If you do not have income spend more slowly
Since sailors have a saying
“If it does not rain on the mountains
In a year the Tigris will turn into a dry river bed”

— Golestan, Saadi


By Fathali Ghahremani-Ghadjar, BSME, MBA, MS.

To see the charts in this report, go to Andisheh, Center for Research on Iranian Affairs


The availability of water in an arid to semi-arid country such as Iran is of great importance to its long-term development and economic stability. It is the intent of this paper to outline some of the key issues facing Iran as it deals with the consequences of declining rainfall. The study of water availability involves the physical geographic conditions (topography, climate and weather) as well as social conditions (ethnic diversity and population distribution and growth). In order to meet the challenges of water shortage, it is suggested that traditional methods of drilling more wells and building dams are only short-term solutions and do not address the problem of possible long-term reduction in precipitation patterns caused by climate change.


The very geographic location of Iran makes the availability of water and precipitation a major issue. It is on a high plateau surrounded by mountains ranges in a water-deprived region of the Middle East. The western mountain range, the Zagros Mountains, act as a bulwark against the easy flow of the predominant weather patterns from the West and the Elborz limits flow from the north and northeast. Iran is fed by two main cyclonic weather patterns: the first from the Mediterranean/ Black Sea area supplies all the precipitation in the northwest and most of the Central Plateau, and the second,fed from the Indian Ocean, supplies precipitation to the Persian Gulf littoral and the southeast. North-central Iran is at the end of the weather cyclones that start in the Mediterranean/Black sea. These cyclones have essentially shed the majority of their humidity on Asia Minor and the Caucasus before they reach the Iranian plateau. The weather patterns of southern Iran are subject to the shifting patterns of the monsoons and the effects of the Arabian Peninsula, and must also cross the southern wall of the Zagros range.

The scarcity and the necessity to preserve water led previous generations of Iranians to develop numerous techniques for transfer and storage of water to survive during times of low precipitation. These techniques worked fairly well and were adequate for the climatic conditions and population of the time.

However, two parameters are rapidly changing the “business as usual” model for Iran:

* Global warming that will severely affect the region’s water scarcity, and

* Population growth that is imposing heavy demand on the existing resources.The issue of global warming and resulting climate change are crucial.

The rising average temperature of the earth is increasing the probability of extreme weather conditions including drought. For Iran, that is predominantly an arid to semi-arid environment, temperature rise means increasing water evaporation and dropping precipitation rates, thus, putting major stress on existing resources.These factors not only affect surface runoff, storage and river flows but also reduce inflow into subterranean fresh water reservoirs (aquifers), compromising their sustainability. The demographic issue is also critical.

The population of Iran is currently 76 million (2012) and will potentially rise to 100 million by 2050. The rising population and higher water consumption per capita (caused by the country’s economic growth) pose a severe sustainability risk since usage exceeds the water carrying capacity of the country. If not dealt with, the water demands of this population could lead to political instability of the country.Thus“water security” in Iran is vital to the interests of the state and must be addressed quickly and adequately.

Water security

The United Nations has proposed the following definition for water security:

“The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving eco systems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

This statement, while indicating that “water security” is integral to “...human well-being...”, does not inform as to the minimums that are necessary for keeping society functional. A better definition would be:

Water security is the supply of the minimum per capita requirements of water such that social and environmental fabric of society is not compromised.

Such a definition necessitates defining the minimum volumes of water essential for each human society to keep it stable.

Water security is intimately linked with political security. It requires the same recognition of the overall strategic goals, developing achievable targets, population awareness and investing in solutions to attain them. Without water security, political security will be compromised.

Water security is a multi-parametric issue that involves climate/weather, topography/geography, demographics /ethnicity, consumption patterns and politics. Iran’s water security is subject to the following:

1. Climatic zone,
2. topography and weather,
3. population and demographics,
4. economic growth and consumption patterns, and
5. political institutions.

Water security affects all stakeholders in the country and involves the distribution of water between agriculture, industry and domestic. In general, the share of each sector depends on the degree of national industrialization, level of agriculture and demographics. In Iran, for example, on the average,90% of the water is used for agriculture and the balance is used for industry and domestic use.

Further, water consumption and distribution are not uniform throughout Iran. Each region according to its climate, geography, demographics and political structure has unique usage patterns. Therefore, water security has different meanings for each region of the country and must be planned accordingly.

One thing is certain, in rapidly changing climatic environments, the traditional methods of water control will not work. It will require innovation and a new perception of the role of water in society. Water must become an integral part of the national discussion and will require a broad-based mobilization of the population.

