Archive for the ‘Central Asia’ Category

The Helmand River and the Afghan-Iranian Treaty of 1973

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

The following post is by Dr. Glen Hearns, principle with Eco-Logical Resolutions, a consultancy based in Vancouver, Canada, specializing in resource management and decision making, facilitation, conflict resolution and strategic planning. Between 2012-2014, Dr. Hearns served as transboundary water advisor to the government of Afghanistan. He can be reached at ghearns [at]


The Helmand River and its major tributary, the Arghandab, drain 43% of Afghanistan including most of the southern part of the country. It has an average discharge of approximately 140m3/s, but is highly variable both annually and seasonally as the waters are primarily snow melt from the ridge of mountains running through the center of the country.  These include the Sia Koh Mountains and the Parwan Mountains northwest of Kabul.

The Helmand River flows some 1150 km before reaching the Sistan wetlands, a series of shallow marsh lakes (Hamuns) in southwest Afghanistan and eastern Iran (Figure 1). During high flows they form a series of interconnected lakes that flow in an anti-clockwise manner from Afghanistan to Iran. The wetlands are fed predominantly by Afghan rivers, the largest of which is the Helmand, and form a particularly diverse ecosystem important for migratory birds. Just prior to reaching the border, the Helmand River bifurcates at a point known as Helmand Fork. The Shele Charak River (called the Common Parian in Iran) flows northward, forming the border between Iran and Afghanistan and subsequently branches out to form the Hamun-e-Puzak. The other part of the fork flows westward into Iran, forming the Sistan River and eventually draining into the marshy lake, Hamun-e-Helmand (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Sistan Wetlands and Helmand Basin (Source: Wikipedia Maps)

Figure 1. Sistan Wetlands and Helmand Basin (Source: Wikipedia Maps)

The 1973 Helmand River Treaty is the only agreement that Afghanistan has that specifically addresses water allocations. The Helmand River and Sistan area have been the source of contention since the late 1800s. Various attempts to resolve the disputes were undertaken, including with U.S. assistance to form a fact-finding Helmand River Delta Commission, which developed recommendation in 1951.  The 1973 agreement follows those recommendations to supply Iran with an average 22 m3/s, and includes an additional 4 m3/s for “goodwill and brotherly relations”. The Treaty also establishes a new Helmand Commission to administer the provisions of the agreement (Art. VIII).  Monthly flow deliveries are specified in Article II of the treaty for “normal water years”, which is defined in Article 1(c) as a year with total flows upstream of Kajaki Dam at Dehrawud that are at least 5661 mcm between 1 October and the following 30 September. The Helmand Treaty is flexible in that in low flow years, provisions are made to reduce the flow allocated to Iran in proportion to their measured deviation from a normal year for any given month or months (Art. IV).

The Treaty specifies where Afghanistan is to deliver water flows to Iran: i) the boundary line at the Sistan River, and ii) between markers 51 and 52 on the Helmand River (Art. III(a)).  In addition to the quantities specified, Afghanistan must supply water of a quality that can be treated, if necessary, for use in irrigation and domestic use (Art. VI). This requirement effectively places the burden on Iran to treat the water for its purposes.

Of importance is that Afghanistan retains all the rights to the balance of the water and may “make such use or disposition of the water as it chooses” (Art. V). This privilege, however, must be balanced with Article XI, which acknowledges the importance of continued flow to the Helmand Delta, and admonishes that if flow is stopped, the Commissioners must develop plans to minimize the problem.

What is very clear is that Iran can make “no claim to the water of the Helmand River in excess of the amounts specified in this Treaty, even if additional amounts of water may be available in the Helmand Lower Delta and may be put to a beneficial use” (Art. 5). Consequently, if it is shown that Iran is taking more than 811 mcm/yr (per Article 3), it would be in clear breach of the Treaty.

Both Iran and Afghanistan have the ability to monitor each other to ensure that they remain in compliance with the Treaty. The Treaty specifies that during low flow years, the Iranian Commissioner has access to flow measurements at Dehrawud, and is even allowed to observe the flow and take his own measurements (Protocol 1, Art. 5). Additionally, both the Afghan and Iranian Commissioners are to jointly measure the delivery of water to Iran (Protocol 1, Art. 6). In practice, information from Dehrawud is made available on an ongoing basis, albeit not consistently, as the Commission does not always meet every year. Also, delivery of water to Iran is not adequately monitored according to Afghan officials.

