Iran: Water Crisis, Food and Trade

Iran is a Shiite majority country in southwest Asia bordering seven countries which are; Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan,Iraq,Pakistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. There are 31 provinces in Iran which vary drastically.  Iran is the second biggest country in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia and has a population of approximately 77 million people. (Heslot S., 2014) Iran is one of the few countries in the world that has managed to reduce hunger significantly. While oil is the main export item in Iran both pistachios and caviar are the most traded non-oil items. On the overall agriculture is unproductive due to outdated methods and equipment, overworked land and soil.  In this particular blog I am attempting to show a different side to Iran that is not often spoken about. In order to do this I will start by talking about the water crisis which will lead into the production of pistachios. After this topic I will discuss the drying up of Lake Urmia in Northwestern Iran and the impact that it has on the people living in the surrounding areas. The last topic will cover Iran’s caviar industry as well as some history and environmental issues.  In order to do this I will give a brief outline of the modern history starting from 1979 leading into today. It will then lead into the current issues facing Iran in relation to water, agriculture and trade.

207 Iran Provinces 4th division after 1979, 2006 MapIran-CIA_WFB_Mapiran-flag
In 1979 when the Islamic Revolution took place the newly established government promised food security through new agricultural polices. (Yazdanpanah, A.,1994). The economic sanctions on Iran left the farmers with no opportunities in both the international and domestic markets because the new government did not provide the financial support that was needed. However, after the Revolution hunger started to decrease but other issues such as malnutrition and obesity became more apparent.

After the  Revolution the agricultural sector and food trade changed and created more challenges (Heslot S., 2014). Under Ayatollah Khomeini (the first Ayatollah from 1979) promoted a population growth without thinking about the long-term consequences. During this time the population doubled and so did the usage of water. As a result water became scarce and families living in rural areas moved to the bigger cities in order to gain access to water which created an imbalance.
The water crisis has developed into a serious issue within the last decade or so especially for farmers. The main issue for Iran is the soil quality which prevents farmers from harvesting the land . With very little land being cultivated the usage of water by the farmers is 91% more than an average person (Merufina E., Aram A., Esmaeili F., 2014).
The government would often times not take responsibility for the water crisis and they would blame it on issues such as droughts and climate and previous sanctions. According to the academic Kaveh Madani there are three main factors that contribute to the current water crisis which are,“rapid population growth and inappropriate spatial population distribution; inefficient agriculture sector; and mismanagement and thirst for development (2014).” Agriculture in Iran lacks funding because the government would rather fund the oil industry where a lot of money is brought into the country. While Iran does export food items the water issue has presented many challenges now and in the future. For example the lack of water impacts the pistachio farmers and their livelihood. Many people in rural areas in Iran started growing pistachios mainly because it is tolerant of salt water and it brought in a lot of money.
Iran is one of the leading exporters of pistachios in the world but its suffering due to the water crisis. While pistachios brought in good money for Iranian farmers in Kerman Province in the south it is no longer in existence. This province was the main producer of pistachios but the growing of trees decreased by 15%. Over the years when people no longer had direct access to water they would dig under ground. It turned out that this water was polluted which dried up many of the trees and forced the farmers and their families to move to the big cities to find a new livelihood. In 2013, Iran’s chamber of commerce carried out a survey showing that Kerman province was losing about 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of pistachio farms every year to desertification (Ashktorab, N., Saghaian, S. H., & Shahnoushi, N. ,2013)

iran trees Iranian farmer showing his pistachio trees

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s the Iranian government subsidized food, water and energy which were helpful at the time. Since the war ended, several Iranian governments have attempted to put an end these subsidies which are still ongoing.  The subsidies according to Soazic Heslot are, “an economic burden; in 2009, they cost between US $70 bn and US $100 bn, or about 25% of Iran’s GDP. They also encourage wasteful behavior and contribute to the generation of pollution (2014).” Today, these subsidies still exist and people are wasting water because it is cheap and there are no consequences for using too much.
Iran has a set five-year plan for its development which includes agriculture and self-sufficiency. Due to the water crisis Iran may lack the ability to become food secure in the future. While many of the Five Year Plans include progression in technology for agriculture as well as food security the most recent ones don’t particularly focus on these issues.

