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HELMAND RIVER
(5,821 words)

the border river of Afghanistan and Persia. It originates in the mountains in the Hazārajāt (q.v) and flows into the Sistān in southeastern Persia and finally drains into the Hāmun Lake.

A version of this article is available in print

Volume XII, Fascicle 2, pp. 170-176

HELMAND RIVER (Av. Haētumant; modern usage, Hirmand, Halmand), the border river of Afghanistan and Persia. It originates in the mountains in the Hazārajāt (q.v) and flows into the Sistān in southeastern Persia and finally drains into the Hāmun Lake (q.v.).

i. Geography.

ii. In Zoroastrian tradition.

iii. In the medieval period.

iv. In the late 19th and 20th centuries.

HELMAND RIVER i. GEOGRAPHY

At approximately 1,300 km (800 miles), the Helmand River is the longest river in Afghanistan. Originating from the Koh-e Bābā heights of the Hindu Kush (q.v.) mountain range (about 40 km west of Kabul), the Helmand receives five tributaries—Kajrud (Kudrud), Arḡandāb, Terin, Arḡastān, and Tarnak. Draining the entire southwestern portion of Afghanistan (approx. 100,000 sq. miles), the river moves southwest towards the Persian border, passing through the provinces of Wardak, Oruz-gān, Helmand, and Nimruz. South of Zaranj, the river flows northward, forming the Afghan-Persian border for 55 km before emptying into the Helmand (Sistān) marshlands. The river approaches the border area through the Mārgo Desert (Dašt-e Mārgo), and upon reaching it, splits into two separate waterways. The first, called Helmand (locally also called Daryā-ye Sistān, the Sistān River), flows through the Sistān plains, where it is used for irrigation by the local population. The second, named Siḵ-sar (also called Pariān), forms the Afghan-Persian border in the villages of Nāruʾi and Miānkangi and finally drains into the Hāmun-e Helmand, the main expanse of fresh water within the Iranian Plateau. In 1884 a flood widened the small channel branching off westward from the main course; and in 1886 another flood caused the Helmand to abandon its old course that ran close to Nād ʿAli and then into what was called the Siḵ-sar channel, transferring the bulk of its waters to the Pariān River, a channel further west which had previously been an artificial canal (Gazeteer of Afghanistan II, pp. 114-15; Fisher, p. 77; Dupree, p. 37; Jaʿfari, p. 483). Dams, distributaries, and protective embankments are some of the measures used to regulate such floods.

Irrigation canals are usually drawn from the river seven to fourteen miles above the land they irrigate (Gazeteer of Afghanistan II, p. 14; Jaʿfari, p. 483). The Helmand is navigable from Gerešk to the Sistān band, which is swept away during the annual flood season. The canals of Sistān below the Kuhak dam are unsuitable for navigation. Except in the three spring months, there is not enough water for heavy boats to navigate (Gazeteer of Afghanistan II, pp. 116-17).

The Helmand median annual water output is 2,200 million cubic meters and, although it runs its course mainly through Afghanistan, its most irrigable banks lie in Persia. “The Sistan country as well as the Garmsel or ‘warm track’ depend on the Helmand almost as much as Egypt does on the Nile” (Gazeteer of Afghanistan II, p. 119).

In the spring when the Hāmun lake reaches its maximum size, the water flows southward through the Selagrud River into the Gowd-e Zerreh depression in southwestern Afghanistan. Between May and October, the “Wind of 120 Days” (bād-e sad o bistroz; Fisher, p. 78; Dupree, p. 28), an erosive gale brought on by the differential pressures between the northern plains and the southern lowland deserts, blows from the northwest. This causes intense evaporation, which divides the Hāmun into three separate lakes: Hāmun-e Helmand proper, Hāmun-e Ṣā-beri, and Hāmun-e Puzak, the second lying partly, and the last entirely, within Afghan territory (Fisher, p. 78). Moreover, the silt laden Helmand can, if left unfettered, flow in various directions, and its history reveals that it can make sudden changes in its course and divert waters into new channels (McMahon, p. 10). However, despite the fact that the Helmand and its environs are naturally in flux, the late 19th and 20th centuries have witnessed a number of colonial and national schemes, including boundary commissions and large-scale irrigation projects, that have linked attempts to domesticate a wild river with the demarcation of the Afghanistan-Iran border (see iv. below).

