Iran's water crisis

iran sans eau


Gelareh Darabi’s documentary gives the observer a wide perspective on Iran’s alarming water shortages linked to mass migration, droughts, food shortages and political instability. Darabi explains its causes and its impacts and gives the word to many different Iranians involved in freshwater issues. She begins her journey in Iran’s former capital Isfahan, where the city’s ‘River of life’, the Zayandeh Rud, is completely dried up since a few years. This empty river with its magnificent bridges gives a tragic representation of Iran’s current water crisis. Freshwater resources as rivers, lakes and aquifers have been overexploited and mismanaged. As a consequence, sinkholes and soil subsidence are now causing serious problems, lakes are hyper saline and full of algae blooms and bacteria, and rivers are dried up. The economic impacts on agriculture and tourism, and the severe health effects on inhabitants, are a few consequences out of many. This is a critical time for Iran, amid regional instability, and it looks like it is already five to twelve.

Iran’s water crisis

Iran’s main water problems include rivers and lakes drying up, decreasing groundwater levels, and the deterioration of water quality affecting people's livelihoods. The Zayandeh Rud river is now a dead river, since only its cracked river bed is visible. Iranian have exhausted the water for agriculture. Iran’s main export is pistachio, a very water intensive crop (Mehryar et al., 2015). Roughly ten years ago the country had a diversity of crops, but since the trade in pistachio became really profitable, everyone invested in pistachio farming. To support this activity, Iran has tapped into already overexploited groundwater resources (Lehane, 2014). Landowners can get permits provided by the government to pump water from wells on their property, however there is no or little enforcement to ensure that withdrawal limits are not exceeded (Lehane, 2014). This now leads to the problems of land subsidence and sinkholes (Madani et al., 2016). In addition, excessive exploitation of the aquifer invites saltwater intrusion that degrades the land (Baghvand et al., 2010; Lehane, 2014), forcing farmers to abandon their land and homes. Thus, the crisis it is not about water shortage only, but it is also about the deterioration of the quality of freshwater.

Madani (2014), a global water expert, explains that the three main causes for Iran’s water shortage are rapid population growth, inefficient agricultural sector, and water mismanagement. Currently, the agricultural sector uses 90% of the water in this country. According to Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s VP and Head of Environmental Protection, Iran has undergone a lot of pressure on its economy. Due to the war with Iraq and multiple international sanctions, the objectives of being self-sufficient and producing enough food became paramount (Lewis and Madani, 2016; Madani et al., 2016). Besides, low domestic water prices subsidized by the government has led to levels of tap water uses that are 70% above global average (Lehane, 2014). This means that people do not have a conservation mindset and the government and NGOs have started to use social media to raise awareness and address this situation.

Another important aspect of Iran’s water crisis, not addressed in the documentary, is Iran’s high number of dams (Madani, 2014). While one could imagine that storage helps diffuse water shortages, it also foster additional use, as seen in many countries. Continuing manufactured scarcity fosters more dam construction and, increasingly, interbasin transfers. Iran's decision-makers are now contemplating bringing water from the Caspian Sea to Central Iran.

Social media was used by photographers to share pictures of Lake Urmia, once the Middle East largest salt water lake. In August 2014, the Lake's area reached 12% of its size in 1975 (Alizadeh‐ Choobari, Ahmadi‐Givi, Mirzaei & Owlad, 2016) and the photographers work visualizing Iran’s water problem have made people realize what is happening. The government and UNDP are funding projects to reduce water consumption and restore Lake Urmia (ULRP, 2015). These projects in the agricultural sector are promoting conserving farmer techniques, such as new crops which use less water; new equipment for transporting water; and new methods such as sprinkler irrigation. Thus far, farmers following the Sustainable Agriculture Project have cut water use between 40 and 50%, have increased their production quality and reduced costs. But most importantly, these techniques take off the pressure of farmers digging for freshwater which allows the aquifer to replenish naturally. The documentary takes these statements for granted and fails to enter in the technicalities of water management. Like in many other dry countries 'reduction in water use' are confused with 'water savings', whereas the increase in production reported with micro-irrigation more often than not signals an increase in crop transpiration, that is, water consumption, rather than water savings. This is all the more true in a closed basins with a terminal lake, as the Zayandeh Rud story sadly reminds us.

