The Iran water crisis has its roots in water use and conflict and is made worse by a lack of technology and US politics. The crisis could drive conflict or cooperation.
The Iran water crisis is deepening. The country is experiencing one of its driest periods in 50 years. More than half the population lives in water-stressed areas.
The impacts of water scarcity are affecting all segments of society, of course, because water flows through all aspects of our lives. It takes water to make our food, to manufacture our consumer goods, to create our energy sources and even just to live our lives in a healthy manner.
Right now Iran is struggling. Unfortunately, the country’s water managers haven’t educated the public about using water more sustainably. Instead, they’ve focused on bringing more water to users with desalination.
Officials in Iran have enacted a plan costing hundreds of billions of dollars to desalinate water and move it from the Persian Gulf to more water-poor areas. The water is expected to supply industry and agriculture, which would leave more local water in rural areas. A lack of water has caused migration out of stressed areas as well as clashes between communities and federal authorities. Water insecurity is often a driver of civil unrest.
US sanctions are also influencing Iran’s inability to enact technology that would enhance the country’s water security, which has other implications for water use. Since the sanctions affect the country’s income from oil exports, it is turning towards development of industries like mining and petrochemicals – which are water intensive – with an eye towards Asian markets that are willing to ignore sanctions. Industrial advancements would not be possible with water from desalination.
While all the Persian Gulf states get anywhere from a half to all of their water from desalination, it is a problematic technology with high environmental concerns. As of 2019, approximately 16,000 desalination plants worldwide produced over 5 billion cubic feet of brine every day, most of which was pumped into the sea. Desalination plants produce massive amounts of salty brine that is often laden with toxins such as chlorine and copper. In addition, the brine is typically about 5 percent salt, while sea water is typically about 3.5 percent salt.