As Table 1 shows, the water flow of Helmand River has drastically declined from 2211.7 m3 million in 1991-92 to 1023.8 m3 million in 1995-96 to only 48m3 in 2000-2001. According to the same document “In recent years, the Helmand River has experienced dramatic declines in water flows. In 2001, the river ran at 98% below its annual average. With declining precipitation, the snowfields that supply the headwaters of the Helmand shrank from 41 000 km2 to 26 000 km2 between 1998 and 2000. With continued withdrawals for irrigated agriculture, Helmand waters failed to reach the Sistan basin altogether in 2001” (UNEP, 2003; see http://portal.unesco.org/en).

See also HĀMUN, DARYĀČA-YE.

Bibliography

Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton, 1973.

W. B. Fisher, “Physical Geography,” in Camb. Hist. Iran I, Cambridge, 1968, pp. 72, 78.

Gazeteer of Afghanistan II, pp. 114-27, 196-281.

ʿAbbās Jaʿfari, Gitāšenāsi-e Irān II: rudhā wa rud-nāmahā-ye Irān, Tehran, 1997.

A. H. McMahon, “Memorandum on the Seistan [Sistān] Water Question,” 1904, F. O. 60/728.

George Passman Tate, The Frontiers ofBaluchistan: Travels on the Border of Persia and Afghanistan, London, 1909.

Charles Edward Yate, Khurasan and Sistan, Edinburgh, 1900.

HELMAND RIVER ii. IN ZOROASTRIAN TRADITION

According to Avestan geography, the region of the Haētumant River extends in a southwest direction from the point of confluence of the Arḡandāb with the Helmand (Gnoli, 1980, p. 66) and since relatively ancient times has had an important position within the Zoroastrian tradition. In particular, this is mentioned in the text of Yašt 19.66-69, which contains some strophes dedicated to a celebration of the Haētumant and some of its affluent rivers, such as the Xᵛāstrā, Hvaspā, FradaΘā, Xᵛarənahvaitī, Uštavaitī, Urvā, Ǝrəzī, and Zarənumatī. These have a number of parallels in both the Pahlavi texts and, especially, in the list of rivers in the Tāriḵ-e Sistān (ed. Bahār, 1935, pp. 15 f.; Gold, 1976, p. 12), where the following rivers are mentioned: Rud-e Hirmand (the Helmand), the Ruḵḵad-rud (the Arḡandāb or the Haraxᵛaitī of Vd. 1.12), the Ḵāš-rud (Xᵛāstrā, the Wādi Nesal or Nahr Nišak of the Arabs), Farāh-rud (FradaΘā, the Ophradus of Pliny, Natural History 6.94), the Ḵošk-rud (Uštavaitī, between the Farah-rud and the Harrut-rud), and the Harrut rud (Xᵛarənahvaitī, the Pharnacotis of Pliny, loc. cit.). Moreover, the Zamyād Yašt (Pirart, 1992; Hintze, 1994; Humbach and Ichaporia, 1998) celebrates Lake Kąsaoya; and in the Pahlavi texts the Kayānsih (the name formed with the plural word kayān, meaning “the Kavis” or “the Kayanids”) is the Hāmun-e Helmand; and also the Ušaδā mountain can be identified with the Kuh-e Ḵᵛāja. It must also be acknowledged that Yašt 19 supplies a singularly detailed description of a specific territory, the only such case to be found throughout the entire Avesta. As seen in the first chapter of the Widēwdād, the country of the Haētumant seems to have had a privileged position (Vd. 1.13-14); because, compared to the other fourteen countries also mentioned in the text, its description occupies twice as much space, with the exception of Airyana Vaēǰah (Vd. 1.1-2). The identification of these rivers, lakes, and mountains within historical geography has been part of several in-depth studies, especially those of A. Stein, J. Markwart, E. Herzfeld, D. Monchi-Zadeh, and G. Gnoli.

