The Debate

Iran’s Water Crisis: A Bigger Threat Than Israel?

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The Debate

Iran’s Water Crisis: A Bigger Threat Than Israel?

A former agriculture minister and Rouhani adviser says water is a bigger threat than Israel or the US.

A former agriculture minister has said Iran’s water shortage is a bigger threat to the country than either Israel or the United States, Al-Monitor reported this week citing local media.

According to Al-Monitor, Issa Kalantari, the minister of agricultural under president Hashemi Rafsanjani, told Ghanoon newspaper this week that the water crisis is the “main problem that threatens” Iran, adding that it is more dangerous “than Israel, America or political fighting” among the Iranian elite.

Kalatantari, who serves on president-elect Hassan Rouhani’s transition team and heads research on agricultural at the think tank Rouhani has headed since 1992, went on to say that if the water issue is not addressed, Iran could become “inhabitable.”

“If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.”

Kalatantari is not the only Iranian official who is concerned about the water shortages in the country. Mohammad Hossein Shariatmadari, a former Iranian trade minister, said in April that he believes the water issue is reaching an alarming level. The following month a deputy energy minister similarly warned that the country would soon face a water crisis.

Even the U.S. intelligence community sees water shortages as one of Iran’s primary challenges in the coming decades. In its Global Trends 2030 report, the National Intelligence Council said Iran “has no notable watersheds and is therefore heavily dependent on fossil and imported water, including ‘virtual water’ imports— such as agricultural goods like meat, fruit, and   vegetables using high levels of water to produce.”

And while the water crisis is set to worsen considerable in the coming years and decades, it has already resulted in notable unrest. After a drought earlier this year, hundreds of farmers in a town in Isfahan province clashed with police after destroying a pipeline that was carrying water from the Zayandeh Rood River in their town to the city of Yazd in a neighboring province. As a result, the city of Yazd reportedly began rationing water.

Iran has notorious tough terrain that has been both an enormous burden and huge asset to the country. On the one hand, it is difficult to govern let alone create prosperity in Iran given its immense size, semi-arid climate and defining topographical features—namely, its huge mountain ranges and two huge desert plateaus that already are largely inhabitable.

As Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, has observed:

“Iran’s population is concentrated in its mountains, not in its lowlands, as with other countries. That’s because its lowlands, with the exception of the southwest and the southeast (regions populated by non-Persians), are uninhabitable. Iran is a nation of 70 million mountain dwellers.”

This geography does not bode well for maintaining sufficient water supplies. Indeed, Iran’s annual precipitation rate is somewhere between one-third and one-fourth of the world’s average, and around two-thirds of the country receives less than the global norm.

Furthermore, around 71 percent of this precipitation evaporates, and this number is likely to rise in the future. 50 percent of Iran’s water comes from underground sources, but in many parts of the country underground water supplies are drying up. Mismanagement of water resources has exacerbated these issues, and climate change is likely to significantly worsen the problem in the future.

Although Iran’s topography is already not conducive to bountiful farming, water shortages are going to be hardest felt in the agricultural sector, which accounts for about 13 percent of Iran’s GDP, 23 percent of employment, and about 90 percent of the country’s water supplies.

Agriculture in the country has already been suffering in recent years, but increased water shortages are likely to make the Islamic Republic’s goal of self-sufficiency increasingly elusive. Lack of farming opportunities will also force more people to artificially migrate to the cities, where, among other things, the government will need to supply them with water. This will inevitably force the government to divert more of the already dwindling water supplies from rural agricultural communities to the cities, provoking anger and potential unrest from the impacted farmers.

Indeed, it does seem that water shortages could be causing Iranian policymakers more headaches than Israel or the U.S. in years ahead.