In mid-May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi issued a warning to the Taliban: Honor Afghanistan’s water-supply agreement or face the consequences.

A well-known Taliban figure offered a mocking gift of a 20-liter water container in response and told him to stop making terrifying ultimatums. About a week later, a skirmish erupted on the border, leaving two Iranian guards and one Taliban member dead. The Taliban sent thousands of troops and hundreds of suicide bombers to the area, according to a person familiar with the matter, who says the group is prepared for war.
After two decades fighting the US, Taliban leaders now find themselves sparring with neighbors as the realities of global warming hit home. The dispute with Iran over depleted water resources is further destabilizing an already volatile region.

The water from Afghanistan’s longest river is critical for agriculture and consumed by millions of people on both sides of the border.
Iran argues the Taliban reduced the water supply since it returned to power and isn’t keeping Afghanistan’s side of the bargain.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in a press conference last week that “preliminary agreements are in place” with the Taliban government over Iran’s rights to water from the Helmand, without providing further details.
“Take my words seriously,” Raisi, Iran’s president since 2021, said during a visit to Sistan and Baluchestan, the country’s poorest province, which was hit hard by the water shortage. “I warn the officials and rulers of Afghanistan that they should honor the water rights of the people of Sistan.”
Taliban spokesmen Zabihullah Mujahid and Bilal Karimi didn’t respond to calls and messages seeking comment.
Mujahid said in May Raisi’s comments were inappropriate and could harm ties. Foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi contends the issue only occurred because of drought, and Afghanistan respects the agreement.
The pact itself leaves room for interpretation. The water supply must be “adjusted” in times of drought, it says, and both countries must engage in “diplomatic negotiations” to resolve any issues.
But despite the call for diplomacy, the Taliban prepared for war. As well as soldiers and suicide bombers, its rare military deployment also included hundreds of military vehicles and weapons left behind by the US, the person said, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation.
“Both sides can make a case to justify their positions,” said Omar Samad, a senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank the Atlantic Council and former Afghan envoy to Canada and France. He pointed to Afghanistan’s “protracted state of crisis” and Iran’s need for water at a time of drought.
If neither wants to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, it will be “politically irrational and lead to regional destabilization at a time when neither side can afford conflict,” he said.
The agreement has been a source of tension for decades. Iran has long argued it doesn’t receive enough water. The situation worsened with the Taliban’s takeover, which came during years of drought.
And while it’s hard to analyze both sides’ claims as no water supply data is available, Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident senior fellow at Washington-based think-tank the Middle East Institute, says Iran has only itself to blame.
“The Iranian authorities had over 40 years to invest in water management or prepare the region for disaster,” she said. “They failed.”
Iranian lawmakers said in June the situation in Sistan and Baluchestan is so dire that a “humanitarian disaster” will occur if people don’t get access to water, according to local media. More than 10,000 families fled the province’s capital in the last year, according to a report.
At least 300 towns and cities in Iran face acute water stress as the planet gets hotter. Dams are evaporating, and more than 97% of the country is affected by drought, according to one estimate. Some 20 million people moved to cities because the land is too dry for farming, according to one academic.
Some of the roughly 3 million Afghans who escaped to Iran to avoid decades of war at home are also affected.
“We traveled for hours to reach another village and get 30 liters of drinking water,” said Sardar Ali, 45, who returned to Afghanistan this year with his family from Sistan and Baluchestan. “The heat and lack of water also killed many people’s livestock and forced many people to flee.”
Global temperatures hit records in July, with countries from Italy to China experiencing scorching heat as the emerging El Nino weather pattern helped push the mercury higher.
Afghanistan has been no outlier.

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