Water Management Policy in Afghanistan After the Fall of the Afghan Government

In partnership with College of William & Mary and written by Erin Horrigan, Garrison Goetsch, Anna Glass, Zoe Roberts, Yasha Barth, Lilly Doninger, Kaitlyn Wilson, and Aliia Woodworth
Dam policy unchanged, used for Iranian detente
Humanitarian crisis continues, Iran relations warm
Feb 22
3 months, 2 weeks

The water crisis in Afghanistan highlights the importance of Taliban management of Afghan dams. Our analysis of open source data and commercial satellite imagery reveals that, as a gesture towards improved relations, the Taliban has begun to release water into Iran with greater frequency than the former Afghan government.

Additionally, our data reveals that Afghanistan's four uncontrolled discharge dams are unable to adequately respond to the water crisis and extreme weather events. These dams exacerbate the effects of frequent droughts, underscoring the importance of modern water management infrastructure for the future stability and development of Afghanistan.


GEOINT-based comparisons of dam reservoir areas indicate no consistent pattern of change from coordinated efforts in reservoir areas under Taliban management (2021-2022) compared to the previous management period under the Afghan government (2018-2020) with the exception of Iran water releases.

1: Methodology

Afghanistan currently has 19 finished large dams, which are defined as those which are at least 15 meters in height. Commercial electro-optical satellite imagery analysis indicates at least three more large dams are in various stages of construction as of late 2022.

In order to analyze the 19 operational large dams, we grouped them into two categories: controlled-discharge dams and uncontrolled-discharge dams. This distinction was made based on their ability to control the amount of water flowing through them, which is known as discharge. The uncontrolled-discharge dams category encompasses dams that have no ability to influence their water discharge; it comprises four man-made irrigation dams which are earthen walls constructed to block water flow for agricultural use, and one naturally occurring dam (the Band-e Amir). The controlled-discharge dams category includes all dams that can alter their water discharge. Of these, four are pure hydroelectric dams, while seven are hybrid hydroelectric-irrigation dams, and three are irrigation dams with discharge-control capabilities. To assess the current state of Afghan dams, we observed each of these 19 completed large dams using electro-optical commercial imagery to gauge the Taliban's impact on dams and dam discharges.

For each dam, we analyzed changes in the water area between 2018 and 2022. We used Landsat 8 satellite imagery and the Normalized Difference Water Index (NDWI) to measure the water area and extract pixels containing water values (NDWI > 0). With a 30-meter spatial resolution, each NDWI pixel represents 900 square meters of land. Out of the 19 large dams in Afghanistan, 15 had reservoirs that were measurable using this method, while four dams (Surkhab Dam, Sokhtuk Dam, Kamal Khan Dam, and Mahipar Dam) had reservoirs smaller than 900 square meters, and so were not detectable. Of the measurable dams, we collected data for each year from September 01 to October 31 to ensure the best possible image quality with zero cloud cover. Additionally, our study includes a supplementary analysis of the impacts of the Central Asian Drought in Afghanistan. To gain a deeper understanding of these impacts, three of the dams were selected for case study analysis based on the availability of high-resolution satellite imagery.

2: Climate Change & Water Supply in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is facing an intensification of extreme weather events and natural disasters, including droughts, floods, storms, and landslides, according to British humanitarian and development NGO, Afghanaid. The frequency of droughts in Afghanistan has doubled since the late 20th century, causing significant impacts on farmers, livestock, and crops, reducing food supply to alarmingly low levels, as reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

Due to hesitancy of global climate organizations such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference to include the Taliban in the climate dialogue and a lack of climate adaptation funding, the situation will likely continue to worsen. According to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, Afghanistan is the sixth most impacted country of climate change related disasters; it also suffers from economic instability and a humanitarian crisis.

The situation is dire. The World Food Programme reports that, as of September 2021, only one in twenty Afghans were getting enough to eat. In the last year, 6 million people’s lives were put at risk due to a lack of food. A 2021 drought caused wells to run dry, dramatically decreasing irrigation abilities, according to the UN OCHA, which only worsened the food crisis. The same drought also decreased hydropower outputs, causing the Kajaki Hydroelectric Power Plant’s production to drop by 85%.