Cinematographic work

For Darabi, born in Iran, the documentary started when beholding pictures on social media about the alarming situation of Lake Urmia. Later, Kaveh Madani, a well-known water management expert in Iran, opened her eyes about the freshwater shortages in the rest of the country. While they are talking about Iran’s water crisis, they are standing next to the Zayandeh Rud, completely dry with cracked clay, whereas the surroundings of the river are green and freshly sprinkled parks. This shot is a perfect illustration of Iran’s mismanagement in water.

The photos picked up by Darabi, are made by photographer and journalist Solmaz Daryani. She believes that photos have more impact and makes people more aware. When Leonardo DiCaprio reposted a photo of Lake Urmia, this raised awareness and a 5 billion dollars program is now trying to restore the state of the lake. Irrespective of this promising development, it is frustrating to see that the problem only became public and addressed when it was picked up by a famous actor.

The documentary conveys a worrying impression and the title, Iran’s Water Crisis, almost sounds like an understatement. Iran’s water crisis is complex and needs many different solutions on different levels. A key strength of this documentary is that Darabi interviews Iranians from different backgrounds: from water- and geoscientists to local farmers and the countries VP and Head of Environmental Protection. This gives the spectator a wide overview of Iran’s water crisis and it many facets.

Although the documentary leaves us with doubts about the future of Iran’s freshwater, one is tempted to believe that the current acknowledgement of the magnitude of the crisis is the first step to tackling it and reverting a prospect of doom.

References and complements

See Designing institutions for watershed management: A case study of the Urmia Lake Restoration National Committee by Jalil Salimi, Reza Maknoon and Sander Meijerink, Water Alternatives 12(2): 609-635, Abstract | Full Text - PDF

Alizadeh‐Choobari, O., Ahmadi‐Givi, F., Mirzaei, N., & Owlad, E. (2016). Climate change and anthropogenic impacts on the rapid shrinkage of Lake Urmia. International Journal of Climatology, 36(13), 4276-4286.

Baghvand, A., Nasrabadi, T., Bidhendi, G. N., Vosoogh, A., Karbassi, A., & Mehrdadi, N. (2010). Groundwater quality degradation of an aquifer in Iran central desert. Desalination, 260, 264-275.

Foltz, R. C. (2002). Iran's water crisis: cultural, political, and ethical dimensions. Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics, 15(4), 357-380.

Lehane, S. (2014). The Iranian water crisis. Strategic Analysis Paper, Future Directions International International Pty Ltd.: Perth, Australia, 11.

Lewis, T., & Madani., K. (2016). End of Sanctions May Help Iran Face an Accelerating Environmental Crisis. Retrieved on January 20, 2020 from prompt-environmental-crisis

Madani, K. (2014). Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis? Journal of environmental studies and sciences, 4(4), 315-328.

Madani, K., AghaKouchak, A., & Mirchi, A. (2016). Iran’s socio-economic drought: challenges of a water-bankrupt nation. Iranian Studies, 49(6), 997-1016.

Mehryar, S., Sliuzas, R., Sharifi, A., & van Maarseveen, M. F. A. M. (2015). The water crisis and socio-ecological development profile of Rafsanjan Township, Iran. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, 199, 271-285.

ULRP (2015). Urmia Lake Restoration Program: Brief Report and Projects Outline. Retrieved on January 19, 2020 from file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Urmia%20Lake%20recovery%20report%20Oct%202 015.pdf

Contribution by Eline Kolb and Britt Weetink

Other links

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Photos sur l’eau en Iran

Failed policies, falling aquifers: Unpacking groundwater overabstraction in Iran

Inaction of the society on the drawdown of groundwater resources: Case study of Rafsanjan in Iran

All Water Alternatives items on Iran


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