Iran’s Environmental Challenge: How Water is turning into a Crisis

    13 Jun 2021

    Iranian environmental policy leads to water crisis.

    Iran is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, with dwindling water resources, rapid desertification, and pollution that chokes its cities.

    As Patricia S. Huntington and Courtney Doggart from the Network2020 international community state, this problem, if left unchecked, threatens not only Iran but also the stability of the region.

    Environmental security is national security, more important than foreign threats or domestic issues, as it affects food security, domestic stability, and economic growth. The severity of the challenges is reflected in the placement of the Department of the Environment ahead of most of the twenty ministries in Iran in status.

    Many Iranians see a clear link between enhancing “human security,” – with its focus on people and the climate they live in – as the key to social development and its corollaries: public health, human rights, the rule of law, and economic development.

    Iran’s strategic position, straddling the energy-corridor of the Strait of Hormuz, bordering Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and situated only a thousand miles from Israel, elevates the threats posed by its environmental degradation to a regional and global level. This point is especially important given the volatile landscape surrounding Iran. The effects of climate change in Iran have already caused internal political unrest and, if unaddressed, threaten to further inhibit the country’s economic and social health and destabilize an already turbulent region. Toxic air, lack of water, and desertification of agricultural lands have the potential to prompt massive movements of populations fleeing to find more sustainable homes and livelihoods. These uprootings caused by a shifting climate can prompt lawlessness, crime, inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict, and terrorism. Such instability has the potential to further ignite the Middle East tinderbox.

    The Problem: Is the Iranian Plateau Becoming Uninhabitable?

    With the rapid desertification of more than two-thirds of its agricultural lands, pollution so severe that schools, businesses, and government offices must be regularly closed because of dangerously high levels of particulate matter, over 4,000 pollution-related deaths annually in Tehran, and four Iranian cities among the top ten most contaminated cities of the world, it is not surprising that President Rouhani (seventh and current President of Iran since August 2013) has made protecting the environment a top priority of his administration.

    The country’s freshwater supplies are unsustainable. With dwindling resources and a population projected to grow to 99 million by 2025, Iranians are depending on underground aquifers that will be exhausted in a few decades. Iran’s food supply is endangered because agriculture accounts for 85% of water use while producing only 66% of the nation’s food.

    According to the World Bank, the damage from desertification, pollution, and lack of water amounts to 5-10% of Iran’s GDP. By comparison, international sanctions have shrunk Iran’s GDP by about one and a half percent. That said, the sanctions have stalled purchases of environmental improvement products such as emissions controls for cars and prevented payment of fees to technical experts. Scientists note that U.S. policies –both sanctions and the war in Iraq – have contributed to increased air pollution problems. To make up for lost imports, Iran was forced to produce domestic gasoline for cars with 10% times the level of contaminants of imported fuel. And according to the Iranian Meteorological Organization, both the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Iran-Iraq war (when the U.S. supported Iraq) flattened the earth into dust and dried tidal flats, thus increasing the number and volume of contaminated sandstorms and dust into Iran. The particulate matter from dust and emissions can penetrate the lungs and has been linked to increases in cancer, in addition to asthma and heart problems.

    With Iran losing topsoil twenty times faster than it is formed, annual per capita water availability dropping from 7,000 cubic meters per person in 1956 to a projected 1,300 cubic meters per person in 2020 and a growing population with increasing demands on finite resources, it is within the realm of consideration that large swaths of Iran could become uninhabitable within a generation.

    The Challenges

    With a specific article in the constitution dedicated to environmental conservation, Iran, fortunately, has the will to tackle these problems. However, Iran still faces many challenges in greening its environment, from physical to political.

    Inadequate infrastructure and policies top the list. Inefficiencies from leaky pipes to poor irrigation to wasteful power generation create enormous losses in water and energy. Pricing policies—or the lack thereof—further encourage waste by valuing water and other resources below market rate, if putting a price on them at all. City dwellers are accustomed to unlimited water for their lawns. Supervisory agencies like the Iranian Environmental Protection Organization, lack the necessary power to enforce environmental guidelines.