Drought and flooding are interlinked in Afghanistan. The intensification of flooding can be attributed to preceding droughts, as dry, drought-stricken soil leads to increased runoff and exacerbates flood risk. The summer of 2022 saw severe flooding, resulting in hundreds of fatalities and widespread damage. According to the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, 16,000 homes were destroyed and a quarter million Afghans were displaced.

The root cause of the water crisis in Afghanistan is unique in that it is not a shortage of water resources. Afghanistan is rich in water, with a total of 75 billion cubic meters available. This abundance of water resources also supports neighboring countries. Instead, the intensity of Afghanistan’s droughts are primarily a result of inadequate hydrological infrastructure, decades of infrastructure damage during war and political instability, and institutional failures in water management practices.

For a country like Afghanistan with a clearly defined 9 month dry season, effective management of dams could play a crucial role in addressing drought, stabilizing the water supply over the course of a year. If Afghanistan’s existing dams are not used efficiently, the risk of future water crises, economic destabilization, and famine will intensify.

3: History of Afghan Dams

The Helmand River, which flows through Afghanistan and into Iran, is vital for agriculture and irrigation. In the 1940s, Afghanistan attempted to harness the power of the Helmand by constructing the Grishk and Kajaki hydroelectric dams. These dams’ completion reduced water flow into Iran, causing a dispute between the two countries. In 1973 the parties signed the Afghan-Iranian Helmand-River Water Treaty, guaranteeing Iran 22 cubic meters per second of water from the Helmand in exchange for granting Afghanistan port access, but the treaty was never ratified.

In 1996, the Taliban established itself as the dominant military force in Afghanistan. From 1998 to 2001, the Taliban closed off the Kajaki Dam during a drought, depriving Iran of water. This was likely spurred by rising tensions between the two countries, as the Taliban had killed Iranian diplomats earlier that year.

In late 2001, a US-led coalition deposed the Taliban. Subsequently, much of Afghanistan’s modern dam development came from international aid. During this period, climate change accelerated, according to scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Afghanistan endured more frequent droughts and harsher floods, increasing the need for a national water management policy to stabilize annual water flows. Afghanistan passed the Water Law of 2009, which delineates a complex administration that would manage water distribution and resolve water disputes. However, a 2016 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan found that this structure was only implemented in a few parts of the country and did not effectively change water management due to its frequent deference to traditional water law and Islamic jurisprudence.

In February 2021, Afghanistan and Iran committed to developing a new version of the Afghan-Iranian Helmand-River Water Treaty. However, talks ended in March when Iranian forces attacked workers at the Kamal Khan Dam. Once the dam’s construction ended, Afghanistan announced it would only provide “extra” water (beyond the 1973 treaty-allotted amount) to Iran in exchange for oil. The Afghan government also announced it would construct 44 hydroelectric dams, but the Taliban’s return to power in August halted these specific plans.

4: Dam Overview

A large dam is a dam that is at least 15 meters high. Currently, Afghanistan contains 19 operational large dams. Electro-optical satellite imagery indicates at least three more large dams in various stages of construction as of late 2022. Of these 19 operation large dams, one, the Band-e Amir Dam, is a naturally occurring dam. Afghanistan’s remaining 18 man-made large dams serve a variety of purposes: four of these dams serve a purely hydroelectric purpose, seven of these dams are purely irrigation dams, and the remaining seven serve both of these functions simultaneously.

The most overt way a dam can be managed is by restricting or increasing its discharge, or the release of water through the dam per unit of time. Discharge sometimes has a direct effect on a dam’s function. For example, a hydroelectric dam generates power by letting water flow through it, so a hydroelectric dam’s power production increases and decreases with its discharge. However, discharge also affects a dam’s reservoir or store of water. If the discharge is higher than the reservoir’s rate of replenishment, then the reservoir will diminish, potentially until it vanishes. By contrast, if the discharge is lowered below the rate of reservoir replenishment, then the reservoir will increase in size. The size of a reservoir can be managed strategically to stabilize the flow of water through a dam throughout the year.

