In Iran’s southwest Khuzestan Province underground aquifers have been depleted and the nearby Karkheh dam is at record low levels. 700 kilometers to the northeast, gaping sinkholes have emerged, with the ground in parts of the province sinking at the alarming rate of 25 centimeters annually.

These scenes are widespread not just in Iran but throughout wider parts of the Middle East. And, naturally, environmental degradation knows no boundaries. Dust storms creating toxic air pollution in Iran’s western Khuzestan province often originate in Iraq, while the drying marshlands in Baluchistan in Iran’s east contribute to water degradation and salination there just as much as they do in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some specificities make Iran a particularly fragile case. The country’s total water storage decreased by more than 200 cubic kilometers over the last two decades—about one Olympic swimming pool of water lost for every one of Iran’s 80 million inhabitants. This, however, is not just the result of natural phenomena such as erosion or rising temperatures, as the regime’s narrative would have it. The country’s broken hydrological cycle which brings droughts, desertification, and flash floods is also the result of decades of political mismanagement.

At a very fundamental level, Iran’s water challenges stem from an economic paradigm that considers natural resources such as water merely as goods to be exploited through engineering and technology. As a result, water degeneration is driven by extreme groundwater overdraft, meaning that water use is more than three times above the rate of natural recharge—thus causing an “anthropogenic drought.” Critically, it is Iran’s ancient water from beneath the ground that is being used up, without ever coming back.

The uncontrolled use of groundwater lowers water levels, which leads to more erratic pumping of water tables, which in turn increases water salinity. This reduces wheat yields in agriculture, hitting already impoverished freehold farmers. Illegal wells are part of the problem, but they often are the only way for farmers to make a living. Shutting them down would cause unemployment and possible social unrest, and the government lacks the funds to upgrade their technologies. In addition, water quality outside of urban areas is decreasing significantly. When these problems are left unaddressed, poor people in rural regions migrate to cities, where already more than 70 percent of the Iranian population lives.

Moreover, specific political-economic interests are part of the systemic complexity around water use. The drive to build dams for electricity generation is one particular factor causing environmental degradation, which has contributed to making parts of the land uninhabitable. Hydropower infrastructure is not only constructed with little regard for the long-term integrity of water resources but is also linked to corruption within the regime. Reports suggest that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in cahoots with construction firms, lobby the government for dam building to generate revenue—regardless of the ecological or human consequences of these ventures.

The international sanctions regime, in turn, has reinforced the regime’s mantra of self-sufficiency, leading to the largescale production of water-intensive crops such as pistachios, wheat, and rice. The “sanctions wall” also reduces government funding available for sound environmental policies and hinders the transition to a less resource-dependent economy by hampering access to green technologies. Moreover, beyond purely economic dimensions, the sanctions also reduce interpersonal contacts such as academic exchanges and knowledge transfers, including on environmental issues.

As water resources are depleted—a human-made and reversible process rather than a fait accompli—water scarcity is rapidly becoming a primary concern for Iranians. Protests over water diversion took place in Khuzestan Province in 2018 and again in 2021. In November 2021, thousands marched through the desiccated riverbed of the Zayandehrud to protest the river’s diversion to neighboring Yazd Province before police intervened with force. Earlier this summer, activists demanding government action to prevent the drying-up of Lake Urmia were arrested.

Harsh repression by the security forces as well as the widely publicized arrests of environ­mental scientists in 2018 underline the degree of securitization of the issue. The regime deliberately cuts access to data and reduces transparency, as it views environmentalism as a potential threat given that it could unite the population. In this vein, it also uses existing tensions to pit ethnic or provincial groups (in places such as Khuzestan and Isfahan, for instance) and different economic sectors (such as industry and agriculture, for example) against each other.

The combination of unemployment, environmental degradation, and policy failures has created a growing potential for social unrest, as even officials question the government’s ability to ensure uninterrupted water supplies throughout the country. However, the lack of sound and sustainable ecological planning in Iran not only threatens the stability of the regime, but also the region’s ecological security. Therefore, addressing water issues demands a systemic, whole-of-ecology approach rather than just quick-fix technological responses.

The key to success, especially in the context of most outsiders’ tense relationships with the Iranian regime, lies in understanding how to create trust based on a common understanding of security threats that undermine collective stability. A dialogue on regenerative processes that will tangibly benefit Iran’s society and economy would be more fruitful than merely lecturing the government about how it must ratify and apply the Paris Agreement. This implies a mix of increased engagement with government actors (national and local) as well as international organizations in the country, such as the United Nations Development Program, the UN Environmental Program, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. In addition, data collection can be promoted through civil society organizations and through academic exchanges. Ultimately, securing the buy-in of the population will determine the success or failure of complex regeneration processes.

In the end, overcoming water scarcity is only a first step toward addressing some fundamental drivers of systemic instability in Iran. At the same time, a better understanding of how to strengthen any country’s environmental resilience would benefit the entire region.

*This article builds on the Carnegie paper How the EU Can Help Iran Tackle Water Scarcity.”