Agony and ecstasy over the opening of Afghan-India Friendship Dam

The Afghan-India Friendship Dam recently inaugurated in Herat province will light up Afghan homes, irrigate 75,000 hectares of land, and stimulate agriculture and industry. But neigboring Iran and Turkmenistan are worried as the dam will considerably cut the flow of water downstream. Also the power generated by the hydro project will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on them

The recent inauguration of the Afghan-India Friendship Dam in Afghanistan’s Herat province has evoked mixed reactions.

India won hearts in Afghanistan with the opening of the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam

India won hearts in Afghanistan with the recent opening of the Afghan-India Friendship Dam

In Afghanistan, the hydropower-cum-irrigation project has triggered optimism, even jubilation. However, there is mounting concern in neighboring Iran and Turkmenistan over the likely reduction in the flow of water from the River Harirud.

Built across the River Harirud, the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, which was known earlier as the Salma Dam, is expected to irrigate 75,000 hectares of land and generate 42 MW of electricity. It will light up Afghan homes, irrigate lands parched by years of drought and ravaged by decades of war, stimulate Afghan agriculture and provide a fillip to its nascent industry.

The electricity from the hydro-power project is expected to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Iran and Turkmenistan. The two countries currently provide it with roughly 80 MW and 50 MW of electricity respectively. Worryingly for them, the damming of the Harirud River will reduce the flow of water downstream.

Originating in Afghanistan’s central highlands, the 1000-km-long Harirud River flows westward to Herat and then turns north-west and north to form the border between Afghanistan and Iran before it disappears in Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert. The waters of the Harirud are a valuable resource in drought-prone western Afghanistan as well as in Iran and Turkmenistan.

It was in 1976 that Afghanistan roped in India to construct the Salma dam on the Harirud. A state-owned Indian company began work in 1976. But with Afghanistan slipping into political instability and civil war soon after, work had to be discontinued. It was only after the fall of the Taliban that India stepped in again to fund and construct the $290 million hydro-power and irrigation project.

India encountered several formidable challenges in the course of constructing the dam. It was located in a geographically remote area. Local skills were limited. There were the region’s geopolitics. Pakistan was fiercely opposed to India executing the project as it would enhance Delhi’s influence in Afghanistan. Taliban opposed any kind of development in the country.

Workers involved in the dam project were repeatedly targeted by the Taliban as well as by other warlords who saw in the project opportunity for earning ‘protection money’. Several plots to blow up the dam were unearthed.

There were attacks too by militias suspected to be close to the Iranians. In fact, Afghan police officials blamed the killing of Abdulqudus Qayam, the governor of Chesht-e-Sharif district, in January 2010 on Iran. Qayam had strongly backed the construction of the dam on the Harirud.

According to media reports, in areas where the river forms the border between Afghanistan and Iran, the latter has not hesitated to use force. There are several instances of Iranian border guards opening fire on Afghans villagers, even killing them – at least a dozen are said to have been killed in such incidents when they came to collect water from the river.

Given the strong opposition to the dam’s construction, India’s completion of the project is a major achievement. It has earned Delhi, which is Afghanistan’s sixth largest donor, much public goodwill.

Indeed, when water was being filled in the dam in 2015, the public outpouring of gratitude for India was remarkable for its spontaneity. Locals carried a 100-meter Indian flag and sang Bollywood songs to mark the occasion. And in recognition of the work Indian and Afghan workers put into the project, the Afghan parliament decided to rename the Salma Dam as the Afghan-India Friendship Dam.

This would not have gone unnoticed in Pakistan.

Days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the dam, the Indian consulate in Herat came under attack from the Lashkar-e-Toiba, an anti-India terrorist group that enjoys the support of Pakistan’s intelligence.

Will the inauguration of the Afghan-India Friendship Dam trigger similar attacks by forces opposed to Delhi’s deepening relationship with Afghanistan?

More importantly, will the damming of the Harirud strain Afghanistan’s already prickly relations with Iran?

The Afghan-India Friendship Dam is expected to cut the flow of water into Iran by 73%. The number of Iranians who rely on the Harirud’s waters is almost three times the number of Afghans depending on it.

But Afghans need its waters too. The stakes are high.

Interestingly, while an India-built dam in Herat could sour relations between Kabul and Tehran, India’s decision to invest in Iran’s Chabahar port is spurring Iran-Afghanistan-India co-operation.

A fortnight ago, India signed an agreement with Iran to invest $500 million for Chabahar port’s development. Simultaneously, India, Iran and Afghanistan signed a three-way trade and transit accord that will link Chabahar to Central Asia via Afghanistan.

Iran and Afghanistan need to engage in talks on water rights over the Harirud. Else bitterness over water-sharing will spill over, jeopardizing the immense potential of bilateral and regional trade and transit co-operation.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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