Climate Change is believed to have an intensifying effect on extreme weather events in Iran. This could lead to prolonged and more intense dry-seasons and more severe drought events, further straining natural water resources.
Unequal access to water resources further compounds these issues. Rural areas and smaller towns are often less well served than larger cities. Mismanagement and corruption have in some cases have also led to situations, where water resources and infrastructures are allocated for political gain, thus increasing disparities in water access and quality.
Concerns over dwindling water supply and grievances over resource mismanagement in Iran are straining state-citizen relations and fuelling existing tensions. Over the last 20 years, events of civil unrest were increasingly caused by- or linked to water. This has been most visible in the aftermath of a major drought in 1999, when emergency measures taken by the government were met with violent protests.
Iran is facing a severe water crisis. Drought, rising water demand, degradation and mismanagement of water resources put pressure on society and feed into wider grievances against the Iranian regime. Although the effects are not yet known, climate change is likely to put pressure on Iran’s future water supply, this situation could be further compounded by tensions over water between Iran and neighbouring countries. Water-related conflicts have increased dramatically since 1999, when a severe drought revealed Iran’s vulnerability to such extreme weather events. Resulting grievances and unrest have been straining state-citizen relations ever since (Foltz, 2002).
Pressure on water resources
Iran receives on average 376mm precipitation per year, most of which only benefits 26% of the country, mainly along the Caspian Sea and the north-western regions, and leaving other parts of the country with only sparse rainfall (about 200mm), which occurs at irregular intervals (Soltani, et al., 2012; Garshasbi, 2013).
Water scarcity in Iran is further exacerbated by growing and unsustainable water consumption. The population of Iran has grown continuously (from roughly 38.67 million in 1980 to 81.16 million in 2017), putting increasing pressure on Iran’s water resources (Worlddata 2017). Development of hydroelectric dams to satisfy Iran’s growing demand for electricity, agricultural intensification and evaporation due to inefficient irrigation techniques exacerbate pressure on water resources. In 2014, 132 small and large dams were under construction in Iran in addition to the 316 dams already present in the country.
Moreover, there is a lack of incentives for farmers to increase efficiency in water use, due to high water and energy subsidies. Many farmers use private wells (often without permission), which they just dig a little deeper as soon as they fall dry, resulting in a further decrease in water level. Since the Islamic revolution and, with it, the US-led embargo, the Islamic regime has stressed independence in food provision, leading to over extraction of water in Iran’s agricultural sector, which accounts for 92% of the country’s water consumption (National Intelligence Committee, USA, 2012). Estimates suggest that Iran has already used most of its groundwater reserves (Madani, 2014).
A legacy of water intensification and -mismanagement
Historically, water consumption in Iran has rapidly intensified following a push for water-intensive cash crops (mainly cotton) in the 1930’s. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the country introduced land reforms, which included the development of the industrial sector in or near major urban areas. These largely ignored hydrological concerns. Giant facilities (like the Mobakareh steel mill near Esfahan) were built on desert ground despite their significant impact on scarce local water resources.
The Islamic Revolution (1979) and the Iraq-Iran-War from 1980-1988 devastated the country, which, in combination with the sanctioning of the Iranian regime by western countries and especially the US supressed technological advancement and protracted the development of critical (water) infrastructure. As a result, water treatment remains poor in many areas. Structures are inadequate, and technology is often outdated in smaller cities and rural areas (Foltz, 2002).
Corruption is a major problem; especially in lower governmental bodies, leading to inefficient water management and sometimes arbitrary appointments of officials. In addition, water resources are sometimes diverted to serve the interests of influential politicians rather than according to societal needs (Madani, 2014; Motahari et al., 2018). Academics that denounce and fight against these problems are harassed and sometimes even arrested (Kahn, 2018).
Water crisis and political crisis
Concerns over dwindling water supply and grievances over resource mismanagement in Iran are straining state-citizen relations and fuelling existing tensions. Over the last 20 years, events of civil unrest have been linked increasingly to water-related issues. For instance, repeated protests have been witnessed around Lake Urmia west of the city of Tabris, which is seriously affected by dam construction and groundwater over-extraction. Teargas and rubber bullets were used by security forces (Azarmehr, 2011). Comparable crackdowns on water-related protests by farmers occurred in March 2018 around Esfahan and in the province of Khuzestan, following a corruption scandal around the diversion of rural water resources towards the constituencies of influential politicians (Dehghanpisheh, 2018). Protests over water have become a regular feature of the country’s political landscape (e.g. see Zeit Online 2018).
Protests in the wake of the 1999 drought
Most notably, water-related grievances have been highly visible since the early 2000’s, when a major drought revealed the poor condition and vulnerability of the Iranian water sector. Affecting the country from 1999 to 2001, it led to massive evacuations of villages and nation-wide water shortages. Already burdened groundwater reservoirs lost more water, leaving wells dry and preventing farmers from compensating for poor rainfall.
This highlighted serious infrastructural weaknesses and a lack of modern technology in rural areas. Moreover, available surface water was distributed unevenly due to corruption and lack of professionalism in the relevant administrations. Hundreds of thousands of farmers lost their jobs, livestock died, and millions of tons of crops were lost. Lake Hamoun, formerly the largest water body in the country, dried out completely by September 2001. Local fishermen lost their entire livelihood and whole regions were left relying only on brackish groundwater (Foltz, 2002).