Dams of different types should be managed in different ways. Consider hydroelectric dam management as compared to irrigation dam management: hydroelectric dams must have water running through them to generate power. Thus, a hydroelectric dam’s reservoir should be managed so that the demand for power can be met year-round. For example, a hydroelectric dam might have its discharge limited in the summer to ensure the reservoir is sufficient to meet increased power demand in the winter as people heat their homes. Irrigation dams, by contrast, provide water itself for agricultural purposes. An irrigation dam’s reservoir must be managed to meet water demand as it relates to the cycle of growing crops. However, some dams have multiple purposes, and in that case, the management of the dam must take into account the varying demand for the different services provided by the dam. For instance, Afghanistan contains seven hybrid hydroelectric-irrigation dams.

5: Afghan Dams Since the Fall of the Afghan Government

Since the Taliban came to power with the 2021 fall of the Afghan government, the Taliban has held control of Afghanistan’s dams. In the context of Afghanistan’s ongoing water crisis, it is crucial to understand how the Taliban is managing the nation’s dams. To analyze the Taliban’s dam management, we observed trends in the three factors of dam management which the group can control: the construction and repair of dams, the personnel staffing of dams, and the water discharge from dams.

Dam Construction and Repair

Without international aid, it will be difficult for the Taliban to begin new dam construction projects. However, after the completion of the U.S. withdrawal in August of 2021, the Taliban did not actively disrupt the ongoing development of water infrastructure. For instance, the construction of the Kajaki Dam and Hydropower Plant, undertaken by Turkish company 77 Construction, continued throughout the fall of the Afghan government, as illustrated in Figure 1.

During Taliban rule, there have also been efforts to maintain and repair dams without international support. To address the rapid decrease in water levels of the Qargha Dam (shown in Figure 7), the Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) has implemented maintenance and monitoring projects. Furthermore, through joint financial contributions of MEW and residents of Farah Province, reconstruction of the Bakhshabad Dam is underway.

Additionally, Afghanistan is still receiving some decreased amount of international aid through the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Area Based Approach for Development Emergency Initiatives (ABADEI) program which is working to mitigate and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe following the 2021 transition of power. This effort has included the construction of a small dam (7m) in Qalat City. Construction, which was completed with the help of the UNDP, took place entirely under Taliban control.

Dam Staffing

The Taliban has demonstrated that it prioritizes dam management expertise in decisions related to dam staffing. When the Taliban occupied the Dahla dam, the group stated that irrigation experts could stay to regulate water distribution, though the Afghan government withdrew the experts in an effort to clear the area from Taliban control. Similarly, the Taliban accepted the surrender of the Afghan government at the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, preserving the dam and its personnel. Thus, while the Taliban’s capacity for new dam construction is very low, it has placed a premium on maintaining some level of water management expertise in the country.

Dam Discharge

Another key dam management factor under Taliban control is the level of discharge released from hydroelectric dams. The discharge rate of hydroelectric dams can be increased or decreased to manage electricity production. Many non-hydroelectric dams, such as irrigation dams, have the ability to control their discharge as well. This ability to alter discharge rate is also useful for implementing a sustainable water management policy, stabilizing the year-round flow of water by storing and releasing excess water as needed, so that a stable supply of water from the reservoir can be provided year-round, for whatever purpose is needed.

In this section, we evaluate the current status of reservoirs across Afghanistan. We used satellite imagery to observe changes in the size of Afghan dam reservoirs from 2018 to 2022. We then split all large dams in Afghanistan into two groups: dams with discharge control, and dams without discharge control. Dams with discharge control refer to dams that have the capability to alter their flow of water, and the fourteen dams we have placed in this category include four pure hydroelectric dams, seven hydroelectric dams that also serve an irrigation function, and three irrigation dams. Dams without discharge control refer to dams that lack the capability to alter their flow of water, whether this flow is uncontrolled or whether there is no flow of water whatsoever. The five dams we placed in this category include four irrigation dams and one naturally occurring dam, the Band-e Amir.

