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Iran is running out of water, with little signs of progress

Iran water Reuters/Andalou Agency
Urmia, Iran's largest lake, is among many bodies of water in the country that have lost much of their volume
  • Country has world’s 4th worst water scarcity problem 
  • Annual rainfall over the past 13 years has decreased by 9%
  • Agriculture guzzles 88% of Iran’s water resources

During the winter months, snowfall carpets the Alborz mountains that loom over Tehran, sending millions of gallons of water through the capital’s roadside drains known as jubes and world-famous qanat systems of underground aqueducts.

Across the country, a series of naturally occurring lakes and rivers combined with reservoirs and dams combine to trap the snowmelt.

Such abundance should mean that Iran is amply supplied with fresh water. But, instead, the Islamic Republic finds itself grappling with water scarcity.

Higher temperatures, misguided investment and massive agricultural subsidies are combining to deplete groundwater and dry out rivers and lakes.

Among the most significant losses are Zayandeh Rood, Iran’s largest inland river which used to flow through Isfahan; Urmia lake, the country’s largest; and the Bakhtegan and Hamun lakes. Countless smaller rivers, watercourses and wetlands have suffered a similar fate. 

Sobering data from the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas puts Iran in fourth place globally when it comes to water scarcity, trailing only Qatar, Israel and Lebanon. 

Successive governments have sought to address the issue. Newspapers speak of plans to complete the Tehran Comprehensive Water Supply Plan, and the giant Chamsir hydro-electric dam.

According to the ministry of energy, there are 195 large operational dams in 2023 with 49 billion cubic metres of reserve capacity. A further 91 large dams are under construction and 97 are in the study and design phase.  

Subsidised agriculture

However, climate change has bitten. Average annual rainfall over the past 13 years has decreased by 9 percent, according to Iran’s Ministry of Energy.  At the same time, the average annual temperature in Iran has risen by 1.1C, reaching 18.4C.

But the real problem lies with agriculture. The country’s post-1979 constitution promises to abolish food deprivation for all Iranian citizens.

Despite constituting less than 10 percent of Iran’s GDP, agriculture guzzles a staggering 88 percent of the country’s water resources. Compared with similarly sized economies, Iran imports relatively little of its food, according to experts.

Person, Agavaceae, PlantMorteza Nikoubazl via Reuters Connect
Zayandeh Rood, which ran through Isfahan, has dried out

Iran’s agricultural sector comprises 14.5 percent of Iran’s total workforce of 24 million people. It receives a wide range of incentives and subsidies under the pretext of guaranteeing the country’s food security. They include cheap water tariffs.

Iranian farmers pay a maximum of only 1 to 3 percent of the market value of their agricultural products to the Ministry of Energy for water.

The Iranian government’s concern about food security under Western sanctions has made it impossible to raise the price of water to manage consumption.

Projections from both the Ministry of Energy and the Iranian parliament predict a decline in Iran’s per capita renewable water resources, to 976 cubic metres per person by the year 2041.

At the level of 1,700 cubic metres per person, a country officially becomes water-stressed.

Regional tensions

In 2021 tensions rose when the government announced plans to transfer water from the Arab province of Khuzestan to central Iran, sparking accusations of ethnic discrimination.

Similarly, the desiccation of Lake Urmia in northwest Iran has fuelled dissatisfaction among the more than 15 million Azerbaijanis residing in the region. 

The ramifications of the water crisis extend beyond Iran’s borders, provoking tensions with neighbouring countries.

For example, Turkey’s ambitious dam construction project on the Aras river directly impacts the water security of Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia. In response, Iran has intensified diplomatic efforts to halt the project.

However, Turkey has demonstrated an unwavering determination to proceed with the construction of this and similar projects along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  

Iraq has also levelled accusations against Iran, accusing it of impeding the flow of water from 49 small and large streams, including the Karun and Little Zab rivers, to Iraq.

The water crisis has come to a head with Afghanistan. Although the disputes over the Helmand river date back to the mid-19th century, drought conditions there have intensified in recent decades.

Afghanistan has persistently curtailed Iran’s allocated water share from the Helmand, and the Hamun lake in Iran, the river’s ultimate destination, has experienced repeated desiccation.

The dispute has even brought Iran and the Taliban to the brink of full-scale conflict, escalating tensions to a dangerous level in May, resulting in casualties among armed forces from both sides.

Desalination – a solution for many of Iran’s Gulf neighbours – has so far proved elusive.

Successive Iranian governments have unveiled ambitious plans to divert water from the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Oman to irrigate the arid central desert region, but there has been no tangible progress to date.

Irrespective of the chosen course of action, Iran’s environmental degradation and the exacerbation of its renewable water crisis loom. This predicament will present Iran with big challenges in the near to medium term.

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