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International water issues

All major rivers in Afghanistan originate in the central highlands region or the northeastern mountains. The only notable exception is the Kunar river, its source is in the Karakoram mountains across the border in Pakistan, and the Amu Darya river, which originates in Tajikistan and is only a border river for Afghanistan. Many rivers are shared with Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries therefore use of water from rivers with their source in Afghanistan takes on a regional dimension. Most Afghan rivers drain into inland lakes or dry up in sandy deserts or irrigation canals. The only exception is the Kabul river itself, and other rivers in the Kabul river basin, which flow to Pakistan where they join the Indus river before flowing into the Indian Ocean.

In 1921, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom signed a treaty to establish relationships with neighbouring countries. The United Kingdom agreed to permit Afghanistan to draw water from a pipe for use by residents of Tor Kham. Afghanistan agreed to permit British officers and tribespeople on the British (now Pakistan) side of the border to use the Kabul river for navigation and to maintain existing irrigation rights (Favre and Kamal, 2004).

In 1950, Afghanistan and Iran created the Helmand River Delta Commission, which had the task of measuring and dividing river flows between the two countries. In 1972, a document was signed between Afghanistan and Iran for the allocation of the discharge of 26 m3/s of Helmand river water to Iran year round, which is equal to about 0.82 km3/year.

International agreements on the use and quality of Amu Darya transboundary water between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union were signed during the two different eras. The first being the Stalin era (mid-1920s ~1953) during which Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union signed the border agreement in 1946. Afghanistan gave Kuczka region back to the Former Soviet Union. This circumstance entailed closer relationship between both nations. An international water agreement was reached in 1946, under which entitled Afghanistan to use up to 9 km3 of water from the Panj river. The second Soviet era was the Khruchchyov-Daoud era (1953~1963).

The Former Soviet Union steadily promoted economic assistance and military aid. In 1954, the Soviet Union offered grants of US$240 million to Afghanistan and built 100 km of pipeline from Termez, Uzbekistan. In 1955, the Soviet Union announced further assistance, such as agricultural development, hydroelectric generation and construction of irrigation infrastructure. In 1956, Afghanistan signed a contract accepting Russian supervisors for the construction of water facilities. At the beginning of 1958, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union reconfirmed and signed the border agreement. The second international agreement on the use and quality of Amu Darya transboundary water was signed in 1958.

These agreements founded an international commission to cope with the uses and quality of transboundary water resources. After the second era, however, the relationship between the two nations deteriorated. The Soviet invasion disrupted Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. After withdrawal in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Formal frameworks for international coordination in the Amu Darya river basin between Afghanistan and the new (former Soviet Union) countries in Central Asia no longer existed after the second era (Fuchinoue, Tsukatani and Toderich, 2002; Favre and Kamal, 2004).

The environmental problems of the Aral Sea basin are among the worst in the world. Water diversions, farming methods and industrial waste resulted in the Sea disappearing, salinization and organic and inorganic pollution. The problems of the Aral Sea basin, which previously had been an internal issue for the Soviet Union, became internationalized after its demise in 1991. In 1992, five major riparian (former Soviet Union) countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – signed an agreement to coordinate policies concerning their transboundary waters and established the Interstate Commission for Water Management Coordination to manage, monitor and facilitate the agreement (Favre and Kamal, 2004). Two international freshwater agreements were signed by the Central Asian Republics covering the Amu Darya river.

The first agreement was the ‘Agreement on joint activities in addressing the Aral Sea crises and the zone around the Sea, improving the environment, and enduring the social and economic development of the Aral Sea region’, signed in 1993. The second agreement was the ‘Resolution of the Heads of States of Central Asia on work of the Economic Commission of the Interstate Council for the Aral Sea (ICAS) on implementation of an Action Plan on improvement of the ecological situation in the Aral Sea Basin for the 3–5 years to come with consideration of social and economic development of the region’, signed in 1995 (Fuchinoue, Tsukatani and Toderich, 2002). As a result of conflicts Afghanistan, which is a critical partner to any future transboundary water management agreement, has so far been unable to participate in any discussions or agreements (Favre and Kamal, 2004).

Afghanistan uses only about 2 km3/year of the 9 km3/year of water from the Panj river that it is entitled to use under the 1946 treaty with the Former Soviet Union. The Panj river has an annual flow of 19 km3, if Afghanistan develops agriculture in the north, this will radically change the flow of the Amu Darya (Favre and Kamal, 2004).

Once Afghanistan implements plans for the construction of dams and facilities on its rivers for flood control, electricity generation and irrigation expansion, this will impact the amount of water and timing of peak runoff to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (Khurshedi, 2011).


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