The Hamun lake region is one of the most critical social and environmental emergencies in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Largely unknown by the international community, this man made disaster with acute political and social implications, has now hit crisis level, impacting on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Iran and Afghanistan.
"This is devastating. This was a completely lake-based culture and it's been completely wiped out," a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Murray Wilson, told IRIN in the Iranian capital, Tehran. "It's just a dustbowl now."
This once vibrant area, known for its abundant wetlands, bio-diversity and natural productivity - purportedly protected under an international wetlands convention - is lost. Today it bears testament to the political tensions that have divided the two countries for decades. As Afghanistan begins a new path towards reconstruction, the question now is how to restore the region to sustainability.
Once covering an area of four thousand square kilometres - or almost double the size of Luxembourg - the Hamun lake region, a series of three interconnected lakes in southeastern Iran and southwestern Afghanistan, is now a wasteland. No water has reached the lower river basin in Sistan for three years now and the destruction of the environment is almost complete. Agricultural lands have been devastated by desertification, while whole villages have been deserted and populations displaced as pressure on local resources intensifies.
At issue is the Helmand river, Afghanistan's longest river. Rising in the central Hindu Kush mountains, it flows 1,300 km in a southwesterly direction across more than half the length of the country before flowing northward for a short distance through Iranian territory and emptying into a series of landlocked lakes and marshy lagoons straddling the Iranian Afghan border.
With several tributaries, including the Arghandab and Tarnak, and draining more than 160,000 square km, the Helmand is one of Afghanistan's most important rivers, providing vital irrigation and water for millions within Afghanistan and Iran alike.
But a long dispute between Kabul and Tehran has centred on Iran's claim to a portion of the Helmand's waters. The river's flow is controlled by a number of regulatory structures, principally the Garishk, Kajaki, Daula and Boghra dams, constructed in the 1940s with US assistance, deep inside Afghanistan.
Under an agreement between the two countries signed in 1973, Afghanistan is obliged to let at least 26 cubic metres of water per second flow from the dams into Iran. And while control over the flow has long proven a source of contention between the two countries, in 1999, the Taliban turned the taps off completely.
According to a recent UNDP mission to the region from Tehran, the destruction of the lakes and its social system which had been sustained for thousands of years, is complete. Today there is a real danger of social conflict compounded by a number of other causal factors which are interrelated and interdependent.
Among these are water rights issues from the Helmand, extensive environmental degradation of productive agricultural land, drought and pressure on the Iranian social safety net. There are also the cultural implications of the prolonged presence of Afghans in Iran, environmental degradation, drug smuggling, weapons proliferation and unemployment.
Viewed objectively, Wilson believes all the ingredients exist for a deepening of the ongoing complex social and environmental emergency, with the potential for destabilising and delaying the Afghan recovery process.
Located in the historic state of Sistan, which today includes the northern parts of Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran, as well as the Afghan provinces of Nimroz, Farah and parts of Helmand, the Hamun area has been a centre for Persian culture and agriculture for thousands of years. Long known as the "bread basket" of Iran, its soils were rich and potentially productive, while ironically, the Helmand or Hirmand river derives its name from an ancient Persian word meaning "abundant in water".
But according to Wilson, who recently returned from the area, the devastation of the crisis is complete. "There is nothing coming down the river now. Everything has dried up. One hundred percent gone," he explained.
At its peak, the lake area was home to huge ecological diversity, including 150 species of birds. As it was one of the only sources of fresh water for thousands of kilometres around, it was a main stopping point for birds migrating from Russia in the north to the Indian Ocean. Additionally, there were 140 species of fish in the area. "That's all gone now. Today whole bird species have been completely wiped out because the environment is no longer there," he explained.
In short, the productivity of the Hamun lake system was unrivaled in South Central Asia. With an annual production of 3,500 mt of fish and 1.7 million cattle, goats and sheep living around the lake there was ample income for the people in the area to sustain themselves, as well as supplying the majority of the protein requirements for the region.
According to a recent Iranian ministry of health study, however, the birth weight, average child size, growth rates and basic health indicators have all decreased over the past five years. The loss of locally produced protein being a major contributory factor to this decline.
Exacerbating the crisis, the lack of any water resources for the past three years has been a major factor in the movement of refugees into Iran. Wilson contends that there are 400,000 Afghans living in Sistan Baluchistan alone, who fled war, landmines, insecurity, and a lack of basic infrastructure. They remain along the border areas as ultimately they want to return, but can't. "And the reason they can't go home is because they have nothing to go home to," he said, calling it the single biggest constraint to repatriation in that region.