The important role that the Helmand River and its region have played in Zoroastrian tradition is linked to the special connection between them and the kavaēm xᵛarənō, and therefore also to the xᵛarənah (farrah, farr) of the Kavis, the Kayanids of the national tradition (Gershevitch, 1959, pp. 185 f.). In fact, the Kavyān or Kayān-ian dynasty reigned “there where is Lake Kąsaoya” (Yt. 19.66), the point at which the Helmand ends along the southeastern border between Iran and Afghanistan. Not only is Lake Kąsaoya the center of this dynasty’s power with Vištāspa, the protector of Zoroaster, as its last sovereign, but it is also the lake in which the seed of the prophet is cared for and protected by the 99,999 fravašis (Yt. 19.89-96), from which will be born the three saošyants (“saviors”): Uxšyaṱ.ərəta (Pahl. Ušēdar), Uxšyaṱ.nəmah (Pahl. Ušēdarmāh), and Astvaṱ.ərəta, the Sōšāns par excellence. In the eschatological myth there is a correspondence between the sea Vouru.kaša and Lake Kąsaoya (Christensen, 1931, p. 22; Gnoli, 1977, p. 315; Gnoli, 1980, pp. 132 ff.); and it is significant that the Zamyād Yašt, after having celebrated the kavaēm xᵛarənō and all the Kavis, (Yt. 19.70 ff.), ends with a triumphal celebration of the frašō.kərəti and the saošyant Astvaṱ.ərəta, who was born from the water of the Kąsaoya (Yt. 19.89-96). This theme has a strong presence in both the Avesta (Vd. 19.5) and the Pahlavi literature, in which a kind of spiritualization of the Avestan geography occurs, particularly with fluvial elements, as has been correctly pointed out by J. de Menasce (Gnoli, 1974).

Several pieces of Pahlavi evidence confirm the position of excellence of the Haētumant and its region in the Zoroastrian tradition. Without a doubt, the most important of these is that of the treatise, Abdīh ud sahīgīh ī Sagistān (Utas, 1983), which lists the wonders of Sistān, collecting all of those themes already present in the Avesta. Thus we find: the river Hētūmand; the war ī Frazdān, which may be the Gawd-e Zira (Jackson, 1928, p. 283; Herzfeld, 1930, p. 91; Herzfeld, 1947, p. 62; Gnoli, 1967, pp. 14 ff.); the lake Kayānsih; the mountain Ušdaštar (the Kuh-e Ḵᵛāja); Ušēdar, Ušēdarmāh, and Sōšāns; the descendants of the Kayanids; Frēdōn and his three sons, Salm, Tūč, and Ērēč, etc.; Manuščihr; Wištāsp; Sēn, son of Ahūmstūt from Bust, etc. (Gnoli, 1989, p. 135).

The Helmand River and its region have therefore played a great role in the entire Zoroastrian tradition (Geldner, 1906, p. 221; Bartholomae, 1924, p. 9). Such a position was not necessarily acquired secondarily, as has been sometimes thought in the past (Nyberg, 1938, pp. 304 ff.; Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, pp. 274, 293; Hintze, 1994, p. 21, n. 39). Sistān is part of the vast horizon of the “Aryan lands,” the airyå daiŋ́hāvō of the Avesta, inside of which is also placed Airyana Vaēǰah. Numerous indications lead to the assumption that in an unspecific but archaic period, probably during the course of the 6th century B.C.E., a process occurred in which the Helmand and other localities of its region were identified with elements of traditional cosmography and mythical geography. This is well demonstrated by the concurrence of these places with the Avestan Vaŋuhī Dāityā—the Wehrōd of some Pahlavi texts, as was already pointed out by J. Markwart (1938, p. 122, n. 3; p. 159, note from the previous page; Gnoli, 1967, pp. 13f., 38; 1980, p. 133).

Bibliography

M. T. Bahār, ed., Tāriḵ-e Sistān, Tehran, 1935.

C. Bartholomae, Zarathuštras Leben und Lehre, Heibelberg, 1924.

M. Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, I, Leiden and Köln, 1975.