Water conditions in Iran

“Water condition” can be defined as the sum total of all parameters effecting the security and availability of water in Iran. This includes the regional climate, precipitation patterns, local topography and geography, ethnic/population density, consumption patterns and political structure.

Water availability in Iran is subject to global climate trends. As shown in the Koeppen-Geiger Climate Classification Map, the climate of Iran is predominantly in the “B”-i.e. arid zone. Major Iranian population centers such as Isfahan (BWk -arid, desert, cold arid) Tehran and Tabriz as (BSk –arid, summer dry, cold arid) are all classified primarily as “arid” –little or poor rainfall. Climate change may cause the current low precipitation in Iran’s geo-climatic zone to become even worse.

While occasionally the local weather may differ, the general trend in the region is toward hotter temperatures and lower precipitation. Note that climate and weather are very different issues; climate is a long-term, worldwide and somewhat predictable parameter while weather is local, short-term, highly variable and unpredictable beyond a few days.

Even though the world climate is warming, local conditions may vary from one extreme to another. In the Middle East it appears that the climate is becoming hotter and dryer and weather patterns are trending toward sudden, inconsistent and extreme variations.

Environmentally Iran has been viewed as a monolithic block, where everything is interchangeable within its borders. This is far from the truth; Iran is a multi-environmental, multi-topographical, multi-climatic geographic location. Weather patterns in Azerbaijan have no bearing on those of Sistan/Baluchestan –the first is subject to precipitation originating in fronts from the Mediterranean/Black Sea, the second follows the patterns of the Indian Ocean.

As can be seen in Figure 2 “Watersheds”, the topography of Iran dictates a certain “watershed” structure. These watershed regions follow the high points of the mountain ranges of Iran, separating the precipitation that falls on one side of the mountain from the other, thus creating basins, i.e., “areas of water collection”. Iran has 6 major watershed regions:

2-Persian Gulf-Oman Sea,
5-Mashil Hirmand (Hamoon) and

Each of these major basins can be further sub-divided into even smaller and more regional watersheds that are subject to different precipitation patterns.Watersheds are identifiable by the dividing mountain ranges and topography. While it is possible at great expense, to move water from one watershed region to another, in practice this can only be done for relatively small volumes. In essence, the water in a watershed region is the total water that is available to that region.

Not only does geography impose restraints, the very nature of precipitation in Iran is an issue. The annual distribution of precipitation in Iran is shown in Figure 3“Precipitation Rates”. Precipitation in most of Iran is inconsistent; with over 50% of the precipitation coming in random, erratic, short, high intensity bursts. This pattern of rainfall makes water collection and storage problematic.

It should be noted that Iranian watersheds are subject to different climatic zones and the weather patterns are as different as the watersheds. With the exception of the Khazar watershed, most north and northwest Iran follows the Mediterranean and Black Sea weather and in the south weather is subject to the Indian Ocean.The Khazar watershed is subject to patterns of the Caspian Sea and the watersheds in the northeast are generally subject to Central Asian weather systems. Since weather systems regionally affect the watersheds; the Markazi watershed is subject at least to Mediterranean weather in the north and Indian Ocean patterns in the south.

The random seasonal precipitation in Iran, given its predominantly arid nature, is suitable for “dry land” agriculture traditionally used in most of Iran. This method is best suited for certain crops that do not require irrigation and are dependent on seasonal rainfall. Dry-land agriculture is feasible during “regular” precipitation seasons. However, in drought conditions, this type of agriculture causes the topsoil to become unbound and lost to blowing winds and flash floods, degrading and reducing its fertility.

The ethnic/cultural milieu of Iran is as important as its natural environment. Iran is highly fragmented ethnically (Figure 4Ethnic/Linguistic Divisions). Iran is a multi-ethnic mélange and based on each groups region “water use” and water shortage have totally different implications. However, in recent times with the high availability of residential piped water, the use of water throughout Iran is becoming more uniform; but the sensitivity to water availability still appears to have ethnic and regional roots.

Aside from the ethnic diversity of Iran there is the matter of population growth. Its rapid increase and relative affluence has put greater demands on a rather fragile and limited ecosystem. The immediate demands of large population leads to stripping the ecosystem of its ability to rejuvenate itself –exacerbating a problem created by the rapidly changing climate and precipitation short falls.

