Analyzing the hydropolitical tensions of the Hirmand/Helmand River through the evaluation of land use changes using the SVM method

Document Type : Extracted from the dissertation


1 Assistant Professor in Political Geography, University of Tehran

2 PhD Student in Political Geography at the University of Tehran

3 Professor in Water Management Resources at the Oregon State University

4 Master of RS at the University of Tarbiat Modares




Water is a basic human need and the key to economic development. From the beginning of civilization, people have faced common problems with rivers and freshwater. Water is currently a political issue and should be defined similarly to pressure politicians to recognize the need for political solutions and take responsibility for it. Water policies, commonly known as hydropolitics, are policies that affect access to "water resources" and "water" that play an important role in the management of transboundary waters. The term "hydropolitics" was coined in 1979 by Waterbury to mean policies influenced by water resources. Kraak believes that hydropolitics is the study of geopolitics and international relations around transboundary waters. According to Rai, hydropolitics refers to the ability of geopolitical institutions to manage shared water resources in a politically sustainable manner, a process without tension or conflict between political institutions. Tayie believes that in hydropolitics, international conflict or political phenomena of cooperation are examined according to constants, variables, and water rights. A closer look at the definitions of hydropolitics reveals that hydropolitics is about conflict, cooperation, and involvement of governments as major actors in the common international river basin. The Helmand River drains half of southern Afghanistan. and supplies about 80 percent of the water to the uninhabited areas of Sistan. The Helmand River drains half of southern Afghanistan and supplies about 80 percent of the water to the uninhabited areas of Sistan, is the longest river in Afghanistan, about 1,300 km long, and originates in the Hindu Kush Mountains, about 40 km west of Kabul, north of the Onai Pass, and has five tributaries. In the last hundred years, the Afghans have consumed more water and reduced the amount of water flowing to Sistan by separating several canals from Helmand and building reservoirs and diversion dams. Therefore, it can be said that the location of most of the Helmand River in the territory of Afghanistan has caused the Afghan government in recent decades to use Helmand, as a political tool, to influence Iran's foreign policy and positions. This superior position of Afghanistan has led to its geopolitical superiority over Iran, which has always led to Iran's flexibility towards Afghanistan and its geopolitical dependence on the Helmand River water resources.


In the current research, we downloaded Landsat satellite images for the last three decades to identify and prepare a land use map in the Helmand watershed using the virtual satellite image processing engine (Google Earth Engine). The Kappa coefficient (most pessimistic) and Overall Accuracy (most optimistic) were used to validate the research data. Due to the lack of access to the study area, control points were collected by visual sampling using Google Earth Engine to validate the data.

Result and discussion

The Helmand River is an international river because it is not completely located inside Afghanistan. It can be said that Sistan in eastern Iran is almost 100% dependent on the water of the Helmand River for reasons such as arid and hyper arid climate, extreme heat, desert winds and high erosion, successive drought, lack of deep underground wells, etc. These factors become a more acute problem for the people of Sistan when Afghanistan, which covers about 89 percent of the river's water, experiences severe droughts, low rainfall, low temperatures, and high evaporation in the Helmand Basin. These environmental factors have led Afghanistan to ignore international agreements between the two sides by building several dams on the Helmand River, closing its outlets, and not paying Iran's "water rights" in full. Thus, water has become a political issue between the two countries under widespread environmental factors and has formed Helmand hydro politics.

To make the environmental factors affecting Helmand hydro politics more tangible, we have measured three classes of water, vegetation, and soil in the Helmand River Basin using remote sensing. The study results showed that when there is water shortage, lack of rainfall, and drought in the Helmand River Basin in Afghanistan, the Afghan government takes political measures against the downstream country. Measures such as the construction of new dams, closing the doors of old dams, disregard for bilateral agreements, and non-compliance with Iran's water rights by the upstream country will intensify water tensions in the basin.


In fact, political instability in Afghanistan, the rise of extremist Islamist (Taliban government) or anti-Iranian governments (Ashraf Ghani government), on the one hand, and the US military occupation of the country, and the issue of its withdrawal, on the other hand, have pushed Helmand's hydro politics into controversial hydro politics. On the Iranian side of the basin, improper water resources management and the authorities' emphasis on 100% dependence of Sistan on the Helmand River to avoid accepting responsibility will intensify water crises in Sistan. These political factors exacerbate adverse environmental factors throughout the basin. The detection of land use changes in the Helmand River Basin and data analysis confirms the influence of environmental factors on the intensification of political decisions in the Helmand Basin. The results show that measures such as building new dams and closing old dams, neglecting bilateral agreements and not respecting Iran's water rights by the upstream country due to the unfavorable environmental conditions prevailing in the region have aggravated the water tension in the basin.

The recapture of Afghanistan in August 2021 by Taliban extremists, despite the unwritten promises of the group's leaders, does not promise water cooperation in the Helmand River Basin. The transition from the hydro politics of conflict to the hydro politics of cooperation depends on political stability, attention to human rights issues, adherence to the treaties and agreements set by the upstream country, Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iran must show goodwill to expand cooperation in the region. However, the rapid, far-reaching, and imminent developments in Afghanistan have led us to say that we must wait for the future to analyze the hydro political future of the Helmand River Basin.


Main Subjects

Articles in Press, Accepted Manuscript
Available Online from 18 April 2023
  • Receive Date: 03 May 2022
  • Revise Date: 17 April 2023
  • Accept Date: 18 April 2023