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Afghan Waters: When resources become a threat

It was famously said that vision in absence of resources is a hallucination. In Afghanistan’s case, however, the situation is very different, and in fact the opposite. It is believed that Afghanistan’s vast natural and strategic resources, in absence of defined and effective national strategies, are not only fruitless for the country, but indeed a threat to its national security.

Afghanistan’s strategic location, linking the resourceful and landlocked Central Asian nations to the rest of the world has been perceived as a potential to transform Afghanistan into an economically self-reliant country [1]. However, the constant military exploitation of Afghanistan’s geopolitics by regional and international powers has blurred the economic incentives that are evidently associated with the country’s strategically important location.

Similarly, the ethnic and demographic diversity of the population in Afghanistan should be a source of national pride and cultural enrichment. In fact for centuries, Afghanistan has benefited immensely from strong solidarity between all its ethnic groups, especially when it has come to deal with foreign threats. Alas, now the positive heterogeneity of the nation is abused for personal and partisan gains of a few, endangering the greater national interests.

Water security around Afghanistan’s four main basins, namely the Amu, the Hari Rud, the Helmand and the Kabul, is another such example that has created more problems than opportunities for Afghans. Like all other natural and underground resources, Afghan waters continue to be linked to local [2] and regional conflicts. For decades, the water scarcity in these watercourses and its management has caused and sustained conflicts between Afghanistan and its neighbouring watercourse states.

There is no known effective water sharing treaty between regional watercourse states to manage the conflicts that emerge from the shared water basins from time to time. The only treaty signed by Afghanistan with another watercourse state was the Helmand Water Treaty between Afghanistan and its western neighbour, Iran. This treaty was signed by the then Afghan Prime Minister, M. H Maiwandwal, in 1973 after a succession of difficult negotiations [3] and meddling by world powers [4]. Many have argued that the Helmand Water Treaty has long been outdated, and is inadequate in containing the drought and climate driven challenges associated with the watercourse [4, 5].

The Kabul basin has created a very unique geopolitical situation in the region, as some of its tributaries, Kunar for example, have originated from Pakistani controlled Hindu Kush regions. This makes Afghanistan and Pakistan, both downstream and upstream of each other, [6] further complicating the riparian rights of the two watercourse states. Pakistan has efficaciously utilised the Kabul River on its territory by building sophisticated and efficient power and irrigation infrastructure. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is hardly benefiting from the basin. The four power plants on Kabul River, namely The Mahipar, the Naghlo, The Sorobi, and the Daronta, are located in a relatively shorter and weaker length of the river with trivial power output. It has been claimed that Afghanistan’s attempts to build further water infrastructures on the river has been sabotaged by Pakistan [7]. The above in mind, Pakistan is benefiting from the status quo with regards to the Kabul Basin.

The Amu, the Punj Darya (a tributary to the Amu), and the Hari-Rud, all endorheic basins, are shared with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan respectively. The Central Asian countries are using 90% of the agricultural potential of the Amu basin. They also use it for hydro-power purposes, and have inherited a well developed infrastructure from the Soviet Union for that purpose [8]. Afghanistan has not been a party to the numerous Water Agreements between the Central Asian nations, and has theretofore, not benefited much from the basin [6]. Moreover, due to poorly developed water/flood management infrastructure, Afghanistan has repeatedly suffered significant riverbank erosions and consequent displacements [9].

The absence of effective and mutually agreed water sharing treaties between regional watercourse states has resulted in an unfortunate situation where water issues are no longer dealt with by diplomacy, but instead it is the military and spy agencies that have taken the affairs in their own hands. This, for Afghanistan, has meant that its very own water resources have become threat to its national security.

Since the four major Afghan basins are classified as international watercourses by the 1977 UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigable Use of International Waters [10], it is ineluctable that effective water treaties will be negotiated in order to comprehend the modern water and energy needs of all regional watercourse nations, and the challenges caused by the climate change. At the moment, Afghanistan appears to be far from ready for such treaties.

For Afghanistan to go to the table of negotiation, it needs to have a thoroughly thought out and a soundly devised plan as to how it wants to utilise its water resources. It needs to commit itself to a feasible and scientifically appraised long term project that can be defended by its skilled negotiating team. Such long term projects also need to be attractive to the donor parties who will invest in these projects. It will only be based on these projects that Afghanistan can make a case for its energy and water needs from the basins. There will be robust negotiations with both the rival watercourse nations and the international donors, something that will require a highly skilled diplomatic capacity, which is unfortunately absent at the moment. In the absence of such plans any kind of negotiation concerning water resources will yield little for Afghans. Moreover, it is in Afghanistan’s best interest that such treaties are not specific to waters alone. In view of its landlocked location, Afghanistan needs to negotiate for a comprehensive treaty encompassing issues like Afghanistan’s access to the regional seaports, the transit laws, terrorism, and cultural and political disputes.

Although such a treaty is not yet planned, the Afghan government needs to start working on developing an impelling strategy soon. Such strategies can take years to devise to a desirable standard. Afghanistan, like all other regional watercourse nations, will benefit from water sharing treaties, if negotiated well.
While a premature negotiation has negative repercussions for Afghanistan, the dilemma is that the status quo is also dangerous for Afghanistan.

References:

[1] The American Institute of Afghanistan Studies. Afghanistan’s other neighbours: Iran, central Asia, and China. July 2008. Conference Report available online at www.bu.edu Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[2] Afghanistan watch. Natural resources and conflicts in Afghanistan. July 2012. Case reports available online at www.watchafghanistan.org Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[3] Mojtahed-Zadeh, P. Lake Hamun, a Disaster in the Making Hydropolitics of Hirmand and Hamun. University of London. Available online at www.unep.or.jp Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[4] Document 171, Office of the Historian. U.S Department of State, the United States of America. Available online at history.state.gov Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[5] Samii, B. Iran/Afghanistan: Still No Resolution For Century-Old Water Dispute. August 2013. Radio Liberty. Available online at www.rferl.org Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[6] The international Water Law Project. Sharing Central Asia’s Waters: The Case Of Afghanistan. January 2013. Available online at www.waterpolitics.com Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[7] Bezhan, F. Insecurity Springs From Afghan Dam Projects. Radio Liberty. Available online at www.rferl.org Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[8] The Amu Darya Basin Network. Balancing Water Use. Available online at amudaryabasin.net Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[9] The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Balkh Province, Kaldar District Floods – Amu Darya Riverbank Erosion Incident. Report 1. Available online at reliefweb.int Accessed on 27/08/2013.
[10] The UN. UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Available online at internationalwaterlaw.org Accessed on 27/08/2013.

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