Michaela Abrams is a third-year student at Wellesley College in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a junior editor for The Wellesley News, and lives in Chicago, Illinois.
“To put it bluntly, there is no water.”
These words were spoken by Ahad Vazifeh, an official from the Iranian Meteorological Association’s Center for Drought, on June 15 of this year. As Iran struggles through its driest summer on record and nightly protests rage in Khuzestan, the intensity of the country’s water crisis has reached a critical point.
The warning signs have been present for years. A 2019 study by Iran-based scholars published in the journal Environment Systems Research had explored Iran’s susceptibility to climate change-related water crises, including both floods and droughts. About 85 percent of the country is in an arid and semi-arid climate, and scientists estimate that by the year 2100, the average daytime temperature in Iran could rise to over 7°C. This in turn will cause water to evaporate faster, threatening the lives of people in areas where access to fresh water for drinking and irrigation is already scarce.
The climate in Iran relative to neighboring countries. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Home to almost 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, Iran has been termed an “energy superpower”. But with access to fuel comes the intense burning of fossil fuels: a practice that has already polluted freshwater sources in Iran’s industrial zones. And while Iranian oil exports continue to founder, water shortages in Iran could also bar the possibility of a shift to more renewable, hydroelectric power.
Water shortages are not only a concern for Iran’s government and oil companies, but pose an active threat to the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens who have nowhere to turn for crop irrigation and clean drinking water. About 97 percent of the country is experiencing protracted drought, and since 2017 annual rainfall has been the lowest recorded in the last seven decades. The Caspian and Arabian Seas have also recorded higher salinity levels in the past five years, which is harmful to wildlife, and means that the water flowing through Iran is even less potable than before.
Groundwater depletion has already proved a source of physical danger. In 2018 at least five major sinkholes opened up in Tehran, while the secretary of Iran’s Natural Disaster Task Force recently said more than 600 underground aquifer-fed plains and wetlands in the country are at risk of permanent subsidence.
How Have Iran’s Politicians Reacted to the Water Crisis?
Iranian politicians have consistently blamed climate change for the current water shortages, and called on other countries for financial support. While this is part of the problem, a 2021 study in Nature journal categorically stated that most of Iran’s groundwater depletion is “anthropogenic”: that is, caused or exacerbated by human activity.
Relative levels of groundwater depletion in Iran from 2002 to 2015. Source: Ashraf et al, Anthropogenic drought dominates groundwater depletion in Iran, published April 28, 2021
In 2014, Iranian President Rouhani declared: “The rise in temperature and its negative impact on precipitation in the Middle East, the chronic drought and water scarcity, have led to an increase in poverty, and instability and tensions in the border areas... Addressing such issues requires regional cooperation in the form of multilateral conventions, on which Iran is ready to constructively engage.”
Despite such public declarations of concern – even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has conceded that “the environment is a vital issue” – the Islamic Republic has yet to implement a single article of the Paris Agreement. Iran signed the climate accords in 2016, signalling at least an interest in fighting global warming alongside other states. But the Paris Agreement is only binding once it has been ratified by a signatory state’s government, and Iran is one of eight such countries – including oil-producing states Iraq and Libya – whose executive branch has yet to do so.
Meanwhile, protests have erupted across the country in response to ongoing water stress and the Iranian government’s apparent lack of a comprehensive plan to address the crisis. Before this summer’s demonstrations, in May 2020, residents of the Ardabil and Bushehr provinces also blocked roads and took to the streets to protest the lack of clean drinking water. The country’s main waterways have visibly shrunk while scientists observe a 95 percent decrease in the water volume in Lake Urmia, west of Tabriz, since 2001. The short-term solutions have run to dam-building and diverting water from rivers to other provinces, creating fresh tensions in areas where residents have seen their water sources dry up.
Internal migration due to the impact of the water crisis on traditional agrarian communities has also become a major social concern. By 2018 nearly 30 percent of former residents of rural Sistan and Baluchistan, Iran’s second-largest province, had migrated to the city suburbs due to the drying-up of Lake Hamoun alone.
What Can be Done?
One possible early solution to Iran’s nationwide water shortages could be the desalination of water from the Caspian Sea. While this body of water is big enough to provide short-term relief, desalination is an expensive process, and has negative long-term environmental impacts. Marine life can be pulled into the desalination plants, and cycling saltwater can also damage plant life.
Earlier this month, Ali Baitollahi of Iran’s Natural Disaster Task Force stated that he believes the damage wreaked by bad water management to date is reversible, and focused actions have helped other countries such as Japan rebound from water crises. He may be right, but Iran’s long-term solutions must also work to address climate change as a whole, beginning with the ratification of the Paris Agreement. A combination of long and short-term solutions will be most effective in reversing the situation Iran is facing today.