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

URL alternative:

Photos about water in 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


Other review by Bosma, P.R.M., Rollingswier, I. & Smit, P.J.C.


The Middle East is facing a prospect of living without water. Water shortages have caused mass migration, droughts, food shortages and political instability. In Iran, the current and already deteriorated water management is compounded by international sanctions. Moreover, rapid population growth and inefficient water use in the agricultural sector enhance the pressure on water availability. Change in management is needed in order to survive. This documentary focuses on three locations throughout Iran to point out the severity of Iran’s water crisis.

The Esfahan Province, through which the Zayanderud river flows, suffers from the consequences of insufficient water management. The river has dried, as upstream water users exhaust the river for irrigation. This maximization of water use has led to “water bankruptcy”, loss of wetlands, land subsidence, desertification and declining groundwater levels. This happens on a national scale, since 90% of Iran’s water is used for agricultural purposes.

Over the past 50 years, Iranians extracted 70% of its groundwater supplies to irrigate agricultural lands. An example is the region of Sirjan, dominated by pistachio farms. As a result, the soil’s water holding capacity decreased causing runoff, floods, sinkholes and eventually damage of infrastructure. Moreover, salt intrusion contaminated the freshwater aquifers. The decreased water quality and quantity made the land inhabitable, resulting in displacement of (pistachio) farmers.

The vice-president and head of environmental protection of Iran recognizes the water shortage problem of Iran. She argues that a change in water management and consumption patterns, and the lifting of the sanctions is needed to take the pressure off the environment. A first step is reforming the agricultural industry by working with, and training and educating, local farmers.

The farming area surrounding Lake Urmia is involved in this Sustainable Agriculture Project. Lake Urmia, the largest saltwater lake of the Middle East, is now 10% of its former size. Algae and bacteria started blooming due to its hypersaline water.  Moreover, the hyper salinity affects the farming industry and people’s health. The pilot project by the government and the UNDP promotes and subsidizes farming techniques to help conserve water, thereby minimizing groundwater depletion so that the freshwater aquifer can replenish naturally.


The documentary argues that mismanagement of water resources is the main cause of Iran’s water crisis, which is mostly based on the unsustainable value system of industrial modernism (Foltz, 2002). Foltz also acknowledges the rapid population growth as a cause of water shortages, though he additionally recognizes that climate change contributes to the water shortages. The system of industrial modernism is also pointed out by the documentary in the Esfahan Province, as the Zayanderud river has mainly dried because of mismanagement due to excessive water exploitation for agricultural purposes. Moreover, the water availability of this region is pressurized by the growing urban population and industrial sectors, resulting in deteriorating water quality (Salemi et al. 2000). In solving this problem, the documentary focuses on water conservation measures in the agricultural sector.

The ~8 meters water level decline of Lake Urmia has degraded biota, intensified desertification of the surrounding area, and raised social concerns due to the impact on social health and economy (Danesh-Yazdi & Ataie-Ashtiani, 2019), as is revealed in the documentary. It is debated if the primary cause of this decline is predominantly induced by climate change or unsustainable water management. Khazaei et al. (2019) agrees with the documentary that the most important driver of the shrinking of Lake Urmia is the water consumption of the area. Contrarily, Schulz et al. (2020) concluded that the water level change over the past 50 years is mainly related to climate change. However, they also argue that under the current climate conditions agricultural freshwater extraction is exceeding remaining inflow. Moreover, the water quality of Lake Urmia is affected by the construction of a 15 km causeway (Soudi et al. 2017). Thus, the unsustainable water management is significantly impacting Lake Urmia’s conditions (Schulz et al. 2020).

In addition, spatial analysis by Vaheddoost and Aksoy (2018) showed interaction between water levels in the lake and groundwater wells. ~70% of the lake’s runoff originates from groundwater baseflow. Furthermore, the spatiotemporal analysis indicates the groundwater level is potentially high enough to restore the lake’s water levels. Nevertheless, groundwater levels are declining to an extent that the interaction could be reversed: the salt water lake replenishes the freshwater aquifers, resulting in an accelerated shrinkage of Lake Urmia. The documentary shows similar consequences for the Sirjan region.

