This is the case of water scarcity in Iran, what might seem decades of mismanagement, that has turned water scarcity into a national crisis and caused several interrelated socio-economic problems. Writes Khalil Khani
Some 28 million people from Iran’s 85 million population live in severely water-stressed areas, mostly in the central and southern regions of the country. At the same time, according to reports from the country’s 31 provinces, 30 are experiencing water stress. Water scarcity is hitting all segments of society, from urban households to rural farming communities.
In the eyes of Iranians, water resources have always been a precious asset, whether from a religious, personal, or historical perspective. Iran’s civilization has been formed and expanded around rivers or outlets of Qanats over the past millennia, with most cities originating from an agriculturally based system, which was completely dependent on riverine irrigation and Qanats. As Iran is a country with a predominantly arid and semiarid climate, water has always been a top priority for its people who have a long tradition of sustainable water management. Qanats or underground water canals have historically been efficient in conserving water, dams, and water-saving structures have also been attracted the attention of earlier Iranians as is attested by the remains of numerous water structures built from about 240 AD.
Similar to other dramatic socio-economic changes in the 20th century, however, the waterscape of Iran has also been altered. Large-scale dams have been erected, rivers diverted, traditional water sharing rules abolished, wetlands dried up, and precipitation patterns changed while water demand and withdrawals have increased unsubstantially.
Now, the question is why Iran is facing with water crisis? As one is looking at rainfall data patterns, there are no significant changes in precipitations regimes in the past years. Also, as one knows that Iran is a country historically known as the land of drought and floods, and people who inhabited this region have adapted to such an environment, its weather patterns, and has established a significant civilization.
Iranian politicians have constantly blamed climate change, droughts, and lack of precipitations for the current water shortages. While devastating floods of recent years have caused much loss of lives and economic damages. Even though this is a serious problem, a 2021 study in Nature journal categorically stated that most of Iran’s groundwater depletion is “anthropogenic” which means it is caused or exacerbated by human activity.
In Iran, all environmental crises have been caused by the clerical regime, and even regime-affiliated experts admit that the regime plays a major part in creating environmental crises including, deforestation, overgrazing of rangelands, sinkholes, land subsidence, the plundering of water resources, and increased desertification. Iran’s clerical regime has destroyed the natural ecological balance of the country to an extent that most of these devastations are irreversible.
Regime officials and some foreign and domestic experts are trying to tie the water shortage severity to drought, climate change, and global warming instead of linking it to Iran’s notorious “Water Mafia”.
Others link the massive water shortage to the mismanagement, corruption, and plundering of water resources. But this might be somewhat misleading. Since the 1979 anti-monarchical uprising, Iran’s clerical regime has cleverly managed the country’s wealth, natural resources, and water resources in the name of the “deprived” but for the profit of the immensely rich religious foundations under the Supreme Leader’s supervision, the IRGC, elite clerics, and their affiliates.
Iran’s aquifers have been depleted due to massive over-extraction of underground water resources as the number of deep wells has increased during the clerics’ rule. IRGC affiliated companies are relentlessly building dams, regardless of their usefulness for the nation, without any environmental considerations, and farming of water-intensive crops, which are again under the control of affluent IRGC members, elite clerics, or foundations under the supervision of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Farmers hit by water shortages are fleeing their villages to live in shacks and sub-standard settlements on the outskirts of cities.
In recent years, the regime has given some privileged citizens tacit or explicit permission to exploit water resources that are not easily renewable, through such means as illegal wells. Some estimates are tallying wells without permits as 600,000 to 1,000,000. Dams and investment in water transfer projects have exacerbated the issue of water shortage, as the government has not created the appropriate infrastructure to ensure floods are controlled and absorbed into underground aquifers. Since watershed management is almost none existent, as a result a significant amount of floodwater and rainwater, which could have been stored and put to use in times such as this, has been wasted.
This is the case of water scarcity in Iran, what might seem decades of mismanagement, that has turned water scarcity into a national crisis and caused several interrelated socio-economic problems. Results indicate that the inefficient management and monitoring the water scarcity and lack of appropriate standardization and tariffs are the most important system failures of water scarcity. But, the most important of all is the regime’s policy implications toward water management that has been applied in its 42-year rule and brought the country to this dire situation.
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