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Agriculture and the Environment>
Lake Hamun, a Disaster in the Making
of Hirmand and Hamun
Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, Ph.D.
A substantial environmental disaster has been in progress in the eastern
parts of Iran in the past ninety years or so. The Hamun,1apparently
a much larger lake in the past than it can ever be in a high-water-level
year of our time, has gradually diminished and with it almost the whole of
the Neyzar (reed forest) and its related economic life, with disastrous
environmental consequences for the Sistan province of Iran. Hamun, the
only fresh-water lake in Asia, is not only the main source of irrigation
in Sistan, but other than river Hirmand, it also provides many
water-associated economic activities - hunting in the Neyzar, ferrying
goods and passengers across the lake, fishing and reed-associated
handicrafts - and has a pivotal role in the living of the population of
this southern edge of Central Asia. With the diminishing body of the lake
and the Neyzar, all these economic activities are diminishing, while the
damage to the agricultural life of the province has forced thousands of
the local population to migrate from Sistan to Gorgan and other areas near
the borders with Turkmanistan.
The Geographical Setting
The district of Sistan constitutes the middle section of the eastern
Iranian borderlands. It is 36,000 sq.km. in land area with a population of
274,611 and this density of 33.8 per sq.km. makes Sistan the most
populated region in the entire eastern Iranian borderlands.2
Sistan is predominantly a flat land, and is mostly made up of sediments
from Hirmand.3The lowest point of the district is Hamun-e
Hirmand which drains all water in the region. The surrounding lands have
an almost negligible slope towards the lake. The only mountainous part of
Sistan is its north-western corner where the Bandan range ends, and its
western flanks where the Kuh-e Plangan range represents the highest peak
in the region.
Although Sistan geographically is located in the Iranian plateau of
Central Asia, most of it falls politically under Afghanistan, with a small
portion in Pakistan. Almost the entire area of the Iranian part of Sistan
is formed of sediments from river Hirmand, creating one of the most
fertile lands in Iran. But utilisation of its fertility cannot be
maximised because of water shortage and precipitation. A major climatical
feature of the province is a high-velocity northerly wind blowing from the
mountains of Afghanistan in the spring and early summer months with a
speed of 70 to 100 miles per hour, bringing in hot and dry air mixed with
sand. This continues for 110 to 120 days and this wind is locally known as
"the wind of 120 days". This wind, together with a high
temperature causes intense evaporation of the sheets of water in Sistan.
Having frequently been referred to in the historical documents as the "bread
basket" of Khorasan (old Khorasan, now known as Central Asia),
Sistan's traditional economic fortune has diminished as a result of the
diminishing water supplies from River Hirmand into Lake Hamun. River
Hirmand and Lake Hamun are the main geographical features in Sistan.
Due to its geographical location, perennial character and its fresh
water, Lake Hamun, historically known as "Sea of Zereh", is the
most important lake of eastern parts of the Iranian plateau. As a major
basin, Hamun collects water from a considerable area - of which about
three-quarters comes from Afghanistan - and flood waters from the
mountains of its immediate vicinity. This factor together with the lake's
shallowness - no more than 10 metres deep at the most4 - and
with the minimum slope of the shore-lands and because of the inconstant
regimes of the various tributaries, are responsible for the considerable
variations in the surface occupied by the lake in the course of the year,
as well as from one year to another. The sheet of water at the end of the
high-water period (May) of each year can reach an area of about 3,200
sq.km. while in the dry season the surface area of the lake reduces to a
mere 1,200 sq.km.5
During the low-water season the lake is divided into, at least, four
separate sheets of water locally known as Hamun-e Saberi to the North
which is the deepest, Hamun-e Puzak to the north-east and in Afghan
territory, Hamun-e Shapour to the South and a central pool known as
Hamun-e Hirmand. These separate sheets of Hamun water become one at flood
times when the level of the lake rises. The surplus water flows out, at
the southern end of the lake, through the channel of Shileh Shallaq into
the depression of God-e Zereh inside Afghanistan.6 This annual
mechanism has not, however, functioned for several years owing to the
diminishing water level of the lake. The rise in the water level of the
lake in the very recent years does not represent a change of
hydropolitical decision, it is because of lack of control in the war-torn
Hamun Lake, according to historical documents, covered a much larger
area than it may cover in a very high-water year in our time. G.P. Tate
described the lake, at the turn of the twentieth century as something like
150,000 square miles.7 The highest water mark which can be
traced around Lake Hamun is five feet above the level recorded in 1903 by
Colonel McMahon's Arbitration Commission, when the lake established this
There are a number of streams emptying into Lake Hamun of which Hirmand
is the only perennial and far more important than all other tributaries
put together. Hirmand's delta region is measured as being 150,000 sq.km.
