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Condition critical: Desertification threatens to turn Iran’s future to dust

Iran's flag (Dreamstime/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Temperatures in Iran are hitting record highs, rivers and lakes are drying up, and prolonged droughts are becoming the norm, highlighting a water crisis that is turning much of the country’s territory to dust.

The desertification of Iran is occurring at a staggering pace, with officials last month warning that more than 1 million hectares of the country’s territory — roughly equivalent to the size of Qom Province or Lebanon — is essentially becoming uninhabitable every year.

The situation has Tehran scrambling to gain control of the situation in a country where up to 90 percent of the land is arid or semi-arid. But the clock is ticking to stave off what even officials have acknowledged could lead to an existential crisis and the mass exodus of civilians.

The warning signs were on full display this month. Temperatures in southwestern Iran hit a staggering 66.7 degrees Celsius (152 degrees Fahrenheit), higher than what is considered tolerable for human life.

Iranian scientists warned that the water levels of Lake Urmia, which is in severe danger of drying up, are the lowest recorded in 60 years. And in what has become routine, advisories were issued about the threat of suffocating dust storms.

As elsewhere in the world where temperatures are soaring, global climate change gets much of the blame. But the thermometer only tells part of the story on an issue Iran has been wrestling with for years.

“Exacerbated by decades of [international] isolation, mismanagement of local resources, rapid population growth, improper spatial distribution, and the consequences of a prolonged drought, Iran’s water crisis has entered a critical phase,” environmental expert Shirin Hakim told RFE/RL in written comments.

Water scarcity, and Tehran’s failed efforts to remedy it, is well documented. The problem has led to grand dam-building and water-intensive irrigation projects that have contributed to the drying up of rivers and underground water reservoirs. Clashes with neighboring states and anti-government protests in hard-hit areas of Iran have erupted over scant water resources. And the degradation of soil has contributed to the increase of dust and sandstorms that have helped make Iran’s air pollution among the worst in the world.

The accompanying loss of arable land has also harmed agricultural production, threatening livelihoods and leading to internal migration from the countryside to urban areas, which in turn could unleash a raft of related problems.

“Over time, the increased pressure on urban areas due to these migration patterns can strain infrastructure, natural resources, and create socioeconomic challenges,” said Hakim, a senior fellow at the Berlin-based Center for Middle East and Global Order (CMEG) and fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.

Mass Exodus?

Iran’s population has more than doubled since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, rising from about 35 million to almost 88 million, with about 70 percent of the population residing in cities. Tehran alone, Hakim said, “has seen an average influx of a quarter of a million people per year for the previous two decades.”

But as water scarcity and desertification make more and more territory unlivable, there are fears that a huge segment of the population might eventually have no option but to flee the country entirely in the face of what is arguably Iran’s most pressing policy challenge.

In 2015, Isa Kalantari, a former agriculture minister who at the time was serving as a presidential water and environment adviser, infamously predicted that, unless Iran changed its approach on water use, “Approximately 50 million people, 70 percent of Iranians, will have no choice but to leave the country.”

In July 2018, a month that saw violent protests over water shortages in the southwestern city of Khorramshahr as the country faced its driest summer in 50 years, then-Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli described the water situation as a “huge social crisis.” Fazli said water scarcity could fuel migration and significantly change the face of Iran within five years, eventually leading to “disaster.”

That deadline has passed, but the dire predictions and failed policies continue.

Iran is currently ranked by the World Resources Institute as one of the most water-stressed nations in the world, based on the impact on countries’ agricultural and industrial sectors, and routinely has been listed among the countries where water scarcity could lead to conflict.

That prospect became a reality earlier this year when Iran and Afghanistan engaged in deadly cross-border shelling. The clashes came after Tehran demanded that its neighbor release more upstream water to feed Iran’s endangered southeastern wetlands.

Internally, the threat of renewed anti-government protests over the lack of fresh water like those seen in the southwestern Khuzestan Province in 2021 highlight the ongoing challenge to Iran’s clerical leadership.

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification specifically addresses land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry subhumid areas. But those are not the only territories under threat in Iran.

Vahid Jafarian, the director-general of desert affairs for Iran’s Natural Resources Organization estimated that the country was losing 1 million hectares a year to desertification. He warned on July 19 that even Iran’s wetlands are being “turned into a center of fine dust” as underground reservoirs dry up and the country pursues water-intensive industrial development.

Kalantari, who last year said the fate of Iran’s clerical establishment could depend on the restoration of Lake Urmia, said in May that the drying up of what was once the largest lake in the Middle East could force the displacement of up to 4 million people.

The Solution

Iran has launched various initiatives to combat desertification, which Hakim said include dust and sandstorm management with countries in the region, the restoration of degraded soil and reforestation, addressing the overexploitation of water reserves, and the improvement of coordination among its various environmental bodies.

Iran is also a signatory to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, is involved in efforts by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to minimize the effects of sand and dust storms, and has attempted to address environmental concerns in its five-year development plan.

But Hakim said such measures “have been largely overshadowed by the consequences of chronic environmental mismanagement and corruption.”

Noting the continuation of ill-conceived hydraulic infrastructure projects and the overexploitation of groundwater resources that compound Iran’s water crisis, Hakim added, “these practices will likely contribute to increasing desertification threats” without substantial improvements in how the country manages its water.