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Is Iran on the verge of sparking a water war?

The Week logo The Week 29/07/2021 The Week Staff

Years of mismanagement has left Iran facing “irreversible” water shortages that threaten to trigger conflict across the Middle East, an exiled former minister has warned.

Kaveh Madani, a scientist who served as deputy environment minister, told The Times that Iran was “water bankrupt” - when consumption is greater than renewable water availability - as reservoirs, rivers and groundwater begin to run dry.  And the shortages are “being replicated across the region”, says the paper, “with the marshes of southern Iraq starting to dry out again despite restoration efforts, and eastern Syria suffering a significant drought”.

An Iranian motorcyclist drinks cold water from a bottle of soft-drink as he sits on his motorcycle with is parked on at a crossroad near a shopping mall in downtown Tehran on May 30, 2021. Iranians will vote to elect the new President on June 18 amid the new corona virus outbreak in Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images) © Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto An Iranian motorcyclist drinks cold water from a bottle of soft-drink as he sits on his motorcycle with is parked on at a crossroad near a shopping mall in downtown Tehran on May 30, 2021. Iranians will vote to elect the new President on June 18 amid the new corona virus outbreak in Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As Iranian Minister of Energy Reza Ardakanian warns that this summer will be the “driest in the recent five decades”, according to the Asia Times, fears of an impending “water war” are mounting.

Ignored warnings

“Iran cannot fully restore its wetlands, aquifers, and rivers in a short period of time,” said Iranian exile Madani, now based in the US. “So it has to admit to water bankruptcy and stop denying that many of the damages have become irreversible.”

Energy chief Ardakanian “has admitted that the country is facing an unprecedented crisis”, The Times reports.

Indeed, says Bloomberg, the government in Tehran is facing “political and economic apocalypse”, yet will be “unable to fall back on the old excuse that nobody could have seen the crisis coming”, because “they themselves did”.

As far back as 2015, Isa Kalantari, a former Iranian agriculture minister, predicted that “water scarcity would force 50 million Iranians - 60% of the population - to leave the country”, the news site reports. Kalantari complained that officials in Tehran had ignored the problem for far too long, adding: “And now that they understand it, it’s a little late.”

That warning may now be echoing in many Iranians’ minds, amid growing public anger over the shortages. At least eight people have died in recent protests that began in the southern province of Khuzestan, which has been especially hard hit, The Times reports.

Even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, has expressed some sympathy with the protestors, saying: “We cannot really blame the people.” 

For many years, Iran has used “cheap fuel” to power pumps to extract “vast amounts of groundwater to drive the country’s massively expanded agriculture”, says The Times. But while boosting the agricultural industry in the short term, this method has caused “falling levels of groundwater” that “can be detected from space”.

In fact, Nasa has warned that “the loss in weight has affected the region’s gravitational field”, the paper adds - and similar patterns stemming from over-extraction of groundwater are playing out in eastern Syria and Iraq.

The problem has been exacerbated by the construction of dams in both Iran and Turkey that experts say “play a negative environmental role in evaporating renewable water reserves and are mostly poorly built”, the Asia Times reports.

Other contributing factors include “climate change, the warming of the seas and extreme weather fluctuations”, writes The Times’ diplomatic editor Roger Boyes. And the consequences are “bringing closer the first outright water war since the days of ancient Mesopotamia”, he adds.

Meanwhile, most rural Iranians have no access to clean drinking water, and experts warning that increased urban migration will put stretched water treatment facilities in cities under even greater strain.

Recent years have brought a series of protests over the growing problem, and “Tehran invariably responds with brute force”, says Bloomberg. But “if the protesters persist, the violence will likely escalate next month” when new president, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, takes up his post. 

Further afield, the crisis across the region is also having “diplomatic effects”, adds The Times. Egypt is threatening war with Ethiopia if the fellow African nation “continues to fill its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile unchecked”, with “mismanagement of fuel supplies” in Lebanon contributing to widespread water shortages too.

Water wars

Traditionally, when faced with “public dissent and unrest, Iranian authorities are known to downplay the magnitude of the various crises they confront”, says the Asia Times. But “officials are uncharacteristically sounding the alarm” over the water shortages, which “could trigger a full-blown conflict over access to the essential resource”.

While “it’s far from an exact science”, writes David Patrikarakos in The Spectator, “considering the cost of a litre of oil versus a litre of water” gives some indication of “where the world is heading in terms of resource scarcity”.

“These days, a litre oil of crude is worth around 45 US cents (33p),” he continues, while “a litre of bottled water in the UK will generally set you back around 65p”. This example of the high cost of water worldwide points to a state of play for Iran that is now “so bleak that the regime - for which mendacity is perennial policy - doesn’t even bother denying it”.

The Times’ Boyes predicts that “the water war of the 21st century could come in two forms”: either “a mismanaged or panicked response to rising seas” that prompts millions of people to move in search of greater security, or a “second kind of war” that may be “just around the corner”.

The latter, Boyes’ suggests, would be a conflict like that threatened by Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, where “military force” is dispatched in a bid to prevent both a “loss of drinking water” and a “loss of face”. 

“We have seen conflicts in Iran over water transfer or the implementation of water infrastructure,” exiled Iranian expert Madani, now a fellow at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, told the Asia Times. 

“We’ve had conflicts in central Iran, including in the provinces of Isfahan, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari and Khuzestan. We have had cases of strikes, tensions and even people getting killed.

“Further water shortage and problems with the unfair allocation of water resources can trigger more tensions. But we in the water world are mostly afraid of mass migration in search of jobs and better livelihoods, marginalisation of communities, inequalities and the follow-up tensions... seen in other parts of the world.”

Indeed, leaders across the globe have good cause to fear the potential fallout emanating from “the Middle East of the 21st century - one obsessed not with oil but with water”, writes Patrikarakos in The Spectator. 

“The new wars are coming,” he continues. “And this time they will be fought not over the liquid that powers industry but one that forms the basis of life itself.”

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