The Helmand River and the Afghan-Iranian Treaty of 1973

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.

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