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Iran’s water crisis: drought, floods and poor management

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Cristina Novo
Technical Editor at Smart Water Magazine.

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  • Iran’s water crisis: drought, floods and poor management
    Shushtar, Iran. Credit: Wikipedia

A recent analysis by Geopolitical Futures looks at Iran’s water crisis: persistent drought, poor management and extreme weather patterns, compounded by the effects of international sanctions, paint a bleak outlook for the country’s water resources, while possible solutions are discussed.

How did water problems arise? Iran, a mostly arid country with scant water resources, has been dealing with the effects of a severe drought for decades. The scorched ground cannot absorb water quickly enough during heavy rains; earlier this year, record floods led to nearly 100 people killed and $10 billion in damages.

Ancient Persian civilizations relied on advanced water infrastructure, tapping into groundwater reserves. But the water needs of 81 million people in modern Iran have led to overexploitation of groundwater. Groundwater accounts for 55% of Iran’s water use, and 92% of that is used for agriculture. Following a national policy of food self-sufficiency, groundwater pumping for farmers is subsidised at great cost to the government. Furthermore, the country overinvested in dams ─ many of them of poor quality ─ at the expense of other types of water infrastructure, like irrigation systems, which could increase the efficiency of water store and use.

Poor water management has been exacerbated by a harsh climate which is getting worse. Declining rainfall, higher temperatures, and more frequent extreme weather events will put added pressure on water supplies. In fact, the predictions of different researchers paint a bleak future of uninhabitable conditions, substantiating the claims of Isa Kalantari, head of the country’s Department of Environment, who said that by 2050, 70% of Iranians will have to leave their country due to diminished water resources. Already the harsh conditions in rural areas have led to internal migration to urban centres, where unemployment is rampant.

Concerning political implications, the population is frustrated with the government’s handling of water, leading to protests in affected regions. The analysis compares the situation in Iran with the strikingly similar one in Syria prior to the war, where groundwater overuse made rural communities vulnerable to climate changes and the discontent population concentrated in cities.

So what are the potential solutions? Iran may have to leave behind its self-sufficiency dream and increase food imports, as Saudi Arabia did. However, this entails some challenges. Iran’s economy, like Saudi Arabia’s, depends on oil exports, but unlike it, international sanctions limit the inflow of foreign currency, making imports very costly.

Another option is to increase water desalination, currently used to provide drinking water for urban populations. This would not solve, however, the underlying issue of water overuse for agricultural purposes. And increasing energy-intensive desalination would mean redirecting a portion of its natural gas supply to it, with huge costs.

A third option the government is exploring is Caspian Sea resources. Here the issues are many: water would have to be desalinated and a pipeline built to transport it regions across Iran, the impact on the Caspian Sea’s declining water levels, and territorial disputes over Caspian resources with neighbouring countries.

Finally, the government could resort to policies such as limiting urban growth, modernising agricultural practices to increase water efficiency, and removing subsidies, which again, would have implications in terms of costs, and also risk further internal migration and dissatisfaction. The country has few options available, and all of them will be costly and difficult to implement. Financial constraints are just one of the consequences of any proposed solutions to the water crisis. The compounding effects are making the country vulnerable to new pressures that may arise, external and internal, so the future of the water supply, and the economic and political outcomes are uncertain.

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