A. Christensen, Les Kayanides, København, 1931.

K. Geldner, “Die altpersische Literatur,” in Die orientalischen Literaturen mit Einleitung: Die Anfänge der Literatur und die Literatur der primitiven Völker, Berlin and Leipzig, 1906, pp. 214-34.

I. Gershevitch, The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, Cambridge, 1959.

G. Gnoli, Ricerche storiche sul Sīstān antico, Roma, 1967.

Idem, “Arang e Wehrōd, rāy e xwarrah,” in Mémorial Jean de Menasce, Louvain, 1974, pp. 77-80.

Idem, Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland, Naples, 1980.

Idem, The Idea of Iran, Roma, 1989.

M. Gold, The Tārikh-e Sistān, Roma, 1976.

E. Herzfeld, “Zarathustra, V: Awestische Topographie,” AMI 2, 1930, pp. 49-98.

Idem, Zoroaster and His World, Princeton, 1947.

A. Hintze, Der Zamyād-Yašt, Wiesbaden, 1994.

H. Humbach and P. R. Ichaporia, Zamyād Yasht, Wiesbaden, 1998.

A. V. W. Jackson, Zoroastrian Studies, New York, 1928.

J. Markwart, Wehrot und Arang, Leiden, 1938.

J. de Menasce, “Exegèse spirituelle d’un mythe géographique mazdéen,” JA, 1974, pp. 21-24.

D. Monchi-Zadeh, Topographisch-historische Studien zum iranischen Nationalepos, Wiesbaden, 1975.

H. S. Nyberg, Die Religionen des alten Iran, Leipzig, 1938.

E. Pirart, Kayān Yasn (Yasht 19, 9-96). L’origine avestique des dynasties mythiques d’Iran, Barcelona, 1992.

A. Stein, “Afghanistan in Avestic Geography,” Indian Antiquary 15, 1886, pp. 21-33.

B. Utas, “The Pahlavi Treatise Avdēh u sahīkēh ī Sakistān or ‘Wonders and Magnificence of Sistan’,” AAASH 28, 1980, pp. 259-67.

HELMAND RIVER iii. IN THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD

The early Islamic geographers refer variously to the Helmand River as Hendmand (Eṣṭaḵri, pp. 242-45; Yā-qut, Boldān [Beirut] V, p. 418); Hilmand (Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 417); Hirmid (Moqaddasi, pp. 304, 329); Hidmand (Ḥodud al-ʿālam, tr. Minorsky, pp. 73, 110); Hermand or Hirmand, the usual name in Persian down to the present time (Ḥamdallāh Mostawfi, Nozhat al-qolub, ed. Le Strange, pp. 142, 178); and Nahr Bosṭ, the river of Bost (Masʿudi, Moruj II, p. 80; Morūj, ed. Pellat, I, p. 246, sec. 510, as another name for Hermand). They describe it as rising in the mountains on the far side of Ḡur and then flowing by the fringes of Roḵḵaj (Arachosia, q.v.) and the land of Dāvar (i.e., Zamindāvar, q.v.) to Bost (q.v.), where it receives on its left bank its greatest tributary, the Arḡandāb (q.v.); Yāqut (loc. cit.), says that the river has a thousand tributaries. Below Bost, the geographers describe its united course as flowing through desert regions to Sistan, with the Dašt-e Margo or “Desert of Death” to its north and the Rigestān to its south, but with rich cultivation, orchards, and date-palm groves along the river shores (thus in the year 332/943, according to Masʿudi, loc. cit). At one stage above the capital Zarang, the river was dammed at several points and diverted for irrigation purposes into various channels, such as the Nahr al-Ṭaʿām, the Nahr Bešt Ruḏ, and the Sanāruḏ.

