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Iran Has Only Itself to Blame for Its ‘Water Bankruptcy,’ Some Experts Say


Lake Urmia in northern Iran was once the largest such saltwater body on earth, but it has shrunk to a 10th of its former size, experts say, because of damming of the rivers flowing into it and groundwater pumping from the surrounding region for development. The lake is protected as part of Unesco’s biosphere reserves. Overall, Iranian mismanagement, global warming and decreased rainfall has left the country with a chronic, menacing water crisis. CREATIVE COMMONS

Billed as the first of its kind in a generation, the United Nations is holding a heavily attended water conference in New York City this week, drawing attention to countries’ needs for sustainable water resources and sanitation facilities, especially in places where the world’s most important asset is shrinking from increasing consumption and pollution as well as global warming.

Iran, a country surrounded by three strategic waterways in West Asia, is an example of how a blend of climate change, declining rainfall and impaired environmental policies can produce a chronic, menacing water crisis, depriving thousands of people of drinking water while putting precious biospheres at serious risk of disappearance.

The first UN water conference took place in March 1977, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and the General Assembly passed a resolution in 2018 to convene a conference in March 2023 to review how well the International Decade for Action — Water for Sustainable Development was going. The years 2018-2028 were proclaimed by the UN as the decade for action on water. This month’s conference, led by the Netherlands and Tajikistan, runs from March 22-24. Results of the scores of meetings with the 6,000 or so participants of member states, world leaders, civil society and others will be summarized informally through a “Water Action Agenda,” keeping the gathering as apolitical as possible.

“This is more than a conference on water,” said Secretary-General António Guterres in his opening remarks. “It is a conference on today’s world seen from the perspective of its most important resource.”

The conference, Guterres added, “must represent a quantum leap in the capacity of Member States and the international community to recognize and act upon the vital importance of water to our world’s sustainability and as a tool to foster peace and international co-operation.”

A quarter of the world’s population, two billion people, use unsafe drinking water. According to Unicef, more than 1,000 children die from diseases associated with unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene every day. Rural communities suffer a disproportionate toll from water inequality, and it is estimated that 8 out of 10 people without access to basic drinking water live in those areas. The global water crisis is particularly impinging on women, most acutely in the poorest countries, where they are doubly vulnerable to water stress and competition over access to resources.

Iran is a stark example of a country suffering from an ingrained water crisis. Situated among three major bodies of water, the country has long reeled from a chronic water problem that experts ascribe to poor environmental management and the failure of the government to enact consistent policies for the optimal consumption and distribution of natural resources. Iran borders the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, and has an edge over some of its landlocked neighbors, such as Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. But Iran’s inefficient environmental planning has plunged the country into what a leading academic has called “water bankruptcy.”

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“If a country is in water bankruptcy mode, its water consumption exceeds its renewable water supply, so essentially what that nation consumes is more than what the nature is allocating to it,” said Kaveh Madani, a prominent Iranian environmental scientist, former politician and director of the UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), based in Ontario, Canada.

“Then you would see declining groundwater levels, shrinking lakes, wetlands and rivers, desertification, deforestation, dust storms, polluted water, wildfires and so on. Are we seeing these things in Iran? Absolutely,” he told PassBlue.

Iran has endured protracted periods of drought, and the reverberations of climate change are compounding its water problem. The Washington-based World Resources Institute ranks Iran as the 13th-most water-stressed nation in the world, even surpassing its landlocked neighbors Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. At the same time, the government’s meager investment in extending the water pipeline network to its far-flung areas has left many regions of the country pauperized.

As reported by the government, 17.6 percent of the population in Iran’s rural areas still don’t have access to potable water.

The Iran Meteorological Organization says 97 percent of the country is living through drought to varying degrees, and with decreasing precipitation, experts warn that a water war has erupted in the country, pitting people against each other in a battle over securing access to what is available. From Sept. 23, 2021 to a year later, rainfall dropped 24 percent, compared with the long-term average, and the World Bank ranks Iran as one of the 20 countries globally with the least annual precipitation.

