Tom Lewis and Kaveh Madani for Tehran Bureau

Wednesday 20 January 2016 03.00 EST

A trickle of water has returned this winter to Zayandeh Rud (the Zayandeh River) through Isfahan, but it won’t last long. When the winter rainfall ends and the snow in the mountains has melted in spring, high demand for water will see the river bed return to the dusty, cracked state to which Isfahanis have become accustomed.

Simultaneously, desertification downstream of Isfahan threatens to spread as farmers struggle to irrigate their crops. In Kerman province, to the east, 15% of around 150,000 acres of pistachio trees in the main producing area have died in the last decade or so.

In Tehran, a different environmental crisis unfolds. School closures due to air pollution are now part of the winter routine, but there have been more this year than ever before. The smog results from a combination of exhaust fumes and dust blown in from dried-up river basins in the west of the country, with the Alborz Mountains to the north trapping the thick haze over the city’s millions of suffocating inhabitants.

Since 2010, Iran’s gross domestic product has shrunk by 15-20%, partly due to sanctions, taking unemployment up to 20% and far higher among the young.

These years have also brought environmental decline. Falling oil revenue, due partly to sanctions, and a faltering economy have reduced government resources available for environmental causes: the ‘economy of resistance’ has ensured that spending has been directed at stimulating economic growth rather than encouraging environmental sustainability. Sanctions also fed a thirst for accelerated development that has exacerbated Iran’s environmental decline.

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As farmers produce as much as possible with the encouragement of cheap, subsidised energy and water, groundwater levels continue to fall at alarming rates. A pistachio farmer from the Kerman region spoke in October 2015 of “stealing” the water for as long as he can and then selling up as it runs out. When the economy is struggling and the environmental outlook is bleak, short-term gains become more attractive.

Meanwhile shortages of imported petrol due to sanctions led Iranian refiners to make up the difference with sub-standard fuel. Urban air quality has suffered as a result.

The lifting of sanctions will not automatically reverse environmental decline. Indeed, the removal of sanctions will stimulate economic growth and as much-needed investment replenishes Iran’s ailing industries we can expect some environmental indicators to deteriorate further still.

And yet, the easing of sanctions brings opportunities for some positive change. Iran’s submission of goals in the run up to December’s Paris climate change talks, emphasised the impact sanctions relief would have on Iran’s commitments over cutting greenhouse gas emissions. With sanctions removed, Iran’s environment ministry claimed it could mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by 12%, compared to only 4% if sanctions remained in place.

In a BBC interview during the Paris talks, Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice president in charge of the environment, said Iran needed a “total U-turn in agricultural policy”. At the highest levels of government, environmental decline, especially water scarcity, is increasingly discussed as a threat to Iran’s survival rather than merely as an obstacle to its prosperity. The lifting of sanctions will support positive change quickly if government funds are freed to tackle environmental challenges and if international investment is encouraged in green technology.

Iranian experts and decision-makers dealing with Tehran’s air quality have long awaited access to the technical equipment – manufactured outside Iran, and difficult to import under sanctions – to monitor air pollution.

Air quality is not the only environmental challenge in urban areas. Iran requires major investment in developing and improving its urban water and wastewater infrastructure. Access to modern distribution, collection and treatment technologies can be easier without sanctions and some European countries such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden have already shown interest.

Agriculture, which uses 92% of Iran’s water resources, can also benefit from technology and knowledge transfer. Inefficient irrigation and unsustainable farming practices have led to significant water losses and the depletion of groundwater across the country. If nothing changes, over-cultivation, and the land subsidence and desertification resulting from lack of groundwater, will make more of the country uninhabitable.

Here too, sanctions relief may bring assistance. Iranian environmental organisations can gain from closer relations with their international counterparts, facilitating the application of up-to-date techniques and know-how from areas facing similar challenges.

In addition to direct investment in agriculture to reduce environmental degradation, Iran can benefit from sustainable industrial growth that improves the efficiency of water usage. An industrialised Iran free of sanctions would not be concerned about food security and self-sufficiency in food – and so would be willing to reduce the agricultural sector. Iran could export more industrial products in return for importing more food grown in parts of the world where water is abundant.

Six months after the nuclear deal was agreed in July 2015, Iran’s adherence to the initial requirements of the agreement has been confirmed and Iranians can hope to feel the benefits of rapprochement. With the right mix of international engagement, economic growth and environmental awareness, relief from sanctions can provide the means to tackle the dire situation of Iran’s environment.

Tom Lewis is graduate of Iranian Studies, SOAS. Kaveh Madani is a senior lecturer in environmental management at the centre for environmental policy, Imperial College London. The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. Contact us @tehranbureau