The course of the river upstream of the delta, lies entirely in
Rising in the mountains of north-west of Kabul, Hirmand flows towards
Iranian Sistan, after meandering for about 1050 km in Afghan mountains and
plains. Throughout its course in Afghanistan, Hirmand receives from a
number of significant tributaries, of which two are most important; Musa
Qaleh and Arghandab.8 Having received Arghandab near Bost (or
Bist) at the edge of mountain zone, Hirmand crosses the deserts for about
400 km before reaching Chahar-Borjak which is the beginning of Greater
Sistan, 70 km. upstream of the Iranian border, where there is a measuring
station. Of the water that Hirmand drains and brings in to its delta
annually, more than one billion cubic metres. are used for agricultural
irrigation in the Sistan of Iran. The utilisation of the accumulated
waters, if limited to the middle basin of the river, would have a strong
repercussion on the delta region.
In the delta which begins at Kuhak, Hirmand divides into two main
branches of Rud-e Sistan and Rud-e Parian, each subdividing into many
branches and canals. Data available from Colonel McMahon's Arbitration
Commission's measurements of Hirmand water at the turn of the twentieth
century indicate annual flows (from October to September) of three years -
1902 to 1905 - respectively of 7.7, 5.4 and 3.6 billion cubic metres;
minimum monthly flows of 45-50 million cubic metres; and a maximum of
about 2000 million cubic metres.9 Against these figures, data
gathered in the period between October 1946 and September 1950 by the
Hirmand Delta Mission, shows that the flows were 2.2, 4.5, 6.6 and 6.5
billion cubic metres respectively, with minimum monthly flows in the
months of September and October (excluding the exceptionally low September
1947) of 30 x 10 cubic metres. (equal to a capacity of about 11-12 cubic
metres. per second) and with a maximum of 1.8 - 2.6 x 10 cubic metres. in
the months of April and May (700 - 1000 cm. per second).10
The above two sets of data show a drop in the average amount of water
flowing in Hirmand downstream in the first half of the twentieth century
during which there was no diversion dam nor a canal constructed in
Afghanistan. Hirmand river's average annual debit in the 1990s is
estimated at 2 to 3 billion cubic metres. This debit was 6000 cubic metres
per second in 1990, and 3000 cubic metres per second in 1993. This figure
further reduced to a mere 45 cubic metres. per second in 1994, of which
only 15 cubic metres per second entered Iranian Sistan.11
The latest reported flood of major consequence took place in April 1991
after many years of low water and droughts, causing extensive damage in
Sistan. This flood was the outcome of a combination of high level snow
melting and lack of control in Afghanistan, both administratively and
technically, owing to the prevailing political situation in that country.
Evolution of the Water Disputes
Although the actual location of the boundary between Iran and
Afghanistan in Sistan has since long been accepted by both sides as being
in the middle of Hirmand's main delta branch, disputes concerning
allocation and other reparian rights have not as yet been resolved. This
in spite of several attempts in the past 120 years to settle these
disputes. The original problem was that rulers of the British protectorate
of Afghanistan at the turn of the twentieth century considered river
Hirmand as an internal river of that country, reserving for Afghanistan
the right to utilise its water in whatever way it wished. McMahon's
Memorandum of 25 September 1904 asserts:
"The Afghan Government does not admit that there is any water
question in dispute, as their geographical position makes them sole owner
of the whole Helmand above the Band-i-Sistan".12
By thinking so, not only did the Afghan rulers ignore the rights of the
people of downstream Hirmand whose life depended so exclusively on the
water supplies from that river, but it also ignored international trends
towards recognising the status of rivers passing through more than one
country as "international rivers". Prior to this, when the local
rulers of Khozeimeh dynasty were in control of affairs and defence of
Sistan and eastern Iranian borderlands, regional interests were served
effectively and the local inhabitants benefited. But as local advice began
to be ignored by the national government, especially from the early years
of the twentieth century when administration of affairs of all regions of
Iran was put under the control of a centralised authority, national
interests of Iran in Sistan were not served well.