The government has issued far too many permits for individuals and landowners to extract water as it stimulates agriculture, experts say. But since the use of groundwater is contingent on land ownership, a lot of illicit activity has been spurred as well, with proprietors digging wells to use the water in their personal villas and gardens. There are reportedly 350,000 illegal wells across the country and up to 14,000 illegal wells are sealed every year, rapidly depleting the aquifers. In recent decades, inadequate oversight and flawed management have resulted in up to 150 billion cubic meters of static water sources vanishing in Iran.

What has made a bad situation worse is the government’s relentless construction of dams to generate reserves for household and industrial use and to push industrial development. It is believed that Iran has constructed nearly 600 dams since the 1979 revolution, making it the third-largest dam builder, after China and Japan. Additionally, 190 more dams may be built. But the lavish projects have often been commissioned by inexperienced contractors, and their defective construction has spawned increased water evaporation, reduced irrigation potential and dampened hydroelectricity production, report local media.

Another major environmental crisis of national proportions has been the desiccation of Lake Urmia, or Lake Oromeeh, in northwestern Iran. Once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, the lake used to be a key wildlife habitat and is now a Unesco biosphere reserve. More than 50 dams have been constructed in the wetland’s basin, and coupled with endemic drought and lingering neglect, nearly 95 percent of its water has dried up over the last 40 years.

Because of its policies of stringent self-sufficiency, the perception of Iran is that it has refused to attract international cooperation to reverse its environmental woes. Some observers say the absence of such partnerships is the result of sanctions that have long isolated the country from the wider international community. But Madani believes it is the government’s own shortcoming in weighting sound environmental management that has triggered the water crisis.

“I don’t think the problems at home can be really blamed on the lack of relationship with intergovernmental agencies,” he said. “No foreign entity or foreign government can rescue Iran from water bankruptcy if Iran doesn’t decide to prioritize its water and environmental problems.”

Still, the UN water conference could be an opportunity for Iran to draw attention to its water crisis and initiate partnerships that can help the country overcome its nearly pariah status that is chipping away at its environmental resilience. The Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia may be a first step to easing Iran’s unfavorable status quo. Hurt by years of chronic isolation, Iran could use the UN forum to help pull off sustainable change, if it wished, observers say. Yet the website of the Iran mission to the UN lists no information on its participation in the conference.

Guterres said that water, “humanity’s lifeblood,” is in deep trouble.

“We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating,” he said, emphasizing four key areas of action: closing the water management gap, massive investment in water and sanitation systems, redoubling efforts to focus on resilience and treating climate action and the future of sustainable water as two sides of the same coin.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Iran's water woes?

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and an Asia Times correspondent. A recipient of the Chevening Scholarship from Britain’s Foreign Office, he is a 2022 World Press Institute fellow with the University of St. Thomas and a Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow with the United Nations. He was recently selected as the silver winner of the Prince Albert II of Monaco and UN Correspondents Association Global Prize for Coverage of Climate Change. He contributes to Foreign PolicyopenDemocracy, Middle East EyeResponsible StatecraftThe New Arab and Al-Monitor. His Twitter account:


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Iran Has Only Itself to Blame for Its ‘Water Bankruptcy,’ Some Experts Say
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11 months ago

The UN water conference held in New York City this week is a critical step in addressing the global water crisis, particularly in countries like Iran that are suffering from severe water shortages due to climate change and poor environmental policies. With two billion people using unsafe drinking water and 1,000 children dying from related diseases every day, this conference must result in real action and international cooperation to ensure sustainable water resources and sanitation facilities for all, particularly those in rural communities who are disproportionately impacted.

Anne Davies
Anne Davies
1 year ago

Having recently worked in Iran I was struck by the large number of eucalyptus trees growing in arid areas. These trees are known for sucking up enormous amounts of water, useful though they may be as fast growers for timber or paper. Surely environmentalists could persuade the authorities to stop planting them and to cut down existing ones? What efforts, if any, are ongoing in this direction? Can Passblue elaborate? Thank you.

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