In a corner of the southern Afghan desert, scorched by heat and thrashed by sandstorms, Nimruz is one of Afghanistan’s most remote and lawless provinces. Enjoying little international aid or government authority, it is also one of the least developed.
Now, there is hope for progress in Nimruz, but unfortunately that hope is pinned on a resource that could spark regional conflict with Iran: water.
The Afghan government plans to construct a dam to boost agriculture and improve livelihoods in a region where one of the main paths to profit is smuggling, of drugs as well as people.
Illustration: Louise Ting
One of Afghanistan’s many untapped resources, water has real potential. Of its 8 million hectares of fertile land, Afghanistan cultivates only about 2 million. It imports 80 percent of its electricity.
The dam, called Kamal Khan, could irrigate 175,000 hectares of land, the size of Greater London, according to project manager Mohammad Nabi.
However, the dam project risks angering neighboring Iran, which already frets about how slowly the Afghan Helmand river trickles over to its side of the border.
Nimruz officials accuse Iran of paying local Taliban groups to sabotage the project.
“When work on the dam begins, of course security will worsen,” Ali Ahmad, a young police officer guarding the site, said when the Guardian visited.
He was working at a rudimentary checkpoint overlooking the endless, arid desert enveloped in a haze of sand.
“Iran will not let us build the dam, but we are ready to fight,” he said.
Iran and the Taliban were once archenemies, and water was one battleground. When it was in power, the Taliban closed the sluices at Kajaki dam, in Helmand province, choking off water to Iran from 1998 to 2001.
Coinciding with drought, this had devastating environmental consequences. Wetlands dried up, leading to mass migration of people living there. In 2001, after the overthrow of the Taliban, Iran asked the UN to get Afghanistan to release the water.
Since 2001, however, Iran and the Taliban have developed a pragmatic relationship. Nimruz Governor Mohammad Sami said that when a US drone killed the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor on a Pakistani highway in May, he was returning from a visit he paid to Iran.
Sami avoided going into further details, but said that Iranian support for the Taliban was obvious “like sunshine.”
Ties between Iran and the Taliban are well documented, but have mostly been clandestine. However, in December, Iran issued an unprecedented public invitation to the Taliban for an Islamic conference in Tehran.
In a briefing to Congress in December, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, accused Iran of propping up the Taliban.
In 2011, a captured Taliban commander claimed to have received US$50,000 and military training in Iran to sabotage the Kamal Khan dam.
Officials elsewhere in Afghanistan have made similar accusations, also pinning the assassination in 2010 of a police chief in Herat, home to another large dam, on Iran.
The Helmand river rises in the Hindu Kush mountains close to Kabul and flows 1,130km south before pouring into the Hamoun wetlands on the Iranian-Afghan border. On the way, it passes Chahar Burjak and the Kamal Khan dam.
Getting here is not easy, and requires a two-hour drive from the provincial capital, Zaranj, through punishing terrain without signs or roads, often through sandstorms.
Unsurprisingly, Nimruz is a haven for migrant and drug smugglers, who travel concealed by the wind that whisks sand up from the ground like smoke, making sky and earth almost indistinguishable.
The dam does not look like much yet. The two first phases involved merely building a wall and reinforcing a dyke. Phase three — installing three turbines and a power station, and digging hundreds of kilometers of canals — has not yet begun.
At an estimated cost of about US$100 million, the dam is slated for completion in four years. The whole area looks abandoned, apart from 300 policemen. Some have been here for years.
It is a sizable but necessary force, commander Major Fazal Ahmad Zor said.
The Taliban are flush with Iranian weapons and cash, and can easily cross the border to restock and recuperate, he added.
Last year, about 60 Taliban fighters on pickup trucks attacked a police checkpoint, said Hekmatullah, the commander of that checkpoint.
His men got off lucky with few injuries, but he expects that when work on the dam picks up, so will the fighting.
Water has been a source of contention for many decades but the dispute has intensified in recent years, as Afghanistan has directed portions of its international aid toward development projects.
In fact, the Iran and Afghanistan have had an agreement to share the water since 1973, obligating Afghanistan to channel at least 22 cubic meters a second annually to Iran. Both countries have accused the other of breaching the treaty.
Most recently, in Oct 2015, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif, when grilled by parliamentarians to demand more water from Afghanistan, said that country lived up to the treaty “inadequately and inconsistently.”
Meanwhile, Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water spokesman Abdul Basir Azimi said that Afghanistan intends to enforce the treaty.
According to Andrew Scanlon, Afghanistan country manager for the UN Environment Programme, water no doubt holds genuine potential for sustainable development in Nimruz.
“The key issue,” he said, is political negotiations.
For now, though, diplomacy is dormant. The Atlantic Council think tank argues in a recent report that Kabul and Tehran prefer to rouse public opposition to the other side, rather than negotiate.
“Unfortunately, and largely for political reasons, both sides have failed to inform their publics properly and have fed them biased information despite the urgent need to improve water management and infrastructure,” the report says, calling on the US to mediate.
For his part, Sami refuses to even speculate openly about what the perceived threat from Iran might entail.
“This is our right,” he said. “If we have water, the climate of this region will change. If Iran is not happy, it is up to them.”
An outrageous dismissal of the exemplary Taiwanese fight against COVID-19 has been perpetrated by the EU. There is no excuse. I presume that everyone who reads the Taipei Times knows that the EU has excluded Taiwan from its so-called “safe list,” which permits citizens unhindered travel to and from the countries of the EU. As the EU does not feel that it needs to explain the character of this exclusive list, perhaps we should examine it ourselves in some detail. There are 14 nations on the list that have been chosen as safe countries of origin and safe countries of destination for
Filmmakers in Taiwan used to struggle when it came to telling a story that could resonate internationally. Things started to change when the 2017 drama series The Teenage Psychic (通靈少女), a collaboration between HBO Asia and Taiwanese Public Television Service (PTS), became a huge hit not just locally, but also internationally. The coming-of-age story was adapted from the 2013 PTS-produced short film The Busy Young Psychic (神算). Entirely filmed in Taiwan, the Mandarin-language series even made it on HBO’s streaming platforms in the US. It is proof that a well-told Taiwanese story can absolutely win the hearts and minds of hard-to-please
Drugged with sedatives, handcuffed and wearing a bright orange prison tunic, British fraud investigator and former journalist Peter Humphrey was escorted by warders into an interrogation room filled with reporters, locked inside a steel cage and fastened to a metal “tiger chair.” Humphrey recalls: “I was completely surrounded by officers, dazed, manacled and with cameras pointing at me through the bars. I was fighting for my life like a caged animal. It was horrifying.” Footage from the interrogation was later artfully edited to give the appearance of a confession and broadcast on Chinese state media. While this might sound like an
The US House of Representatives on July 1 passed by unanimous consent a bipartisan bill that would penalize Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s new national security legislation in Hong Kong, as well as banks that do business with them. The following day, the US Senate unanimously passed the bill, which was later sent to the White House, where it awaits US President Donald Trump’s signature. The bill does not spell out what the sanctions would look like and Trump has yet to sign it into law, but Reuters on Thursday last week reported that five major Chinese state lenders are considering