Where the Hari Rud river bends north to form a natural border between Iran and , a patch of thick forest allows Iranian border police to remain unseen as they observe the activities of the villagers on the other side.
Residents of Kohsan district in Afghanistan’s Herat province say that when they try to collect precious potable water on the barren eastern bank, the Iranian guards open fire. While the provincial government in Herat denied these allegations to Tehran BureauKohsan authorities said that at least ten villagers have been shot dead at this spot on the Hari Rud, which lies at the centre of a simmering conflict over water rights. Repeated efforts to reach Iranian officials in Kabul, Tehran and New York were unsuccessful.
Flowing westwards into before turning north and disappearing in Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert, the Hari Rud is prone to severe seasonal droughts with dire consequences for both Afghans and Iranians. The last time the 1,000-km river completely dried up, in 2000, the second-largest Iranian city of Mashhad suffered severe water shortages and agricultural sector in Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province reported losses of 129bn rials ($4.3m).
In Afghanistan, decades of war have impeded the construction of modern water storage facilities, while many traditional irrigation channels, or , have been destroyed or polluted. Around 80 % of the rural population have been left without access to adequate drinking water.
The police chief of Kohsan district, Mir-a-Jan, said his force had led community efforts to dig ditches to divert water from the Hari Rud before it reaches Iran, provoking violent reactions. “We wanted to build a canal so that people can easily use the water daily, but this attempt was met with stiff resistance,” he told Tehran Bureau. “Every time the people of Kamana, Banyan and adjacent villages try to take water from the Hari Rud, they are fired at by the Iranians.”
Kohsan district governor, Naizamudeen Rahmani, confirmed that the shootings have claimed at least ten lives and prevent residents of these isolated villages from accessing clean water. “The people face regular water shortages in the spring and summer,” he said. “Any attempt to collect water from the river is responded to by fire from the Iranian border police.” The guards occasionally fire warning shots, he added, but they have been prepared to fire even at children.
Haji Abdul Hakim, an elder from the district, said he had seen at least ten villagers die while trying to collect water from the Hari Rud, and the wounded are so many he had stopped counting. “Some of the bullets whizzed by me and hit a young man who fell to the ground dead,” he said, describing a recent incident. “The border police from Iran open fire on defenceless people. This ordeal is nothing new for Kohsan. It has been going on since the Taliban regime,” when relations between Afghanistan and Iran deteriorated.
Asel-ud-din Jami, deputy governor of Herat province, rejected the allegations, adding his department has not received any reports of such incidents from Kohsan residents or officials. With Herat receiving the bulk of the $660m Iran has allocated for reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, the provincial government is reluctant to foment conflict with its western neighbour, saidAbdul Qadir Kamil, a political analyst based in the province. “The government of Afghanistan is sacrificing the people of Kohsan district for friendly relations with Iran,” he told Tehran Bureau.
Located around 115km west of Herat city, the afflicted villages lack roads and suffer from underdevelopment. “Most of the agricultural lands have become barren, with no water,” said Ahmad Behzad, the Herat province representative in Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.
“In those areas where the Hari Rud forms the border with Iran, the water should be stopped from entering Iran.”
Behzad added that that he had raised the issue in the Wolesi Jirga but failed to garner the support of other deputies. The tangled politics of water runs through many disputes between Afghanistan and its neighbours. Afghanistan is home to five river basins that also sustain large populations in Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia, but the country lacks water-sharing agreements with its neighbours.
The sole exception is a 1973 agreement over the Helmand river, which flows westwards from Afghanistan into Sistan-Baluchistan, one of Iran’s poorest provinces and which relies on the Helmand as its only source of irrigation.
The 1973 pact, which sets the annual amount of water Iran can use, was never ratified by the Wolesi Jirga, and both Iran and Afghanistan have reported violations. When the Taliban authorities cut off the Helmand’s flow following a drought in 2001, Sistan-Baluchistan faced disaster, and the Iranian government allegedly responded by entering Afghanistan and building a series of canals and diversions to restore access.
Current negotiations have been held behind closed doors, but Afghan president Ashraf Ghani initiated talks on “water-related issues” during his official visit to Iran this April, said Kabul University professor Naeem Fahim, a water management expert who accompanied Ghani.
Iranian companies are also involved in water-related research and infrastructural projects inside Afghanistan, including two dams in Kabul province, said Abdul Basir Azimi, an engineer at Afghanistan’s ministry of water and energy. But Azimi stressed this is a private-sector rather than a government initiative.
The absence of agreements contributes to – and reflects – continuing disputes. During the Hamid Karzai administration between 2004 and 2014, Kabul accused Tehran of arming the Taliban to sabotage the reconstruction of Salma Dam, an India-sponsored project on the Hari Rud. Members of the Afghan government made similar accusations against Pakistan during the construction of dams on the Kabul River, which affects downstream Pakistani communities’ access to clean water.
The Salma Dam, which began operating this summer, is expected to reduce the annual water flow to Iran by 71%, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme. The effect of the dam is already felt, with Hussein Sakhdari, deputy director of the provincial water department, telling local journalists last month that reservoirs in Razavi Khorasan province were at a record low.
The Iranian government is clearly concerned. While the authorities have reassured Mashhad residents that adequate rainfall has secured their water supply, Tehran is in emergency talks to conserve the water stored at the Friendship Dam, a joint Iran-Turkmenistan project downstream from Salma Dam.
The Iranian government is also constructing pipelines to pump desalinated water from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the eastern provinces, including Razavi Khorasan. With just first leg of the project, which leads from Bandar Abbas to Kerman province, estimated at $500m, the costs of water are high and rising fast.