Iran is in “post-crisis mode” as it struggles to deal with a water scarcity problem that has already boiled over into protests, the former deputy head of the country’s environment department has warned.
As world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the Cop26 conference to discuss urgent action on climate change, Kaveh Madani told The National that Iran’s water problems have become so dire that its ecosystems are beyond saving. Over four decades, a surge in dam construction and increases in water-intensive mining and oil production have seriously depleted Iran’s water resources.
Mr Madani said decision makers have continued to put pressure on the country’s water system, leading to a situation where “the natural system will eventually collapse”. Across Iran, water scarcity is having a devastating impact on the country’s environmental riches and the lives of its people.
Violent protests broke out in the south-western region of Khuzestan in the summer when hundreds of farmers sought to draw attention to the severe water scarcity in the country. With water supplies already suffering from decades of mismanagement, a drought left people in the arid region unable to hydrate themselves or their crops. This has led to what Mr Madani calls “water bankruptcy”, a situation where the “total water consumption is much more than the renewable water. Bankruptcy is a post-crisis stage.”
Decision makers in Tehran, he said, can “no longer only focus on mitigating the problem because some of the damages to the ecosystem have become irreversible”. Instead, the government must accept failure and adapt to a "new normal", a new ecosystem, he said.
Lakes going dry
Over the past decade, Iran has seen some of its most famous lakes dry up. Lake Urmia, which is believed to have supported human life for around 9,000 years, and was once the largest saltwater lake in West Asia, has all but disappeared. By 2014 the lake had shrunk by up to 80 per cent, to just 1,000 square kilometres. Efforts to restore the river have largely been unsuccessful.
Zayandeh Rud, the river that flows through Iran’s ancient capital Isfahan — considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world — has also dried up.
About a third of Iran’s 24 most important wetland areas, home to hundreds of species of birds and vital for supporting biodiversity, are under threat or in critical condition, according to the UN Environment Programme. In areas like Sistan and Balochistan — as in Khuzestan — there are villages with no access to water. Efforts to restore these bodies of water have largely failed because aquifers — reserves of water that lie underground — have been depleted, said Mr Madani.
A water conservation expert, Mr Madani also served as the vice president of the UN Environmental Assembly Bureau. He left Iran in 2018 after the mass arrests of environmentalists.
While the lack of water is causing devastation, the government lacks the financial resources to mitigate the crisis. Despite some political will, including the creation of an environmental department in the government, Mr Madani said making long-lasting changes to climate policy is expensive. When countries go through crises, environmental policy is often the first thing to fall by the wayside. “Even in advanced economies, the environmental topic can get overshadowed by other issues, as when people are dealing with Covid-19, or economic hardship”, he said.
Mr Madani said governments are often trying to “prioritise the short-term problems and short-term satisfaction rather than focusing on what is good for the environment and for the nation in the long run.” This cycle often leads countries to implement unsustainable development in an effort to survive.
Iran’s fight for survival amid crippling US sanctions has been a double-edged sword for Iran’s environment. The country’s “whole development plan is water-dependent,” Mr Madani said, with key sectors including mining, farming and oil production all demanding water in large quantities.
Nearly two decades ago, before Iran began to face sanctions, its industrial and mining sectors used about 1.2 per cent of the country's yearly water supply. This number was set to double by this year. The increase in water usage and sanctions, along with the driest summer the country has faced in 50 years, made 2021 a particularly difficult year.
With US sanctions continuing to bite, Iran has decided to put further strain on its natural supplies, creating an unsustainable situation, he said, and with no end in sight to Iran's water crisis, the future of the country looks uncertain.
While Mr Madani does not believe water shortages always lead to war, he said an increase in regional tensions as water reserves decline in the Middle East is inevitable.
“Water can be used as political leverage to threaten or encourage cooperation between countries”, he said. Water, he added, is more likely to cause national security and economic issues within a country’s borders than increase the risk of open conflict.
Mr Madani cited Syria’s water shortages as an example of what can go wrong. “Droughts and decades of bad management of water systems triggered the loss of farmers' jobs, migration to cities, rising tensions and domestic war.”
Iran, he warned, is in a similar situation.