Restoring the Zayandeh Rud River: addressing the political causes of water shortage in Iran

Yousefi, Ali / Christian Knieper / Claudia Pahl-Wostl
Briefing Paper (19/2020)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)


2nd revised edition
The 1st edition with the DOI 10.23661/bp19.2020 is no longer available.

Dt. Ausg. u.d.T.:
Wiederherstellung des Flusses Zayandeh Rud: Bekämpfung der politischen Ursachen der Wasserknappheit im Iran
(Analysen und Stellungnahmen 18/2020)

Engl. Ausg. u.d.T.:
احیای رودخانهٔ زایند هرود: واكاوي علل سیاسی کمبود آب در ایران
(Briefing Paper 9/2021)

This Briefing Paper presents one of six analyses of cross-sectoral coordination challenges that were conducted as part of the STEER research project and on which separate Briefing Papers are available.
Water problems in Iran are intensifying and have mostly been left unaddressed. The Zayandeh Rud River, as one of the main rivers in Iran, suffers from severe physical water scarcity. For decades, water demand has intensified, leading to increased rivalry between regions and economic sectors. Water transfers to the basin have been implemented as the main response without addressing the societal reasons for water scarcity. Currently, considerable tensions and conflicts over water – amplified by climate change and variability – are evident. Despite legal prescriptions for coordination and top-down command of the state, implementation has been deficient. Ineffective coordination practice manifests in fragmented planning, missing information exchange, centralised rule-making, intransparent decision-making and a lack of accountability. The persistence of these challenges implies that water shortage is a symptom of a deeper problem related to the consequences of Iran’s oil state context: Revenues pouring from the rent of oil have changed the role of the state as the principal recipient of the external rent. Power has become concentrated at the national level with an expanding bureaucracy and top-down intervention while undermining the capacity to develop coherent policies.
A lack of state capacity in policy implementation and administrative disorganisation has led to insufficient coordination. In the context of the Zayandeh Rud basin, these deficits become apparent in the limited control and enforcement of rules over water withdrawals, especially from wells (which partly are illegal); redundant coordination mechanisms without well-defined structures and no stakeholder involvement; and missing adaptation of plans and strategies to address the challenges. The technocratic focus on inter-basin water transfers and dam construction projects hides the lack of institutional capacity in the water sector, and it weakens incentives to develop more sophisticated approaches such as basin-wide strategies to manage water demand. We therefore recommend:
• more transparency in decision-making, along with general public access to information on the water consumption of different users; the promotion of a realistic picture of the river and a raising of the public’s awareness about each individual’s responsibility for a healthy river as well as the social benefits of successful water cooperation;
• an alteration of the relationship between oil rent and the illusion of water abundance through the development of a proactive and collaborative strategy to build public support for shifting from water supply-oriented to water-demand management policies.

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