Drought and water mismanagement have brought Iran’s water crisis to a boil and threaten both national and regional security

By Susanne Schmeier, Charlie Iceland, Liz Saccoccia

From California to Siberia and from Western and Southern Germany to parts of China, the Summer of 2021 has brought the climate change challenge into full view and highlighted the horrendous impacts the consequences of climate change and its impacts on water resources can have on people’s lives and livelihoods. Iran is yet another victim of anthropogenic climate change, but also of water resources mismanagement. Due to this disastrous mix of climate impacts and problematic water resources management decisions, water-related challenges do not only threaten lives and livelihoods, but have also led to protests, violence and an increasing risk of destabilization. The recent protests in the Iranian province of Khuzestan in July 2021 are only the latest evidence of water-related challenges leading to risks of instability, insecurity and conflict in Iran and beyond. The Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership has been monitoring these issues for some time and recommends continued attention to these developments. 

Across much of Iran, persistent rainfall decline, punctuated by severe drought, have greatly reduced water supply over the past several decades. At the same time, water demand has gone through the roof (Figure 1) in an effort to irrigate enough crops to make the country food self-sufficient, a policy introduced in pre-revolutionary times, but further intensified after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and more recently in a response to economic sanctions. Irrigation accounts for 90% of Iran’s water use – while it accounts for less than 15% of the country’s GDP. Food self-sufficiency, furthermore, was never achieved. Add to the mix inefficient and growing use of water for urban water supply and the building of numerous dams not only for irrigation but also for hydropower generation, and a situation in which Iranians are witnessing more and more of their major rivers and lakes drying up and groundwater levels dropping emerges.

Figure 1. Total water demand has increased in Iran from 1960-2014. 

These water challenges have led to considerable water stress in Iran. Figure 2 shows baseline water stress in Iran. Water stress is the ratio of water demand to water supply. In the regions of Isfahan, Lake Urmia, and so many others, we see that water stress is extremely high. When water stress levels are that high, rivers and lakes can dry up and groundwater levels fall precipitously. High water stress levels have affected people’s drinking water security in both rural and urban areas, deprived people of their livelihoods, driven farmers off their farms (displacing over 16 million people within the country already), and reduced other socioeconomic opportunities at the individual, local and national level. In parts of the country, falling water levels in rivers forced cuts in hydropower generation, resulting in power outages.

Figure 2: Baseline Water Stress in Iran. Source WRI-Aqueduct

Dissatisfaction with the situation and the government’s apparent inability to provide short-term remedies or address the poor water resources management situation in the country more fundamentally have led to many protests over the past several years across many parts of the country. Recent protests in Khuzestan and Isfahan provinces in 2021 are only the latest examples (Figure 3).

Khuzestan has been hit particularly hard: The Karun River – Iran’s largest – flows into the Shatt al-Arab in oil-rich Khuzestan province, then forming the border between Iran and Iraq, before emptying into the Persian Gulf. But this river has now largely dried up. Other smaller rivers are facing the same fate – both due to climate change and drought as well as man-made problems such as over-extraction and the diversion of many of these rivers towards central Iran. The same is true for wetlands, which have been drained for oil drilling, depriving them of their important water regulation function and leading to severe environmental damage. Groundwater levels have been dropping as well. As a consequence, in July 2021, residents of the capital of the province, Ahvaz, were repeatedly left without water, while suffering under temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius.

With livelihoods and economic opportunities deteriorating due to water shortages, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Authorities responded with "deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas" to disperse them. According to Amnesty International, at least eight protesters and bystanders were killed across the province in the crack-down.

There have been protests elsewhere across Iran – including in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Bojnourd, Saghez, and other big cities – to express solidarity with the people of Khuzestan and anger at the ruling party, which has responded with arrests and attempts at shutting down social media. At the same time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressed his sympathy with the demands of the protesters and promised that water would be made a top priority. While they have thus far failed to improve water resources management or address climate change, it appears that Iran’s leadership is aware of the crisis and its impacts on livelihoods as well as on broader national stability and security.

Figure 3. Riots and protests in Iran that specifically mention water, farmer, or livestock from January 2021 – August 2021. Source: ACLED.

These protests were not the first in this region of Iran (or elsewhere across the country): In February and June 2019 and in June/July 2019, residents of Khorramshahr and Abadan in Khuzestan province suffered significant water shortages and poor-quality drinking water, helping trigger violent protests. And just earlier this year, in January and February 2021, farmers in the central Iranian city of Isfahan (Figure 3) staged several large rallies to protest the “denial of their water rights” from the Zayandeh Rud River. Due to increasing irrigation and water resources mismanagement in the basin, the river no longer reaches the city. This is not the first time farmers have staged protests in Isfahan. In mid-2018, hundreds of farmers from the eastern part of the province stormed Isfahan city, chanting, “America is not our enemy; our enemy is right here.” Media reported these protesters were met by police forces dressed in anti-riot gear and equipped with water cannons.

Policy-makers in Iran seem well aware of the challenges. In late April 2021, Deputy Energy Minister for Water and Wastewater Affairs Ghasem Taqizadeh Khamesi declared that water storage in the country’s dams had declined 20 percent over the past year. In addition, he announced that due to a 40% decline in rainfall relative to the long-term average, “we won’t be able to supply water for the three cultivation periods of spring, autumn and summer.” Drought conditions have continued into summer, with the Director of Iran’s National Drought Warning and Monitoring Center, Sadeq Ziaeian, declaring that the country was facing one of its toughest rainfall seasons in 50 years, with rainfall dropping by nearly 50% in some parts of the country and even 80% in the Southeastern provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan. But Iran’s policy-makers seem unable to mount an effective response to these challenges.

The Water, Peace and Security Early Warning Tool has been tracking these developments and its quarterly reports provide useful background on latest developments. The tool is currently predicting emerging conflict for the region around Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province. The Early Warning Tool employs data on water and other natural resources, in combination with political, economic, social, and demographic data, to predict conflict over the coming 12 months, including emerging or ongoing water-related conflicts such as the ones currently occurring in Iran.