The geographers also noted that its flow was perennial and that it never dried up, but other evidence shows that this is not in fact true. In the lower stretches, much water could be lost by evaporation through dry winds from the surrounding deserts and the heat of the deserts themselves. The Tāriḵ-e Sistān (p. 186; tr. Gold, pp. 147-48) records that in the summer of 220/835 the lower reaches of the Helmand dried up (and possibly those further up, around Bost), causing famine and distress in the region. Members of the Seistan Boundary Commission recorded that in 1902 the lower course of the river had been dry for two months (Tate,1910-12, II, pp. 117 ff.). Conversely, there was at times an excess of water from the melting snows of the mountains of central Afghanistan. In spring 641/1244 there was so much water that the whole Sistan basin was flooded for three or four months, with heavy losses of beasts and crops (Tāriḵ-e Sistān, pp. 397-98; tr. Gold, p. 324). The upper course of the river was too turbulent and rapid for navigation, but river traffic on the middle and lower stretches, from Gerešk, just above Bost, southwards, was possible; and, depending on the level of the river, boats could travel almost to Zarang in medieval times (Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 418). Sultan Masʿud of Ghazna went pleasure-sailing on the Helmand near Bost in 428/1036 and was almost drowned in an accident (Bayhaqi, ed. Fayyāż, pp. 663-64; Russian tr. A. K. Arends, Moscow, 1969, pp. 620-21). In more recent times, in 1885, members of the Seistan Boundary Commission sailed down the river from Khᵛāja ʿAli some 200 miles to the Hāmun basin, noting along its banks the many traces of former habitations and of former agricultural prosperity, by that time long disappeared (Tate, 1909, pp. 108 ff., 237 ff.). The river has not, however, regularly been used for navigation in recent times.

Until the last two centuries, political control of the Helmand basin has only sporadically been in the hands of a single power. The Arabs extended eastwards from Sistan to Bost soon after their first appearance at Zarang in 31/651-52. For some two centuries, the way farther up the river’s course was blocked for the Muslims by the local rulers of Zamindāvar and Zābolestān, the Zonbils; and Islam was only implanted there towards the end of the 3rd/9th century after Saffarid probes towards Kabul (Bosworth, 1968, pp. 33 ff.; idem, 1994, pp. 83 ff.). The Turkish slave commander Sebüktigin, founder of the Ghaznavid line, extended down the river from Ghazna to Bost and Sistan during his reign (366-87/977-97). It is at this time that the geographers mention settlements, at best small towns, such as Doṟgoš, Tell, Baḡni, and Bešlang, in the upper Helmand valley (see Ḥodud al-ʿālam, tr. Minorsky, pp. 73, 111). It seems to have been the first Ghaznavids who laid out a complex of military encampments and palaces along the left bank of the Helmand at Laškari Bāzār (see BOST i.) just north of Bost. After the Ghurid sack of Ghazna in 544/1149 and then that of Bost, the upper reaches of the river passed under Ghurid control. Over subsequent centuries, various outside powers, from the Ḵᵛārazm-shahs to Nāder Shah Afšār, controlled the region until the consolidation of power there by the indigenous Pashtun line of the Sadōzays in the mid-eighteenth century, and the Helmand basin was thenceforth substantially controlled by members of the Dorrāni family ruling from Kabul and/or Qandahār (see AFGHANISTAN X. POLITICAL HISTORY).

The French officer and traveler Jean-Paul Ferrier traveled in the region of the lower Helmand valley in the 1840s and describes the banks of the river below Gerešk as very fertile, but with wretched agriculture there because of the prevalent lawlessness and violence; although navigation on it was perfectly possible, and there were few fords, the only craft which he saw were a few rafts buoyed up by inflated skins (Ferrier, pp. 404-14, 428-29).

Bibliography

W. W. Bartol’d (Barthold), Istoriko-geograficheskiĭ obzor Irana, St. Petersburg, 1903, tr. S. Soucek as An Historical Geography of Iran, Princeton, 1984, pp. 66-67, 70-74.

C. E. Bosworth, Sīstān under the Arabs, Rome, 1968.

Idem, The History of the Saffarids of Sistan and Maliks of Nimruz, Costa Mesa, Calif. and New York, 1994.

J.-P. Ferrier, Caravan Journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan, and Beloochistan, London, 1856.

Le Strange, Lands, pp. 338-39.

G. P. Tate, The Frontiers of Baluchistan: Travels on the Borders of Persia and Afghanistan, London, 1909.

Idem, Seistan: A Memoir on the History, Topography, Ruins and People of the Country, 2 vols., Calcutta, 1910-12.

