Sun, Mar 26, 2017 - Page 7 News List

South Afghan dam project spikes tensions with Iran

Nimruz province in south Afghanistan hopes to complete a dam in the Helmand river, but faces stiff resistance from a water-starved Iran intent on preserving waterflow

By Sune Engel Rasmussen  /  The Guardian, CHAHAR BURJAK, Afghanistan

Illustration: Louise Ting

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.

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.

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