Figure 2 depicts the percent change in reservoir water area before and after the Central Asian drought of 2021. For example, a value of 50 for the year 2020 signifies that the 2020 reservoir area for that dam was a 50% increase from the area in 2019. Many dams experienced a decrease in reservoir area from 2020 to 2021 as a result of the drought and an increase in 2022 during drought recovery. The blue lines indicate the identified dams without discharge control and the red lines indicate seven of Afghanistan’s fourteen controlled discharge dams.

Across most of the 15 large dams whose areas we could measure, we observe a sharp percentage decrease in reservoir size during the Central Asian drought of 2021, with a rebound in the following year. However, the nature and rate of this rebound differs substantially across different types of dams (see Figure 2); the rebound of dam reservoirs without discharge control varied from +287% to -64%, while dams with discharge control had a much narrower band of shift during rebound year (+97% to -2%).

The percentage change in reservoir area provides insight into the stability of reservoir water area throughout the political transition in Afghanistan. Large positive values indicate a significant increase or decrease in reservoir water area, while values of zero indicate no change in the water area between years. Our measurements of reservoir area are depicted in Figures 3 and 4 which show dams with reservoirs larger and smaller than 5 km2 in size, respectively. The figures demonstrate that most dams with reservoirs greater than 5 km2 have been stable or increasing in size, with the largest increases occurring in two irrigation dams (the Sardeh Band and Dahla Dam). Smaller-scale dams have tended towards stability or modest gains, with the important exception of the Qargha Dam, which has shrunk to less than half a square kilometer in area. This trend in the Qargha Dam reservoir is further explained in the following section.

The aggregated results of Figures 3 and 4 reveal two significant trends. All dams with discharge control experienced stable water levels or increased water levels after experiencing decreasing water levels during the Central Asian drought. Dams without discharge control experienced less consistent trends in water area recovery in 2022. Some dams without discharge control lost reservoir water in 2022 while others regained the water lost during the drought.

We provide three case studies, which span a variety of trends in reservoir levels, to further explore the current state of Afghanistan’s reservoirs. The selected case studies also span three dam management capabilities—the Qargha Dam does not have discharge control, while the Darunta and Grishk Dams do. First, we examine the Darunta Dam which saw a slight decrease in reservoir size followed by a large increase. Second, we examine the Grishk Dam and reservoir which decreased significantly during the 2021 drought and has since recovered significantly. Third, we examine the Qargha Dam, which illustrates the most extreme decrease in reservoir size across all irrigation dams. The Darunta and Grishk Dams are both controlled-discharge dams while the Qargha Dam is an uncontrolled-discharge dam.

The Darunta Dam, which is predominantly used for hydropower, demonstrates rising reservoir levels under Taliban management. As shown in Figure 5, the volume of water in the Darunta reservoir shrunk only slightly in 2021, despite the drought, and then increased significantly one year later, rising above even pre-Taliban water levels. As suggested by a report from the Naghlu Hydropower Rehabilitation Project, this is likely partially attributable to construction efforts focused on improving the electrical capacity of the dam.

A similar trend occurred at the Grishk Dam, which is located along the Helmand River and was completed with assistance from the United States. Water flow from the Grishk Dam decreased significantly from 2020 to 2021, when there was a major drought, falling from 0.5 km2 to 0.02 km2. This trend is demonstrated in Figure 6, where emerging alluvial fans—sediment patterns that emerge when water levels decrease to reveal the riverbed— indicate a diminished flow of water. Grishk Dam’s water flow has nearly increased to its pre-drought water area, reaching 0.4 km2 in 2022, and many old waterways are reemerging. The current water flow is slowly approaching but is still below, 2020 levels.