HELMAND RIVER iv. IN THE LATE 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES

The late 19th and 20th centuries saw a number of colonial and national schemes, including boundary commisions and large scale irrigation projects, that aimed to demarcate the Iran-Afghan borderlands. Describing the economic outlook of the region, George P. Tate, surveyor to the Sistān Mission of 1903-5, remarked that “the inhabitants of Seistan [Sistān] are content to live from hand to mouth, laying under tribute as much land as they can easily manage, and when it is exhausted taking up some other plot” (p. 136). Temporary dams (band) were built at the head of some of the river deltas in the fall, only to be carried away by the winter floods (Tate, p. 114; Oberlander, p. 273). Tate also noted the prevalence of pastoralism in Sistān: “after heavy rain shepherds will pasture their flocks for a very short time on the banks.” The reed beds on the edge of the Hāmun were Baluch pasturelands, and cattle could be seen “grazing up to their backs in water” (Tate, pp. 247-48). Neither the Afghan nor the Persian government could effectively collect revenues on this frontier; when the tax collector arrived to levy a grazing tax in the country, the cattle “were hidden away in the reeds” (Yate, p. 119).

During the drought years of 1871 and 1902, two British-led boundary commissions set out to fix the modern boundaries of Sistān and to settle this portion of the Perso-Afghanistan border. In 1870, Major General Frederic Goldsmid, who had earlier established the Makrān boundary, was sent at the head of a surveying mission with the task of defining the territory of Sistān, an ancient region with vague boundaries. Goldsmid differentiated between what he termed “Seistan Proper,” or the left bank of the Helmand, and “Outer Seistan,” the right bank. He further stated that while the first was wholly in the possession of Persia, the second belonged to independent Baluch chiefs whose allegiance remained in question.

Goldsmid estimated that “Seistan Proper” had a fixed population of 35,000 and a nomadic population of 10,000. “Outer Seistan” consisted of the Baluch and Afghans, although the mission had insufficient data regarding the population there (F.O. 983/9, Goldsmid, “Report on the Province of Seistan,” 22 May 1872, pp. xv-xvii). Local suspicion of authority, which prevailed in Sistān, made reconnaissance and information-gathering a difficult task. The movements of the Goldsmid Mission were hampered by refusal of admission to numerous villages. Moreover, the mission’s map of Sistān and the boundary line was neither authoritative nor accurate but rather “merely a sketch map” with various points on the line never having been visited at all (F.O. 60/728, A. H. McMahon to the Secretary of the Government of India, Seistan, 21 February 1905, pp. 1-2).

Qajar officials appealed to the Goldsmid Mission and staked their claim to Sistān on the grounds of ancient and folkloric rights. Local traditions and popular histories from the Šāh-nāma, recalling the exploits of Sām, Zāl, and Rostam in their homeland of Sistān, known in legend as Zābolestān, were presented by Persia as proof of their claim. The Afghan commissioners took their stand from a less remote period in history, claiming that on the death of Nāder Shah Afšār in 1747, Sistān had passed into the dominion of Aḥmad Shah Dorrāni. Since the death of Aḥmad Shah in 1772, however, Persia had been gradually reclaiming Sistān. Goldsmid concluded that “the allegiance of Seistan was of a feudal nature,” and the loyalty of its tribes to either Persia or Afghanistan was fleeting. Moreover, much of the land belonged to Baluch nomads who were subjects of neither country (F.O. 983/9, “Complete Statement of General Goldsmid’s Arbitral Opinion,” p. xxii).

In 1872, during what became known as the second Goldsmid Arbitration, Sistān was awarded to Persia and the lands on the right bank of the Helmand went to Afghanistan. In the arbitral award, Goldsmid also stated 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 the Helmand” (F.O. 983/9, “Complete Statement of General Goldsmid’s Arbitral Opinion,” p. xxiii). Thus the permanent border of Sistān was set at the bed of an unpredictable river. And, though neither the Qajars nor the Afghans were satisfied with the award, it was ratified in the spring of 1873 (ibid.).

