A woman and a boy walk on the dried up riverbed of the Zayandeh Roud river that no longer runs under the 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol bridge, named for its 33 arches, in Isfahan, Iran

Iran’s ‘system is essentially water bankrupt,’ says environmental expert

Kaveh Madani, a senior fellow at Yale University and former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, joins The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss some of the reasons behind Iran’s latest water shortages.

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Iranians have had enough of their long drought — specifically in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province, where people are protesting the severe water shortage.

They say their hardships are about poor water management.

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For the past week, crowds of demonstrators have been met with a violent response from security forces. At least three people have died.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Friday that people could not be blamed for protesting, and called on officials to deal with the crisis.

Kaveh Madani, a senior fellow at Yale University and the former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, joins The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss Iran’s challenges with water shortages.

Marco Werman: Kaveh, what is the extent of the water shortage in Khuzestan right now? 
Kaveh Madani: The system is essentially water bankrupt. Water demand is far more than the available water. Iran has been using its water resources unsustainably. Khuzestan is just one of these places where the explosion eventually has appeared. People are saying that we have had enough and the environment is actually saying that it has had enough. 
Well, just over two years ago, the same region of Iran was under water — extreme flooding. How does a region exhaust surface and groundwater in such a short period of time?
It’s a very good question. That part of Iran, and all parts of Iran, have floods and droughts. Now, this place was flooded for two years. They had lots of damage, but the reservoirs got full. But people forgot that they have to conserve and use less water. And when I say people, it’s not really people, the government who allocates water to different uses — agriculture, domestic sector, industrial sector — and then they drain the reservoir. And now, there is no rain and no water is available for the farmers to irrigate their farms and cities are even suffering.
So what is the one big management mistake that should have been avoided to have prevented this current shortage?
Essentially, Iran is a semi-arid area. Khuzestan province is an exception. It’s very wet. It has mountains in the north and the south. It has the Persian Gulf. But then you start putting reservoirs everywhere. You use the water for agriculture, don’t supply enough water to your wetlands, don’t supply enough water to the environment and the ecosystem. So, essentially, you are developing unsustainably.

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How do you see climate change affecting and making the situation even worse?
Climate change [is] everywhere, heat wave[s] and wildfires in California, floods in Germany or drought in Iran. Climate change has a multiplier effect. Climate change increases the intensity and frequency of extreme events like heat waves, floods and droughts. So, it catalyzes the problem, exacerbates the problem. You cannot blame it as the main cause. And if you do that, essentially, you justify what is happening. This means that managers and governments don’t have any liability, but managers and governments are there to forecast and predict these situations and get the system prepared and make it resilient. We have not had enough action by the governments to get us prepared for what is happening at the global scale and [it] is making the problems worse.
You worked in the public sector, in environmental management in Iran. What kind of reforms or reframing needs to happen for a more sustainable water situation in the country?
This economic model, which only thinks about production and doesn’t think about the environment, is dysfunctional. This has been proven to us around the world. Iran must change its development model, must invest in the industrial and service sector and decrease the pressure on its natural environment if it wants to survive. This means diversifying the economy and making big reforms to the agricultural sector. And these are very, very painful surgeries that you can’t do, essentially, in systems where people are mad at you or have lost trust and faith in the government.
And it’s not just Iran, as you alluded earlier. I mean, the next big crisis in the globe, we are told, and that is already here, is around water shortages that are leading to monetization of water and making it less accessible to a lot of people. What does the situation in Khuzestan tell us about the future of water everywhere?
You know, we are water bankrupt in many places. The system that we have is not sustainable right now. What we are seeing in Iran is a political crisis. It’s a social crisis. You cannot just take the environmental sector out and prescribe solutions for the environmental sector, disregarding all other governance and social issues.
Well, to that point, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about Khuzestan, which is home to an Arab ethnic minority that has historically faced discrimination from the Iranian government. To what extent do you think are the environmental outcomes there are due to a pattern of certain groups being de-prioritized by the government?
This is a very hard question to answer. You know, if this is intentional or this is a systematic failure, it’s like, you know, the problem we have with the African American communities or Black communities in the United States, that you see that there is a pattern there, that inequality exists in the system and in every sector. We have the same situations with ethnic communities, the environmental injustice implications of the development projects in Iran are significant. But before I let you go, let me tell you this: Khuzestan is a very rich region in terms of oil and gas. The benefits of Khuzestan were not limited to Iraq. You in the United States have also benefited from the oil that this region has produced. What we didn’t think about was the environmental justice implications of our aggressive economic development that was dependent on fossil energy. And now those people are left with pollution. And we are here in the United States with a much better quality of life. And I think this is something for us to to consider, how our lifestyle, how what we do in Europe or in North America is affecting people in the Global South.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

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