Iran’s Water Crisis and Social Consequences


Written by
Khalil Khani

Many aspects of daily life, such as food production, power generation, manufacturing, and sanitation of humanity and other species, depend on water’s presence. However, this commodity is increasingly becoming threatened around the globe. Iran is no exception, and the Iranian regime has failed to address the country’s water shortages for decades, causing social unrest that will only intensify if this problem persists.

Water stress is a situation of a severe water crisis in which drinking and non-polluted water in an area is less than its demand. Water stress is when all water parameters are standard, such as; “Rainfall, the natural flow of rivers, springs and other water sources” still, there is a water shortage. Also, water stress is a condition in which the water needed by humans and ecosystems is less than the amount of water available. Water stress also occurs when sufficient water resources are available, but water consumption is limited due to poor quality. Water stress affects water resources quantitatively and qualitatively.

Regarding the water crisis, the Deputy Minister of Energy for Water and Water Supply and Sewerage Affairs said that 300 out of 1,400 cities in the country are currently in a state of water stress. Nowadays, the CEO of Iran Water and Sewerage talks about the water stress of 272 cities and points out that the drinking water of 10,000 villages is also supplied through portable water supply tanks.

Iran’s Water Crisis and Social Consequences
Demonstrations related to water shortages took place in different Iran provinces.

According to reports, 300 cities were experiencing water stress last year, and tankers were watering more than 7,000 villages. Although at the end of the summer of 2021, numbers announced by the regime’s officials about the hurt cities declined, according to the local statistics, this number reached 259 cities. The increasing water stress in the villages is still tangible. According to the official statistics of the provinces, 8562 towns are struggling with severe water stress and are being watered by tankers since water stress has intensified.

Water constantly moves on the Earth between the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, streams, snowpacks, ice sheets, and underground. Water availability, both as surface water and groundwater, is essential for agriculture, human consumption, industry, and energy generation.

Fresh water is available as surface water, such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater. Groundwater is found underground between rocks or soil layers and is accessed through wells or natural springs. Climate, land use, local geology, and water quality affect the availability of freshwater resources and the immediate demands people place on them.

Iran’s Water Crisis and Social Consequences

Fresh water is necessary for living on our planet. Freshwater ecosystems connect people with the resources they need to thrive. But when rivers, lakes, and wetlands are degraded, their ability to provide reliable supplies of clean water to support the planet’s species, which millions of people depend on, is threatened.

Water tension is a crisis that the 43 years of clerical regime’s rule have created due to its anti-human policies in Iran. Various factors can be listed in connection with this issue:

IRGC’s performance on surface waters and the Ministry of Energy on groundwater and aquifers,

Countless dams without detailed scientific studies by the Khatam al-Anbia base, an affiliated company with the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corp and Mahab Ghods of Astan Quds, affiliated with Astan Quds,

Increasing water crises through inter-basin water transfer projects to the Central plateau and cities such as Qom, Natanz, Yazd, Rafsanjan, Isfahan, etc.
Establishment of water-intensive industries in the Central Plateau: such as steel factories, steel industries, nuclear activities, polyacrylic factories, etc.
Water mismanagement in agriculture and cultivation of water-intensive irrigated crops,
The Ministry of Energy, in close cooperation with the Revolutionary Guards Corp, authorized the drilling of numerous deep wells to suck groundwater and aquifers.
Clerical rule, its associates, experts close to the regime, and wage earners abroad are trying hard to relate Iran’s water crisis and tension to population growth, high per capita consumption, and drought. However, some environmentalists within the clerical regime have acknowledged that only drought would not cause such a massive water shortage. One of the trustees of the National Committee for Large Dams said: “The reason for the water crisis in Iran is not shortages due to drought, but due to mismanagement of water resources.”

Iran has been suffering from drought for at least a decade, and this year officials, as mentioned earlier, have been warning of a further decrease in precipitation. As drought persists, more underground water is exploited for irrigation, depleting natural reservoirs formed over thousands of years. This has led to ground subsidence and alarming regime officials who have circulated confidential memos on the subject.

Whether monarchic or clerics ruled Iran, the regime has not paid ample attention to this existential threat. On the contrary, the Iranian regime’s policy has been counterproductive in terms of devising a water strategy. The regime’s mismanagement of the country’s water resources will only be amplified by other factors. Global warming and population growth are an added burden on water availability and can cause social disturbances. Today, the country has witnessed several demonstrations in various Iranian cities regarding water scarcity. This trend will only become more acute and will constitute a formidable challenge to Iran’s regime and society.

Over the past few decades, across various regimes in Iran, enough attention has not been paid to water security. The Iranian regime under the Shah focused on cultivating agriculture that consumed a tremendous amount of water. The result was the destruction of the qanat water system that had functioned for millennia and the creation of enormous burdens on urban centers because of migration. The situation did not improve much after the revolution. Post-1979, the regime prioritized maximum extraction rather than curbing water consumption. Although the water problem is minimally linked to economic sanctions against the country, it is not the main cause as the Iranian regime claims. Iran’s jostling with the international community after the revolution made it reluctant to rely on other countries for vital crops and, instead, it tried to be self-sufficient.