The Case of Lake Urmia

Lake Urmia is in Northwestern part of Iran located in between two provinces West Azerbaijan and East Azerbaijan and borders the countries of  Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan.  It is the biggest hyper-saline lake in the world. Lake Urmia is a terminal lake which means that no water flows out of it but evaporation and extraction by people for agriculture has caused it to shrink. It is a shallow lake that could easily leave the area with salt deposits which get into the local food produce as a result of extraction. The experts on this case warn that when the lake dries up the only thing left will be salt. In the future this will increase the salt storms which would destroy the places that are nearby including the countries on the border. The only real solution at the moment for saving Lake Urmia is to allow two other rivers the Zab River which  flows through Turkey and Iraq and the Aras River which, “is split roughly in half between Iran and Azerbaijan ,”  In order to gain access to the water from these rivers Iran will have to enter negotiations with the relevant countries. Since the elections are taking place in Iran I find it important to mention that the people who live in this region are now voting for a president who will revive the lake (Bozorgmehr N., 2017), The other body of water in Iran is the Caspian Sea which is shared with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.

Caspian Sea and Caviar
map of rivers ii  map of sea ii

I want to switch to the topic of the Caspian Sea and the caviar industry. Iran is one of the largest exporters in the world for high quality caviar. The most interesting information that I found during this research is how Iran achieved this name. When it comes to the caviar market there are, “only two nations of the world have been major caviar-exporters: the former Soviet Union and Iran (Shadrina, E.,2007)” In order to understand how Iran started competing on the international caviar market I will give a brief history.
In 1952 the Soviet Union built a canal that would connect both the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea through the Volga and Don Rivers. In 1986-1991 the Volga River and Caspian Sea became polluted with oil and industrial wastes which became Iran’s advantage over the former USSR in the caviar market. Iran wanted to become the leading exporter of caviar which eventually led them to over fish. (Shadrina, E.,2007). For over 60 years both Iran and Russia became the preservers of sturgeon fish and they were the leading traders internationally.  In 1962 all countries boarding the Caspian Sea excluding Iran agreed to fish for sturgeon in their rivers instead of the sea.  (2007)
Once the Islamic Revolution took place in 1979 the government outlawed caviar . The Mullahs believed that, “the sturgeon appeared to be anti-revolutionary and it was thought not to have any scales, which are needed by the Islamic rules to make it “halal”, i.e. acceptable under Islamic law for consumption. The moratorium on sturgeon fishing lasted until 1982, when the mullahs of Iran discovered it did, in fact, have some scales.  Following this “discovery”, the Islamic theologians gave the blessing to caviar.” It is important to note that this is according to the Shia interpretation of Halal food and differs according to Sunni’s.
The fish market in Iran today is suffering due to the fish stocks and the sanctions which  went from ,”40 tons of sturgeon eggs in 2000”,  and dropped to one ton.  (Dareini A.,2015 Only 11% of the caviar produced from Iran is consumed domestically while the other 89% is sold on the international market. Even with the embargo on Iran the United States would still receive their caviar through the European and Middle Eastern markets , as of the year 2000 the ban on food  was lifted. This allowed for direct imports of Iranian food items to the United States.

Natural Causes of less Sturgeon

Some of the greatest problems deal with over fishing, poaching, pollution and comb jellyfish. This specific jellyfish was not native to the Caspian Sea but spilled over from ballast water from the Volga-Don Canal. This particular jellyfish is destroying the ecological system of the Caspian Sea in general. But they eat sturgeon fish which has led to a decrease in caviar.
Today, there are laws regulating the fish trade out of fear that people are over fishing.  While the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, “agreed to a five-year ban on the fishing of sturgeons (Alipour Z., 2017)”, there is still no official agreement.