Taliban Dam Policy

From the data we collected on the reservoir levels of Afghan dams from 2018-2022, we hypothesized the ability to make statements or predictions about Taliban dam management throughout Afghanistan compared to the Afghan government’s management. However, we caveat that we are not able to make such strong predictions with the data we have collected at this time, given the limited period of Taliban dam control and given the difficulty in definitively separating intentional changes to dam reservoirs and uncontrollable weather effects to reservoirs.

Our data does suggest that Taliban dam management has not shifted dramatically from Afghan government dam management. Aggregate satellite imagery analysis, as represented in Figures 2, 3, and 4 shows that the Taliban has not done anything truly unusual with Afghan dams, such as opening them or closing them completely. The open press and reporting above suggest that the Taliban has maintained previous staff and has refrained from disrupting dam repair and construction. This open reporting, combined with our satellite imagery and data suggests Taliban dam management is fairly similar to dam management under the Afghan government. However, further research that carefully controls for the effects of weather is required to make firm statements about this subject but we wanted to highlight the preliminary analysis.

Uncontrolled-Discharge Control

One area where Taliban management is similar to that of the Afghan government is certainly Afghanistan’s dams without discharge control, since their water discharge cannot be influenced. In Afghanistan, there are four large man-made irrigation dams without discharge control, namely:

  • Sardeh Band Dam (aka Zena Khan Dam), on the Gardez River, built 1967
  • Dahla Dam, on the Arghandeb River, built 1952
  • Qargha Dam, on the Paghman River, built 1933
  • Band-e Sultan Dam, on the Ghazni River, built in the 10th century

Because these dams cannot influence their water discharge, they also cannot influence the size of their reservoir. Thus, their ability to meet irrigation needs is entirely at the mercy of the weather.

The Qargha Dam, our third case study, is located 10 miles outside of Kabul and demonstrates what can happen to the reservoir area of uncontrolled-discharge dams. Because it cannot control its own discharge, this dam’s reservoir levels cannot be stabilized and are in effect determined by weather patterns. The Qargha Dam's reservoir grew from 2018 to 2019 and then remained consistent into 2020. Then, as seen in Figure 7, the reservoir level decreased consistently, falling from 1.13 km2 in 2020 to 0.41 km2 in 2022. If the Qargha Dam had some ability to influence its own discharge and thus reservoir size, measures to conserve the reservoir could have been taken. Instead, it has shrunk dramatically to less than half a square kilometer in area, and if this weather trend continues then the reservoir may disappear altogether. This would be possible if the glacial melt and rain runoff that feeds into the Pagman River dwindled to a low enough level. The dramatic 60% decrease in water level can also be attributed to the severe drought that has plagued the region. The Qargha Dam’s reservoir is a major source of water for Kabul; therefore, the massive decrease in the reservoir area will have significant economic impacts on the capital city. The decrease in reservoir area aligns with patterns of change in other irrigation dams in Afghanistan and helps to contrast hydroelectric dams, which have discharge control mechanisms.

Rapprochement with Iran

There is one area of dam management where Taliban policy has seen a definite shift from Afghan government policy, and that is the use of dams as a diplomatic lever in Iranian-Taliban relations. Now that the Taliban controls Afghanistan’s controlled-discharge dams, it has altered the flow of water with dams along key rivers that flow into Iran to achieve diplomatic ends.

Iran and the Taliban have a vacillating history of antagonism and cooperation over shared water resources. During the 1998-2001 drought, the Taliban cut off water flow at the Kajaki Dam, minimizing the water flowing into Iran. This destroyed the downstream ecosystem, damaged the water-related economy as fish supplies dropped, and forced mass migration as sandstorms buried 124 villages, according to the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

The Taliban-Iran relationship warmed when the Afghan government assumed control of dams and the Taliban became an opposition group against the government. At that point, Iran worked with the Taliban to undermine Afghan control of certain dams. In exchange for political and financial support from Iran, Taliban forces attacked existing Afghan dams and prevented the construction of new dams which would block water flows into Iran. In 2011, a Taliban commander claimed that Iran had offered $50,000 to blow up the Kamal Khan Dam. Later, in 2019, the group pledged to protect Iranian-funded projects in Afghanistan, while simultaneously launching Iranian-funded attacks on dam construction sites. The dams targeted included the Bakhshabad Dam, which would impede the Farah River’s flow into Iran, and the Pashdan Dam on the Hari River. Iran has continuously attempted to halt Afghan dam projects out of fear that if completed, they would further impede the flow of water into Iran. However, during a January 2021 meeting, Iranian officials were reported to have pledged their support for the Taliban in exchange for water access.

