Analysis: Large-Scale Flooding Triggers Humanitarian Crisis in Iran whilst Mismanagement and International Sanctions Inhibit Relief Efforts

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

This content was originally published on RiskMonitor by our Intelligence and Analysis Services Team on 16/04/2019. Find out more about RiskMonitor now.


  • The Islamic Republic of Iran has seen a period of extensive flooding over the last month which has led to significant loss of life and caused widespread infrastructural damage.

  • The crisis has been caused by a combination of sudden heavy rainfall and arid winter conditions. It is likely to further damage the ailing national economy by restricting the domestic production and transfer of goods.

  • The Iranian government has faced accusations of mismanagement from both domestic and international forces, whilst NGOs have blamed the United States’ sanctions regime for restricting the importation of vital emergency equipment.

  • Overland transport and the provision of basic services will continue to be severely reduced in the short-medium term, whilst this crisis will further exacerbate Iran’s state of economic and political uncertainty in the long term.

The Event

The Islamic Republic of Iran has seen a period of extensive flooding that is estimated to have killed more than 78 people, injured around 1,136 others, and caused $2.6 billion of damage to private property, state infrastructure and public service buildings. The flooding, which began in mid-March, follows a period of sustained heavy rainfall which has overwhelmed the country’s typically arid, north-eastern regions.

According to Iran’s Interior Minister, Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli, a total of 25 of the Republic’s 31 provinces have been affected, leading to mass evacuations from cities, towns and villages. This has resulted in the relocation of 4,400 rural communities, many of which are staying in temporary relief camps set up by government departments and NGOs.

In total, around 10 million people have been affected in some way, whilst more than half a million have been forced to leave their homes. Transport Minister Mohammad Eslami, has also warned that 725 bridges, and around 14,000 kilometres of road and highway have also been severely damaged, hampering relief efforts and further evacuations.

The Consequences

According to the Iranian Red Crescent’s Office for International Affairs and International Humanitarian Law, this period of flooding is the largest natural disaster to hit Iran for over 15 years. Over 18,000 humanitarian aid workers have been deployed to the region in response, along with 20 aircraft and 41 emergency watercraft provided by the Red Crescent and its partner organisations in Iran.

The level of displacement and number of casualties has been compounded by the speed with which the flooding began in March. In most eastern regions, rainfall quickly generated overland flow, due to the aridity of the desiccated ground caused by a historically dry winter.

This led to entire villages being washed away in a matter of minutes, and the complete destruction of buildings and roads which were unable to withstand the force of the water. Many residents in mountainous districts were thus unable to evacuate their families and gather their belongings before their property was washed away.

This growing crisis is likely to have long-term consequences for the country, which is currently facing a period of marked fiscal uncertainty.

The economies of Iran’s southern and eastern provinces are typically dominated by the agricultural industry as most small communities cultivate crops and tender to livestock, the products of which are then nationally exported. The flooding is likely to have a detrimental impact on this process by destroying existing crops and rendering agricultural land unusable for months to come.

This disruption, which comes at the start of the growing season, will have a delayed economic effect later in the year when crops are traditionally harvested and produce enters circulation.

The flooding is also likely to impact public health by reducing sanitation provisions and inducing ground water contamination. This will increase the risk faced by residents of contracting water-borne diseases such as Cholera, Typhoid and Dysentery. Such an outbreak would be compounded by a reduction in healthcare services and the availability of medical supplies.

The Response 

Relief efforts in Iran have been complicated by the country’s reluctance to rely on foreign aid, particularly that provided by western institutions and governments which have a tumultuous relationship with the Islamic republic. Subsequently, the country’s President, Hassan Rouhani, has announced that the government will enlist Iran’s ailing national banking system to offer interest-free loans and fund reconstruction efforts.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also designated $2 billion of the national sovereign wealth fund to pay for relief, whilst contributions to aid have been made by a number of wealthy benefactors based in Iran who have paid for temporary shelters and emergency food deliveries to rural communities.

The vast majority of local-level relief operations have been carried out by volunteers and military service personnel, who have been tasked with clearing rubble, creating building makeshift flood defences and distributing resources.

Fallout with America

Despite this focus on self-reliance, the Iranian authorities have accepted a limited amount of external aid, including a shipment of emergency pumping equipment supplied by the French government. The World Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF are also providing expertise and material support, whilst Iran’s regional neighbours Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Pakistan have pledged to allocate relief funds and military personnel to assist reconstruction efforts.

However the United States has refused to provide assistance to Iran, and instead has reaffirmed its commitment to sanctions against the regime, which it claims is responsible for sponsoring international terrorism and perpetrating global conflict. These sanctions, which have been gradually ratcheted-up since Washington withdrew from the JCPOA nuclear treaty last year, have hampered the ability of aid organisations in Iran to acquire machinery and supplies to control the flood waters, as the restrictions have led to a large increase in importation costs.

The Iranian government has also accused international banks of refusing to convey financial donations made by Iran’s diaspora for fear of US reprisals, whilst Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has suggested that Washington is promoting ‘economic terrorism’. In response the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has attributed the crisis to “mismanagement in urban planning and in emergency preparedness” on the part of the regime.

Mid-Long Term Implications

According to recent forecasts, heavy rainfall is set to continue across Iran for the next two weeks, further exacerbating the level of flooding. Both overland transport and the provision of basic services will continue to be heavily impacted.

In the medium term, the national economy is likely to become increasingly unstable as the production and distribution of goods is disrupted by the widespread destruction. The Iranian government may also experience long-term political challenges as a result of criticism of its handling of the crisis. This anger is likely to be directed at Hassan Rouhani in particular, who continues to face strong opposition from hard-line political factions inside his own government.

Thus, this episode will have a marked effect on the Islamic Republic, further exacerbating its current state of economic and political uncertainty.