Water crises stirs new disputes

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Water crises stirs new disputes By ANWAR IQBAL

SAN FRANCISCO, April 1 (UPI) -- An acute water shortage has forced two Muslim neighbors, Iran and Afghanistan, to lock horns in an area already plagued by war, civil strife and a severe drought -- but they are far from the only countries where water crises have heightened border tensions.

The region's old rivals, India and Pakistan, have their own water disputes that often flare into skirmishes between the world's two newest nuclear-weapon states.

Iran and Iraq, two old rivals of a nearby region, have also fought a war over the Shatt-el-Arab waterway.

The latest dispute revolves around the Helmand river that flows into Iran from Afghanistan. Iran claims that Afghanistan has blocked the river, drying thousands of acres of rich agricultural land.

But Afghanistan has rejected Iran's official complaint to the United Nations of blocking the river. Responding to Iran's complaint, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia said "The river has simply dried up because of the unprecedented drought gripping the entire region."

There has been little rain in the area during the last three years, drying up rivers and other water sources in parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The drought has affected lands as far away as Iraq and Turkey.

The lack of rain has forced millions of people to leave their lands and move into cities. Hundreds of thousands of cattle have died while in some places aid workers have also reported drought-related deaths among humans.

In a report to the U.S. government in January this year, the CIA warned that the entire region is going to face a severe water-shortage, making it "the most vital and most contested natural resource."

"Continued population and economic growth and expansion of irrigated agriculture over the next 15 years will increasingly stress water resources."

The CIA report said that per capital water availability is likely to drop by 50 to 75 percent in India alone, which is otherwise fed by some of the world's largest river systems.

"Since the region's waterways are interstate, water could become a source of renewed friction," the report warned.

The United Nations and other international agencies have also warned of similar troubles in the regions where water is scarce. Unfortunately, some of these places already have old territorial and political disputes and drying water sources would further complicate an already volatile situation.

Responding to Iran's claim that it has blocked the Helmand river, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia said "the accusations are politically-motivated and in harmony with the UN and the U.S. policies of exerting unnecessary pressure on the Afghan people."

The Taliban said the river, which flows normally into Iran after irrigating much of southern Afghanistan, had dried up even at points where it originates.

Tehran last week wrote to the UN secretary general Kofi Annan charging that the Taliban's.decision to block the 1,000 kilometer (620-mile) long river had dried some 140,000 hectares (350,000 acres) of land in the neighboring regions of Iran.

But the Taliban said they were honoring a 1972 bilateral agreement, which allowed four cubic meters per second of water into Iran only as a gesture of good will.

Based on this agreement, the Taliban allowed an Iranian fact-finding mission to travel to southern Afghanistan last year after the Helmand river dried up on Iranian soil, the Taliban said.

Landlocked Afghanistan imports a big portion of its food needs from neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The drought has devastated agriculture, multiplying the sufferings of a nation already reeling under more than 20 years of war and civil strife.

Iran supports the anti-Taliban northern alliance in the Afghan civil war while Pakistan helps the Taliban.

Meanwhile, officials in Pakistan said they were considering new and unorthodox ways of obtaining water to cope with more than three years of continuing drought.

The government has asked Pakistani scientists to consider spraying charcoal on the Himalayan peaks to melt glaciers and using nuclear technology to cultivate salt tolerant crops.

The majority of Pakistan's 141.5 million people do not have access to potable water and freshwater for farming is equally scarce.

A prolonged drought has not helped matters for Pakistan, a country about twice the size of California. It also has exacerbated water-sharing problems with India over the Indus River.

Under an agreement signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency Thursday, the Pakistan government will use nuclear technology to cultivate crops, trees and fodder grass on 5,000 acres of saline and waterlogged land.

The IAEA is conducting an inter-regional Model Project in eight countries, including Pakistan, to demonstrate that salt affected barren land can be cultivated using saline groundwater and salt tolerant plants chosen to meet local needs.

The other countries taking part in the Model Project are Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Myanmar.

Pakistan is also looking into melting glaciers to ease the country's water shortage. The proposal involves melting part of the glaciers in northern Pakistan by spraying on charcoal, which raises the temperature of the ice.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 02, 2001

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