Decades on, Pakistan still seeks a Kabul River agreement

Published May 12, 2022
A view of the Attock Fort behind the Khairabad Bridge, shortly after the point where the Kabul River flows into the Indus River. — Picture via Wikimedia Commons
A view of the Attock Fort behind the Khairabad Bridge, shortly after the point where the Kabul River flows into the Indus River. — Picture via Wikimedia Commons

For decades, Pakistan has been seeking an agreement with Afghanistan on the Kabul River. But a treaty agreeing on the management and allocation of water between the two countries remains a dim prospect.

Flowing from Afghanistan to Pakistan where it meets the Indus, the Kabul River is a source of drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, livelihoods and recreational activities to an estimated 20 million people in the two countries.

Despite repeated attempts to launch joint projects, and the rising urgency to equitably distribute the river’s resources as climate change alters its flow, little progress is likely to be made on negotiations.

Ikramuddin Kamil, special assistant on water and energy at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Third Pole: “In the current situation, Afghanistan is not in a position to sign a treaty with Pakistan as the international [convention] on transboundary rivers favours the early developers.”

Under the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, when countries negotiate an agreement existing infrastructure is not up for discussion and there is no question of it being dismantled. But projects still in the planning stage can be discussed.

Pakistan already has a number of barrages, irrigation canals and other infrastructure on its section of the Kabul River and will argue that these will not receive enough water if Afghanistan builds similar structures upstream.

Kamil said: “Any kind of construction on the Kabul river basin has always strained the bilateral relationship with Pakistan.

Kabul may in future launch joint hydroelectric projects under which Afghanistan will provide water for irrigation to Pakistan, and in return get transit trade and services agreements.”

“Afghanistan has proposed 12 projects on the Kabul River and its tributaries, while five dams have been completed and operational — Chak, Mahipar, Sarawbi, Naghalao and Dronaq dams,” said Kamil. He added that Afghanistan has identified 12 more storage sites on the Kabul River and its tributaries, with a combined water storage capacity of 4.7 million acre feet (about 5.8 cubic kilometres).

A dam on the Kabul River. — Picture courtesy: Peretz Partensky/Flickr
A dam on the Kabul River. — Picture courtesy: Peretz Partensky/Flickr

One of the proposed projects is the Shahtoot dam that India agreed to build, with a memorandum of understanding signed in February 2021. Work has been at a standstill since the Taliban took over the government in Afghanistan later in 2021.


This article was originally published on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.

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