Cover Image
close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart III: The Caspian Sea
close this folder9. Iranian perspectives on the Caspian Sea and Central Asia
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentIran's northern geopolitical interests
View the documentThe issue of lake Hamun and the Hirmand River
View the documentConclusion
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

The issue of lake Hamun and the Hirmand River

In the eastern part of Iran, on the southern edge of Central Asia, a major environmental disaster has been in progress during the past 90 years. Lake Hamun (Hamun is an ancient Persian word meaning "lake") was apparently a much larger lake in the past than it is now. It has gradually diminished and with it almost the whole of a water-related local economy has gone. Not only is Lake Hamun the only source of irrigation water in Sistan Province other than the Hirmand River, but it has played a pivotal role for the population in this corner of Central Asia. With an area of 8,117 km2 of very fertile soil and a population of over 274,000 (Census Taking Centre of Iran, 1986, p. 1), the district of Sistan is virtually dependent on Lake Hamun and its only perennial tributary, the Hirmand River (Hirmand is also an ancient Persian term meaning "abundant in water"). The Hirmand is the tenth-largest river in Asia and drains much of Afghanistan. The main delta branch of the Hirman forms international boundaries between Iran and Afghanistan. Having been described with great exaggeration at the turn of the twentieth century as a lake of 150,000 sq. miles (fate, 1909, p. 237), Lake Hamun has been reduced to four small pools of water today, with a total surface area of less than 1,200 km2. This slow-onset, low-grade, but cumulative environmental disaster is the result of a series of policies implemented in Afghanistan regarding the use of Hirmand River water.

The problem began in 1872, when British General Goldsmid delimited the boundary line between Iran and Afghanistan along the main branch of the river. This situation was further aggravated in 1905 when British Colonel McMahon's water resource arbitration awarded two-thirds of the Hirmand delta water to Afghanistan and one-third to the more heavily cultivated, more densely populated Sistan in Iran. As friendly relations developed in the 1930s between the newly independent government of Afghanistan and the centralized government of Iran, the two countries signed an agreement (1939) that divided Hirmand delta water equally between the two (Iran-Afghanistan Treaty of Hirmand Water Division, 1939, Articles I and II). This agreement, however, was ignored by Afghanistan, and the dispute deepened as a number of American companies were given concessions in 1945 by the Afghans for the construction of diversion dams and canals, which further reduced the amount of water reaching the Iranian province of Sistan and Lake Hamun.

The Hirmand River's average annual flow in the 1990s has been estimated at 2-3 billion m3 or 70-100 m3 per second. This figure was further reduced to a mere 45 m3 per second in 1994, of which only 15 m3 per second entered Sistan (Omur-e Ab-e Sistan, 1995, p. 6).

Although the regionally influential Iranian government of the 1970s settled many territorial differences with its neighbours to the satisfaction of Iranian claims (i.e. Iran regained control of the three islands of Tunbs and Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf in 1971 and established a river boundary with Iraq on the thalweg of Shatt al-Arab in 1975), its very poor showing in this period in its border disputes with Afghanistan remains a mystery. In 1973, Iran signed an agreement with Afghanistan whereby Iran would receive 22 m3 per second of Hirmand water as its share, and would purchase an additional 4 m3 per second, bringing its total to 26 m3 per second,1 which was substantially less than the one-third amount awarded to Iran in 1905 by McMahon's arbitration. This unusual water treaty failed to become official, owing to the Afghan coup d'├ętat of that year. It was justified by Iranian officials of the Pahlavi regime on the ground that "more important" Iranian geopolitical considerations pertained to relations with Afghanistan. The justification was that Iran not only gave Afghanistan what it wanted with respect to Hirmand River water, but also provided US$300 million in financial aid, and road and railway concessions for Afghanistan's access to the Persian Gulf. Iran also promised further financial and economic assistance in order to encourage Afghanistan to withdraw from Soviet influence and join the Western camp as a satellite of Iran.2

The disastrous collapse of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan resulted in a protracted civil war that continues today. The involvement of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Afghan politics is no longer motivated by hydropolitical considerations regarding the Hirmand River and Lake Hamun, but is to foster the emergence of a friendly Islamic regime in that country.

The creeping environmental catastrophe taking place on the southern edge of Central Asia is almost an exact repeat of the Aral Sea catastrophe. Flooding in the Hirmand delta and the restoration of Lake Hamun in recent years do not represent a change of policy; they are the consequence of diminished politico-administrative and technical controls in Afghanistan. These improvements are likely to be only temporary until the completion of the construction of the Kamal Khan diversion dam, which will likely deepen the environmental catastrophe in Sistan and will exacerbate the rift between Iran and Afghanistan.