The greatest security threat for Iran is not a risk of war with Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United States, but a climate change that leads to an increasing desertification of vast areas of that country and increasingly visible social tensions. Recent armed clashes with Afghanistan illustrate this urging problem.
In the case of tensions between Iran and Afghanistan, two rivers serve as a subject of contention. One of them is Hari Rod, which originates in Afghanistan and then forms a section of a border between Afghanistan and Iran before flowing into Turkmenistan. This is the main source of water for the border regions in both countries. The second object of dispute – and the cause of recent armed clashes – is Helmand, Afghanistan’s longest river, which collects about 40% of all surface water in that country. Its sources lie in the vicinity of Kabul in the Hindu Kush mountain range, from where it flows southwest to the Iranian Lake Hamun in the Sistan and Baluchestan province. Iran is dependent on Afghanistan in this part of its territory, as Afghanistan controls all major water sources.
This dispute was only partially resolved in 1973 when both sides signed an agreement on water distribution. It guarantees Iran 850 million cubic meters of water from the Helmand River annually. In 2021 they signed another agreement, based on the 1973 treaty, but according to Tehran, Afghanistan violates them. On the other hand, Kabul argues that it is impossible to ignore drought, which reduces a water level.
Tehran has long been protesting against Afghan water projects, including the Salma Dam (now known as the Afghan-Indian Friendship Dam). Construction began in 1976 and was completed in 2016. It provides both electricity and water for local farmers. This bilateral problem only temporarily disappears when there is enough water for both sides. However, in recent years, when the region has been affected by drought, individual interests prevail, leading to an uncompromising fight for every drop.
For Iran, this is a gigantic problem as it has been grappling with nationwide drought for over 30 years. The problem has intensified in the last decade and currently affects around 97% of the country’s territory. Protests erupt in various parts of the country due to a shortage of drinking water. Regarding the Iran-Afghanistan border area, previously large Lake Hamun has shrunk, transforming into three smaller lakes: Hamun-e Helmand in Iran, as well as Hamun-e Puzak and Hamun-e Sabari on the territories of both countries. Local population not only has less water available for agriculture but also has to cope with increasingly frequent sandstorms.
Although there was a quick de-escalation after a recent incident, with bilateral talks taking place, this problem remains unresolved. The water dispute persists. In the face of a worsening hydrological situation, characterized by diminishing water reserves, improvement should not be expected. What serves as a solution for Afghanistan, such as dam construction and hydroelectric power plants, poses a serious security threat to Iran. Kabul has no reason to back down. Situation will become even more challenging, especially with a construction of additional water-related facilities in Afghanistan. One of them is the recently launched Bakhshabad Dam on the Farah River, which supplies the border area.
Tensions with Afghanistan are just one element of a broader picture. Due to water scarcity, Iran has accused Turkey, which also wants to retain water within its territory. Precipitation, the main water source in Iran, is seasonal and relatively low throughout the year, particularly in the central part of the country, which is affected by a deficit. A national average is 250 mm per year (ranging from 50 mm in the central Iranian deserts to 1600 mm along the Caspian Sea), which, according to some classifications, falls within a range for desert areas. A majority of water resources are consumed by agriculture, accounting for approximately 92% according to official data, while the global average is around 70%. Currently, Iran utilizes about 70% of its renewable water resources, significantly exceeding the upper limit of 40% indicated in international standards.
Water levels held in numerous dams throughout Iran have been systematically decreasing too. Almost all major cities in Iran – Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kerman, Hamedan, Bandar-e Abbas, Arak, Qazvin, Qom, Karaj, and Yazd – are facing increasingly evident water deficits. According to official data from the Iranian Ministry of Energy, 35 million Iranians in 334 urban centers are already grappling with water stress, with 17.2 million of them (107 cities) residing in critically affected areas. Access to electricity is also becoming a growing problem since Iran relies on hydroelectric power plants. Periodically, the Iranian authorities have to deal with infectious diseases such as cholera and hepatitis A, resulting from contaminated water used for irrigation purposes as well.
In February 2017, protests due to water and electricity shortages spread to several cities in Khuzestan (south-western part of Iran). It is in this province, inhabited by a sizable Arab minority, where a situation is particularly tense. In 2015, this region experienced a series of attacks on police and military stations, resulting in lethal casualties. Almost identical incidents, including fatalities, occurred again in April 2018. Besides unresolved political and economic issues, other factors contributed to these events, such as increasing water deficits, high pollution, and overall environmental degradation. Consequently, these factors lead to increased salinity, more frequent sandstorms, and numerous power shortages.
In July 2013, Isa Kalantari, who served as Minister of Agriculture from 1988 to 2001 and headed agricultural research at the Center for Strategic Studies of the Expediency Discernment Council, warned that the water crisis is the “main problem” in Iran, more dangerous than “Israel and the United States”, and if not resolved, it would convert large parts of the country into abandoned zones. He cautioned that the “eight-thousand-year-old civilization of Iran will be destroyed” without taking drastic measures.
In a similar vein, several years ago, Abbas Araghchi, then Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran, issued a warning that “West Asia is rapidly heading towards total dehydration… By 2025, all countries in the region, including Iran, will face drought conditions.” This will lead to unrest and the emergence of so-called “climate refugees.” Many of them will seek a better life in Europe.
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