The mapping of Sistān became the primary source of subsequent disputes concerning boundaries between Afghanistan and Persia. As one British officer would later write, “the boundary between Persia and Afghanistan had indeed been fixed by an imaginary line drawn haphazard on paper. The line had never been marked out on the ground, and neither Persia nor Afghanistan had the least idea where it lay” (Yate, p. 92). Despite his efforts, Goldsmid had also admitted that the two sides of the river had “much the same character” (F.O. 983/9, Goldsmid, “Memorandum on Seistan”). The making of modern borders in the region was a task undertaken with great uncertainty and reservation.

No disputes over water appear on record in the years immediately following the Goldsmid arbitration. This changed, however, when the Helmand altered its course, casting doubt over the location and authority of the Goldsmid line. As the river increasingly found outlets to the west, it exposed alluvial lands, which were brought under cultivation. Numerous villages appeared in the early 1880s and water disputes were soon reported. In the spring of 1883, the Qajar Foreign Minister complained that the Afghans had diverted the Helmand into Afghanistan by the construction of the Šamširi dam, and urged that “an officer with deputed authority survey and examine the country and determine the position of the Goldsmid line.” After some further correspondence, the matter was dropped. In 1885, the Helmand became unusually flooded and abandoned its main channel, although the old bed of the Siḵ-sar channel continued to be regarded as the “boundary stream” or Šēla-ye Sim (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Seistan Water Question,” p. 3).

In 1896, heavy floods burst through the embankment on the left bank near Šāhgol and cut out a new channel that flowed through the Aškin lands and subsequently came to be known as Rud-e Pariān. In response, the Afghans and Persians decided to cooperate and jointly build a canal across the Pariān in order to maintain the water supply in the Nād ʿAli channel. In 1898, however, the Afghans began work on another cut above Band-e Pariān, raising objections that this work was being carried out on Persian territory and forcing the removal of workers back to Afghanistan, where they were employed constructing other canals. The Persians planned to build a dam at Pariān but did not complete it until 1904 (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Seistan Water Question,” p. 4).

The next set of major disputes arose in 1901 and coincided with a long-lasting drought that had lowered the volume of water in the Helmand. The scarcity of water and strained relations “led to irrigation works being carried out on both sides to injure each other” (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Seistan Water Question,” p. 4). In August 1902, the water level fell so low that the river dried up beyond the Rudbār Dam, the wind banked up sand hills on the dry river-bed, and the Hāmun Lake became completely dry. This lasted until late September, when a flood reached the Sistān Dam and was diverted by the sand hills into the Sistān River and the Nād ʿAli channel, temporarily cutting off the supply in the Pariān River.

This change in the river’s course immediately led to a new round of disputes as the Afghans demanded that the Sistān Dam should not be allowed to drain more than half the volume of the Helmand into the Sistān River. The Persians refused to agree to this and argued that the Šāhgol Dam should only divert half of its waters to the Nād ʿAli channel, a claim that the Afghans rejected. Soon both countries began a series of rival irrigation works. The Afghans opened an old cut from the Helmand, known as Nahr-e Solṭāni, in order to bring water to their Jaroki canal; and the Persians equipped “a gang of armed laborers,” to excavate hastily a new channel named Nowbar-e Puza Jang Jah, in order to divert water into the Pariān River. These new canals were constructed in nearly a month each, but, before they could be used, an early winter flood came down the Helmand and destroyed them both (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Seistān Water Question,” p. 5).

It became clear that the Goldsmid Mission had raised apprehensions on both sides regarding the boundaries of Sistān and the waters of the Helmand, but he had left the issues unresolved. The Qajars doubted that they had “ever seen a copy” of the Goldsmid map, while the Afghans claimed that “all papers connected with the Goldsmid Mission appeared to have been lost in the chaos which ensued the death of Amir Šir-ʿAli” (F.O. 60/728, McMahon to the Secretary General of India, 21 February 1905). The Afghans claimed that the new bed formed the frontier, while the Persians insisted upon a strict interpretation of the 1872 agreement. In 1902, the British government appointed Major A. H. McMahon, who had already determined the 800 mile southern border of Afghanistan, to settle the Sistān boundary line and arbitrate on the question of the Helmand’s waters. The McMahon Mission, based in Quetta, “consisted of 11 British officers, numerous survey and irrigation experts, an escort of 200 native infantry, 60 cavalry, with a large supply of transport, including the Baluchistan Camel Corps—in all a total of 1500 men, 200 horses and 2200 camels” (Hamilton, p. 215).