Measures taken by the government such as water rationing and power cuts were met with violent demonstrations. Following this episode, which highlighted poor water management and a lack of political commitment, water issues have increasingly become a matter of public discontent and tensions in Iran (Foltz, 2002).
Regional context and possible impacts of climate change
The Iranian water crisis feeds into- and is further compounded by diplomatic tensions between the country and its neighbours with whom it shares transboundary water resources. Examples of transbounday conflicts include a dispute with Afghanistan over the Helmand River and Harirud River (see case study on water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan), conflicts about the Caspian Sea with other riparian nations, as well as around the Euphrates-Tigris system, which Iran shares with Turkey, Iraq and Syria (see case study on conflicts in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin).
Relations in other regional aquifers have, so far been largely peaceful. However, Iran’s important withdrawal of groundwater resources holds potential for rising regional tensions, as the country shares numerous aquifer systems with other nations: Turkmenistan (Sarakhs aquifer), Azerbaijan (Lenkoran/Astara aquifer, Leninak/Shirak aquifer), Armenia and Turkey (Leninak/Shirak, Nakhichewan/Astara and Djebrail aquifer), Russia and Georgia (Nakhichewan/Astara and Djebrail aquifer) (Madani, K. 2014).
Climate change is an important factor to consider in this context. Experts predict climate change will have a significant effect on Iran’s natural hydrological systems such as the Karkheh aquifer or the aquifers below the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan through intensifying weather events linked to the hydrologic cycle around these aquifers (Zarghami, M. et al., 2011; Jamali, S: et al., 2015). Similarly, impact assessments predict negative effects on crop production and yield if current trends in global temperatures carry on (Gohari et al., 2012). Such developments could exacerbate water related tensions, not only within Iran but also between Iran and its neighbours.
Fully aware of the continuous and growing crisis, the Iranian government has initiated a number of countermeasures. A ‘National Drought Warning and Monitoring Center’ (NDWMC) and an ‘Aid and Rescue Program’ (2003) were established, providing emergency relief for affected people. Furthermore, Iran’s 4th five-year-development plan intended to drastically increase agricultural insurance funds to insure at least 50% of Iran’s crop yield (FAO, n.d.; FAO, 2014)
Increased investment in water infrastructure
The Iranian government emphasizes the development of desalination and wastewater treatment facilities, to increase the amount of available water for household consumption, industry and agriculture. These measures helped increasing the percentage of treated wastewater by 10% between March 2016 and December 2017 (Espley, 2018). Iran’s metropolitan areas, in particular, are increasing their wastewater treatment potential and are seeking foreign investments. In December 2015, for example, the Tehran Province Water and Wastewater Company (TPWWC) solicited a 223 Million $ financing commitment from Chinese investors for two wastewater treatment projects in the south of the city (Espley, 2016).
In 2015, Iran had 15 desalination plants in operation with 23 further plants in various stages of planning and construction. These are expected to increase Iran’s desalination capacities by a factor of five (Gorjian & Ghobadian, 2015). Large pipelines are built to transport the newly obtained water from the coast to dry regions in Iran’s southern inland. One of the biggest projects, a 428 Million $ pipeline from the Persian Gulf to the central dry provinces of Kerman Yazd and Esfahan, is expected to be completed by 2019. However, its future is uncertain as it faces considerable opposition, especially from the Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry is sceptical about the project, which could affect the Persian Gulf’s highly vulnerable ecological system, and so far no environmental impact assessment has been conducted (Tehran Times, 2018). Pursuing the project also risks igniting protests by environmental activists.
Raising awareness and promoting water saving techniques
Since 2013, Hassan Rohani’s government is seen as more environmentally aware by some observers (Espley, 2017). It has not yet started any new dam projects and made efforts to bring back highly qualified Iranians from abroad to support Iran’s technological development, including the modernisation of its water sector. In public TV, the frequency of public service announcements about the need to save water and how to do so in private households is increasing. Furthermore the government sponsors documentary films about natural water resources, Iran’s flora and fauna and the threat of human interference to the natural environment (Laylin 2018). Measures taken under Rohani’s presidency also include the Ministry of the Environment urging religious leaders to include calls for environmental awareness in their sermons (Foltz, 2002). In 2019, Iran will host its 15th International Water and Wastewater exhibition (Islamic Republic of Iran – Ministry of Energy, 2019).
International cooperation and knowledge transfer
The Iranian government encourages knowledge transfers and international cooperation and has tried in particular to use opportunities during the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - Iran’s nuclear deal - to introduce new technologies to the water sector, for example through establishing the German-Iranian Water Partnership (German Water Partnership).
Furthermore, the government encourages foreign investments and international development cooperation, such as a joint venture between the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) and the Iranian Department of Environment (DOE): The Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Program aims to work with village cooperatives and trains farmers in modern farming and irrigation techniques (Laylin, 2018). The government has published a list of 150 water and wastewater related construction projects (treatment, distribution networks) with support from foreign investors and partners (Espley, 2017).