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On Iran's Water Governance and the Need for a New Narrative




Photo: Nikahang Kowsar

Our motherland, Iran, is facing a range of water crises. The depth and gravity of these crises urge inquiring how Iran’s waters have been governed and ruled. In this opinion piece, Iran’s water governance is framed through the water security discourse, the current dominant science-policy paradigm for water governance in the 21st century. Accordingly, some of the country’s key challenges in water governance are identified, and the need for reform is highlighted. While this reform should provide a set of specific guidelines for changing structural, technical, and socio-economic aspects of our water governance, it should be founded on a set of broader moral worldviews that constitute how we perceive water, and how we regulate our relationship with water within the environment. As our existence is defined with the environment, it is argued that the notion of water should be transcended from a “resource” to a fuzzier notion of a “right-commodity twin” that acknowledges human partnership with ecosystem. Based on the suggested perception of water, some preliminary contemplations on the requirements of the new narrative for structural, technical, and socio-economic reform are given with a greater goal of encouraging further community discussions toward reforming Iran’s water governance. All along the watchtower: An overview of Iranʼs water crises


In the past century or so, Iran, like other nations of the world, has gone through massive population growth, cultural changes, and socio-economic developments that necessitated freshwater extraction from historically unreachable sources. The glory of our modernization and socio-economic growth, however, is darkened by massive depletion in the country’s surface and groundwater reserves. This has led to drastic changes in our landscape, threatened human and ecosystem livelihoods, and brought Iran to a serious “water bankruptcy”. Despite the urgent need to revive this condition, a clear and a nationwide strategy to resolve water bankruptcy now and in the future is unavailable.


The human relationship with water is complex. Water is the only natural “resource” that its abundance can be destructive as much as its deficit. Over 160 casualties during Iran’s floods of 2020 and 2022 and millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of damage to private and public assets, when the country was dealing with water scarcity, are clear evidence for this complexity. We have also another twist in our waters, related to significant degradation in water quality. Urbanization, industrialization, and modern agriculture have released new chemicals into our surface and groundwater bodies. This has created an emerging condition in which enough water may be available, but low water quality does not allow human and ecosystem usage.


Given these complexities, a key requirement for any country in the 21st century is to effectively manage quantity and quality of their available waters. However, continuing water crises in Iran, without any tangible change in how water is supplied and allocated, marks water as Iran’s most ineffectively managed resource. Within this condition and given Iran’s current water bankruptcy, several experts have already criticized Iran’s waters governance and identified the need for a major reform. Moving toward such a reform obviously requires a new set of rules that clearly defines our manners, standards, and codes of conduct for how we structurally, technically, and socio-economically deal with water. Having said that, the main argument in this opinion piece is that such a reform should be also based upon a broader narrative and worldview that guides our perception and relationship with water rather morally. To achieve this, Iran’s current water governance is first benchmarked through the lens of water security discourse, the most acclaimed science-policy paradigm for water governance in the 21st century, and then criticized based on its departure from the ideals portrayed by this discourse. This piece is concluded with some preliminary lines of thought on the structural, technical, and socio-economic requirements of reforming Iran’s water governance, with a greater goal of initiating a wider community discussion.


Searching for El Dorado: Water governance through the lens of water security

Water security is a science-policy discourse at the intersection of natural sciences and engineering with policy and socio-economy. Water security discourse (hereafter the Discourse) provides a paradigm for water governance through structural, technical, and managerial guidelines on how water should be perceived and governed in our age. The emergence of the Discourse owes greatly to our recent scientific appreciation that (1) freshwater resources are indeed limited, and (2) our activities during the recent past have greatly reduced our current and future ability to exploit water from basins and aquifers. Adding these to human-induced warming and aggressive land use and management, humanity has come to the realization that their activities not only changed precipitation generation processes, but also the capacity to collect, store, purify, and release the precipitated water.