The actual problem began when British boundary arbitration officer,
General F. Goldsmid decided in 1872 to put the Iran-Afghanistan boundary
in Sistan on the main branch of the Hirmand in the delta region without
making any arrangement or recommendation for water division between the
two sides.13 The only mentioning of Hirmand water made in
Goldsmid's boundary award was that:
"It is, moreover, to be well understood that no works are to be
carried out on either side calculated to interfere with the requisite
supply of water for irrigation on both banks of Hirmand." 14
Further disputes occurred between the two countries, mainly because the
river changed its course in the border area in 1896. British arbitration
was sought once again and Colonel Henry McMahon was assigned in 1903 to
delimit and demarcate new boundaries. McMahon's new boundary was, in
practice, the same as previously defined by General Goldsmid, except for
the fact that McMahon had made a water award in 1905,15 which
created more problems than it was supposed to settle.
Having decided to divide the Hirmand water at the border area, equally
between the two sides in 1903-4,16 Colonel McMahon changed his
decision in 1905 for reasons unknown and allocated two-third of Hirmand
water in the delta to Afghanistan and one-third to Iranian Sistan,17
which is much more fertile and a great deal more populous than the
corresponding Afghan border district of Nimrouz. The injustice done to the
Iranian Sistan in this water award can be measured by reading McMahon's
own comments on the unfairness to Iran of his first award (1903-4) which
divided the Hirmand water equally between the two neighbours. On the equal
division of Hirmand water Colonel McMahon stated:
"Even an Afghan, however, must acknowledge, when it is brought
home to him, as it should be, that any settlement which restricts Persian
rights to water to certain limits is in the present case a distinct gain
for Afghanistan who has hitherto taken off, only 16/100ths of the whole
river from Rudbar downwards, while the Persians have taken 62/100ths. Any
deferred settlement of the question might have to recognise the Persian
right to what custom may have entitled them to...."18
Having acknowledged the above facts about Iran's rights to the Hirmand
water, McMahon allocated two-third of that water to Afghanistan in 1905.
The Iranians, however, found McMahon's 1905 water award of one-third to
Iran, two-third to Afghanistan unacceptable and refused to ratify it.
Local peasantry was so offended by this award that they decided to
actively defy its terms. The Afghans, by contrast, were pleased with this
As the summer months of 1905 drew closer and Hirmand water began to
become scarce in Sistan, local Sistanis opened two new canals from the
main stream of Hirmand where both sides were debarred by McMahon's water
award from cutting off from the river. Since his award had not been
accepted by either side at the time, McMahon could not do much about it.
The action, however, renewed the disputes between the two sides. Letters
of complaint from the Sistan population scorning McMahon and the British
for their "conspiracy" against their water rights appeared in
the opposition Iranian newspapers abroad and in the Russian newspapers.
The Russians wrote letters to the Iranian Crown Prince expressing their
displeasure of what the British arbitration did to the water rights of the
people of Sistan.20 Local Sistanis attacked and burnt down
British arbitration headquarters21 and the Iranian government
requested fresh arbitration which never materialised.
The dispute, however, continued for years. In his confidential diary of
December 1929, the British Consul of Sistan indicated, for instance, that
there had been some affrays between Iranian and Afghan subjects in Sistan
as a result of continued disputes in connection with Hirmand water
As friendly relations developed in the 1930s between the new and
centralised government of Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran and the independent
government of Mohammad Nader Shah in Afghanistan, fresh attempts for the
settlement of Hirmand water disputes resulted in the conclusion of the
1939 treaty. Article I of this treaty recognised that "the
governments of Iran and Afghanistan agree to divide in equal shares all
waters of the Hirmand river which flows to Band-e Kamal Khan (30 miles
inside Afghan territory) between Iran and Afghanistan," and Article
II provided that in order to use more water than that is taken now between
Deh-e Chahr-Borjak and Band-e Kamal Khan, the government of Afghanistan
would not construct any other stream in the said district and not even
repair any of the existing ones.23
This treaty, though in line with the accepted international standards
and a significant improvement of McMahon's water award, from the Iranian
point of view, also failed to put an end to the disputes, mainly because
the Afghans failed to agree on it amongst themselves and because of the
changed political circumstances in Iran during World War II when the
British and the Russians exiled Reza Shah in 1941. The Afghans refused to
ratify the treaty and the disputes were revived, especially after the
Americans began the construction of diversion dams and canals on the river
as a result of contracts they concluded with the Afghans in 1945. The
Sistan population was convinced that the consequence of these dams and
canals was going to be immediate. The political diary of the British
Consul General of Mashahd records a long spell of drought in Sistan in the
summer of 1947. It remarks:
"From Zabol a report has been received that no water from the
Helmand has reached the town for a month and that outlying villages have
been without it for some three months. The drought-stricken population
will not believe that failure of last winter's snow is the reason and they
have expressed their intent of crossing into Afghanistan and forcibly
release the water on which they depend and which they are convinced the
Afghans are illegally stealing or diverting by their new American
engineered irrigation scheme in the neighbourhood of Girishk."
