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Pakistan Reader# 349, 16 May 2022

Kabul River Agreement: Three reasons why there is no treaty



Pakistan and Afghanistan would benefit from a treaty to manage the Kabul River

Abigail Miriam Fernandez

A recent article republished by Dawn reported that Pakistan has been seeking an agreement with Afghanistan on the Kabul River; however, a treaty on the management and allocation of water between the two countries remains dim. The article, initially published by The Third Pole highlights the several attempts made by Pakistan to work together on the Kabul River with Afghanistan; it also reports Pakistani experts claiming in the past that the ideal would be for the two countries to reach an agreement on sustainably developing all these river basins together.

The Kabul River: A profile 
The Kabul River is a 700-kilometre-long river that starts in the Sanglakh Range of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. It joins the Indus River near Attock, Pakistan. The Kabul River passes through the cities of Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan and then flows into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan 25 kilometres north of the Durand Line border crossing at Torkham. Logar, Panjshir, Kunar, Alingar, Bara and Swat are major tributaries of the Kabul River. 

The Kabul River is a source of drinking water, irrigation, hydropower, livelihoods and recreational activities to over 20 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the Kabul River is impounded by several dams, no water agreement exists between upper riparian Afghanistan and lower riparian Pakistan. 

Attempts to reach an agreement: The case so far
At present, Pakistan and Afghanistan do not share any bilateral treaties or agreements on the Kabul River. However, both countries have continued to build dams and use the river for various activities. According to an audit report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, both Afghanistan and Pakistan are working in isolation and developing isolated projects in the Kabul River basin. However, these projects are short-term, non-synergistic, non-integrated and environmentally unsustainable, thereby not fulfilling their socioeconomic goals. 

The 1921 treaty signed between Afghanistan and Great Britain is the only water-sharing treaty that exists between the two. The treaty allows for water withdrawal for residents in Torkham, Afghanistan, and for using the Kabul River for navigation and irrigation rights in Pakistan. 

Over the years, Pakistan has tried to initiate talks on an agreement to share water. According to a study, Pakistan and the World Bank incentivized cooperation by initiating discussions on a water treaty similar to the Indus Water Treaty to build utilitarian and normative compliance and institutional capacity to promote greater cooperation to avoid a dispute over water issues between 2003 and 2011. However, none of these initiatives was successful. Later in 2014, Pakistan attempted to launch joint projects on the Kabul River and share environmental, societal and economic data on the river basin. However, the Afghanistan government did not reciprocate the interest. In the recent past, the two countries have only discussed the matter once during the August 2013 visit of the then Afghan Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, however, there was nothing substantial achieved from the discussion. 

Lack of agreement: Three reasons
The lack of an agreement between the two countries stems from several factors including the long-standing mistrust, political difference, unstable governments and the lack of data among others. 

First, the lack of a stable government in Kabul. Stability has always been an unfamiliar matter when it comes to Afghanistan. The years of prolonged conflict have resulted in an unstable government that has not only failed to govern the country adequately but also build ties. Although Pakistan and Afghanistan have shared close relations depending on who is in power, the instability has resulted in the two countries being unable to reach an agreement on crucial matters such as the Kabul River.

Second, the political differences. Political animosity has been a prominent characteristic of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. The bilateral tension dates back to 1947 and Kabul’s continued refusal to accept the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, long-standing tensions over other land disputes and borderlines have impacted disputes over water and the Kabul River. These differences have thus resulted in non-cooperation over the Kabul River.

Third, the lack of data on the Kabul River. There is both a lack of data and understanding of the available water resources in the Kabul River. According to a study, the knowledge deficits in the water sector in the Kabul Basin have also been reflected in a 2010 report by IUCN which reveals that the most reliable data for irrigated areas in Afghanistan dates back to 1967. Additionally, collecting data in the region is not an easy task due to mutual mistrust. This lack of data on the river curbs the prospects of formulating an agreement to govern the water.

In conclusion, the Kabul River and its resources are highly under-developed and under-utilized an agreement would help tap into these aspects. Additionally, a water treaty would help address the issues of abusive threats and riparian control. An agreement would also help stabilise the distribution of water given the current challenges posed due to climate change. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are highly dependent on the Kabul River an agreement to govern the water body is essential. 

References

Decades on, Pakistan still seeks a Kabul River agreement,” Dawn, 12 May 2022
Fawad Ali, “Decades on, Pakistan is still seeking a Kabul River agreement,” The Third Pole, 5 May 2022
Hassan Abbas, “Kabul River: the key,” Dawn, 28 November 2019
Abdur Razzaq, “Policy: water scarcity may disrupt Pak-Afghan relations,” Dawn, 25 November 2018
Pakistan, Afghanistan asked to build trust over use of Kabul River,” Dawn, 27 February 2019
Shafqat Kakakhel, “Afghanistan-Pakistan Treaty on the Kabul River Basin?,” The Third Pole, 2 March 2017
Michael Kugelman, Ahmad Rafay Alam, and Gitanjali Bakshi, “Peace through water,” Foreign Policy, 2 December 2011
Bindu Panikkar, “Transboundary Water Governance in the Kabul River Basin: Implementing Environmental and Public Diplomacy Between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Complexity, Governance & Networks – Vol. 5, No 1 (2019)
Kabul RiverPortal of Knowledge for Water and Environmental Issues in Central Asia

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