Unrest related to the ongoing water scarcity crisis has flared up again in Iran, with water pipelines reportedly sabotaged by farmers in the central Iranian province of Isfahan. The pipelines divert water from that province to neighbouring Yazd province, which farmers in Isfahan claim has starved their fields. There have been a number of protests in the region, fuelled by complaints that local authorities have mismanaged water supplies. This is the 25th attack on water transfer infrastructure this year. The damage it caused is extensive enough that water supplies in Yazd have been disrupted, raising fears that the supply of potable water in the province may not last.
Iran, like much of the Middle East, is alarmingly water scarce. Average precipitation in the country is one-third of the global average and a quarter of the country is desert. Iran has experienced drought for at least a decade, which is expected to become worse as climate change continues to contribute to hotter, drier conditions in the region. This has led to a dramatic reduction in the level of many of Iran’s rivers and lakes, forcing many people in rural areas to relocate.
An increasing population is putting further pressure on Iranian water supplies, contributing to the rapid depletion of groundwater sources. The Islamic Republic has one of the highest rates of groundwater extraction in the world and most of the population depends on groundwater for drinking and irrigation. By over-exploiting its groundwater resources, Iran has seen: a reduction in yields from its wells; an increase in groundwater salinity; a decrease in the flow of groundwater into wetlands and rivers; and an increase in the cost of pumping (which, in turn, has increased the cost of agriculture).
Much of the demand for Iran’s scarce water is driven by the agricultural sector. Agriculture accounts for more than 90 per cent of Iranian water consumption and the sector takes most of its water from underground sources. The management system in this sector is one of the most advanced in the region, but is still prone to mismanagement, which exacerbates the crisis. The continued use of flood irrigation is the most egregious sign of mismanagement, as that method wastes 65 per cent of the water it uses.
Iran is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the Middle East and has invested heavily in the sector. Due to a long history of sanctions and international isolation, food self-sufficiency has been an ideological goal since the 1979 Revolution. Heavy water and energy subsidies are designed to incentivise farmers, but fail to encourage them to adopt measures that would modernise irrigation systems or to plant less water-intensive crops. The regime has also failed to co-ordinate its rural development. Its plans for land use, water management and food security are managed by different government agencies, making effective responses to the crisis difficult.
As agriculture intensifies the water crisis, water shortages, in turn, cause ongoing damage to agriculture. Over-abstraction of groundwater resources is one of the biggest contributors to soil salinity, especially when: saline aquifers are exploited; wells are drilled too deeply; or drainage systems are insufficient. Additionally, as Iran’s saline lakes dry out, the dried out salt is often picked up by the wind, which disperses it across the country.
Facing worsening conditions in the water and agricultural sectors, farmers in Isfahan and other provinces are likely to feel increasingly marginalised. With economic difficulties mounting, the Iranian Government is unlikely to have the will, or the ability, to overhaul its water distribution system in a way that will be both sustainable for the future and will also ease the present difficulties faced by rural Iranians.