The mission faced a number of difficulties while attempting to complete their task. The area was a desert with very severe weather; and, at times, high winds shook the surveying instruments, rendering accuracy impossible. The mission also faced obstacles of a political nature. On reaching Sistān, McMahon and his entourage were met by an Afghan commissioner and two Persian commissioners, each with a large escort. At first, the mission was refused entry into Persian Sistān and had to travel along the Afghan side of the Helmand to gather information. In 1904, the McMahon arbitration retained the old location of the bed of the Helmand as the Perso-Afghanistan border, regardless of future changes in the river’s course. Boundary pillars were left to mark the line in accordance with the award (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Final Arbitral Statement on the Seistan Boundary,” November 1903).

The partition of the waters of the Helmand, however, was a harder question to settle. The McMahon mission ruled that Persia was entitled to a third of the water entering Sistān at Bandar-e Kamāl. Using the Punjab region as the land to water standard, the mission claimed that “Seistan suffered more from excess of water than deficiency,” and calculated that Persia was taking more than its required share of the Helmand and wasting it (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Seistan Water Question.” The mission also permitted the construction of new canals on either side of the river, while noting that “signs are not wanting that the Afghans, who understand the advantage which their geographical position gives them, will someday try to score off the Persians by interfering with their water supply” (F.O. 60/728, McMahon, “Seistan Water Question”). The Russian Trans-Caspian Gazette reported that “Persian Sistān was in danger of becoming a desert,” because the Qajars had conceded two-thirds of their water supply to a British-backed Afghanistan (Hamilton, p. 219). A crowd demonstrated outside the British Consulate in Sistān, calling for the removal of the consul and the withdrawal of the mission. Amir Ḥabib-Allāh Khan of Afghanistan (q.v.) was satisfied with the award, but Moẓaffer-al-Din Shah sent a telegram from Europe to reject it, claiming that the people of Sistān were discontented with its terms.

In subsequent years, the Afghans became involved in numerous attempts to control the Helmand upstream and make its desert valleys bloom. Afghanistan constructed its first permanent canals between 1910 and 1914. In 1945, Morrison-Knudsen Afghanistan Inc., with headquarters in San Francisco, began a project to build two dams and an extensive canal system in the Helmand valley at a cost of 63.7 million dollars. The scheme became nationalized (1946-53)with the formation of the Helmand Valley Authority, modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority (Dupree, pp. 482-85).

The Helmand Valley Project marked the development of “capital-intensive agriculture” in the region (Scott, p. 224). In the mid-1950s, the Afghan Ministry of Interior created new villages near Nād-e ʿAli, where the Government sought to settle Pashtun, Uzbek, and Baluch nomads. But the soil in the area proved unsuitable for farming. By 1960, the villages were largely abandoned (Dupree, pp. 503-4). On the lower Helmand, Sistān which was once famous as a wheat-exporting region, did not adequately fed its own population during much of the 20th century (Fisher, p. 81). The increasing diversion of the Helmand headwaters by Afghanistan, with the backing of the Great Powers, often through costly and ineffective irrigation schemes, has dried up one of the region’s rare river deltas. Indeed, the Helmand water dispute is a problem with colonial roots. Persia has repeatedly objected to the development of Afghan irrigation projects on the upper Helmand, claiming that Afghanistan takes unilateral action on an international river and threatens the interest of another riparian state. Numerous rounds of negotiations between Persia and Afghanistan have occurred, resulting in several agreements, but these failed to create a resolution. During the drought that began in the late 1990s, the Taliban dammed the Helmand in central Afghanistan, completely drying the Hāmun Lake and causing the abandonment of villages in Sistan (MacFarquahar).

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Cite this page
M. Jamil Hanifi, EIr, Gherardo Gnoli, C. Edmund Bosworth and Arash Khazeni, “HELMAND RIVER”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 18 July 2024 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_2988>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 20031215



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