A decline in average annual precipitation, rise in temperatures, and dire water shortages are leading drivers of climate-induced internal migration in Iran. This long-term trend was further exacerbated in 2022 by more intense heat waves, resulting in a spike in seasonal migration, while floods and storms increased displacement in towns, where government investments and programs to mitigate the impact of climate change were minimal or non-existent.
While available data is limited, the magnitude of climate-induced internal migration within Iran is clear. In 2021, an estimated 41,000 Iranians were displaced due to drought, sand and dust storms (SDSs), floods, natural disasters, and land degradation, and as many as 2,300 people migrated as a result of SDSs alone. This has had knock-on effects for the economy on both the local and national levels, impacting everything from employment patterns to food security.
Over the past two decades, climate-induced migration in the country has increased ten-fold. If current trends continue, the problem will be much worse in the years to come. Iran has a total population of nearly 88 million and is set to be hard hit by climate change and the rise in global temperatures. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), by 2050 it will become very difficult to live in Iran under these prospective conditions.
Patterns of migration
The provinces hardest hit by climate migration include Khuzestan, Lorestan, Esfahan, Hamedan, Kerman, Yazd, and Sistan and Baluchistan. In some parts of the country, there are well-established migration routes: In Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province in southwestern Iran, for example, these routes stretch north through Khuzestan as well as to the east and southeast.
Migrants generally move to areas where climate conditions are better, yet still experience environmental decline. In Sistan and Baluchistan’s Chabahar County, along the Gulf shores in southeastern Iran, an increasing number of people have been forced to move as a result of climate change and now live on the margins of towns. As drought strikes southern Iran, migration to northern parts of the country has become more common as well.
Migration trends are reshaping the country and as some regions become depopulated, this may even have implications for national security. Border areas in particular are essential to maintaining Iran’s territorial integrity and unified geographic structure, but large-scale migration driven by climate and economic factors has left many of them devoid of inhabitants.
People living in Iran’s vast central desert face swirling winds that destroy the surface of the soil, placing stress on the region’s underground water resources and prompting many to migrate either to the Caspian Sea region in the north or the capital. Tehran in particular has been a major magnet for migrants. Over the past two decades the city has added an estimated 200,000-250,000 people per year, and this rapid population growth has resulted in unbalanced urban development, making the capital ever more congested and difficult to live in. According to a city official, Tehran’s population is growing by 1.7% annually and will reach 15 million in two decades’ time. Other figures put the annual increase in the city’s population even higher, at around 600,000, driven largely by internal migration. Statistics released last year suggest nearly two-thirds of Tehran’s population (62%) was born outside the city, while its suburbs are home to a population equivalent to that of 15 other provinces combined.
Given the severity of Iran’s internal climate migration patterns, no part of the country is immune from climate displacement. This is far from a local or even a regional problem though: According to the World Bank, over 200 million people across the world will move within their countries by 2050 as a result of climate change.
Drivers of internal migration
Internal migration within Iran is not a new phenomenon and climate change is only the latest in a series of drivers. The Land Reform Act of 1963 and the subsequent oil boom resulted in substantial internal migration. The 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988, accelerated rural to urban migration, and Iran’s cities became a major attraction for those pursuing political activism and seeking employment opportunities. In the past three decades, over 1 million people moved internally within Iran, resulting in a 5% decrease in the rural population between 1996 and 2011.
Iran’s recent experience with drought, the worst in the past five decades, further intensified internal displacement. Water-induced migration is a major challenge for Iran, a country in which 75% of its nearly 88 million people live on less than 40% of its land, mostly in the water-rich areas of the west and in the north. Half a century ago, 60% of Iran’s 30 million people lived in those same areas. Accelerated desertification and deforestation in these regions, along with damaging environmental practices and high water consumption patterns, are stressing underground water resources and potentially causing water bankruptcy on the local level.
In southwestern Iran, including the province of Khuzestan, chronic water shortages are the result of a shift in agricultural patterns toward more water-intensive crops, carried out as part of an effort to achieve food security. This was combined with a ramping up of dam construction and a diversion of water toward industrial projects, including steel plants, in other parts of the country.
The government has also prioritized water diversion to major cities in an effort to reduce socio-economic and political stress in urban areas, hastening the rapid depletion of renewable water resources. Each of these factors contributes to Iran’s generally poor water policy and all of them have played a part, alongside climate change, in exacerbating internal migration.
Potential pathways forward
While climate migration is a serious issue in Iran, there is a striking lack of relevant data and policies designed to mitigate the problem. Several years ago the minister of agriculture sounded the alarm about the potential severity of water shortages, warning that if current climate trends were left unaddressed, some 70% of the population — or nearly 50 million Iranians — might be ultimately forced to leave the country to survive. Experts in Iran are therefore urging the government to tackle this issue head on and provide urban areas that serve as major migration destinations with the appropriate tools and resources to cope.
Moving forward, one potential solution might be to draw on traditional and environmental-friendly Iranian architectural and urban design practices that maximize climate adaptation through efficient use of land, energy, and water resources. For example, traditional homes in Gonabad in eastern Iran are situated around an inner courtyard surrounded by windows and roofs designed to maximize natural light and air flow while street-facing walls protect against dust storms. Rooms around the courtyard are designed for use in different seasons — some in cold weather and others on warmer days. Traditional Iranian homes are also built side-by-side in dense, narrow residential alleys to shield against extreme climate fluctuations in the desert or during dry seasons. Today this also helps to encourage walking and biking or motorbiking rather than using cars.
The full restoration of the ganat system, a network of narrow water canals in urban and rural areas running across fields and on every street and alley, would also help to enable natural water flow while protecting against climate-induced flooding, which is frequent in Iran. In fact, traditional architecture in cities like Yazd has withstood flooding far better than modern buildings, benefitting from design features like inverted inner courtyard-facing structures, windowless street-facing walls, and natural air filtration built on dome-shaped roofs.
Taking into consideration both the problems related to climate change and the potential means of alleviating them, regions across Iran could maximize their adaptability by using indigenous approaches and techniques like these. Such methods could also help to promote better soil management by improving handling of natural groundwater flows in urban and rural areas and containing over-flooding. At the end of the day, urban planning practices should aim to strike a balance between the requirements of the natural environment, climate challenges, and architectural design. It is only by doing so that modern urban settings can truly adapt to climate change and help climate migrants make a home for themselves in a new and environmentally sustainable habitat.
Banafsheh Keynoush is a scholar of international affairs, a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program, and a fellow at the International Institute for Iranian Studies.
Photo by MORTEZA JABERIAN/AFP via Getty Images
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