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In late July, the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan experienced an unprecedented water shortage. Water was so scarce that large public protests broke out with demonstrators demanding greater access to water. The protesters’ demands quickly expanded to other grievances felt by the province’s large Arab population and soon spread to other provinces before they were quelled by security forces.
In the region, over the past 20 years, precipitation has dropped by one-fifth. In the last seven decades, the national temperature averages have increased almost 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit). The water scarcity was also brought about by nine months of the worst drought in half a century.
However, Iran’s changing climate alone cannot explain how an area endowed with such exceptional natural resources could fail its people so catastrophically. It took decades of environmental damage and poor resource management for an area that has supported human settlement for the last 4,500 years to be brought to the edge of being uninhabitable.
Garden of Eden
The province of Khuzestan is home to two large river systems, the Karun and Karkheh. The Karun – thought to be the biblical Pishon River, one of the four rivers in the Garden of Eden – originates in the Zagros Mountains and is Iran’s longest and most affluent river. It is also navigable, providing cities such as Ahvaz and Shushtar access to the Gulf.
In addition to its rivers, the region has Iran’s largest fertile plains, year-round sunshine, and a warm climate. Together they have supported the development of over 1 million hectares of agriculture, producing a wide variety of crops.
Khuzestan is also central to Iran’s oil industry. It is home to 90% of Iranian oil production, including Iran’s second-largest onshore field. When oil was first discovered by British companies, it was shipped along the Karun River from Ahvaz and Shushtar to the Gulf. Today, most of Iran’s oil is piped from oil fields to Ahvaz, the provincial capital, and on to Abadan for refinement before exportation. These abundant energy sources have also led to the development of steel and pipe manufacturing as well as chemical and petrochemical industries.
Khuzestan’s natural resources have been exploited for hundreds of years. The Karun River’s huge, seasonal water volumes have been optimized for agriculture since the construction of the hydraulic system in Shushtar in the third century.
The use of water resources became excessive in the mid- and late-20th century. In the 1950s, part of the Karun River’s water was diverted using a tunnel to the Zayandeh Rud River and central Iran. The Iranian government built six dams upstream along the Karun and its tributaries to store water, generate electricity, and limit flooding downstream. The water was diverted so that it no longer flowed into Iraq — with which Iran fought for most of the 1980s over a border dispute and the former’s ostensible support for Khuzestan’s Arabs’ claims to independence.
As the amount of water available downstream in Khuzestan declined, water consumption increased due to outdated and low-efficiency irrigation systems and poor water management. The province’s water-intensive oil industry also contributed to rising water demand, and so did Iran’s self-sufficiency efforts in response to international sanctions. To ensure food security, Iran’s self-sufficiency program aimed to maximize local food production. It encouraged farmers in Khuzestan to expand water-intensive crops, such as wheat, rice, and sugar cane. Currently, 90% of Iran’s water is used for agriculture.
As freshwater flows dwindled, Khuzestan’s soil and wetlands dried up, and saline Gulf water moved inland to replace the reduced freshwater in waterways. The rising salinity of the lowest areas of the rivers makes them undrinkable for most of the year.
Higher soil salinity has increased agricultural water demand, while drier soil has raised the levels of airborne dust and dust storms. The mixing of airborne dust with exhaust fumes has also led to excessive levels of fine particles in the air. Ahvaz now has among the world’s worst air quality and once topped the World Health Organization’s air pollution index. In a city already experiencing some of the highest temperatures in the world, sometimes exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), this makes for almost uninhabitable conditions.
To make matters worse, hundreds of millions of cubic meters of agricultural and industrial waste and municipal sewage are discharged directly into the Karun River without treatment. Rivers that once carried freshwater and sediment downstream are now largely dry or carry waste. With dried soils and wetlands, and polluted and saline waters, residents depend on bottled water, while habitats have been damaged, river aquatic life endangered, and wetlands put under threat.
In Hoor-al-Azim, a wetland on the Iraqi border, the marshes have been so parched that it lost half of its area between 1973 and 2017. In Shadegan, an internationally important wetland, the high salinity levels have destroyed habitats and damaged plantations. Thousands of birds have died due to toxic waste in the water. One image of the recent water shortage showed dehydrated water buffalo lingering in the mud as their Arab herders tried to keep them alive.
In response to the protests, Iranian authorities released water stored in the dams to ease the shortage. However, the region’s water woes are likely to worsen due to climate change.
During the next 30 years Iran is likely to experience more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts, and floods. Under the worst-case scenario, the average national temperature will rise by 6.6 degrees Celsius (11.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, while summer maximum temperatures in Ahvaz could reach a sweltering 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit).
The region could also experience conditions of combined temperature and humidity that exceed the limits of human adaptability. Yet, while Khuzestan is likely to receive slightly more rainfall under the same scenario, high rain variability means it is likely to become less useful for agriculture.
The southern lowlands of Khuzestan are also particularly at risk from 1 meter rise in sea level, expected by the end of the century under the worst-case scenario. This includes Abadan, Khorramshahr, and Bandar Mahshahr, all critical cities to Iran’s oil and gas industry.
Stalled Climate Action Under Sanctions
Iran doesn’t appear to be taking adequate action to respond to climate change. In fact, Iran is the eighth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for 1.74% of global emissions. It also tops the Middle East and North Africa in terms of annual emissions and total emissions to date. Its economy uses more energy and emits more carbon to produce a unit of gross domestic product than most of the region’s countries, even when compared to its neighbors across the Gulf.
Khuzestan is a major contributor to these emissions due to its energy-intensive industries and agriculture. The province has Iran’s highest industrial energy use and fourth-highest agricultural energy use per capita.
One major reason behind Iran’s high emissions is the challenge its energy transition faces due to international sanctions. Another is its subsidized energy prices, which disincentivize energy efficiency and a transition to renewable energy.
Iran’s ambitious Subsidy Reform Program, introduced by the government in 2010, was meant to address this by increasing energy prices and encouraging more efficient energy use. But it failed to use revenue gained from higher energy prices to compensate the poorest segment of its population or to invest in renewables and energy efficiency. Ultimately, further sanctions and inflation dealt the final blow to the program and reversed most of its gains.
The lack of foreign investment and access to technology has also prevented Iran from transforming its energy sector. Its goal to reduce energy use per unit of GDP by 30% by 2015 was missed, and its target to source 5 gigawatts of its electricity from renewables by 2020 was delayed and has not been met. Despite its great solar and wind power potential, Iran currently produces just 6.4% of its electricity from renewable energy sources including hydropower, which experienced a drop in production due to recent droughts.
In fact, Iran’s pledge under the Paris Agreement – which it has yet to ratify – only commits to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 4% before 2030 compared to its business-as-usual scenario and by 12% if it receives financial and technical support and if economic sanctions are lifted. Such ambition seems very limited, given that some experts think Iran could achieve 50% reduction.
Unless these trends are reversed, the environmental tragedy of Khuzestan could continue to cascade into a socioeconomic crisis, while feeding a sense of discrimination felt by its Arab population and fueling protests and dissent. Paradise will not be regained, but a path back to sustainable development can still be charted, although the quickening tempo of climate change is likely to make such a course correction increasingly difficult.
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