    International sanctions have complicated matters. Iran cannot participate in regional research projects that rely on international grant money, stymieing environmental progress not only for Iran but also for its neighbors. Nor can Iranian scientists easily participate in international conferences that allow for the exchange of climate change expertise and information on green energy solutions that have worked in other parts of the world. And Iran’s goal of increasing energy from renewable resources to 7000 MW by 2015 cannot move forward when the dedicated bank account for funding the country’s environmental facility for renewable initiatives is frozen. When sanctions are lifted, Iran will be able to purchase environmental improvement products, have easier access to higher quality refined gasoline, and work with climate change and management experts to assist government agencies in drafting and monitoring policies.

    However, Iran does not want to wait to tackle these challenges. The UN’s development program has been assisting the Department of the Environment in its Forest, Rangelands, and Watershed organizations. The government is taking steps to price water, particularly for agriculture, and has started a public awareness campaign. Furthermore, the government is better enforcing active laws and policies about conserving groundwater. In addition, President Rouhani has made efforts to reduce pollution by improving the quality of petrol and easing off government subsidies for gasoline. In addition, he is planning support for additional initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

    Next Steps

    The irreversible degradation of large swaths of the lands in the Middle East and around the Persian Gulf is a priority national security issue for the United States, given the danger of increased turbulence and instability in the region. Many argue that the civil war in Syria owes much to the extended drought conditions that existed for the past decade, driving millions of small farmers from the countryside to the cities where they were unable to earn a living.

    As Fanack states, in 2018, the water situation in Iran has turned into a crisis gaining political attention. Accordingly, as protests against water management and distribution have been on the rise for some time, the government seems to be facing a hard task to tackle this decades-long issue. However, the Iranian government has recently started to address the water issue as an immediate threat, because it can be used against the ruling party both by external powers and its own opposition. As such, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) was tasked with coming up with resolutions for the supply and distribution of the water after protests swept some Iranian cities. The body violently criticized the government for lacking the will to find solutions to their agriculture and drinking water issues and as such, the Supreme Council for Water held many meetings to technically address the issue. The Iranian parliament’s national security committee has already established a ‘water security committee’ to help with the same issue. This begs the question of why, and how, the water situation became so alarming for Tehran.

    Besides the fact that Iran’s water resources are shrinking, Tehran’s sensitivity about the issue is to some extent related to political and security reasons.

    This is all happening while Tehran is facing mounting international pressure and the country’s oil income is expected to shrink as a result of US sanctions. In addition, the US made clear that it intends to use internal turmoil to force Tehran to succumb to its demands or force regime change.

    Against this backdrop, the water situation comes up as a security issue and a political tool. And the urgency to tackle it forces Tehran to move rapidly to prevent any manipulation by foreign powers and the opposition. But to resolve the issue, Tehran needs time – a precious good available for a high price. To envisage Tehran’s options, one needs to see the roots of the problem. Iran’s water crisis is a result of two major issues, alongside some minor issues.

    Climate change

    The first problem is climate change. Iran’s rainfall has fallen down from its previous average in the past decade. Iran has arid or semiarid climates, mostly characterized by low rainfall and high potential evapotranspiration. Precipitation in Iran averaged 18.72 mm from 1901 until 2015, and decreased with time: it reached 16.97 mm in November 2015. And despite ups and downs, it is a fact that Iran’s precipitation has fallen especially during the past six to seven years. As a result, droughts have become more common in Iran. Accordingly, severe droughts, plus mismanaged water resources, and several dust storms have diminished Iran’s economy in recent years. Additionally, climate change is expected to adversely affect Iran’s agricultural practices through changes in precipitation, temperature, and carbon dioxide fertilization. Therefore, the ruling elites of Iran are faced with a severe ecological challenge that, if not addressed properly, can grow very quickly into a security challenge, as recent protests in parts of Iran have already suggested. But Iran’s drought should be seen in accordance with the growth of its population.

