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I. Background

Afghanistan is landlocked, being surrounded by six countries including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north; China to the northeast; Pakistan to the east and south; and Iran to the west.[1]  Afghanistan’s land area extends to over 652,230 square kilometers, of which about 78,000 square kilometers (12%) is arable.[2]  Approximately 80% of the area is either mountainous or desert area.[3]  It is situated in an arid to semiarid region with a dry climate.[4]

The country’s population is approximately 32 million, of which 77% reside in rural areas.  The majority of the rural population are small subsistence farmers who live off of small plots of land.  Therefore, “management of water resources is a vital factor for the economic growth, for maintaining the rural livelihoods, and for meeting the people’s needs for food and fiber.”[5]

More than 80% of the country’s water resources originate in the Hindu Kush Mountains.[6]  According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP),

Afghanistan is naturally arid, dominated by desert or semi-desert.  Virtually the entire supply of water for irrigation, drinking, and maintenance of wetland ecosystems is carried by rivers.  Most of these are fed by rainfall and the seasonal melting of snow and permanent ice-fields in Afghanistan’s ‘water towers’, the Hindu Kush mountains.  The supply is intermittent, however, leaving Afghans in a perpetual state of water insecurity.  A series of recent droughts have lowered water tables and dried up rivers and wetlands.  Poor water management has threatened supplies for households, for agriculture and for maintaining populations of wild plants and animals.[7]

Due to water resource mismanagement, “Afghanistan uses just one-third of its potential 75,000 million cubic meters of freshwater annually, inefficient use and wastage mean that most of the population regularly experiences scarcity, and just 20 percent have access to a safe water supply.”[8]

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II.  Legal Framework

The Water Law of Afghanistan, which came into force on April 26, 2009, regulates ownership, fees, rights, permits, and usage with respect to water.  Article 1 of the Preamble of the Law stipulates its purpose:

This law is to enforce the principles of Article Nine of The Constitution of Afghanistan for the purpose of conservation, equitable distribution, and the efficient and sustainable use of water resources, strengthen the national economy and secure the rights of the water users, in accordance with the principles of Islamic jurisprudence and the praiseworthy customs and traditions of the people.[9]

Article 2 states that water is owned by the public and the “government is responsible for its protection and management.”[10]  The Law outlines the responsibilities of a number of government institutions with respect to the management and protection of water resources.  According to article 8(5),

[d]etermination of irrigation norms in different river basins, irrigation drainage systems and other related research for water use for agriculture and irrigation are the main responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock with the cooperation from Ministry of Energy and Water, Ministry of Transport and Aviation, Ministry of Public Health and National Environmental Protection.[11]

Duties and responsibilities of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock are further detailed under article 11.

Article 19 prohibits the use of water resources without a permit, except for the following purposes:

(1) Drinking water, livelihood and other needs, if the total daily consumption does not exceed 5 cubic meters per household.
(2) Use for navigation provided no damage occurs to the banks and right-of-way area of the river and there is no adverse impact to the quality of water exceeding permissible norms.
(3) For fire extinguishing.
(4) Existing water rights until Article Twenty, item (1) is in effect and implemented.[12]

Moreover according to article 21(2) a usage license or activity permit, including for government projects, is necessary in the following circumstances:

1. Surface and groundwater use for newly established development projects.
2. Disposal of wastewater into water resources.
3. Disposal of drainage water into water resources.
4. Use of water for commercial and industrial purposes.
5. Use of natural springs with mineral contents or hot springs for commercial purposes.
6. Digging and installation of shallow and deep wells for the commercial, agricultural, industrial and urban water supply purposes.
7. Construction of dams and any other structures for water impoundment, when the storage capacity exceeds 10,000 cubic meters.
8. Construction of structures that encroach the banks, beds, courses or protected rights-of-way of streams, wetlands, Karezes [water management systems], and springs.[13]

According to article 5 water conservation is to be guided by national water policy and strategy in accordance with the Water Law.  Article 24(2) stipulates that the “water quality standard for agriculture will be established by Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.”[14]

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III.  Intercountry Disputes Concerning the Use of Water

Afghanistan has ongoing disputes over water with two of its neighbors—Iran and Pakistan.  Both neighbors fear that Afghan dam projects on major rivers will seriously reduce their water supply.[15]

Though Afghanistan and Iran have had a water treaty covering the Helmand River since 1973, the treaty provisions are seen by some as being “inadequate and inconsistently enforced.”[16]  As a result, disputes over water continue to raise tensions between the two countries.  Many fear that Afghanistan’s Khamal Khan Dam project on the Helmand River will “severely affect the amount of water that flows into” the Sistan Balochistan province of Iran.[17]  Similar concerns have been raised about the Salma Dam, a major hydroelectric dam being constructed in Herat province, which some believe will significantly affect the flow of the Harirod River into Iran.[18]

There is no water sharing agreement or treaty between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  According to news reports, “close to 17 million acre-feet of water enters Pakistan from the Kabul River every year.”[19]  Planned hydroelectric projects on the Kabul River and its two main tributaries, the Kunar and Panjshir rivers, “would ultimately irrigate an additional 14,000 acres in Afghanistan on top of 12,000 acres at present.”[20]  However, according to some estimates, “construction of 13 dams on the Kabul River would reduce Pakistan’s water supply from Afghanistan by 16–17%.”[21]  Pakistani efforts to build dams and the construction of the Kalabagh Dam have also been sources of tension.  Several failed attempts have been made to draft a water treaty or agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan.[22]

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Prepared by Tariq Ahmad
Legal Research Analyst
October 2013

[1] Asad Sarwar Qureshi, Water Resources Management in Afghanistan: The Issues and Options 1 (IWMI Working Paper 49, Pakistan Country Series No. 14, 2002), wor49.pdf.

[2] Global Water Partnership South Asia, Technical Report on Issues Related to Water and Agriculture in South Asia 8 (Feb. 2012),

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP in Afghanistan: Laying the Foundations for Sustainable Development 5 (Jan. 2009),

[8] Afghanistan’s Water Resources Under Stress: UNEP, OOSKAnews (May 24, 2013), daily-water-briefing/afghanistan-s-water-resources-under-stress-unep_27682.

[9] Water Law of Afghanistan art. 1, Official Gazette No. 980, Apr. 26, 2009, Submitted%20Content/Attachments/120/Unofficial%20English%20Translation%20of%20Water%20Law.pdf (unofficial translation)

[10] Id. art. 2.

[11] Id. art. 8(5).

[12] Id. art. 19.

[13] Id. art. 21.

[14] Id. art. 24(2).

[15] Fatemeh Aman, Afghan Water Infrastructure Threatens Iran, Regional Stability, Al-Monitor (Jan. 7, 2013),

[16] Paula Hanasz, The Politics of Water Security Between Afghanistan and Iran (Future Directions International Strategic Analysis Paper, Mar. 1, 2012), Water_Security_between_Afghanistan_and_Iran_-_March_1_2012.pdf.

[17] Aman, supra note 15.

[18] Case Study 2: Water for Hydroelectricity and Irrigation in Herat Province, in Renard Sexton, Afghanistan Watch, Natural Resources and Conflict in Afghanistan 19 (July 2012), files/Natural_Resources_and_Conflict_in_Afghanistan/Natural_Resources_and_Conflict_in_Afghanistan_Full_Report_English.pdf

[19] Aman, supra note 15.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

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Last Updated: 12/31/2020