On a knife-edge between peace and conflict
Scorching heat, drought and sandstorms plague those who live along the border between Afghanistan and Iran. At times, water is so scarce in these provinces that it has to be brought to the villages in tankers. In late May, the region was the scene of a bloody skirmish. An exchange of fire saw the border region briefly turn into a battlefield. Just a few days earlier, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi had threatened the Taliban in a dispute over the water in a key border river.
Not far from the border checkpoints is the Hamun Lake Biosphere Reserve. Old photos of the ecosystem – which show the lake thronged with flamingos, its surface glittering in the sun – recall the beauty of what was once the third-largest lake in Iran. These days, images of the area show shrivelled-up fish and abandoned boats. In the middle of the lake are ruins that are steeped in legend and where a German archaeologist once researched ancient Persia.
One reason for the drought is that the water of the more than 1,000-kilometre-long Helmand river in neighbouring Afghanistan, which flows into Lake Hamun, has been dammed on the Afghan side. "For years, people in the north of the province benefited from Helmand water and practiced agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry," says Iranian MP Mohammed Sargasi. Now, he says, many residents have moved away.
An agreement from 1973 is supposed to regulate the use of water from the Helmand. In the wake of global warming, however, Afghanistan is also being hit by drought. "We don't even have enough water to drink," complains one resident of Nimrus province. The prestige dam project, which was completed in 2021, supplies the province with electricity and provides irrigation for agriculture.
Potential for more cooperation
Lena Partzsch, professor of political science at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, also sees potential for cooperation. "When water wars occur, it is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy," the environmental researcher warns. "I am not pessimistic, though, because I feel water is first and foremost a resource that promotes cooperation."
One indication of this, she says, is that the Taliban visited Iran last year in the dispute over Helmand. "Rather than investing in armaments, it is important that space be created for negotiations and institutions," says Partzsch, who adds that humankind must adapt to climate change and changing water resources. "Not only technically, but in harmony with the natural world."
A water expert from Afghanistan also hopes for more cooperation. "The evaporation rate in Sistan and Balochistan is high," says Nadschibullah Sadid, who goes on to say that cooperation would be particularly feasible in the field of agriculture. "It makes sense to grow crops where it works. We need to stop wasting water."
Ethiopia's politically explosive GERD dam
The explosive potential of water rights is also evident in north-east Africa. Ethiopia's dam, which will be the largest in Africa when it is completed in 2024 or 2025, is causing regional neighbour Egypt to fear for its water supply and its domestic agriculture, both of which depend on Nile flow. Tensions over how the reservoir will be filled and how much water will continue down the Nile in future have already moved up several notches, at least verbally, towards possible military escalation. The Nile supplies more than 90 percent of Egypt's water needs.
The initially conciliatory-sounding Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi also seems to be slowly losing patience in the years-long dispute. From Cairo's point of view, Ethiopia is refusing to mediate and is playing for time. "Let's not reach a point where (the brothers in Ethiopia) touch a drop of Egyptian water, because all options are on the table," Sisi said. "Unthinkable instability in the region" could otherwise follow.
The ongoing power struggle in Sudan, which is located between Egypt and Ethiopia and is also affected by the issue, is further complicating negotiations. There, the president, who is backed by the army, and the former vice-president, who is backed by the RSF (Rapid Support Forces) militia, have been fighting for supremacy since April. Given the complex and difficult situation in Khartoum, a three-way agreement in the dispute with Cairo and Addis Ababa seems practically impossible.
India and Pakistan: old enemies facing new challenges
The best known of them is the Indus – Pakistan's principal river, which rises in Tibet and flows through the Indian part of the disputed Kashmir region. A cooperation agreement brokered by the World Bank has existed for more than 60 years. The two nuclear powers have already fought several wars with each other because of other conflicts. The agreement was seen by many experts as a glimmer of hope and a rare consensus between the hostile nations.
But in January, India suddenly demanded a change to the agreement. Once again, major dam projects are at the heart of the dispute. Pakistan claims that Indian hydropower projects in the Kashmir region are throttling its water supply. "The agreement was great in the sixties," says a government official in Islamabad. After all, he says, it has weathered wars and political tensions. Now, the challenge is a different one, he adds. India, for its part, is accusing its neighbour of a failure to compromise.
One climate expert from Pakistan who is calling for a rapid rethink is Pervaiz Amir. "Considering that all the glaciers in the north of Pakistan and India will have disappeared by the end of the century if melt continues at the current rate, and considering that they are the main source of water for the rivers, Pakistan and India need to talk to each other now," says Amir. "It is a purely technical problem, but it could cause conflict or even war in the future."
Arne Baensch, Johannes Sadek and Anne-Sophie Galli
© dpa 2023