The Discourse begins from these bleak facts and sees today’s water crises as parts of a greater condition of our time and the world we live, the “Anthropocene”, a geological epoch that started in the mid-19th century. The “Anthropocene” marks the condition in which humans, the “Anthropos”, have altered the Earth’s functioning to the extent that we have become a “great force of nature”. Examples to support this claim in the hydrosphere are numerous. A vivid Iranian example is our groundwater withdrawals. We have pumped out nearly 74 km3 of Iran’s groundwater in only 14 years, causing a country-wide aquifer depletion, land subsidence, and soil salinity. The drying Lake Urmia is another Iranian manifestation, caused by aggressive exploitation of various streamflow reaches and diversions of their waters to thirsty crops. Such significant changes below and over the landscape needed tens of millennia, if not more, to occur only by natural forces.

At this juncture, a very legit question is how to secure water for humans, ecosystem, and future generations. The Discourse aims at providing a framework for approaching this existential question. A key requirement for provision of this framework is a “water governance system”, in which multiple players collaborate in a highly distributed and interconnected structure to generate science-policy solutions towards sustaining “water for all, whether human or ecosystem, today and forever”. The role of water governance system is to define what sustainable water management means and how it looks like across a range of circumstances as well as temporal and spatial scales. Obviously, if we do not identify what sustainability means in water systems, we have no way to reach it.


Water governance system should not only define sustainability but also should provide clear roadmaps to achieve it across scales, from short-term operation to long-term projection, and from local to regional, and from national to international. As the need of water is shared between all citizens (and indeed all living beings), water governance should (i) be inclusive by establishing a multi-layer stewardship that enables citizen participation and delegation of roles and responsibilities. In addition water governance system should (ii) account for water rights, and guarantee the fulfilment of just, and equitable water management practices, particularly when disagreements and conflict of interests take place. In addition, given the fact that water implies a global cycle that does not recognize any of humanmade political boundaries, water governance should (iii) be able to unleash water diplomacy and avoid geopolitical tensions over limiting water.

Apart from these structural and socio-political needs, the water governance system should be also technically competent to (i) pursue fundamental and applied research on different aspects of water quantity, quality and use, and (ii) develop and operate nationwide observational networks and impact models to reduce the “deep uncertainty” in our current and future water management, particularly given the looming effects of climate change. Last but not the least, as water infrastructures nowadays are the key hardware of water management, the water governance system should be able to strategize and guarantee the financing of the design, construction, maintenance and upgrade of water infrastructures. This inevitably requires a strong and secure economy that facilitate the participation of the private sector, and encourages water sectors toward a better water use and conservation.


The end: Iran’s current water governance is dead

Considering the guidelines given by the Discourse and outlined above, we can quickly identify major gaps and broken pieces in Iran’s current water governance. Most importantly, Iran’s water governance is extremely fragmented, and it is not clear who is responsible for what. This structural confusion not only hinders the provision of effective and timely management, but most importantly diminishes accountability. The other fundamental issue is the lack of funding (1) to finance fundamental and applied research for better water management and conservation, and (2) to plan for infrastructure maintenance and upgrade. The regime always claims that such fiscal deficits are due to international sanctions. Even if we accept this argument, why should Iran essentially go through and remain under prolonged sanctions that cost our current and future water security? Such questions go beyond the Discourse and therefore are not further discussed here but show vividly how our water governance is embedded within a broader national and international governance networks and can be influenced by factors beyond its domain.

Due to having a fragmented and fiscally broken structure, we also do not have a strong legal system to maintain water justice, and/or an appropriate diplomatic body to protect our international water rights. The reality is that with or without sanctions, our water governance system is fiscally broken not only because of a weak and vulnerable economy but also because of a pricing mechanism that (1) ignores accounting for the services that water provides, and (2) even subsidizes the price of water extraction and distribution. The low price of water not only promotes wasteful consumption, but also misguides our water management strategy. There are numerous Iranian examples showing that water subsidy leads to the wrongful assumption that it is cheaper to extract water, instead of conserving water and investing on water infrastructures. Due to this illusion, water governance has defined new water uses, mainly in line with the strategic and ideological interests of the country’s ruling body e.g., job creation and/or self-sufficiency in food and energy production. To promote these new activities, water governance subsidizes their water use and the whole cycle is repeated once again.


