The Islamic Republic’s decades-long mismanagement of water resources has led to a shortage of fresh water, a problem compounded by drought and rising temperatures due to climate change. The shortage is acutely felt across Iran and has fueled recent protests against the government.
While Iran has managed to curb the rapid population growth of the 1980s – a success which may not last as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has set his eyes on increasing the population to 150 million – the Iranian government’s policies have systematically led to overuse of water. Contributing factors include corruption, lack of vision, unimpeded dam construction by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, inadequate water-distribution infrastructure, inefficient agriculture, inter-basin water transfer projects, and water quality degradation. For example, salt levels in the Karoun River – Iran’s largest – rose sharply after the IRGC built the Gotvand dam on land close to salt beds, despite warnings of the probable impact. The elevated salinity has damaged farmlands in Khuzestan, the oil-rich province which has also been an agricultural hub for hundreds of years. While there is growing recognition in the Iranian regime about the seriousness of the problem, it has been unable to reverse the trend.
The consequences of mismanagement are already visible across the country. Lake Urmia and several major rivers, including Isfahan’s iconic Zayanderud, have virtually dried up. Many living in the countryside have been forced to move to shanty towns in urban areas, and Iranian government officials have essentially admitted that a quarter of the population lives in those areas. These are recipes for social and political unrest. Many Iranians are worried about water shortages, and protests in badly-hit areas have been increasing in the past decade. Indeed, the most depressed areas witnessed the most intense unrest during the peak of the 2017-2018 mass protests.
Former agricultural minister Isa Kalantari has warned that within 22 years, approximately 50 million people, or 70 percent of the population, would “have no choice but to leave the country.” The minister might have exaggerated the future effect of the water crisis. However, there is no doubt that if the problem stays unresolved, it could have serious consequences for global security, possibly triggering further conflict and instability in the region and potentially causing an unprecedented influx of Iranian refugees into neighboring countries.
The U.S. should designate the network of corrupt entities and persons, including the IRGC-owned companies, which knowingly made decisions that exacerbated the water crisis. The U.S. could consider granting exemption licenses to American desalination companies to sell technologies and equipment to Iran despite sanctions, with any assistance conditional on Tehran’s commitment to full transparency, confirmable by independent international sources. VOA Persian and Radio Farda should be encouraged to devote more resources to covering the water crisis. The water crisis proves once again that the main victims of Tehran’s policies are the Iranian people.
Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at the Foundation for Foundation of Democracies where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a research fellow. Ghasseminejad is a former civil engineer with a Diplôme d'Ingénieur in sustainable construction and urban planning. Follow them on Twitter @AmirToumaj and @SGhasseminejad.