As Iran faces 'water bankruptcy', drought exposes past problems, future threats
Poor rainfall in Iran this year highlights challenges in providing enough water and energy, adapting to a hotter climate and preventing mass migration.
- Drought leaves many Iranians without water, power
- Climate change and poor policies behind shortages
- Lack of action could drive migration from rural areas
By Maya Gebeily
BEIRUT - Severe water shortages in Iran in recent weeks have prompted electricity outages and even sparked deadly protests, but analysts say the underlying causes go back decades - and will rattle the country for much longer than this summer's drought.
Sadeq Ziaeian, director of Iran's National Drought Warning and Monitoring Center, said the country was facing one of its toughest rainfall seasons in 50 years.
In comments to the official IRNA agency and carried by the Tehran Times, he noted rainfall had dropped by nearly 50% in South Khorasan province this year compared to the long-term average and by as much as 80% in southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province.
This month, residents of Ahvaz, capital of the southwestern province of Khuzestan, were left without water for hours at a time as sizzling temperatures inched past 50 degrees Celsius.
Drought-linked water shortages have also led to rolling power cuts in areas supplied by hydroelectric plants, which provide about 15% of Iran's power supply, according to the energy ministry.
Ali Mirchi, an assistant professor in Oklahoma State University's Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, said Iran's water supply is dwindling because of climate change and poor policymaking, while demand is rising, driving shortages.
"Throughout Iran as a whole, water spending has gone way up while water earnings are in decline," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"When you juxtapose those, it will lead to an understanding of a new normal - which is that the country is headed towards water bankruptcy."
Iran's Department of Environment recognized these dangers in a 2017 report submitted to the U.N. climate change body.
It noted that "the increase in temperatures and the decrease in precipitation and available water resources are the present reality for the country".
It said snowfall had declined, water evaporation had increased, and groundwater resources were not recharging – predicting "severe droughts" would become more likely.
But there is more to the story than a warming planet, analysts said.
"Climate change can be viewed as a catalyst and a trigger, but more important and fundamental is the long-lasting issue of chronic mismanagement of water resources," said Mirchi.
That includes transferring groundwater from remote areas to industrial and population hubs, encouraging farming of thirsty crops like sugar cane, and failure to manage water consumption.
If this status quo is allowed to continue, "things are going to be dismal", Mirchi warned.
"It means all these villages and rural areas run out of water and people cannot do what they're doing to sustain a livelihood, so they'll migrate in masses a lot bigger than what we've seen so far," he said.
Shirin Hakim, a doctoral researcher at Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy, said the absence of water-sensitive policies would make it harder for Iran to cope with the increasingly adverse effects of climate change.
"It's absolutely a vicious circle," she said.
Recurring drought and over-use of surface and groundwater to meet economic needs have upset the environmental balance of water systems, she added.
"Now we're seeing the environmental ramifications of prioritising short-term economic goals," she said.
The effects will extend beyond Iran's borders, Hakim warned.
"This has the potential to impact water and energy access issues for Iran's neighbours like Iraq, which relies heavily on Iranian energy supply and shares transboundary water resources," she said.
Iran has already built dams to retain water from its Little Zab and Sirwan rivers instead of letting them flow into the Tigris in Iraq.
This month's protests in Iran, first sparked by water shortages in the southwest, have turned political and spread to the capital and other regions.
The authorities accuse armed dissidents of provoking clashes during the rallies, but human rights groups say security forces have opened fire on demonstrators, with the estimated death toll varying between eight and 10 people.
Last week, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised citizens water would become a top priority.
"Now, thank God, all the various agencies, governmental and non-governmental, are working (to resolve the water crisis) and should continue with all seriousness," he said.
Iran's Department of Environment did not respond to a request for comment on the water situation and its causes.
Hakim said there was plenty Iran could do to make its policies more climate-smart.
It could raise public awareness of the need to conserve water, make water management a higher priority, rethink unsuitable crops, increase water and energy prices, and invest in rural areas to reduce migration, she said.
"Water will be one of the defining issues in determining Iran's future," she added.