Iran: A Passion for Large-Scale Water Projects is Unlikely to Alleviate Complex Water Problems

11 November 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Programme

Background

The first stage of a major desalination and water transfer project was inaugurated in Iran this month, in the hopes of lessening drought in central parts of the country. The project, which cost 163 trillion rials ($5.33 billion), aims to desalinate and transfer 200,000 cubic metres of water from the Persian Gulf to Iran’s central plateau each day. The project will eventually be able to transfer 600,000 m³ of water, and the Iranian Government hopes that the project will provide a sustainable source of water to central and south-eastern provinces.

Comment

Iran faces one of the worst water resources situations of any industrialised country. By 2030, it is expected that surface water runoff will have declined by 25 per cent, while groundwater levels have fallen sharply over the last several decades. By 2017, more than 500 Iranian cities were close to water stress (in which demand for water exceeds the amount that is actually available) and precipitation levels have fallen across much of the country. Average precipitation is one-third of the global average and around one-quarter of the country is desert.

While changing climate conditions have put stress on water systems in the Islamic Republic, mismanagement has been key in driving water insecurity. Rapid population growth and urbanisation have put huge stress on Iranian water supplies and the government encourages population growth to offset future problems associated with an ageing population. Meanwhile, as water becomes scarcer in rural areas, migration to urban areas has become increasingly attractive. There are fears that up to a fifth of people in Sistan and Baluchistan Province have left, or will leave, the region due to severe drought.

Agriculture is responsible for 92 per cent of the water consumed in Iran, while domestic use and industrial use consume seven and one per cent, respectively. Despite the importance of agriculture in generating non-oil revenue and food security, irrigation systems are highly inefficient and outdated. Importantly, irrigation is responsible for 90 per cent of groundwater extraction, which has contributed to the significant decline in groundwater tables.

Water management policy has also been fractured and, at times, contradictory. A law passed in 2005, which was designed to establish river basin organisations and manage water resources at a basin level, was subsequently suspended. As a result of the suspension, water management became an issue for provinces instead of geographically determined water basins that often spread across provincial borders. The suspension of the basin management system ultimately led to greater competition between provinces and elevated levels of groundwater extraction.

To cope with ongoing water insecurity, the Iranian Government has shown a strong inclination towards large-scale water infrastructure projects, including: interbasin water transfers, desalination plants and water recycling projects. In doing so, the government hopes to reduce the country’s reliance on traditional water resources. In reality, these projects have produced mixed results. One particularly ambitious project was a river diversion project that would transport water from the Karoun River to the Zayandeh-Rud River. As the flow of the Zayandeh-Rud doubled, economic development became increasingly water-intensive, which ultimately caused old water supply issues to re-emerge.

There is nothing to suggest that the latest water transfer project will be any more successful than the transfer project between the Karoun and Zayandeh-Rud Rivers. While the pipeline could increase the amount of water available in central Iran, there have been no amendments to the country’s water policy failures, no upgrades to outdated infrastructure and no new initiatives to protect increasingly depleted groundwater supplies. As in the past, it is simply a politically expedient fix to a deeply complex problem.

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