Also, passed laws allowing for over-extraction and misuse of water in Iran. The usage of groundwater rights is subject to land ownership, allowing individuals to extract as much water from their wells as they please after receiving a permit without adequate oversight. According to the managing director of Iran Water Resources Management Company, there are almost 320,000 illegal wells, and between 13,000 and 14,000 illicit wells are sealed yearly.

Iran is a country that has historically relied on groundwater resources for development purposes. Still, in recent decades it has experienced a progressive decline in water levels of aquifers across the country. Groundwater policies and measures to control abstraction have largely failed to restore the groundwater balance.

Climate change and population growth have also detrimentally affected water supply and demand. Studies have indicated a precipitation decline in Iran over the past five decades. This is particularly significant because precipitation in Iran is unevenly distributed, and rainfall is a vital supply source. The range of rainfall distribution varies significantly between 5 mm in some desert areas and 1,600 in the Caspian Sea basin. In addition, 70% of the landmass receives only 43% of the rainfall. Notably, the average rainfall is 250 mm a year, nearly a third of the world’s average, and two-thirds of it vanish because of evaporation.

The clerical regime wants to portray drought and population growth as the leading causes of water shortages, not its water policies in Iran. Population growth resulted from advocacy and empty promises of the ruling cleric since their reign. It is one of the leading causes of water shortages without sufficient awareness of Iran’s limited supply. As the population increased, so did the level of water consumption. Iran’s population overgrew in the 20th century with a rate of 0.6% at the beginning of the century and increased to 3.19% between 1976 and 1986. The regime encouraged population growth even more after the 1979 revolution without paying attention to accommodating basic human needs. The average water consumption of a person should be 250-300 liters a day, but average Iranians consume 1.5-2 times more.

Natural ecosystems are being severely affected due to water shortages in Iran. Its environmental consequences could be seen all over the country. These phenomena we are witnessing everywhere: Condition of Lake Urmia, Zayandehrud, Khuzestan, natural lakes drying or drying of various wetlands due to lack of water supply, frequent dust storms, land subsidence, sinkholes, soil dryness, destruction of rangeland plants, deforestation, desertification, and salinity.

The consequences of water stress go beyond the environmental crisis. It affects all economic and social dimensions. Water stress is a long-term phenomenon with interconnected consequences starting from meteorological drought and ending in the psychological phenomenon. Meteorological drought means a decrease in rainfall, which reduces running and groundwater resources, and hydrological drought. The hydrological drought itself causes agricultural drought in the long run.

Due to the over-extraction of groundwater, a crisis is developing beneath Iran’s semi-arid land. The full extent is unknown, but its implication for the country’s future is indeed a disaster. According to Iran’s former Head of the Department of Environment, Isa Kalantari, it is a crisis that might pose a more significant threat to the country than its classic foes. A crisis that may make Iran uninhabitable. Iran is one of the world’s largest consumers of groundwater, and a vast majority of the population lives in areas highly dependent on groundwater for drinking and irrigation. Continuing the business-as-usual approach in depleting aquifers will expose Iran to food and water risks as well as social, political, and security issues,s as one is witnessing them daily.

Since the 1960s, there has been a steady increase in the number of irrigation wells and the quantity of water pumped, leading to a declining groundwater level in many aquifers across the country. The impacts are multiple:

decrease in the well yields,
increase in the intrusion of saline water into aquifers,
increases in land subsidence; an increase in pumping costs leading to agriculture becoming more costly,
decrease in the flow of groundwater into, through, and out of wetlands and rivers, and
Many other less direct but worrying consequences.
Climate change also exacerbates conditions that perpetuate over abstraction. The climate scenarios produced by most studies predict a dire future for Iran and the region, suggesting a drier climate with more extreme heat, meaning that there will be a further reduction in Iran’s current 250 mm average annual precipitation and 1450 m3 per capita water availability. Recent studies also predict the adverse impact of climate change on groundwater recharge, indicating further groundwater depletion over the next two decades.

Agriculture dominates the demand for groundwater in Iran, which uses about 92% of the country’s water, 52% of which is currently supplied from groundwater resources. According to recent research, over the last two decades, Iran ranked second in the world after India in terms of groundwater depletion embedded in food production and trade, constituting 15.4% of global groundwater depletion for irrigation. The country does import an almost equivalent volume of water through its food imports.

Observation of sectoral efficiency in various disciplines has also shown attempts to improve water consumption efficiency have often been quite ineffective in the long run in achieving sustainable systemic improvement. This phenomenon, also known as the rebound effect or Jevons paradox, suggests that increased water efficiency:

makes the use of water and energy relatively cheaper, thus encouraging increased use,
leads to increased economic growth, which drives more water consumption and,
Multiplies the use of all the companion technologies, products, and services that were being restrained by it.
The rebound effect implies that focusing attention purely on infrastructural aspects when addressing Iran’s groundwater problem is incomplete and ineffective, if not misleading. Results of recent research on irrigation cases in Spain and the US also highlight the negative consequences of increasing plot-level efficiency. In the case of Iran, it is thus argued that focusing all policy attention on technology without controlling water allocations may exacerbate the water problem. Moreover, paying 65-85% costs of this capital-intensive policy through state-subsidized payments and low-interest loans imposes a heavy burden on public finances.