Differences between the parties must be resolved through diplomatic means, or thereafter with the good offices of a third party. Failing resolution, Protocol 2 outlines a detailed arbitration process that includes fact-finding and creation of an Arbitration Tribunal. Should the parties not agree upon a suitable Chair of the Arbitration Tribunal, the United Nations shall be requested to appoint one.

While the Iranians have suggested reviewing the Treaty, the instrument has no sunset clause and exists in perpetuity. Also, the Treaty does not cover groundwater, which is also being extracted by Iran.

Regardless of the challenges, the status of the Treaty is secure. The Helmand Commission meets, hydraulic information is exchanged (but not from Dehrawud station as it has been out of commission for many years), and in 2001 the Iranians went to the United Nations to complain that Afghanistan was not releasing water from Kajaki and were in breach of Article 5 of the Treaty. The language used in the complaint demonstrates the Iranians feel the treaty is valid and in force.

The major issue today in the Helmand Basin is Afghanistan’s pursuit of water resource development projects. It is renovating Kajaki Dam, and is constructing Kamal Khan on the Lower Helmand River. It is also considering constructing Bakshabad Dam on the Farah River. These developments are unlikely to go over well with neighbouring Iran, which may well be taking more than its “guaranteed” share of water under the Helmand Treaty.  A 2006 study conducted, in part, by Iran’s Water Research Institute of the Ministry of Energy, indicated that Iran had developed storage and irrigation infrastructure from the Helmand and Shele Charak rivers with a delivery capacity in excess of what is permitted under the Treaty. The report goes on to indicate that the 1973 Treaty has very limited value for Iran and mainly guarantees drinking water supply.

While Afghanistan badly needs development, how it will balance that objective with the needs of Iranian water users, as well as the environmental needs of the Sistan wetlands, will be a delicate act.

Dr. Dinara Ziganshina: UN Watercourses Convention in Central Asia – The Current State and Future Outlook

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

The following post, by Dr. Dinara Ziganshina, is the third in the series of essays related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Ziganshina is based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where she serves as Deputy Director of the Scientific Information Center of Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia. She can be reached at dinara.ziganshina [at]

The role and relevance of the UN Convention in Central Asia

Managing the impacts of climate change and demographic growth, as well as reconciling different demands on water for drinking needs and sanitation, ecosystems, agriculture, food production, industry and energy are major water security challenges in the Aral Sea basin shared by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These challenges require a holistic, mutually beneficial and cooperative solution that is agreeable to all parties involved. A 2011 regional assessment on the role and relevance of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention to the Aral Sea basin countries found that this global instrument could improve the legal framework for transboundary water cooperation in the basin, and assist countries in building and maintaining effective and peaceful management systems for their shared water resources.

The Aral Sea Basin

The Aral Sea Basin

Although there are plenty of legal instruments at the bilateral, sub-basin, and basin levels governing the use and protection of shared watercourses in Central Asia, these agreements are in dire need of improvement as they fail to incorporate key principles of international water law and best management practices. In this context, the UN Convention could play a supplementary role to the existing regimes, and serve as a resource to help interpret the region’s bilateral treaties and arrangements. While the norms of the UN Convention are mostly couched in broad terms, to be applied to a range of different river basins, some of its provisions are still more precise and specific than the norms of sub-regional agreements in the Aral Sea basin. The rule of equitable and reasonable use and the notification procedure on planned measures, which the sub-regional agreements seem to subsume under “joint management” and “joint consideration” provisions, are the most notable examples.

In addition, the UN Convention could serve as a common platform for Central Asian countries to negotiate future accords since it does not preclude or dismiss the need for local and regional watercourse agreements. Existing legal arrangements in the basin were not designed to accommodate changing circumstances, nor can they be easily amended. As a result, many of these treaties have become stagnant and have lost their value.

Most prominently, by joining the UN Convention, Central Asian countries could benefit not only from its individual provisions, but also the entire text of the Convention, which was carefully crafted to provide a system of interacting and mutually supporting rules and procedures. Of particular relevance is the Convention’s contribution to the peaceful management of controversies as manifested in its sound procedural system and range of dispute settlement mechanisms, including an impartial fact-finding commission.

Perspectives for the UN Convention in the region

Despite the UN Convention’s value and relevance, Uzbekistan remains the only country from the region to have acceded to it. During the Convention’s adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1997, none of the Central Asian nations voted against it. While Kazakhstan voted in favor and Uzbekistan abstained from the vote, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were absent from the voting process. The example of Uzbekistan, which abstained from voting but eventually acceded to the Convention, demonstrates the possibility that countries can change their position. One can speculate on the reasons for Uzbekistan’s change, which may be grounded in political considerations, increased environmental and social concerns related to transboundary waters, or improved legal understanding of the benefits from the Convention for the peaceful use of the resource. It is also possible that the country intended to express its position to the international community by cementing its adherence to international water law. In this context, what are the chances that other countries in the region will join the Convention?

