Iran’s water crisis: A looming threat to stability and security

Iran is facing a severe water crisis that could have dire consequences for its people, environment, and regional stability. The country’s water resources are dwindling due to climate change, population growth, mismanagement, and sanctions. The situation has sparked protests, conflicts, and migrations, as well as increased tensions with neighboring countries. How did Iran get into this predicament, and what can be done to address it?

Iran has a long history of water management, dating back to ancient times when it developed sophisticated irrigation systems and underground canals. However, in recent decades, the country has failed to adapt to the changing conditions and demands of its water sector. Some of the main causes of the water crisis are:

Iran’s water crisis: A looming threat to stability and security
Iran’s water crisis: A looming threat to stability and security
  • Climate change: Iran is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of global warming, which has increased the frequency and intensity of droughts and floods. A 2019 study published in Nature found that Iran’s climate outlook for 2025-2049 is “a grim picture” of increasingly severe water scarcity and variability. The study also warned that some of the driest regions in Iran could become uninhabitable by mid-century.
  • Population growth: Iran’s population has surged from 10 million in 1900 to over 85 million in 2020, and is expected to surpass 100 million by 2041. This has put enormous pressure on the country’s renewable water resources, which have declined from 130 billion cubic meters (BCM) to 80-85 BCM per year. The per capita water availability for Iranians may drop below 500 cubic meters, marking absolute scarcity, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
  • Mismanagement: Despite the warnings of environmental experts and activists, Iranian officials have consistently ignored or dismissed the water crisis, and pursued policies that have aggravated the situation. For example, they have prioritized dam construction and increased groundwater extraction for food self-sufficiency, disregarding the environmental and social impacts. They have also diverted water from some regions to others, creating inequalities and conflicts among different provinces and sectors. Moreover, they have failed to invest in water conservation, efficiency, and quality, leading to high water losses, wastage, and pollution.
  • Sanctions: The US-led sanctions on Iran have also contributed to the water crisis, by limiting the country’s access to financial resources, technology, and expertise that could help improve its water management. The sanctions have also hampered Iran’s cooperation with regional and international actors on water issues, such as sharing data, resolving disputes, and implementing joint projects.

The consequences of the water crisis

The water crisis in Iran has already had devastating effects on various aspects of the country’s life, and could pose serious threats to its future stability and security. Some of the consequences of the water crisis are:

  • Protests: The water crisis has sparked widespread protests and unrest in several parts of Iran, especially in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, where residents have been suffering from water shortages, power blackouts, and environmental degradation. The protests have been met with violent repression by the security forces, resulting in deaths, injuries, and arrests. The protesters have demanded the government to provide them with adequate water and electricity, and to address the root causes of the water crisis.
  • Conflicts: The water crisis has also fueled conflicts and tensions among different groups and regions in Iran, as well as with neighboring countries. For instance, the water crisis has exacerbated the grievances of ethnic minorities, such as the Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkmen, who have accused the central government of discriminating against them and depriving them of their water rights. The water crisis has also increased the competition and disputes over water resources among different provinces and sectors, such as agriculture, industry, and urban areas. Moreover, the water crisis has heightened the risk of water wars with neighboring countries, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey, who share transboundary rivers and aquifers with Iran.
  • Migrations: The water crisis has also triggered massive migrations and displacements within and outside Iran, as people have been forced to abandon their lands, livelihoods, and homes due to water scarcity, land subsidence, desertification, and salinization. According to former Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari, the water crisis has caused an influx of 10 million people into the outskirts and shanty towns since 2013, which is 10 times the number of Syrian villagers migrating during the 2006-2009 drought in the Hasakah governorate. Many researchers have linked the Syrian conflict to this drought. The water crisis could also drive more Iranians to seek refuge in other countries, creating humanitarian and security challenges for the region and the world.

The solutions to the water crisis

The water crisis in Iran is a complex and multifaceted problem that requires urgent and comprehensive action from all stakeholders. The Iranian government, civil society, private sector, and international community need to work together to find sustainable and equitable solutions to the water crisis. Some of the possible solutions are:

  • Reform: The Iranian government needs to reform its water policies and institutions, and adopt a more integrated, participatory, and adaptive approach to water management. The government needs to revise its water allocation and pricing systems, and ensure that water is distributed fairly and efficiently among different regions and sectors. The government also needs to strengthen its water governance and accountability mechanisms, and involve all relevant actors and stakeholders in water decision-making and implementation.
  • Conservation: The Iranian government and society need to promote water conservation and efficiency, and reduce water demand and consumption. The government needs to invest in water-saving technologies and infrastructure, such as drip irrigation, smart meters, and leak detection. The government also needs to raise public awareness and education on water issues, and encourage behavioral and cultural changes towards water use. The government and society also need to protect and restore the natural ecosystems and biodiversity that provide vital water services, such as wetlands, forests, and lakes.
  • Cooperation: The Iranian government and society need to enhance their cooperation and dialogue with regional and international actors on water issues, and seek mutual benefits and solutions. The government needs to respect and implement the existing agreements and conventions on transboundary water resources, and engage in constructive negotiations and confidence-building measures with neighboring countries. The government also needs to seek and accept the assistance and support of the international community, especially the UN and its agencies, in addressing the water crisis and its impacts.

The water crisis in Iran is a looming threat to the country’s stability and security, as well as to the region and the world. The water crisis is not inevitable, however, and can be prevented and resolved with political will, collective action, and innovative solutions. The time to act is now, before it is too late.

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