Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iran Faces Renewed Afghan Dam Sabotage Claims

Bakhshabad dam key to prosperity of western region, but would divert water away from Afghanistan’s neighbour.
By Jawid Tabish
  • Water is a vital asset for farmers like this man in Afghanistan’s arid Farah province, but also for neighbouring Iran. (Photo: ISAF/USAF Senior Airman Rylan K. Albright)
    Water is a vital asset for farmers like this man in Afghanistan’s arid Farah province, but also for neighbouring Iran. (Photo: ISAF/USAF Senior Airman Rylan K. Albright)

Officials in Farah province say repeated attacks on the Bakhshabad hydropower facility are an attempt by Iran to derail a project which would massively boost local energy and water supplies.

In the latest incident, unknown armed men abducted two project engineers in the Khake Safed district on November 26, 2010. One of the engineers was killed and the other was released after a ransom of 100,000 US dollars.

Mohammad Younes Rasouly, the deputy governor of Farah province, claimed the attack was a political act intended to disrupt development in Afghanistan.

"There are foreign elements that are trying to disturb and put at risk construction of the Bakhshabad power plant, so that no company will be willing to implement the project,” he said.

In 2008, when Indian engineers carried out the initial survey of the project, in the eastern district of Bala Baluk, 110 kilometres away from the provincial capital Farah, they envisaged it would take three years to complete and would provide irrigation for 840,000 hectares of agriculture land.

However, construction work has been repeatedly stalled due to security concerns. Local security officials have in the past claimed that Iran is paying Afghan insurgents to interrupt building activity.

Younes Rasouli, the deputy governor of Farah province, said that in March 2009 12 policemen were killed by militants, in an attack on a police checkpoint near the project site, the deadliest incident to date.

He said that Iran was opposed to the building of the dam because it would divert water from the Farah river, which would particularly affect the Iranian provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan, in one of the driest regions of the country.

Abdul Hadi Kashaf, the former director of provincial energy and water in Farah, also claimed Iran was interfering in the construction of the dam.

“Iran does not like this power plant being built as it has a fundamental need for this water, and will not hesitate to obstruct the building of this dam, because if the water comes under our control, Iran will have many problems,” he said.

Senior United States officials have claimed on a number of occasions that Iran has been supplying arms to insurgents in Afghanistan and, in March 2009, Afghan security forces found a cache of Iranian-made explosives and ammunition around the dam.

There have also been accusations that Iran has attempted to sabotage work on the construction of the Salma dam in Herat province. (See: Iran Again Accused of Trying to Halt Afghan Dam)

“The interference of Iran is as dramatic as the shining of the sun, but who is here to prevent it?” asked Sayed Ahmad Khan, the head of the Farah provincial council.

Once the dam is built, farmers would no longer have to irrigate their fields using expensive water pumps – which would lead to greater prosperity for the whole province, he said.

The government should prioritise this project, he added.

Faqir Mohammad Askar, the police chief of Farah province, said that the sabotage attempts follow a clear pattern.

“It is clear who does not want construction of this dam because now the construction work has stopped we have no security problem,” he said. “When the work starts, the security problems increase.”

However, Hosain Mear Skandari, an official from the Iranian consulate in Herat, roundly rejected accusations of interference. “It's propaganda against Iran, they don't have any evidence or proof for what they are saying,” he said.

Nonetheless, a lack of water remains a serious problem in Farah, where most of the population is dependent on farming.

Mohammad Aslam Dana, head of the provincial agriculture and livestock department, said that although the province had 560,000 hectares of agricultural land, only about an eighth of it was farmed due to lack of water.

Farmers’ reliance on fuel-powered water pumps to irrigate their lands limits how much they can put under crop.

Gulam Haidar, 45, a resident of Tosak village in the west of the province, told IWPR, “I have a lot of agricultural land but since there is no water I can’t grow much.”

He said that although he had previously irrigated his grape and pomegranate orchards with a water pump, high fuel prices meant he could no longer afford to do so.

“If this dam was built, Farah would become a big wheat producer. I would like to ask the government to build this dam for us as it has not done anything else for us yet, and it should also prevent Iranian interference, too,” he added.

The provision of energy also remains a major concern for people in Farah.

Mir Khatam, the head of the provincial department of energy and water, said that they were currently able to provide sufficient electricity for just one out of the six districts of Farah city and none at all to outlying areas.

Some residents use electricity generators, but few can afford this option.

Farah shopkeeper, 32, Ali Ahmad told IWPR, “We have to use generators to stop our food going off, but the price of fuel is so high here, which in turn affects the price of foodstuffs. In the end, it is the poor who come under pressure.

“Today the happiness of the people of Farah is held hostage by the Iranian government. If only the Bakhshabad dam were established, Farah province would have everything.”

Jawid Tabish is an IWPR-trained reporter.

More IWPR's Global Voices