Now that we have depleted our surface and groundwater resources nearly to their last drops and greatly compromised their quality, Iran’s managerial solutions to water scarcity are becoming increasingly costly and rather extraordinary. We have started to fantasize about cloud seeding, desalination, and fossil groundwater. In this condition, insisting on extracting more water instead of improving efficiency of our water use is clear evidence for how much our focus is shattered, and shows how the sense of “irresponsible entitlement” can burst the judgment of Iran’s water rulers. When we consider that most of these “fantastic solutions” are decided behind closed doors, we can realize that the illusion in Iran’s current water governance is greatly nourished by the lack of inclusivity in decision-making processes. As a result, it is not surprising that managerial solutions have become increasingly unattractive to the public and are widely protested by experts and environmental activists. The tragedy is that dreadful mismanagements not only compromised Iran’s fragile environment; but also in many cases, it has backfired socio-economically and caused multiple disputes between authorities, water users, and communities sharing one aquifer, residing upstream and downstream of a river reach, and/or have been affected by water transfer projects. Such disputes over water management have already expanded to Iran’s streets, resulting in social unrest, violence, and gunshots. The lack of inclusivity, ignorance about previous mistakes, and the deepening gaps between the regime and the nation over management of water have made Iran’s water governance extremely self-protective, in a way that shifted the objective of water governance from maintaining water security to securing itself. This major shift in focus has led to the growing paranoia against technical critics and environmental activists, and presuming them as “enemies of the state”. Another consequence of this objective shift is deconstruction, in which water governance goes through deregulation. As water management deals with a multi-billion dollars industry, this deconstruction will lead to corruption in water governance. The bizarre fact is that in many cases deregulation and/or neglecting already in-place rules and guidelines are praised as “jihadi management”, and are interpreted as signs of courage and competence of decision-makers. When the water governance system reaches to such a destructive level, there will be obviously no room for discussing high-level values such as water rights, water ethics, and water justice, and this deadly vicious cycle carries on and on.


Turn the page: The need for a new narrative


Given the challenges noted above, Iran’s water governance must be reformed. Climate change, which will turn Iran to a warmer and drier region, has made the need for this reform rather existential and immensely urgent. While this reform should be obviously orchestrated around structural, technical, and socio-economic elements that form the totality of the water governance entity, organizing and implementing this reform requires a broader narrative, guided by a set of morals and worldviews. This narrative envisions the future we want to create and how we want to get there. If we agree on the legitimacy of the Discourse to guide our water governance in future, we must first and foremost recognize that water is limited and has no replacement. In addition, given the outcome of economic growth during the “Anthropocene”, we must also admit that market laws cannot fully comprehend and take into account limitation in resources, particularly in water. As a result, there is a need for changing the notion of water as a “resource” that creates the illusion of unlimited and unconditional availability. This need, however, creates another challenge. If water is not a resource, then what is it?


To answer this question, we should clarify what we mean by “water” in a given time, space, and circumstance. The definition of water, like the water itself, should be fluid. Do we refer to the water held within the environment? Or do we refer to the water that is already available to human for producing goods and services? If we agree that there is a difference between these two implications of one particular physical and chemical matter, H2O, we would be able to deal with the question of “what water is” with more clarity. On the human side, having enough potable water for day-to-day livelihood is a basic human right, recognized by the member countries of the United Nation. However, beyond what we need, water is a privilege, and not a right. Such privileges that result to the production of food, energy, wealth and services should be then treated as a commodity and appropriately priced. Similarly, keeping enough water in the ecosystem to maintain its baseline conditions is a basic right for the environment. Hence, any amount beyond ecosystem necessity can be then treated as a commodity. If we keep surplus water in the environment, we generate more ecosystem services with certain values to the society. If we divert this water within the environment to human needs, then we halt such services and should compensate the ecosystem services that were halted. When our perception of water transcends from the deterministic view of water as a resource to a fuzzier notion of water as a “right-commodity twin” that can be interpreted relative to a given time, space, and circumstance, then we are able to better reflect on our relationship with water and appreciate the true value of water. If we have a strong legal system in place that protects such a partnership between human and environment, and a open society with a strong economy that encourages citizen participations, then as a nation we can witness how massively we are interconnected with water in a web of greater ecological and existential whole that includes our food, health, tradition, spirituality, and all other cultural and socio-economic activities and products.