Kazakhstan, which voted in favor of the Convention, is the most likely candidate. This would be a logical, and not very demanding, step for the country since it has already committed to all water-related UNECE Conventions, which impose even stricter obligations. The Espoo Convention, for example, sets forth detailed provisions on notification procedures for planned measures, while the UNECE Water Convention stipulates stringent requirements for preventing and controlling transboundary harm, environmental protection, and establishing joint bodies.

Turkmenistan is another downstream country that has considered joining the UN Convention, after recently acceding to the UNECE Water Convention. An official representative of that country stated at a 2011 international water conference in Tashkent that preparatory procedures to join the Convention were under way (see 2011 regional assessment).

The chance in the short term that the two upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan might join the UN Convention, however, is not very high. In the early 2000s, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic found it inadvisable for the country to accede to the Convention (see 2011 regional assessment), although Kyrgyzstan acceded to the Espoo Convention in 2001. Since then, there has been no evidence of a changed attitude towards the Convention. The head of the Kyrgyz delegation to the 2011 Tashkent international water conference largely supported this proposition and added that his country may consider joining the Protocol on Water and Health under UNECE Water Convention as a first step. At the same time, he added that Kyrgyzstan would be more willing to sign on to the UN Convention than UNECE Water Convention as, in his opinion, it was more relevant to the issues facing the Central Asian region (see 2011 regional assessment).

Similarly, Tajikistan is reluctant to accede to the Convention despite the fact that the President of Tajikistan highlights the key role of international agreements in addressing water-related problems in the region. For instance, in his address at the 1st Asian Pacific Water Summit, Emomali Rahmon stated, “Elaboration and adoption of International Water Convention could be one of the important steps in a unification of efforts which would determine universal principles of water policy taking into account ensuring the interests of all consumers.” Nevertheless, Tajikistan’s existing legal commitments could set the pace for it to join the Convention. For example, under the 1998 Commonwealth of Independent States Agreement on Transboundary Waters, Tajikistan agreed to take into account the provisions of the 1966 Helsinki Rules, on which the UN Convention is largely based, and of the UNECE Water Convention. In addition, on 17 February 2004, Tajikistan promulgated Decree of 1287 on Accession to the Espoo Convention, however, the Depositary of the Convention has not yet received the ratification documents. If Tajikistan completes the ratification process for the Espoo Convention, it will be a party to another instrument largely aligned with the procedural norms of international water law.

The way forward

The unwillingness of the two upstream countries to join the UN Convention does not appear to be based on their rejection of its normative prescriptions, but rather is due to a misunderstanding of its provisions. Thus, the UN Convention has been criticized by some nations as giving preferential treatment to the interests of wealthy and powerful states, ignoring the situation in water-stressed countries, leaving individual states too much discretion to interpret its provisions for their own benefit, and being vague and imprecise in defining the rights and obligations imposed on riparian countries.

A careful analysis of the UN Convention and the broader international legal environment in which it sits dispels some of these apprehensions. The Convention imposes identical obligations on all watercourse states, irrespective of their location on an international watercourse. Moreover, concerns related to vagueness and lack of precision must be tempered by the understanding of the framework and residual character of the Convention. Lastly, the Convention must be viewed as a system of substantive and procedural obligations that establish a regime resulting from all of its provisions considered collectively.

The UN Convention has much to offer the countries of the Aral Sea basin in addressing their transboundary water problems. But to secure its benefits, the countries in the region must take an informed decision to join the Convention and implement its provisions. This means that remaining misperceptions about the Convention must be clarified and care must be taken not to create additional confusion. This includes raising false claims that the Convention is a panacea for building effective transboundary cooperation in the basin. While it would be much easier if this were true, it is not. In this respect, supporters of the Convention can be instrumental in raising awareness and understanding about the instrument. We have already witnessed the tremendous influence of World Wildlife Fund, Green Cross International, and other partners in the Convention coming into force. This campaign should be continued with a view of expanding the membership in the Convention, as well as highlighting the benefits of its good faith implementation, as a means for achieving a water-secure world for all.