Iran’s population distribution is crucial in the analysis of the water requirements. Figure 5 Population Distribution” details population concentration nodes. Already the Iranian population is concentrated in cities (68% urban vs. 32% rural), with most of the densely populated areas in regions sensitive or subject to drought. Urban water demand for these metropolitan areas may exceed the ability of the surface water or aquifers to provide necessary supplies. Cities tend to be nodes for social unrest and water shortfalls or rationing may exacerbate problems.

Finally the internal political map of Iran and its relation to watersheds (Figure 6 Provincial Map) must be considered. As this figure shows, political divisions of Iran are not based on geography, ethnic, watershed or climatic conditions; thus the administration of a single watershed may be split between multiple local agencies with conflicting priorities.

For example, the province of Sistan/Baluchestan covers three different watershed regions, and at least four different ethnic groups (Baluchi, Kurdish, Somali, Minabi, etc.) or the Urumieh watershed coversWest Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan and Ardebil. In short, the provincial structure of Iran is not conducive to uniform planning and control of a watershed.

Water usage in Iran

On average,Iran uses 90% of its water resources for agriculture and the balance –10% –for industrial/domestic. This averaging is not very meaningful and belies regional differences and complications of water availability. In a complicated, multi-environmental, multi-climatic country such as Iran, a single average number is not only counter-productive; it is fallacious.

Similarly, to summarize average rainfall in Iran as 228 mm per year fails to consider the difference between the Caspian littoral with more than 2,000mm of rain and Yazd with less than 50 mm per year. The variation is emphasized in Graph 1 below that compares the precipitation for three cities Hormozgan–Persian Gulf/Sea of Oman watershed, Tehran –North Markazi watershed and Rasht–Khazar watershed from 1990 to 2000 (vertical axis in mm precipitation)

Yet even these local yearly numbers disguise the actual “facts on the ground”. Precipitation in Iran is sporadic and seasonal; thus it is necessary to consider the monthly and, in some cases, the daily variation to get a good picture of the available water.

The monthly millimeters of precipitation (Graph 2a, b and c, vertical axis in mm precipitation) show seasonality and underline the importance of planning for effective water storage and distribution. The very nature of the rain fall in most of Iran low volume, sporadic, intense, short-lived, and randomly distributed –is not conducive to traditional systems of water recovery. Further, it would be inappropriate to assume that a reduction in agricultural water use (from 90%) would mean linear increase of water availability for industrial and domestic sectors. In most of Iran such transfer would not be possible.

While it is critical not to try and impose a single model to fit the whole country, it is essential to create a uniform regional data collection and reporting methodology.In the absence of such detailed regional data, gross numbers and averages provide–at best -a starting point.Table 1 below summarizes what is known, in average terms, about the “water conditions” in Iran

Information about urban or rural domestic use of water and its distribution is not available. Anecdotal data indicates that metropolitan domestic use is high and tends to be“single use” with no recycling.

In the absence of detailed information about domestic water use in Iran, it is a fair to assume that the usage in metropolitan areas is similar to those of Western countries. Domestic water consumption in Iran, while not identical to the US, probably has most of its components and thus somewhat similar distribution.

In the United States, municipal domestic indoor per capita domestic water usage has the distribution shown in Chart 1 below.

The typical volumes for domestic water consumption per capita with conservation measures are shownTable 2 below.Without conservation measures, this number could easily double to over 340 liters per day.

It is estimated that the total actual renewable water resources per capita in Iran is 1,812m3/yr (5,000 liters per day). However, this water is not continuously available and its spatial and temporal distribution is such that regional shortages will inevitably occur (Figure 2 Precipitation Rate).

The Iranian population is now about 76million(2012)and is predicted to grow to about 100 million by 2050 and is primarily urban (68%) secondarily rural (32%). This trend toward urbanization will accelerate as precipitation diminishes making many rural areas less productive and forcing farmers to migrate to the cities.

As noted (Figure 5 Population Distribution), the greatest population growth centers are in arid to semi arid regions of the country. The rapid growth of these urban centers (excluding the Caspian littoral) could lead to water shortages and potential rationing. The allocation and distribution of limited water resources in these areas will pose a major challenge.

This is a multi-parametric problem; any mono-dimensional solution such as putting up a dam, pumping water from one watershed zone to another or drilling more water wells is too simplistic. It may provide short-term relief but no long-term solution.

As an example, consider Lake Urumieh, a natural resource that is rapidly becoming a national disaster. Water levels in the lake have dropped so drastically that the continued existence of the lake has become questionable.