Our rich culture, which is deeply rooted in our land and has evolved for several millennia before passing to us during the “Anthropocene”, is a grand opportunity to guide our new narrative of water governance toward the concept of partnership, and to perceive water as “a right-commodity twin”. Ancient inhabitants of the Iranian Plateau believed water is a sacred element within “Nature”, along with air, earth and fire. Here, Nature refers to both physical and spiritual worlds in which our words, thoughts, and actions are manifested. In ancient Iranian beliefs, water is protected by Anahita, the goddess of water and symbolized light, the most essential spiritual element of Mithraism. For thousands of years, water was the subject of festive celebrations in the culture of Iranians, most notably during Abangan, dedicated to greeting raining season and appreciating water and the life it sustains. This worldview, similar to other Indigenous cultures, entails a relationship with water based on mutual respect and responsibility: We know water, and water knows us; water looks after us, and we look after water. The renaissance of this worldview can fundamentally evolve the current notion of water as a resource, guide towards a more mindful partnership with water within the environment.


Stairway to heaven: Some questions for the reform

Only after sorting out a strong moral narrative, we would be able to think about the structural, technical, and socio-economic pillars for reforming Iran’s water governance. If we resolve the current lack of funding, and eliminate corruption in our water governance, then we should be think to (i) build a robust legal and operational structures that protects the right to water for human and ecosystem, (ii) envision a competent technical construction that can account for where the water comes from and goes to, and what services it provides during its residence in our landscape environmentally and socio-economically, and (iii) promote inclusivity and social participation in water conservation, stewardship and decision makings. In this long journey, we must recognize that improving each of these aspects requires a national effort spanning over multiple decades, and the road ahead of us is bumpy. Patience, determination, and unwavering focus are needed for reforming our water governance. To conclude, let us contemplate on some of the critical questions we should answer before going through a reform:

1. How can we enact laws to account for legal aspects of water governance and deal with water-related disputes objectively?

2. Who will advocate for the environment and underprivileged groups within Iran’s society?

3. How can we delegate roles and responsibilities by promoting water democracy, without becoming fragmented and/or compromising standards and codes of conducts for water management?

4. Who is included in making water-related decisions, and how should such decisions be made?

5. How can we protect our water governance from interests of ruling bodies and/or financial powers?

6. What is our international water strategy, and what is our roadmap to water diplomacy in a warmer world?

7. How can we finance and build our water infrastructure, monitoring networks, as well as operational and research forces?

8. How can we determine baseline ecosystem conditions along with the values of ecosystem services to establish water rights for the environment?

9. What should be our water pricing scheme?

10. How can we account for the real costs of infrastructure and their lack in a warmer world, and make the state accountable for water conservation through engineering and nature-based solutions?

11. How can we encourage participation of public and private sectors in water innovations, water conservation, and water reuse?

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Ali Nazemi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Building, Civil, and Environmental Engineering at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. His research is at the intersection of hydrology, hydroclimatology, climate change impact assessment, and water security. He is currently one of the co-chairs of the Hydroclimatology Panel of World Climate Research Programme’s Global Water and Energy Exchanges Project. Dr. Nazemi is a founding member of University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security and has served as a Senior Hydrologist for Government of Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency. Apart from water sciences, Ali Nazemi’s other interests include music, philosophy, and amateur photography.


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