    Population growth

    The second issue is Iran’s population boom. Iran’s population has been rising slower than the first decade after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The administration of Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was president of the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1989 to 1997, was the first to adopt a family planning policy to reduce birth rates. But by his ascendance, Iran’s population was already on the rise. Around 35 million in 1979, the population had doubled by 2006 but is now stabilizing at around 83 million, and is expected to reach d 90 million in 2035. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is urging the government to stop any sort of family planning, mainly because of the drop in birth rates, which moved down from 6.08 in 1976 to 1.8 in 2006. But it is doubtful his plea will be heard, among other reasons because the population is suffering under economic hardship.

    But these two main issues are not the only ones to consider. There are other issues that are, though secondary, as effective and important as the main ones. First, Iran’s poor water management has never been sufficient nor effective in preserving its little rainfall. Second, Iran’s agriculture sector, which is believed to be consuming 90% of Iran’s water resources, is mainly traditional and non-efficient in terms of its outcome. Third, the Iranian lifestyle, which is consumer-oriented. According to Isa Kalantari, the head of the Department of Environment, “if water consumption continues the way it is, Iran will no longer be habitable. We are the most selfish generation in water consumption over the last seven thousand years.” Therefore, these primary and secondary problems are hunting Iran’s environment now and are expected to increase the pressure in the years and decades to come. But besides those issues comes the mounting suspicion with regards to environmentalists. It seems that at least parts of Iran’s security establishment is suspicious about the growing attention to environmental issues. The recent crackdown on environmentalists, including prominent figures such as Kavous Seyed Emami and Kaveh Madani, seems to be part of a plan to stop what they see as a growing ‘soft threat’ on environmental issues. But this doesn’t provide any help to resolve the real problem.

    The consequences, therefore, are of great importance. The sole fact that 11 out of Iran’s 31 provinces are to run out of water in half a century should be keeping people on the call up at night.

    Apart from the ecological and environmental effects, a ‘water crisis’ can easily bring up political and security repercussions. In addition, Iran will be facing internal displacement as well as citizens migrating to other countries in search of a better life, especially the villagers and farmers, who are to be affected the most by the draughts. There’s already a huge number of villages vacated entirely in several provinces, especially in the eastern provinces – with one-third of Sistan and Baluchestan’s villages entirely vacated. They usually move to major cities where they can find a job. And since average unemployment rates in Iran have been high in recent years, one can envisage the hardship those displaced may face – which can, in turn, lead to other social challenges. Another issue is the potential internal disputes between different cities and provinces over water distribution. There are many cases in which those disputes turned violent and the government had to use force to restore order.

    To tackle the issue with all its ramifications, the Iranian government came up with new policies. Iran’s Ministry of Energy has recently announced a new policy of ‘Water consumption management’ to replace its previous policies of ‘water supply management.’ In other words, it will be insisting on decreasing consumption rather than increasing production. In addition, two policies have been pursued to decrease water consumption in agriculture: first to change the pattern of planting in order to reduce water consumption and increase productivity; second, to encourage greenhouse cultivation that could reduce water consumption while multiplying production. In other words, Iran has to change its traditional pattern of agriculture and move towards new methods.

    The Iranian government has also embarked on a campaign of public messaging to encourage Iranians to decrease their water consumption. There were also non-official public campaigns on the issue lately. But those policies are long-term projects and the campaigns have not been fruitful enough. Therefore, other policies such as desalination have been considered. But they require investment, mostly FDI, a very rare good in US-sanctioned Iran.

    The international community, especially the European Union, should consider assisting Iran in this regard, for Iran’s drought will cause a whole set of issues including, but not delimited to, emigration waves that will affect Europe more than any other region in the world.

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