In addition to the technical controversies around increasing efficiency, researchers have pointed to an important social aspect of increasing efficiency: the different ways in which ‘efficiency’ as a concept is understood by the different stakeholders. A study in central Iran has shown that ‘improved efficiency’ for local farmers means more access to water rights and more agricultural production. By contrast, for the regime agencies, efficiency means controlling abstraction and ensuring water availability. This difference between local and national level actors is in their perceptions of ‘irrigation efficiency,’ which results in the lack of cooperation between them.

Since demonstrations against water shortages took place in Iran in the summer of 2021, the regime has become increasingly defenseless against water shortages and has faced gradual domestic tension. The short-sighted regime policies, in terms of water security, have been very harmful and are being compounded by the growth of the population and global warming. This situation has resulted in increased pressure on the availability of water in several Iranian cities, and the depth of the problem is only becoming deeper.

Demonstrations related to water shortages took place in different Iran provinces. In Khuzestan, a province that is responsible for 16% of Iran’s GDP and has 80% of Iran’s offshore oil reserve, demonstrations against water shortages and pollution shaped into anti-regime protests. Another protest against water pollution and shortages took place in the city of Abadan. The net result of such demonstrations was what Iran’s security forces confirmed, killing nine people and injuring many.

Iran is already experiencing social disturbances that will only increase in intensity because of water shortages. It is estimated that 97% “of the country is experiencing drought to some degree, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Meteorological Organization.” In addition, data shows that 11 megacities with a total population of 37 million people in Iran are already suffering from water stress, and Iran is ranked as the 24th most water-stressed nation by the World Resources Institute. Isfahan is one of the provinces that is mostly affected by the water shortages, and its citizens have demonstrated several times as a result. Isfahan farmers clashed with security forces and smashed a pipeline transporting water to Yazd in 2013. Demonstrations took place again a year later against the drying up of the Zayandehrood River, and in 2018 there were anti-regime chants. Twenty-five were killed, and 3,700 were arrested. Drought and upstream water diversions have seen the Zayandeh Rood, a “fertile river” in Persian, run dry since 2000, with only rare exceptions.

The likelihood of drought still remains very high this summer in Iran. Iran’s mean temperature has increased two degrees in the past two centuries, four times higher than the world average. This situation has exacerbated the water crisis because of additional evaporation and extra water requirements for plants. So, there is every reason to expect that Iran will continue to face punishing droughts, whether this year or in the near future, leading to further social unrest.

In the eyes of Iranians, water resources have always been a precious asset, whether from a religious, personal, or historical perspective. Iran’s civilization has been formed and expanded around rivers or outlets of Qanats over the past millennia, with most cities originating from an agriculturally based system completely dependent on riverine irrigation and Qanats. As Iran is a country with a predominantly arid and semi-arid climate, water has always been a top priority for its people, who have a long tradition of sustainable water management. Qanats or underground water canals have historically been efficient in conserving water; dams and water-saving structures have also attracted the attention of earlier Iranians, as is attested by the remains of numerous water structures built from about 240 AD.

Water security is surely a threat for Iran that should be addressed immediately. The Iranian regime’s efforts to curb water shortages have been minimal to non-existent. The circumstances don’t mean that water doesn’t exist as clerical rule claimed. Indeed, the rainfall regime hasn’t significantly changed throughout decades in Iran; therefore, it is a baseless argument. However, the ruling clerics’ priorities and agenda are very different from those of Iranians. The water shortages, as a result, will only add even more to the illegitimacy of the current governing system. As several demonstrations indicate, the alternative to an insufficient water supply is to cut off the illegitimate interest of the water mafia, which is no other than IRGC, its dam-building policies, institutions under the Supreme Leader’s supervision, elite clerics, and other regime’s affiliated beneficiaries. Not doing these would only increase social tensions that will grow over time.

Water stress is an important national security issue that can lead to a lack of human security and instability and social uprisings. Many Iranian cities will be prone to protests, uprisings, and political instability due to long-term water tensions and severe water dependencies. Considering the mentioned factors, today, the issue of crisis and water-related tensions in Iran is one of the main security, political, economic, and social paradigms. We saw last year when people protested in Khuzestan, Isfahan, Chaharmahal, and Bakhtiari, and this year, more provinces, cities, and strata are shouting their demands on the streets. Ignoring these demands, along with the growing social anger, inattention of the ruling body to the demands of Iranians, and climate change will have irreparable future costs for the clerical regime, resulting in: “the death of the dictator and the overthrow of his regime.”

* Khalil Khani is an Environmental Specialist and a Human Rights activist. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology, Botany, and Environmental Studies from Germany and has taught at the University of Tehran and the Hesse State University in Germany. He is also a Doctor of Medical Psychology from the United States.



Iran’s Water Crisis and Social Consequences

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