Sadeq Ziaeian, director of Iran’s National Drought Warning and Monitoring Center, said the country is facing one of its harshest rainy seasons in 50 years.
In comments to the official IRNA agency and published by the Tehran Times, he noted that rainfall had fallen by almost 50% in South Khorasan province this year compared to the long-term average and up to 80% in the southeast of Sistan and the province of Baluchistan.
This month, residents of Ahvaz, capital of the southwestern Khuzestan province, ran out of water for hours as crackling temperatures surpassed 50 degrees Celsius.
Drought-related water shortages have also led to progressive power outages in areas served by hydroelectric plants, which provide about 15% of Iran’s energy supply, according to the Energy Ministry.
Ali Mirchi, an assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at Oklahoma State University, said Iran’s water supply is declining due to climate change and poor policy formulation, while demand increases, generating shortage.
“Across Iran as a whole, spending on water has increased, while revenue from water is declining,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When they are juxtaposed, you come to understand a new normal, which is that the country is heading towards the bankruptcy of water.”
Iran’s Department of the Environment recognized these dangers in a 2017 report submitted to the UN’s climate change body.
He pointed out that “the increase in temperatures and the decrease in rainfall and available water resources are the current reality of the country.”
He said snowfall had decreased, water evaporation had increased and groundwater resources were not being recharged, predicting that “severe droughts” would be more likely.
But there is more to the story than a warming planet, analysts said.
“Climate change can be seen as both a catalyst and a trigger, but more important and fundamental is the enduring problem of chronic mismanagement of water resources,” Mirchi said.
That includes transferring groundwater from remote areas to industrial and population centers, encouraging the cultivation of thirsty crops like sugar cane, and not managing water consumption.
If this status quo is allowed to continue, “things will get sad,” Mirchi warned.
“It means that all these villages and rural areas are left without water and people cannot do what they are doing for a living, so they will migrate in much larger masses than we have seen so far,” he said.
Shirin Hakim, a PhD researcher at Imperial College London’s Center for Environmental Policy, said the absence of water-sensitive policies would make it more difficult for Iran to cope with the increasingly adverse effects of climate change.
“It is absolutely a vicious cycle,” he said.
Recurring drought and the overuse of surface and groundwater to meet economic needs have upset the environmental balance of water systems, he added.
“We are now looking at the environmental ramifications of prioritizing short-term economic goals,” he said.
The effects will extend beyond Iran’s borders, Hakim warned.
“This has the potential to affect water and energy access problems for Iran’s neighbors like Iraq, which is highly dependent on Iranian energy supplies and shares cross-border water resources,” he said.
Iran has already built dams to retain water from its Little Zab and Sirwan rivers rather than letting it flow into the Tigris in Iraq.
This month’s protests in Iran, first sparked by water shortages in the southwest, have turned political and have spread to the capital and other regions.
Authorities accuse armed dissidents of sparking clashes during the demonstrations, but human rights groups say security forces have opened fire on protesters, with an estimated death toll ranging from eight to ten people.
Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promised citizens that water would become a top priority.
“Now, thank God, all the various agencies, governmental and non-governmental, are working (to solve the water crisis) and must continue in all seriousness,” he said.
Iran’s Environment Department did not respond to a request for comment on the water situation and its causes.
Hakim said that Iran could do many things 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, raise water and energy prices and invest in rural areas to reduce migration, he said.
“Water will be one of the determining issues in determining the future of Iran,” he added.
Thomson Reuters Foundation