Why is Iran on the Brink of a Water Crisis?

Published July 11th, 2018 - 01:25 GMT
Iran is now dealing with its second protest over water shortages in a week. /Shutterstock
Iran is now dealing with its second protest over water shortages in a week. /Shutterstock

Eleanor Beevor

Iran is now dealing with its second protest over water shortages in a week. At the beginning of July, the southwestern province of Khuzestan was rocked by demonstrations in its major cities, Khorramshahr and Abadan, over their water drying up. 

The Iranian government claimed that the problem was temporary, caused by damaged pipes, and that they were trucking in emergency supplies of drinking water. But now that further protests are boiling in the southern city of Borazjan, Iranians are unlikely to be convinced that this is a temporary problem. After the taps of Borzajan ran dry, demonstrators spilled onto the streets. Numbers are uncertain– the state-owned news agency INRA suggested it involved 350 people, while the US-backed Persian language broadcaster Radio Farda said that there would have been thousands of protestors. 

Either way, the external security threats that Iran fears so much may soon be outdone by internal instability from a devastating environmental crisis. This crisis has deep roots, and would be hard for any country to counter. But it will be especially hard for Iran, given its hopelessly divided state administration. 

The driving factors behind water shortages are numerous. Some are natural and others man-made. One of the biggest factors is population growth. The population of Iran doubled between 1976 and 2001, going from 33 million to 66 million Iranians. The population is still rising, and currently stands at over 80 million people. 


And as this figure rises, the volume of renewable water resources available per capita drops. It is already critically low. 35% of the population are living in areas experiencing water shortages and droughts. Global warming is contributing to bodies of water drying out, and the problem is expected to worsen as climate change increases. The socio-economic changes happening alongside this exacerbate the problem.

Dr. Hamid Pouran, a climate science consultant and an expert in Iran’s environmental situation, told Al Bawaba: 

In principle Iran, like many countries, is suffering from unsustainable development. Rapid urbanisation, population growth and expansion of agriculture are some of the main factors. Nevertheless, in recent years, the Middle East and North Africa seem to be affected by the climate change impacts, and we see more drought and less annual precipitation (rain and snow) throughout the year.”

The sector that consumes the most water in Iran is agriculture, and that is also where the greatest inefficiencies lie. A recent report suggested that over 90% of Iran’s water was consumed by agriculture, but that the sector’s efficiency rate of water usage was 35%. The average global efficiency rating is 75%.

This is exacerbated by farmers irrigating crops during the day, when the most water will be evaporated. But the agriculture sector’s status as the largest, and least efficient consumer of water is also a legacy of Iran’s turbulent international relations. Indeed, it illustrates the unintended consequences of sanctions. Dr. Pouran continued:

Sanctioning prevents investment in many essential infrastructures, including those related to water management and agriculture. Weak water infrastructures will lead to inefficient use of water, such water leakage or not recycling wastewater. Modern agricultural machinery and other products like herbicides/pesticides also cannot be imported, which affect the farming industry.


In addition, in a region like the Middle East, everything can happen without prior notice even among friends. We saw how many countries in the Persian Gulf region put pressure on Qatar and it had to rely on Iran and Turkey to import food. The same has been happening to Iran for the past forty years. When there is lack of established trust with other countries, and you have 80 million people to feed, food security becomes a priority for you, and you sacrifice your water resources for this purpose. If Iran had been assured that under all circumstances its food security would be guaranteed, I doubt that it was emphasizing so much on a self-sufficiency of its agriculture.”

One cannot absolve the current political administration of blame for the water crisis. However, the clashing ideological factions that make up the Iranian state are as much at odds on environmentalism as they are on everything else. This was exemplified earlier this year, when President Rouhani invited Dr. Kaveh Madani back to Iran, to act as Deputy Head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organisation. Madani is an accomplished water conservation specialist at Imperial College London. However, he soon ran into trouble with Iran’s hardliners and Revolutionary Guard. 

He was associated with wildlife conservation activists, who were suspected by conservative factions of using ecological surveys of Asiatic cheetahs as a pretext for spying for foreign powers. These conservationists were detained and one of them, Kavous Seyed Emami, died in prison under suspicious circumstances. Madani was also detained for 72 hours, before rapidly leaving Iran. 


The story is emblematic of an ideological breach between elements of the Iranian government. Current President Hassan Rouhani is often described as a “moderate” in the international press, although the truth of that rather depends on what one’s idea of moderation is. Those looking for a secular or westernized idea of a moderate politician will be disappointed. Nevertheless, Rouhani is a pragmatist, and has sought technocratic solutions to Iran’s problems, including its environmental ones. 

But his attempt at a “reverse brain-drain”, by opening up spaces in government for well-qualified Iranians who have been educated abroad, was sabotaged by hardline elements. The theological and security establishments in Tehran, and particularly the Revolutionary Guard, view any foreign influences as either security threats, or as threats to their own privileges. Sadly, that seems to include attempts to save Iran’s fragile environment.

There are elements of the Iranian military that see the environmental crisis itself as a conspiracy – the Head of the Iranian Civil Defence Organization, Brigadier General Gholam Ridha Jalali, told a conference that the drought was caused by Israel stealing their clouds. Unfortunately, Rouhani has not since mounted a strong challenge to these reactionary views.

There are still plenty of ways in which Iran can begin to address its water problem. Salman Zafar, the founder of the EcoMENA organization which promotes sustainability in the Middle East, told Al Bawaba:  

“Iran can preserve its natural water resources by promoting water stewardship, protecting wetlands, improving irrigation efficiency, increasing water storage in reservoirs and aquifers, reducing water subsidies, recycling municipal and industrial wastewater, raising water awareness and mobilizing youth in water conservation initiatives.” 

It can also take inspiration from its historical heritage. Though many are now in disrepair, qanats, Iran’s underwater irrigation tunnels, were a sustainable and efficient water management used by Persians for thousands of years. Civil engineers believe that the system could still help Iran preserve its water today. 

But the first deadlock that needs resolving is the political one, and whether the political factions in Tehran can put aside their differences in order to save the country from environmental catastrophe is very much in question.

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