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The Iranian Water Crisis

Alongside armed conflicts, the Middle East and North Africa region is now seeing the blossoming of protests and social unrest sparked by drought and water shortages. During the summer, numerous demonstrations have erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen putting at the forefront of their governments’ agenda the water crisis. Aridity has been one of the area’s greatest challenges for hundreds of years. However, because of the climate change effects, the situation is raising more and more concerns. Nonetheless, experts warned that despite global warming’s negative outcomes, who is to blame are also the governments. In particular, the Iranian water crisis has been largely attributed to irresponsible governmental policies and extensive human water withdrawals. The Iranian administration, guided by the newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi, will need to find a solution to appease protesters. Nevertheless, specialists have already commented that “Raisi is not a president for development” and is instead “a president for deepening the ideological targets of the Islamic Republic — for increasing, not solving, its problems”.


The Islamic Republic of Iran has been suffering from severe dryness and water shortages in the last decades. The country faces numerous climatic challenges such as dryness, shrivelling lakes, high temperatures, and pollution. With January 2021 and October 2020 being recorded as the driest months since the 1980s, the country is facing a climatic ticking bomb. The government has reported that climatic change was responsible for the extreme drought and the decrease in rainfall by almost 50% in the last year. The most notorious and severe case of the Iranian water shortage is represented by the region of Khuzestan, which has seen its water levels steadily dropping in 2021 and 2020. This province used to be one of the most abundant for water resources, irrigated by the Karun river which is now running dry. However, in the last decades, Khuzestan’s water plenitude has been exploited by building enormous dams and used to redirect water to industrial, agricultural, domestic usage and hydroelectricity. More generally, Khuzestan is also supporting the other drier lands of Iran by transferring water.

To voice out their dissent over the water crisis and electricity blackouts, the citizens of Khuzestan have protested calling out the government to take action. Citizens have been heard protesting against the Iranian Supreme Leader by chanting "Death to the dictator" and "Death to Khamenei". The demonstrations have attracted the attention of global media after the Iranian authorities have firmly repressed any form of dissent, which resulted in at least five deaths and arrests. As commented by Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, “(T)he Iranian political leaders’ primary response to widespread demands for basic rights has been unchecked repression”. Similarly, the United Nations’ chief Michelle Bachelet, has criticised the Iranian administration mentioning that “(S)hooting and arresting people will simply add to the anger and desperation”, allegations Iranian officials deny.


As a response to the streets demonstrations, the Iranian regime has blamed climate change for the country’s drought and water crisis. However, experts assert that although global warming plays a role in Iran’s predicament, the responsibility falls mainly on the political elite. Indeed, Kaveh Madani, the former deputy head of the Iranian Environment Department, has argued that “(C)limate change and drought is a catalyst here. But the problem is rooted in decades of bad management, poor environmental governance and lack of foresight, and not getting prepared for a situation like this”. In particular, irresponsible water management policies coupled with water-consuming agricultural and irrigation systems – which make up 90% of Iran’s usage of water – are to blame for the nation’s conditions. To face the international sanctions weighing on top of Iran, the government has encouraged the population to become self-sufficient. This led to a promotion of the planting of water-intensive cultivation crops - such as sugar cane or rice - thus further exacerbating the already dire condition of the soil. According to M. A. Saki, a journalist at Tehran Times, “(T)he massive consumption of surface waters to irrigate paddy fields or other water-intensive crops like onion or watermelon has even disrupted the ecosystem in certain areas. However, officials, especially those in the ministries of agriculture and energy, are either ignorant of the short-term and long-term consequences of this move or they are purely careless”. The adoption of these short-sighted decisions has contributed to further shrink Iran’s water stock and stir up social unrest. Experts’ projections already warn that the worst is yet to come, with the 2025-2049 decades expected to be characterised by more extreme temperatures, longer dry seasons, as well as heavy rainfalls and floods.


The climate change alarm is ringing throughout the world. However, in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa, the menace is already noticeable. Echoing the Iranian situation, the humanitarian organization Unicef has warned that Lebanon’s water supply is on the verge of collapse, with over 71% of the population at risk of losing access to the vital resource. Academics have cautioned policymakers and international leaders of the political and security repercussions global warming could have in this part of the world. Looking at the recent escalation of conflicts in the area, Staffan de Mistura, former UN Special Envoy for Syria between 2014 and 2018, mentioned that “(C)limate disruption was an amplifier and multiplier of the political crisis that was building up in Syria” in 2011. Shortages in water, fuel, and food supplies could lead to the tipping of the precarious regional geopolitical balance, creating a cascading effect and provoking social unrest and clashes.


Written by Cinzia Saro


Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey