Dams, identity and geopolitics in the Harirud River basin

A new article by Mohsen Nagheeby (IHE alumnus and PhD candidate at Northumbria University) and Jeroen Warner (Wageningen University) analyses geopolitics in the Harirud River Basin, shared by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. The paper argues that the control and capture of water resources are not solely for economic development but also driven by security interests of actors within and outside the basin. Sustainable interventions should therefore acknowledge the geopolitical nature of the basin, as well as the regional interests, identities, and commonalities of all the riparian states.

Over the last decades, growing attention to environmental issues within the political agenda has led to an increased water securitisation ‘that put[s] pressure on the existing international order’. The move to securitisation has hit the media headlines,  ‘often shortsighted and alarmist but miss[ing] the bigger picture’. This kind of sensationalism fails to address the complexity of water development and politics, and particularly the geopolitical history that casts a shadow on hydropolitical dynamics of a transboundary river basin.

These issues are addressed in a recently published article exploring the geopolitical overlay that shapes dynamic hydropolitical interactions within the Harirud River Basin, a basin that spans Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan.

 Map of the Harirud River Basin with dams location.

The Harirud River reminds us of the rich history and culture of the Greater Khorasan. Looking at the history and cultural background of the basin, it narrates the story of the people living in historical cities like Balkh and Herat (now in Afghanistan), Tus, Nishapur and Serakhs (now in Iran), and Mervand Abiward (now in Turkmenistan). In this way, the Harirud River is not only a flow of water but also a flow of the histories, cultures, languages and religions of the people currently divided by national borders. The Harirud River has been associated with the ancient Silk Road, a historical network of trade and cultural transmission that was central to the cultural interactions of the West and the East. The Harirud River has historically been a natural geographical mediator, uniting the various and divided cultures with many commonalities – that is beautifully described in a poem of the medieval period.

The day before yesterday, a red anemone had inflamed the fire [of love] in Merv 

Yesterday, a lily in the water has kindled [her heart in eagerness] in Balkh 

Today, a flower in the earth of Nishapur blossoms [into love]

Tomorrow, in Herat, the wind will lavish [the beauty and love of] jasmine”*

By looking at the historical, political and economic interactions and differences among the riparian states, the basin can be characterized by asymmetric but interdependent socio-economic factors within a complex geopolitical environment. The normative common interests, identities and commonalities among the riparian states offer significant potential to overcome geopolitical challenges.

Afghanistan is historically a classic example of development and conflict within international and regional geopolitical competitions. Afghanistan has been a buffer state for superpowers with security interests in the region during both colonial and post-colonial periods. The geopolitical competition for security in Afghanistan has been referred to as the Great Game, or the strategic rivalry and confrontation between superpowers, namely the British and Russian Empires and later the US versus the Soviet Union, as well as between regional powers like India and Pakistan. These superpowers have pursued different strategies for ruling Afghanistan and controlling territory for their own security and geopolitical interests. One strategy has been to secure control of water resources. Thus, water (development) has profoundly shaped geopolitical dynamics in Afghanistan.

In this respect, our article explores the geopolitical interests of external actors and their political strategies in the context of the Great Game, specifically in a transboundary river basin. Given the region’s water scarcity and geopolitical importance, we suggest that in order to better understand the situation, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan should be considered as a “hydropolitical security complex”. Through an analysis of the geopolitical interests of external actors (mainly outside the basin) in the context of the Great Game and the framework of critical hydropolitics, the article addresses the following questions: How can dam development influence the geopolitics of the region in the post-conflict period? Are any other out-of-basin interests (re)shaping the hydropolitical relationships in the riparian states? Should large dam development merely be considered a child of colonialism?

In this regard, we analyze how external powers’ strategies and narratives thwart both the peace-building process in Afghanistan and the creation of a mutual understanding in an international river basin. We also explore the relation between the nature of the Great Game and dam development. In the 19th century, Afghanistan was sandwiched between two empires (Russia and Britain), both claiming to be a friend.

Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his “friends” the Russian Bear and British Lion (by Sir John Tenniel 1878)

During the 20th century, the Great Game was effectively ongoing between various superpowers and, according to Rudyard Kipling, “It [the Great Game] will end when everyone is dead”. Many analysts recognize this new game as a competition to control natural resources. In the name of modernization, these superpowers have applied various economic approaches, ranging from communist to capitalist in nature, to protect their own security interests. This has resulted in a competition for development; as Arthur Schlesinger contended, “dams were the American alternatives to Communist land reform”. In this respect, superpower’s prevalent strategic policy of “supporting Afghanistan” has been used to rationalize their presence in Afghanistan, all playing roles within the Great Game.

A U.S. Soldier hands an Afghan girl a bottle of water during an air assault mission, 2009.U.S. Army.
Photo by Spc. Matthew Freire

We argue that the control and capture of water resources in the Harirud River Basin do not serve economic development interests alone but also more broadly represent the geopolitical interests of the concerned parties, particularly those of the out-of-basin actors. Water is highly politicized under the conditions of the Great Game. Therefore, external actors’ strategies involve principally controlling water resources for their own interests; not only ignoring the basin’s integrated approach for serving all riparian states’ water demand, but also neglecting the basic interests of Afghanistan – a country that has endured a combination of armed conflict, extreme poverty and lack of basic infrastructures. As we discuss in details in the article, this kind of strategic foreign policy destroys constructive cooperation with regard to transboundary waters. The Afghan government similarly views dams as symbols of nation-building and a way of cementing power. In the absence of a lasting trilateral agreement, the existing nature of the geopolitical dynamics of the basin has led upstream Afghanistan and downstream Iran and Turkmenistan to unilaterally establish their rights to control the “rules of the game”.

 The article concludes that sustainable solutions will not be reached unless the geopolitical nature of the region and outside interventions can center on a normative understanding of the regional interests, identities, and commonalities of all the riparian states. Something that by itself has inherently a significant potential to overcome the geopolitical challenges which separate the people lived in the basin. Something that needs to be heard particularly by outsiders, as Rumi (the famous poet originally from this region) calls:

Listen to the reedand the tale it tells,

How it sings of separation…’


* It is an equivalent translation of the poem in its original Persianlanguage:

در مرو پریر لاله آتش انگیخت؛ دی نیلوفر به بلخ در آب گریخت

امروز گل از خاک نشابور دمید؛ فردا به هری باد سمن خواهد بیخت

Cite this blog post
Mohsen (2018, December 3). Dams, identity and geopolitics in the Harirud River basin. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os0f


Dr. Mohsen Nagheeby is a Research Associate in Water Security and Policy at Newcastle University, UK. He received his Ph.D. in international law at Northumbria University, School of Law, where he focused specifically on ‘Anarchy and the Law of International Watercourses’.

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2 Responses

  1. Lex van Rootselaar says:

    In welk (wetenschappelijk) tijdschrift is dit artikel gepubliceerd ?

  1. 27/07/2023

    […] resources has become a critical concern, not only for sustaining livelihoods but also for securing strategic positions of power in the […]

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