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How Climate Change is Fueling Iran’s Political Instability

Drought.

Year after year after year for the past 15 years, it’s been the reality for Iran.

As with recent severe droughts in places like Syria, Nigeria, India and in other parts of the world, Iran’s drought impacts have forced farmers to abandon fields and move to the cities. It has enhanced economic and physical desperation — swelling the ranks of the poor and displaced. It has produced both food and water insecurity with many families now living from hand and cup to mouth. And it has served as a catalyst for political unrest, protest, and revolt.

(Iran’s Lake Urmia shrinks to ten percent of its former size following a 15 year long drought. Image source: U.S. Department of the Interior.)

Perhaps the most visible sign of this drought’s epic severity is the drying up of the 5,200 square mile expanse of Lake Urmia. The sixth largest salt water lake in the world and the largest lake in the Middle East, Urmia is now a desiccated shadow of its historical range. Just 10 percent of its former size, it is the casualty of both the drought and the dams that have been built to divert water to Iran’s struggling farmers. But it’s not just the lake that’s drying up. In the interior, individual provinces have seen as many as 1,100, or approximately 1/3 of its springs, run out of water.

Iran is on the eastern fringe of the worst drought to hit parts of the Middle East in 900 years. Ninety six percent of the country has been afflicted by escalating drought conditions over the past seven years. A drought so long and deep-running that it has been triggering unrest since at least 2014. A kind of climate change enhanced instability that has been intensifying over recent years.

(Iran shows long term precipitation deficits over 2016-2017 and 2010-2017 in this analysis provided by Iran’s Meteorological Organization.)

The growing drought-driven unrest has thrust climate change into the Iranian political spotlight even as populist farmer uprisings are on the increase. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has directed government to “manage climate change and environmental threats.” However, with climate harms so long-running and with distrust in government so deep, even positive action by Iran’s leaders may be viewed in a negative light. Hindering impetus for response and generating a ripe field for the revolt or fragmentation.

From the scientific perspective, it appears that the effects of climate change are already enhancing the most recent dry period. Temperatures are rising — which increases evaporation. So more rain has to fall for soils to retain moisture. Complicating this issue is the fact that rains are expected to decline by 10 percent even as drier soils are expected to reduce rainfall and snow melt runoff by 25 percent over the next twelve years. Both are impacts caused by climate change and the predicted warming of Iranian summers by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.

(Under business as usual fossil fuel burning scenarios, wet bulb temperatures are expected to periodically exceed the range in which humans can healthily function over portions of the Persian Gulf region before the end of this Century. Video Source: MIT News.)

Moreover, a recent MIT study from 2015 found that major cities in the Persian Gulf region may be driven past the tipping point for human survivability under business as usual fossil fuel burning (Wet Bulb of 35 C +) by climate change before the end of this Century (see video above). This means that during the worst heatwaves under this scenario, it would be impossible for human beings to retain an internal temperature cool enough to support key body functions while outdoors for even moderate periods. This would result in higher incidences of heat injury and heat mortality than we see even during present enhanced heatwaves.

Though it is uncertain whether collapse pressure driven by climate change has reached a tipping point for Iran similar to the events which enabled Syria’s descent into internal and regional conflict, the warning signs are there. The international community would thus be wise to both prepare responses and to broadly acknowledge climate change’s role in the enflaming of this and other geopolitical hot spots.

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