Iran’s Biggest Problem Is Water

24 May 2021

Iran’s Biggest Problem Is Water

With supplies running out, water security could be the issue that finally makes the region’s countries work together.

By Alex Vatanka (Director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute)

May 24, 2021

Iran is parched. Indeed, this year is expected to be among the driest in the last 50 years. Of the country’s 85 million people, some 28 million people live in water-stressed areas, mostly in the central and southern regions. Water scarcity is hitting all segments of society, from urban households to rural farming communities.

Iran isn’t alone in its plight. Of the 17 most water-stressed states in the world, 12 are in the Middle East and North Africa, which includes all the littoral states of the Persian Gulf. In tackling the region’s water challenges, Iran and its Arab neighbors to the south have much to gain by accepting the need for regional cooperation to promote water security while minimizing harm to the Persian Gulf’s ecology. In fact, regional cooperation in this area is an easy mark and one U.S. President Joe Biden has good reasons to encourage given his administration’s focus on combatting climate change.

Over the last decade, Iranian authorities have invested much political and financial capital in dealing with the growing problem of water scarcity. This includes initiatives to increase the use of desalination and the transfer of water from the Persian Gulf to water-poor provinces in central Iran. This national water transfer plan, which is already underway, involves four main water supply lines and a growing number of feeder desalination plants. It is projected to cost as much as $285 billion to complete by 2025, and officials in Tehran expect it to create some 70,000 jobs.

The desalinated water will supply heavy industries and Iran’s extensive agricultural sector (the latter sector accounting for 90 percent of all water use in Iran). Its use will also keep precious underwater resources in the ground, which could save water for local rural communities and prevent greater movement from rural to urban areas that are ill-equipped to receive the inflow of migrants. In some parts of the country, lack of water has directly resulted in clashes between communities and between local populations and security forces. Iran’s water trouble, in other words, is a grave policy challenge on multiple levels.

Tehran’s ability to tackle its water crisis is also linked with its foreign-policy challenges. Iran’s worsening water crisis is not just a result of repeated droughts in the last few years. It has also coincided with the imposition of the latest round of U.S. sanctions, the most severe sanctions ever imposed on a country. In turn, Tehran’s financial power and access to the latest water technologies available have been drastically limited.

At the same time, Washington’s determination to stop Iranian oil exports has resulted in Tehran looking for alternative sources of income. Among others, water-intensive industries like petrochemicals, mining, and steel are the most appealing given eager customers in Asia (principally in China, which by some accounts has major investment ambitions in Iran’s economy, including the mining sector) who are prepared to shirk U.S. sanctions. In other words, an already water-challenged economy has diversified in such a way that water use has only increased. In 2000, before Iran began to face rounds of successive sanctions, industrial and mining sectors used about 1.2 percent of the country’s yearly water supply. This share is projected to reach 3 percent by 2021. In the central province of Isfahan, home to many heavy industries, the region’s rivers are close to drying up.

In this cycle of constantly attempting to catch up with growing water needs, the Iranian authorities have done little in the form of reducing public demand. (Latest available figure from 2011 show Iran’s water footprint per capita per day is 5,100 liters, which is similar to countries like France, Denmark, or Switzerland that have no comparable water challenges on their hands. That said, other water-stressed Middle Eastern states have comparable water use to Iran). Instead, the country has attempted to make more water available, and desalination is increasingly touted as a silver bullet.

Iran is a late comer to desalination. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf have long relied on desalination for the obvious reason of have no good alternatives. Of the Gulf Arab countries, all get between 55 percent to 100 percent of their water supply through desalination. The present rate for Iran’s desalinated water is about 0.1 percent, but Tehran is hoping to increase this number rapidly to compensate for record low rainfall.