Lake Urumieh is sole lake at the bottom of an endorheic basin; it collects all the water from its watershed region and has no outflow. As such it is totally dependent on the precipitation of the Urumieh watershed (approximately 50,000 kilometers square).The surface area of the lake is between 3,880 to 5,960 square kilometers and it has a mean depth of 6meters (maximum 16m).

“...The total estimated surface water resources in the entire basin equate to9 BCM (billion cubic meters) –7 BCM surface water and 2BCM groundwater. The average annual precipitation rate over the lake is approximately 250 mm, which corresponds to about 1.2 BCM. The annual average rate of water inflow to the lake is about 4.6 BCM. The average annual rate of evaporation from the lake surface is about 5.8 BCM, which is equal to the total input to the lake from rain and inflow. The existence of the lake is, therefore, dependent on the equivalent freshwater inflow.”

While the continued existence of Lake Urumieh is crucial to the environment, the demands of the human population for water and Page 16of 21agricultural resources are also real. The immediate response to this human demand has been to build dams and drill deep wells. The current plan (Figure 7Project Urumieh Watershed), if executed, will result in the damming of virtually every river in the Urumieh Watershed.

These fresh water plans have some very dire consequences for Lake Urumieh. One critical issue is the total evaporative loss from the lake. Under normal conditions the net inflow to the lake is equal to the net evaporation from the lake. As it stands, due to dams and the reduction of rainfall, the evaporative loss exceeds the net inflow causing the lake to shrink.

Urumieh is a salt sea and its drying will result in blowing salt and dust, which will degrade or destroy the agricultural lands that the dams are supposed to irrigate. Moreover, as precipitation is reduced, the region will become more arid.With higher temperatures evaporation rates will also increase, further accelerating the desertification of the lake.

If the totality of this plan (Figure 7 Project Urumieh Watershed) is executed under the predicted conditions, Lake Urumieh is condemned to die a “death from a thousand cuts” and the Azerbaijan region will face major consequences.

This is an example why traditional solutions such as more dams, more wells, etc. in a reduced rainfall zone provide poor answers. They only give short-term relief by depleting non-replenish-able resources. Traditional solutions work in traditional environments, not in a climate change environment with an ever-increasing demographic load. It is essential that new and innovative solutions be developed; solutions based on what is socially, geographically, ecologically, technically and politically possible. 7.


Climate change is affecting the regional weather by increasing regional temperatures and reducing local rainfall in Iran; so the “net water income” of Iran could be substantially reduced. Thus, Iran’s “water expenditure” must be controlled if the country is to survive the predicted climatic changes and provide the necessary water security for its citizens.

Furthermore, the predominantly arid to semi arid nature of Iran’s ecology, its geographic position (high altitude and the Zagros range) and its multiple weather patterns makes it highly susceptible to variations in precipitation and makes its water condition critical.

To summarize, Iran faces the following conditions in virtually all of its watershed regions:

a. Lower rainfall, higher temperatures and consequently higher evaporation rates for all land and water surfaces.

b. Diminishing precipitation will directly affect the replenishment rate of aquifers, making extensive long-term use of these resources untenable. Not only will subterranean water levels drop but also the very structure of the aquifer maybe permanently damaged.

c. The highly variable rainfall patterns, where in some regions the entire annual rainfall may occur in a matter of days (if not hours) pose significant collection storage and usage problems.

d. An increasing population will impose significant demand for water required forboth domestic, industrial and agricultural use.

e. Population growth will probably concentrate more in the urban areas located in poorly supplied water zones, putting greater loads on limited water supplies and creating potential political instability.

f. A provincial political infrastructure that is not designed to meet the water condition challenge. There is no single organization or ministry responsible for planning, developing, control or distribution of surface or subterranean water resources.

g. There is no long-term planning for developing or improving environmental solutions to water shortages such as massive reforestation, humidity collection or planning potential alternate means of water recovery.

h. Agricultural, industrial and metropolitan structures that are not designed around water conservation.

The water condition in Iran is a multifaceted problem that requires innovative solutions. It will take a broad based approach, an approach that involves all stakeholders in the political, municipal, agricultural and industrial future of Iran.

While it is essential that a single organization be established to provide guidelines, it is also necessary to develop provincial/local organizations responsible for water resource control.The water condition in each region must be fully studied and optimized at every level including preservation and support of the environment.

Technically no area of consideration should be left un-checked. Traditional techniques of water control, i.e., dams and water wells in a precipitation challenged area will only defer and amplify problems. It is time to look into some nontraditional solutions to respond to this pending crisis.


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