics. Given that the desire for economic growth and stability in Afghanistan, climate change, and Iran’s perceived vulnerability, there is likelihood for the conflict to transition to a stage of low-level hostilities, as evidenced by Iran’s supposed support of sabotage. In addition, in 2011 there was a skirmish between Afghan and Iranian border forces over the Iranian forces attempts to enter Afghanistan to release water into an irrigation canal (Goes et al. 2015). The precedence of failed resolution of the conflict set by past negotiations and state to state interactions provides an incentive for alternative methods of dispute resolution.

Issues and Stakeholders

Maintain security of regional water supply and increase economic development.

NSPD: Water Quantity, Water Quality, Governance, Values and Norms
Stakeholder Types: Federated state/territorial/provincial government, Sovereign state/national/federal government, Local Government

State level, regional and local governments are interested in maintaining the water supply to communities in the Sistan Delta and the lower and middle reaches of the Helmand Basin. The general Afghan position is that more water is needed to maintain stability and encourage economic development within the country. Afghanistan could perceive Iran’s actions against Afghani water projects as limiting their potential for growth and development. The general Iranian position is that more water is required to meet the domestic and agricultural needs of the Sistan delta’s population. In addition, they also need more water in order maintain the hamoun ecosystem. Iran sees Afghan development as a threat to local livelihoods and agricultural production in the Sistan with the potential to impact the country at large. Most of the water consumed in the basin goes towards agriculture, the future construction of infrastructure in support of expanding irrigation and economic growth is both a risk and a benefit to users within the basin.

Lack of trust

NSPD: Water Quantity, Water Quality, Ecosystems, Governance, Assets, Values and Norms
Stakeholder Types: Sovereign state/national/federal government

Both Iran and Afghanistan have a lack of trust in the other party. This mistrust stems from the belief that the other country is not upholding the terms of the 1973 Treaty. Iran claims that Afghanistan is not releasing the agreed upon water allocations; this belief was reinforced by the Taliban controlled Afghani government’s restriction of the lower Helmand’s flow into Iran. Iran views Afghanistan’s water infrastructure development as an expansion of the poppy production in the region. Iran views the decline of the hamoun lakes, the degradation of the wetland ecosystem, and the migration of people out of the region due to the loss of livelihood and sandstorms, as Afghanistan’s fault for not meeting the allocations of the treaty. Afghanistan perceives Iran as consuming more water than the 1973 Treaty allocates. Therefore, they believe that the water developments are within their right to use the excess flow that has been flowing unimpeded into Iran.

Degradation and loss of the hamoun ecosystem

NSPD: Water Quantity, Ecosystems, Values and Norms
Stakeholder Types: Federated state/territorial/provincial government, Sovereign state/national/federal government, Local Government, Environmental interest, Community or organized citizens

Drought, politics, increased demand, and climate change have impacted the amount of water flowing into the hamoun ecosystem. Iranian government, local governments and communities as well as environmental groups are arguing for increased flow to the ecosystem to support the wildlife and habitat, but also the people living within and dependent on the delta for their livelihoods. Many factors have contributed to the loss of the ecosystem with conflict over what factors are to blame.

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Key Questions

Power and Politics: How does asymmetry of power influence water negotiations and how can the negative effects be mitigated?

The asymmetry of power has influenced the history of the water negotiations in the Helmand River dispute. In addition, the power of international participants in the negotiation process could have contributed towards an agreement being formed or the level of trust placed in an agreement. Currently, Afghanistan has power geographically being the upstream country. Being the upstream riparian in conjunction with the position that Iran has violated the treaty and is inhibiting Afghanistan’s economic growth, provides the state with the incentive to push forward with potentially impactful water and agricultural developments. Iran has generally been more powerful in diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. Therefore, the state is likely more interested in pursuing future negotiations over the Helmand waters prior to any development in Afghanistan, as this could ensure that majority of the flow is allocated to Iran.

Transboundary Water Issues: How can mutual trust amongst riparians be nurtured? What actions erode that trust?

Throughout the dispute, trust has eroded between the two countries. Disagreement over the interpretation of the treaty and the measurement of the volume of water allocated has contributed. Continued drought and potential future droughts will likely further erode trust without agreement over how to manage the river in drought. Political actions, such as the alleged border skirmish to divert irrigation water across the border, and alliances with other nations, such as historical British and US involvement in the border and water dispute, and giving aid in development infrastructure, can reduce trust. Lack of quality and available data prevents a building of trust.

Tagged with: Sistan Delta Treaty


Abidi, A. H. H. (1977). Irano-Afghan Dispute over the Helmand Waters. International Studies, 16(3), 357–378.

Aman, F. (2013, January 7). Afghan Water Infrastructure Threatens Iran, Regional Stability - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East. Al Monitor - The Pulse of the Middle East. Retrieved from

Dehgan, A., Palmer-Moloney, L. J., & Mirzaee, M. (2014). Water security and scarcity: Potential destabilization in western Afghanistan and Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan due to transboundary water conflicts. In E. Weinthal, J. Troell, & M. Nakayama (Eds.), Water and post-conflict peacebuilding (p. London: Earthscan.

Goes, B. J. M., Howarth, S. E., Wardlaw, R. B., Hancock, I. R., & Parajuli, U. N. (2015). Integrated water resources management in an insecure river basin: a case study of Helmand River Basin, Afghanistan. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 0(0), 1–23.

Houk, A. (2011, March 22). Transboundary Water Sharing: Iran and Afghanistan. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from Ramsar Secretariat. (2005). Hamun-e-Saberi & Hamun-e-Helmand. Retrieved January 2, 2016, from

van Beek, E., & Meijer, K. (2006). Integrated Water Resources Management for the Sistan Closed Inland Delta, Iran. Delft, Netherlands: Delft Hydraulics. Retrieved from’s%20dying%20wetlands/Hamoun%20Wetland/Hamoun%20Report.pdf

Vick, M. (2013, January 19). Sharing Central Asia’s Waters: The Case of Afghanistan. Retrieved from

Facts about "The Helmand River Basin Dispute"RDF feed
AgreementHelmand River Delta Commission +, Terms of reference of the Helmand River Delta Commission and an interpretive statement relative thereto, agreed by conferees of Afghanistan and Iran + and 1973 Helmand River Water Treaty +
Geolocation31° 29' 40.614", 61° 45' 43.7256"Latitude: 31.494615
Longitude: 61.762146
IssueMaintain security of regional water supply and increase economic development. +, Lack of trust + and Degradation and loss of the hamoun ecosystem +
Key QuestionHow does asymmetry of power influence water negotiations and how can the negative effects be mitigated? + and How can mutual trust amongst riparians be nurtured? What actions erode that trust? +
NSPDWater Quantity +, Water Quality +, Governance +, Values and Norms +, Ecosystems + and Assets +
RiparianIran + and Afghanistan +
Stakeholder TypeFederated state/territorial/provincial government +, Sovereign state/national/federal government +, Local Government +, Environmental interest + and Community or organized citizens +
Topic TagSistan Delta Treaty +
Water FeatureHelmand Basin +
Water UseAgriculture or Irrigation +, Domestic/Urban Supply + and Other Ecological Services +
Has subobjectThis property is a special property in this wiki.The Helmand River Basin Dispute + and The Helmand River Basin Dispute +