Khoresht Badam


8 oz (227g) Stew Beef 6 oz (170g) Almonds 1 Onion 1/4 Tsp Saffron 2 Tbsp Vegetable Oil 2 Tbsp Tomato Paste 2 Dried Limes 1 Cinnamon Sticks 1 Cup Dried Barberries (Zereshk) Salt, Turmeric, Crushed Red Pepper Preparations: 1- Soak the almonds in water for 4 hours or overnight. 2- Peel and Slice the almonds. 2- Soak saffron in water for 20 min. 3- Dice the onion. Directions: 1- Fry the onions with vegetable oil until golden. 2- Garnish with turmeric. 3- Stir in beef, continue frying for 10 minutes. 4- Add enough water to cover the beef. 5- cover the pot and cook for an hour over medium-low heat. 6- Stir in tomato paste, add salt and crushed red pepper. 7- Add dried limes and sliced almonds and cinnamon stick. 8- Stir thoroughly, cover the pot and boil for 15 minutes (medium-low heat). 9- Add saffron and dried barberries (Zereshk). 10- Remove the cinnamon stick. 11- Simmer for another 10 minutes.


Persian Pistachio Nougat

Recipe by:

picture for blog dessert.jpg

How to Make It

1. Prepare an 8×8 pan by lining it with aluminum foil and spraying the foil with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a large stand mixer, and whisk until they hold stiff peaks.

3. While the whites are beating, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt, and water in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and continue to cook until the mixture reaches hard-ball stage (250 degrees).

4. When the sugar syrup has reached 250 degrees, remove it from heat and slowly pour approximately one quarter of the mixture into the stiff egg whites, with the mixer running constantly. Continue to beat the egg whites until the mixture holds its shape.

5. Return the saucepan with the remaining sugar syrup to the stove, and continue to cook over medium-high heat until the mixture reaches 300 degrees (hard-crack stage).

6. With the mixer running, pour the remaining sugar syrup slowly into the egg mixture and continue beating until mixture is thick and stiff. Add the rose water and nuts and beat just until combined.

7. Spoon the nougat into the prepared pan, and press it smoothly and evenly. Keep it in refrigerator until the nougat is set. Take it out of the mold and cut it into squares.

8. Store nougat in an airtight container in the refrigerator, but allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Alipour Z., (2017), Iran’s Priciest Export at Risk                                                             

Ashktorab, N., Saghaian, S. H., & Shahnoushi, N., (2013). Food Safety Concerns and other Factors Affecting Iran’s Pistachio Exports to EU, Australia, and Japan.                                      Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development, 10(2).

Bozorgmehr N., (2017),

Dareini A.,(2015),                                                                                    

Goldasht A.D., (2015), Iran: Caviar back on the market as sanctions begin to ease off;Sturgeon farmers hope the nuclear deal will revitalise exports of the luxury roe

Heslot S., (2014),  Iran’s Food Security

Madani, K.,(2014). Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?                 Journal of environmental studies and sciences, 4(4), 315-328.

Madani, K., AghaKouchak, A., & Mirchi, A. (2016). Iran’s Socio-economic Drought: Challenges of a Water-Bankrupt Nation.                                                                                     Iranian Studies, 49(6), 997-1016.

Merufinia, E., Aram, A., & Esmaeili, F., (2014). Saving the Lake Urmia: from slogan to reality (challenges and solutions).                                                                                                 Bull. Environ. Pharmacol. Life Sci, 3, 277-288.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr, (2017),  Iran’s President Hopes Lake’s Revival will Boost his Votes
Officials claim Rouhani’s efforts to replenish Urmia lake averted ecological crisis               Financial Times

Shadrina, E., (2007). The great Caspian caviar game.                                                           Security Index: A Russian Journal on International Security, 13(1), 55-78.

The National: Iran’s Pistachio Farms Dying of Thirst, (2016)                                            

Note, A. A. P. (2004). Islamic Republic of Iran An Agricultural Policy Note.
Yazdanpanah, A. (1994). Oil Prices and Agricultural Policy in Iran.

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