This cooperation continued after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan into the present. Before the fall of the Afghan government, the construction of the Kamal Khan dam on the Helmand River had raised tensions between Afghanistan and Iran. However, after Taliban security forces took control of the country, the Taliban released water through the dam into Southeastern Iran in January 2022. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, this release of water into a particularly poor and arid region of Iran was likely an attempt to improve relations with the major trade partner and regional power. The release of water through the dam is visible in satellite imagery comparisons of water flow before Taliban rule (Figure 8) and during Taliban rule (Figure 9). Furthermore, in August 2022, the Taliban agreed to resupply water to Iran based on the 1973 Afghan-Iranian Helmand-River Water Treaty, which entitles Iran to 850 million cubic meters of the river’s water per year. To achieve this, the Taliban agreed not to direct water to newly constructed parts of the Kamal Khan Dam, instead opening the gates and allowing water to flow into Iran’s Lake Hamoun and Sistan-Baluchestan.

Open source research and satellite imagery analysis has revealed examples where the Taliban has appeared to use dams as a diplomatic tool toward rapprochement with Iran. By allowing increased water flow through key dams, the group seems to be improving diplomatic relationships with Iran. Figure 8 shows the Kamal Khan Dam in June 2021, before the Taliban takeover. At this point, the water flow into Iran is quite small. The reservoir size is also very small, but this is because the 2021 Central Asian drought is still ongoing. Figure 9 shows the same dam in February of 2022, one month after open reporting indicates the Taliban intentionally increased the flow of water to Iran. Indeed, water flowing on the Iranian side of the dam has visibly and dramatically increased. The size of the reservoir has also swelled despite the increased discharge, thanks to the drought subsiding.

6: Conclusion

With Taliban security forces taking control of Afghanistan, it is important to understand how the Taliban will use the country’s dams, especially given the impact climate change is having there. While our analysis of reservoir areas in Afghanistan does not allow us to make definitive statements about Taliban dam management, it suggests the Taliban will manage dams similarly to the Afghan government. Open reporting supports this theory, as the Taliban has made an effort to preserve dams and their personnel. However, more research is needed. Under Taliban watch as well, a number of irrigation dams continue to be unable to control their water discharge, leaving the surrounding area at the mercy of the weather for their irrigation needs. These dams are extra vulnerable to weather patterns, and so are contributing to an ongoing water crisis in Afghanistan. The only clear break in Taliban dam management from the previous government’s management is its approach toward Iran. Since coming to power, the Taliban has used the release of water from certain dams into Iran as a diplomatic lever with which to advance a rapprochement with Iran.

Contribution Note

This report was made possible by the research contributions of Geospatial Evaluation and Observation Lab (geoLab) researchers at the College of William & Mary: Joseph O'Brien and Caroline Edwards.

About The Authors

Erin Horrigan

Undergraduate student in William and Mary's geoLab, Research Assistant

Garrison Goetsch

Undergraduate student in William and Mary's geoLab, Team Lead

Anna Glass

Undergraduate student in William & Mary's geoLab, Technical Lead

Zoe Roberts

Undergraduate student in William & Mary's geoLab, Research Assistant

Yasha Barth

Undergraduate student in William & Mary's geoLab, Program Manager

Lilly Doninger

Undergraduate student in William & Mary's geoLab, Research Assistant

Kaitlyn Wilson

Undergraduate Student in William & Mary's geoLab, Research Assistant

Aliia Woodworth

Undergraduate student in William & Mary's geoLab, Research Assistant

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Methodologies Reviewed by NGA

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