11 July 2022

How the EU can help Iran tackle water scarcity

Water is an existential resource, and Iran is squandering it. The country has lost more than 200 cubic kilometers of its total water storage over the last two decades, and groundwater levels have dropped by around 28 centimeters per year on average. Ecologically exhausted, Iran is vulnerable to global warming and the manifestations of a broken hydrological cycle: droughts and desertification as well as flash floods. 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, as numerous reports by the UN and the country’s government confirm. The EU has directed some attention and money to this challenge in recent years, but to little avail so far.

Dealing with water scarcity does not only involve the technical aspects of changing consumption patterns and reducing inefficiencies or diverting rivers and investing in desalination plants. To have a long-term effect, any approach needs to include an understanding of how water and the society using it are interlinked: How does water behave in Iran? What is needed to build back up to levels of adequate integrity for landscape hydration and socioeconomic use? What are the current patterns of water use, and how could they change so as to satisfy human and ecological needs alike? Which political and economic interests latch onto the water systems? Who, therefore, needs to be engaged in a regeneration process? And what sequence of steps is required for it?

The EU’s relations with Iran have been fraught for decades, whether over the country’s nuclear program, its appalling human-rights record, or its belligerent regional posture. As much as the water issue could be an entry point to engage with Iran on its obvious needs, any eventual cooperation will remain contingent on the perception of overarching security threats. The stability of water systems is intimately related to the stability of the political and socioeconomic equilibriums that define modern-day Iran. As such, they are indirectly tied to security concerns.

Approaching Iran on water may therefore not prove to be the easiest route. Yet failing to cooperate on this issue will be detrimental to the future of the country, the broader region, and the rest of the world due to cascading risks emanating from severe climate disruptions and destabilization. It is also not just about the risks associated with declining to assist Iran on water. On the positive side, engaging with the country on rebuilding the hydrological cycle for the benefit of ecological security and climate adaptation is a new area of policy engagement of the utmost relevance in this age of climate change. It will also be a new opportunity for the EU to blaze a trail with a novel type of diplomacy with systemic benefits for climate action, the deescalation of security risks, cultural exchanges, and technical cooperation.

Engaging with Iran under the banner of ecological diplomacy and hydrological regeneration will yield benefits, including on confidence building. Framing the approach to constructively work with Iran will be the crucial first step in securing collective futures in a climate-disrupted world prone to instability. The EU will need to analyze how the water situation in Iran has been shaped by the combined forces of climate change and political mismanagement as well as how it has been aggravated by international sanctions. Therefore, engagement with Iran on the future of water and security will represent not only a technical challenge but even more so a political one—hence the need for a new narrative on cooperation.

This publication first establishes a water profile of Iran, outlining the link between water scarcity and climate change. It then discusses the political, socioeconomic, and regional aspects of the main water challenges in and around the country. It next analyzes the potential of ecological diplomacy and the EU’s readiness to engage Iran before identifying possible entry points for cooperation. These policy recommendations can help turn potential conflict into an opportunity for collaboration.

Read the policy brief here

This policy brief was first published by Carnegie Europe in July 2022 by Olivia Lazard and Cornelius Adebahr

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