For anyone to repatriate, they must have some form of livelihood and for 99 percent of Afghans that means agriculture. As a result of the desertification of the southwest of the country - as well as Iran's Sistan area - agriculture has collapsed completely.
With no possibility of earning a living in their homeland, the Afghans linger inside Iran, cutting firewood and grazing their animals in and around the border areas. This in turn leads to the complete degradation of the vegetation cover, allowing more and more sand to be blown into remaining agricultural lands.
This has the effect of forcing whole Iranian populations out of the area as well. "You are getting a kind of double displacement. There are actually huge movements of populations as a direct result of this one action [cutting off the river flow]," Wilson said.
Indeed, Iranian pastoralists, arable farmers, fishermen and nomads are moving out in large numbers, only to be replaced by Afghans. Reed harvesting, once a rich source of income for many, has been wiped out completely. As more and more sand from the river and lake beds is blown over agricultural lands and villages, more people are being driven out, destroying the chance of establishing these communities for a generation or more. Today nearly all these people are dependent on assistance in one way or another.
Equally disturbing is the fact that large artificial lakes created for drinking water purposes in the area - dependent on the river's flow - are quickly going dry. Current indicators show that the Iranian cities of Zabol and Zahedan have only six months of drinking water remaining.
Asked what needed to be done, Wilson called on the Afghan government to turn the water back on. "Every litre of water that comes down that river has a price on it - and in Iran its probably worth more than petrol in human terms," adding: "Turn the water on and the whole area could come back to life."
But despite the simplicity of the logic, the two countries continue to wrangle over the issue; a fact that continues to prevent real cooperation between the two countries, while exacerbating an increasingly disastrous environmental impact on Sistan Baluchistan and its population.
Just last year, Iran's permanent envoy to the United Nations, Hadi Nejadhosseinian sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reiterating his government's stance. The letter noted that the water flow which used to flow to the Helmand river in Iran from the Kajaki Dam in Afghanistan had been cut, resulting in "tremendous damage" to the region's agriculture and animal husbandry. Moreover, the cut had dried up the well-known marshy swamps in and around the Hamun.
However, according to the Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, the issue was being dealt with, adding that Afghanistan's four-year old drought had contributed greatly to the problem. "This is not about an agreement," he told IRIN in Kabul. "This will be a goodwill act from our side, but I hope we will be able to do something," he explained. Abdullah said they understood the issue - as well as the feelings of the people on the other side to the border - and would do whatever was at their disposal to get water there.
Commenting on the effect of drought in the area, Wilson dismissed the impact saying while there is drought, you have rainfall and evaporation. "The evaporation rate in this area is 4,000 mm per year. If you have four metres of water, it will evaporate," he said. "Rainfall is only 50 mm so any rainfall evaporates."
He maintained the waters behind the dams inside Afghanistan were key. "There is plenty of water. They're absolutely full up," he said. His argument is supported by recent satellite photos of the Kajaki and Arghandab dams near the Afghan city of Kandahar. Both dams are clearly visible, full of water.
Calling it a ethno-political statement, he contended that the ethnic Pashtuns in the area of the dams were refusing to let any water downstream. "They're not letting any water downstream because they don't like the people down there - many of whom are Baluchs, as well as Tajiks"
But while the issue of water to the Hamun lakes continues to remain a political football of sorts between the two countries, the benefits of turning the water on would be immense. Although Iran already pays hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies for the huge number of Afghan refugees remaining in the country, they are hesitant in making the first move.
Tehran has pledged US $560 million of reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, yet until now, none of that money has been released in part due to mistrust between the two governments. "There isn't yet an atmosphere of cooperation and cooperative development between the two countries," Wilson claimed. "It may be building, but it isn't there yet. This issue is one of the main stumbling points of the whole thing."
However, should water begin flowing downstream again, agriculture could very well make a comeback and many of the refugees living in Iran would begin going home. As the situation inside their homeland improves, more Afghans would return, freeing up millions of dollars of assistance the Iranian government has promised for vital infrastructure needs such as schools, roads, wells, and health services - hence encouraging even more Afghans to return.
While turning the taps on will have significant residual benefits for both Iran and Afghanistan, Wilson hopes for even more. "We don't want to just see the valves opened. What we want to see is a cooperative agreement between the two communities." As the issue has always been a political one, left out of the hands of the people most directly affected, he called for the development of a cross-border water management and peace building programme.
Under such a scheme all the communities of Sistan, as well as the communities of Nimroz, Farah and Helmand - impacted by this crisis - would meet together to discuss a fair allocation of water resources and distribution based on physical human factors and needs rather than political ones.
"We need to take this issue out of the hands of the politicians and put it back in the hands of the people who use the water themselves."