Iran’s water crisis is entering a new paradigm where its impacts are becoming visible in the daily lives of millions of people. Today, the average annual water consumption in Iran is estimated to be around 96 billion cubic meters (BCM)—a figure that is about 8% higher than Iran’s total renewable water resources (89 BCM) or about 80% higher than the scarcity threshold level of the country (about 53 BCM). The practical solutions that can potentially help Iran address its formidable water crisis can be grouped into those that seek to (i) improve water productivity (e.g., modernization of irrigation, expansion of greenhouses, and optimization of crop pattern), and (ii) selectively terminate some water-intensive activities. Herein, we argue that—given the massive imbalance between sustainable supply and demand for water—the ultimate potential reductions in water use by the solutions targeting productivity will not be sufficient to change the calculus in Iran. Although modern irrigation systems can significantly save water at the farm level, their overall effectiveness in reducing water use at the basin level is modest. Furthermore, no more than half the irrigated lands (i.e., a quarter of total farmlands) in Iran are deemed suitable for such a transformation. Therefore, the amounts of water that can be saved in Iran through irrigation modernization would be too small (about 7 BCM) compared to the copious amounts of water that should be saved to sufficiently mitigate the ongoing crisis (about 44 BCM). We then demonstrate that the annual costs of adaptation to water scarcity in Iran through reduction in farming will hover around $25 billion or a maximum of 5.5% of Iran’s projected GDP in the future. Based on the presented analysis in this paper, we suggest the following:
1) Agricultural production should be reduced substantially. Even in the absence of intended reduction in farming, it is likely that shortage of water and deterioration of soil will lead to an inadvertent and uncontrolled reduction in the output from the agriculture sector in the long run. To compensate for the reduced amounts of homegrown food, in rough terms, Iran will need to spend an additional $300 per person per year to import food;
2) Policymakers should renounce the rhetoric of glorifying food self-sufficiency which, considering Iran’s limited natural resources and access to technology, only comes as a huge burden on the environment and future generations. Instead, the focus should be on ensuring the food security of the nation with no concern as to whence food originates. Furthermore, pronatalist population policies seeking to increase the total fertility rate (which is currently close to the replacement level) should be abandoned;
3) Experts should devote their efforts to developing an effective water governance framework that encompasses a detailed spatial account of water availability and a set of fair and economically viable rules for water distribution among various stakeholders. Experts should also clearly and truthfully explain the realities of the matter to the public and policymakers and avoid populist statements (e.g., “saving both agriculture and water is possible”) or contentless arguments (e.g., “water crisis” vs. “water bankruptcy”).