The Urmia Lake Restoration National Committee (ULRNC) implemented water management strategies to mitigate the deterioration of Lake Urmia, which were ineffective (ULRP, 2018). However, between 2016 and 2019, the water levels of Lake Urmia seem to have stabilized. Saemian et al. (2020) subscribed this to an incidental precipitation surplus. The management strategies turned out to be ineffective due to data deficiency, limitations in hydrological models, and lack of process level understanding of water level responses, resulting in inaccurate assumptions regarding water policy. As the documentary mentions, measures to reduce agricultural water consumption will be beneficial for the hydrological conditions of Lake Urmia (Danesh-Yazdi & Ataie-Ashtiani, 2019).


The directors succeed in merging the scientific and personal aspects of Iran’s water crisis into one comprehensive documentary. They start with interviewing a global water expert showing the worrying but characteristic outcome of mismanagement. Though climate change seems to be forgotten, the man becomes angry and sighs with despondency when seeing the perverse reality of the mentality of Iran’s citizens; a man watering the grass and children playing in fountains in a green park next to the dried up Zayanderud river. The film makers take you along with the water scientist’s emotional message: Why is everyone acting like nothing is wrong with the situation?

In addition, a story about a family affected by the water crisis is addressed, taking a more personal approach. Old pictures of a thriving family business on paddleboat tourism at Lake Urmia give a sense of melancholy as the scene is followed by weathered, dusty paddleboats in their home’s backyard. The most touching moment occurs when the reporter herself and a geoscientist show grief when visiting an abandoned pistachio farm where families used to prosper from the land. The viewer is engulfed with the grim reality that awaits the whole of Iran if nothing were to happen. A glimpse of uncertain hope is given in the end when government backed help in modern water-saving farming techniques could secure the future of the livelihoods of farming families in Iran.

Bosma, P.R.M., Rollingswier, I. & Smit, P.J.C.



Danesh-Yazdi, M., & Ataie-Ashtiani, B. (2019). Lake Urmia crisis and restoration plan: Planning without appropriate data and model is gambling. Journal of Hydrology576, 639-651.

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

Khazaei, B., Khatami, S., Alemohammad, S. H., Rashidi, L., Wu, C., Madani, K., ... & Aghakouchak, A. (2019). Climatic or regionally induced by humans? Tracing hydro-climatic and land-use changes to better understand the Lake Urmia tragedy. Journal of hydrology, 569, 203-217.

Saemian, P., Elmi, O., Vishwakarma, B. D., Tourian, M. J., & Sneeuw, N. (2020). Analyzing the Lake Urmia restoration progress using ground-based and spaceborne observations. Science of The Total Environment, 139857.

Salemi, H. R., Mamanpoush, A. R., Miranzadeh, M., Akbari, M., Torabi, M., Toomanian, N., ... & Gieske, A. (2000). Water management for sustainable irrigated agriculture in the Zayandeh Rud Basin, Esfahan Province, Iran (No. 616-2016-41039).

Schulz, S., Darehshouri, S., Hassanzadeh, E., Tajrishy, M., & Schüth, C. (2020). Climate change or irrigated agriculture–what drives the water level decline of Lake Urmia. Scientific reports, 10(1), 1-10.

Soudi, M., Ahmadi, H., Yasi, M., & Hamidi, S. A. (2017). Sustainable restoration of the Urmia Lake: History, threats, opportunities and challenges. European Water, 60(1), 341-347.

ULRP, 2018. Urmia Lake: Lessons and Challenges. Urmia Lake Restoration Program.

Vaheddoost, B., & Aksoy, H. (2018). Interaction of groundwater with Lake Urmia in Iran. Hydrological processes, 32(21), 3283-3295.

Zamani, O., Grundmann, P., Libra, J. A., & Nikouei, A. (2019). Limiting and timing water supply for agricultural production–The case of the Zayandeh-Rud River Basin, Iran. Agricultural Water Management, 222, 322-335.


Additional Info

  • Director: Gelareh Derabi and Arwa Aburawa
  • Producer: Aljazeera
  • Language: English
  • Year: 2016
  • Duration (min): 25
  • Theme: Water scarcity, Dams, Environmental degradation, Irrigation & agricultural water management, Climate change, Drought, Water governance, Sustainability, Salinisation, Water politics, Hydraulic mission
  • Access: Free
  • Country: Iran
  • Technical quality (star): Technical quality (star)
  • Academic interest (star): Academic interest (star)
  • Societal interest (star): Societal interest (star)
  • Technical quality: 5
  • Academic quality: 5
  • Social interest: 4