Having inspected the new diversion canal in Afghanistan in 1947, the
Iranian Ambassador reported to his government that the canal was 65 miles.
The depth of water all along the canal was 2 metres and its breadth 30
metres reducing progressively until 12 metres at the end. It carried
between 15 to 20 thousand square feet of water which was meant to go to
The construction of two major dams, Kajaki reservoir and Boghra
diversion in Afghanistan in 1949 caused great uproar among Iranians. The
two countries eventually sent representatives to Washington in 1959 for
negotiation through American mediation. These negotiations failed to
achieve any result26 and the disputes continued until 1973
when the two countries prepared a draft agreement regulating their
respective water share of the delta region, which failed to be ratified.
According to the abortive 1973 treaty, Iran was to receive a 22 cubic
metres per second of Hirmand water in the delta region as its share, and
was to purchase an additional four cubic metres per second from the
Afghans, summing up to 26 cubic metres per second.
The quota of 22 cubic metres per second became the basis of the Afghans'
argument since it was determined by a so-called impartial commission which
was set up by the Americans in 1948 to determine the water needs of the
two sides in the delta region.27Although this amount per
second of Hirmand water for Sistan was even less than the amount of
one-third determined by Colonel McMahon's arbitration award of 1905, the
Afghans had declined to accept it. The quota, nevertheless, became the
cornerstone of their argument at any negotiation thereafter. The Afghan
Coup d'etat of 1973, however, prevented ratification of that year's
treaty. The Iranian monarchy was, too, overthrown by the Islamic
Revolution of February 1979. Subsequently, Afghanistan was occupied by the
former Soviet Union, and their puppet government of Dr. Najibollah
collapsed in 1992. This development resulted in a civil war in Afghanistan
which is still prevailing. These events prevented the two neighbours from
making fresh efforts for the settlement of Hirmand water disputes between
them. Paradoxically, it must be said that, the prevailing political chaos
in Afghanistan has resulted in lack of administrative and technical
control of Hirmand water and the free flow of water in the delta region
has restored Lake Hamun, albeit temporarily. The Iran-Afghanistan disputes
on the Hirmand water rights, however, have played a major role in the two
countries' relationships, preventing cooperation between the two with an
increasingly disastrous environmental impact on the Sistan province and
The geographical catastrophe taking place regarding Sistan and Lake
Hamun is almost an exact, but more slow, repetition of the catastrophe
which diminished Lake Aral in another corner of Central Asia where the
Soviets diverted a large body of river Amudarya (Oxus) thus creating an
environmental disaster of major proportion.
Settlement of Hirmand disputes is long overdue and I make the following
recommendations in the hope of paving the way for a morally and
technically acceptable solution to the problem:28
1. Complete depolitisation of the Hirmand issue both in Afghanistan and
Sistan. Hirmand has never been a national issue in Iran since McMahon's
water and boundary awards of 1905.
2. Both nations of Iran and Afghanistan should become fully and
consciously aware of the fact that the Hirmand river, below the confluence
of Arghandab, particularly below Band-e Kamal Khan, is not the exclusive
right of either one of them, and that both Sistan of Iran and Nimrouz of
Afghanistan have rights to the river in accordance with their agricultural
prospects and water needs.