Sharing Central Asia’s Waters: The Case of Afghanistan

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

The following post is by Margaret J. Vick.  Ms. Vick served as the embedded advisor to the Ministry of Energy and Water, Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 2009-2010 in a program funded by USAID. She can be reached at mjvick [at]

Afghanistan has four major river basins.  All are international watercourses as that term is defined in the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses.  When looking at the waters in Afghanistan the regional history cannot be ignored and the circumstances that often provide an impetus to negotiate water-sharing agreements should be examined.

The major basins in Afghanistan are the Panj and Amu Darya, the Kabul, the Helmand, and the Hari-Rud.  The Panj, a tributary of the Amu Darya, is shared with Tajikistan and the downstream Amu Darya is shared with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  The Kabul River is tributary to the Indus River and is hydrologically shared with India and Pakistan, but because of the division of the basin by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, is not legally shared with India.  The Hari-Rud is shared with Iran and Turkmenistan, while the Helmand River is shared with Iran.  The Panj/Amu Darya, Hari-Rud, and Helmand river basins are all endorheic or terminal basins.
Of the four basins, only the Helmand River has a water sharing agreement.  The Helmand River Treaty between Afghanistan and Iran was negotiated in the early 1970’s and entered into force in 1977 (see, e.g., here).  The history of the treaty is unclear.  Little has been written about the negotiation process and some recent commentaries have questioned its entry into force (see, e.g., here).  What is known is clouded by the cold-war era in which it was negotiated. Nevertheless, the treaty is an agreement based on modern principles for benefit sharing in a region with few positive examples.

The Kabul River flows to the Indus River.  Because some of its tributaries (namely the Bara, Kunar and Swat, rivers) originate in Pakistan, the Kabul basin forms a hydrologic phenomenon in which Afghanistan and Pakistan are both upstream and downstream from each other.  Both countries need better flood control measures on the river and Afghanistan is interested in the river for domestic water supplies and power generation for its capital city, Kabul.  Talks between the two riparians over water management, however, historically have been secondary to the cross-border tensions.

The Panj River, which forms a considerable portion of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border before being joined the Vakhsh River to form the Amu Darya, is dominated by remnants of the Soviet barter system of water for oil.  The economy of the region is hampered by a lack of energy, frequent flooding, and political conflict over water.  All four of the Panj/Amu Darya basin riparians (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) could benefit from developing the basin.  Afghanistan, however, has not participated in any of the numerous agreements regarding the Aral Sea and was never part of the Soviet water regime in the region.  Because of its outsider status it may be able to play an important role in regional water sharing discussions in the future.

In fact, Afghanistan and most of its neighboring states are in need of water for domestic purposes, reliable irrigation supplies, flood control and hydropower. The circumstances seem ripe for an agreement. Nevertheless, in this region of conflict, cross-border incursions and lack of trust, circumstances and needs may not enough to reach a water-sharing agreement.  The identified requirements and the political will of the countries, to date, has not been enough.  There needs to be a foreseeable and reliable means to accomplish the sharing of water.

As a result of decades of conflict, the human capacity in Afghanistan is limited due to the millions of people killed, the millions who fled the country, and the millions more denied an education.  Those few Afghans who are available to negotiate water-sharing agreements are highly skilled and dedicated; yet, the need for their services within Afghanistan is immediate and immense.

Water sharing agreements take time and commitment.  The Afghan government must decide how to best use their limited capacity.  If they cannot have certainty as to whether agreed-upon dams, power plants and infrastructure will be built, how should they allocate and dedicate their limited resources?  The Afghan Government is faced with the dilemma of which comes first: the agreement or the commitment to build the infrastructure.  Until one or more donors step forward to fund both the process for negotiations and the infrastructure, neither may occur.  Individuals within the Afghan government have little time and few resources to engage in protracted negotiations without a promise of results on the ground.

A donor’s commitment to build watercourse infrastructure made contingent upon a water-sharing agreement has been a common impetus for agreements on international watercourses and for states within a federal system.  The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty took decades to negotiate and required continuing commitments from the World Bank to fund its implementation.  It is presently unclear whether such a commitment is available for any of the basins shared by Afghanistan and the neighboring states.

The economic viability of Afghanistan depends on protection from floods and drought, adequate domestic supply, reliable irrigation, and power.  All can be advanced through water-sharing agreements with neighboring states.  Development of the Kabul River basin is key for stability in the southeastern region as is development of the Panj basin in the north.

Notwithstanding, until an external commitment is secured for technical support and training for the process of negotiation, as well as to implement the results of negotiations, the benefits of Afghanistan’s and the region’s transboundary rivers will remain unrealized.