With some 850 desalination plants already operating in the Persian Gulf region, and with 8 of the 10 world’s largest plants in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, increasing use of desalinated water raises some tough environmental questions. Building desalination plants, uptaking seawater, and discharging untreated brine back into the sea adversely affects marine ecosystems. The process is also energy-hungry and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental concerns are only bound to grow. Based on one estimate, some additional $100 billion worth of desalination projects are currently under planning in the Arab Gulf states that are overwhelmingly responsible for the production of desalinated water and its harmful byproducts. This figure excludes Iran’s plans, which has a much larger population than all of the other Gulf States and whose water needs and reliance on desalinated water might rapidly grow. In this race for desalination, the Gulf States have the financial means and the access to the latest, and therefore less environmentally damaging, desalination technologies. The limitations Iran faces will keep it restricted to older desalination technologies and hence less able to minimize the adverse impact of its present and planned desalination projects. Yet since the Persian Gulf has a common shared ecology, Iran’s lack of access to the latest desalination technological know-how will nonetheless impact the Arab countries on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf.

Despite the water challenges impacting all the littoral states, there is no collective regional agency that can deal with water-related challenges. The Gulf countries do not have the storage capacity for more than a few days’ consumption of drinking water. In the event of a supply crisis, littoral states have no one multilateral agency to consult. Only one agency has ever been created to deal with this issue: the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), which was established in 1979 and is now defunct. The revival of ROPME or the launch of a similar collective body to track and act as a facilitator for the region’s environmental challenges is arguably overdue. The region would greatly benefit from some degree of coordination when it comes to water policy and security, including ways to minimize and deal with byproducts from the seemingly inevitable desalination process.

As a rule, Iran and the Gulf States tend to have a security-centric approach to water policy. In the case of Iran, environmentalists on the ground have been scrutinized through a security lens and viewed skeptically by officials who sometimes accuse them of having ties to foreign intelligence services. Ongoing tensions in relations between Tehran and the Gulf states will make any Iran-Gulf state environmental collaboration that much more delicate. But doing nothing will be the worst of the options. From overfishing to rapid growth in coastal development to rising salinity, the waters of the Persian Gulf urgently need littoral states to seek out solutions to challenges that will impact them all.

Iran and the other Persian Gulf states are in a bind in the sense they are all reliant on the export of environmentally damaging oil and gas while also being extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to high heat indexes and water scarcity.

These countries understand as much and for that and other reasons are already implementing plans for economic diversification to shift away from oil production. In the meantime though, they need to make more of an effort to tackle the challenges of environmental degradation. Record temperatures and water scarcity are projected to make farming infeasible in many parts of the Middle East, resulting in potentially vast climate migration within the region—a joint risk that should be considered part of economic diversification plans.

Given lingering political tensions, cooperation may seem like a tall order, but worsening water scarcity comes at a time when Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are slowly probing ways to find common solutions to common problems. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s call in late April for better relations with Tehran has certainly been welcomed by Iran. Riyadh broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in January 2016, but recent months have witnessed the Iranians and Saudis quietly resuming negotiations with the aim of restoring relations. Although most of the attention will be on front-seat geopolitical challenges, including the ongoing Tehran-Riyadh faceoff in Yemen, regional environmental initiatives are arguably one of the least thorny areas for possible cooperation.

Unlike the Persian Gulf’s geopolitical struggles, environmental interests among the parties can be framed in non-zero-sum terms. Neither can the problems be solved unilaterally nor will the benefits of solving them only go to one country. Meanwhile, working together on water might open the way for meaningful cooperation on other issues.

The Biden administration, with the involvement of Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry will likely provide some opportunity and diplomatic muscle for efforts to push cooperation on environmental matters between Iran and the Gulf states. When Kerry visited the UAE to attend the Regional Climate Dialogue in April, he met with representatives from the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, and Oman. Iran’s absence was glaring. It is a reality that unless corrected will minimize the likelihood of a holistic regional approach to the Persian Gulf’s collective environmental challenges. As the Biden administration probes for ways to work with Iran in a mutually advantageous manner and as the Gulf States simultaneously seek to deescalate tensions with Tehran, the field of environmental cooperation and combating climate change offers a win-win opening for all.