3. Carrying out thorough surveys of agricultural lands and irrigation
possibilities in Sistan and Nimrouz provinces and determining the scale of
the annual water needs of each.
4. Distributing the Hirmand water to Sistan and Nimrouz provinces in
accordance with the determined annual water needs of each.
5. Undertaking joint venture for investment on construction of
regulatory and reservoir dams in suitable places below the confluence of
6. Embankment and regulation of the course of branches and channels on
both sides to prevent wastage.
7. Embankment of Hamun and rehabilitation of the Shileh Shallaq.
8. Establishing at Kuhak (where the two countries' boundary starts) on
the Parian-e Moshtarak a permanent dam with sluice gates to regulate
subdivision of waters between Iran and Afghanistan in that section.
9. Implementation of a rational canalization to ensure an equitable
distribution of the irrigable waters, eliminating wastage and unlawful
uses of water.
10. Construction of reservoir dams wherever possible to conserve flood
waters in the two provinces of Sistan and Nimrouz, which will be of
noticeable benefit to the irrigation needs of the region.
1Hamun is an ancient
Persian word meaning "Lake".
Statistics in 1986, Census Taking Centre of Iran, The Census of 1986, Vol.
3 Hirmand is also an ancient Persian word
meaning "abundant in water".
4 See geography of
Lake Hamun in Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh's "Evolution of Eastern Iranian
Boundaries", Ph.D. thesis, University of London 1993, pp.89-99.
"Socio-Economic Development Plan for the South-Eastern Region",
Rome 1959, p.48.
6 Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, op. cit., p.96.
7 G.P. Tate, "The Frontier of Baloochistan = Travel
on the Border of Persia, and Afghanistan", London 1909, p.237.
Mojtahed-Zadeh, op. cit., p.100.
9 As quoted in
Italconsult's "Socio-economic....", op. cit., p.52.
11 Omur-e Ab-e Sistan, a report by the Governorate
of Zabul, dated Feb./March 1995, p.6 - courtesy of Mr. Mohtadi of the
Centre for Middle East Scientific Research and Strategic Studies - Tehran.
12Paragraph 3 of clause 69 of McMahon's Memorandum of
25th September 1904 on Sistan Water Question, FO 60/727.
Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, op. cit., pp.578-81.
14 Extract of
Goldsmid's Sistan Boundary Award regarding Hirmand river, last paragraph,
as appeared in General Goldsmid's book "Eastern Persia", London
15 Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, "Eastern
Boundaries of Iran" in The International Boundaries of Modern Iran,
ed. K.S. McLachlan, UCL Press, London 1994, p.135.
McMahon's Memorandum, op. cit.
17 McMahon's Final Draft
of Water Award, Award "B", No.29 of FO 60/728, pp.34-6.
Paragraph 82 of McMahon's Memorandum, op. cit.
McMahon's Telegram No. 947 to the Foreign Secretary of Britisch India,
12th April 1905, enclosure No. 6, FO 60/728, p.8
of the report of the Russian Legation at Theran to H.I.H. The Vali-ahd
(Crown Prince), July 20, 1905, FO 60/729, p.48
British India Office to Foreign Office, 23 November, 1905, FO 60/729 p.280
22 Paragraph 97 of Confidential Diary of H.B.M. Consul
for Sistan for 15 Nov. to 31 Dec. 1929, FO 371/14526, p.3 of 211.
Articles I and II of the Iran-Afghanistan Treaty of Hirmand Water
Division, dated 6 Bahman 1317 (26 January 1939), text in Persian. Document
in the Document Centre of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Ministry of
24 Extract from Secret Political Diary
of British Consulate General Meshed, No.8 of 1947, dated 5 August 1947, FO
25 Extract from telegram No.252, from the
Iranian Ambassador in Kabul to the Foreign Ministry of H.I.M. Government
of Iran, 1947, but no details of the date, Iranian Documents of the Office
of Prime Minister, Series No. 102010.
26 Private notes of
Prof. M.H. Ganji, Secretary of Iranian Mission to the Washington
negotiations, sent to this author on March 9, 1991.
Private information provided to this author by Amir Hussein Khan
Khozeime-Alam, Iran's Deputy Minister of Agriculture in 1948 who was
personally involved in the work of the so-called Impartial Commission in
that year. He was interviewed on April 10, 1991.
Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh 1993, op. cit., pp.657-8.