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What Water Crisis Means For Iran’s Future

In this Tuesday, July 10, 2018 photo, a row of bird-shaped paddle boats sit on the parched Zayandeh Roud riverbed, in Isfahan, Iran.

Iran has struggled with chronic drought for over a decade, and it is currently estimated that 97 percent of the country is experiencing drought conditions. Iran is in the midst of a full-blown water crisis, and the shortages are among the factors leading to widespread unrest in Iranian society.

As reported by ILNA, the Iranian Labor News Agency, protestors blocked the main road leading into the southern Iranian city of Borazjan as part of protests over water scarcity July 22. The New York based Center For Human Rights reported cases of violent encounters between protesters and security forces.

“A civilian who was shot dead by state security forces during the recent demonstration in Borazjan (Bushehr province in southern Iran) against the city’s water crisis, was identified as Iman Ahmadi,” the Center For Human Rights reported.

This was not the first case of water-related protests turning violent this summer, with violent protests kicking off in Khorramshahr, a city in the southern province of Khuzestan, earlier on July 1.

"No one has been killed in the unrest and just one person has been wounded in a shooting," announced Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli.

These protests are emblematic of the wider problems caused by the ongoing water crisis in Iran. Although primarily caused by water shortages in the cities, both the protest in Borazjan and in Khorramshahr have quickly turned to targeting government mismanagement and corruption. The protests in Borazjan in particular were largely influenced by the lack of response from authorities in the Dashtestan province to the installation of water pumps for the irrigation of orchards in the nearby city of Kazeroon that drained residents’ water supply.

Mohammad Baqir Sa’adat, the Dashtestan representative to the parliament, was reported to have said, “The people’s anger is justified. They are even entitled to insult the authorities.”

In this sense, water shortages only ferment deeply rooted sentiments in the citizens, which are often related to larger issues and dissatisfaction with the government’s decision making. The interplay between poor planning and severe droughts has a pronounced agrarian character in Iran. According to the latest statistics provided by the Energy Ministry, there have been only 166 millimeters of rainfall in Iran since October 2017, marking a 26.5 percent decrease from the previous year. This highlights the immense challenges for Iranian farmers and, indeed, the government, which seeks to make Iran self-sufficient in its agricultural production.

Yet the government’s industrial ambitions have also taken their toll on the position of farmers in drought-ridden areas. Finishing the construction of a steel mill in Isfahan in July, the government’s desire to increase the country’s industrial production has put pressure on the already precious water resources. By diverting water to factories or hydroelectric dams, the formerly arable lands cannot be used by farmers for the growing of water-intensive crops such as cotton or wheat. This can quickly lead to dissatisfaction amongst the ranks of unemployed farmers such as 57-year-old Habib Ramazani. "I am speechless. No official pays attention to our miserable situation,” he said.

The water crisis has an equally environmental dimension, which does not provide any solace either. Due to both crippling heat and inefficient irrigation, the wetlands in the eastern and southeastern parts of Iran have largely dried up, with some estimates stating that 60 out of total 105 have completely dried out. According to Masoud Baqerzadeh, the deputy environment chief for the wetlands, a total of 1.3 million hectares are affected by drought. In turn, the sandy soils of the dry lake beds cause severe sand storms, which lead to further issues in both rural and urban areas.

As shown by the reaction of the citizen of Abadan, a major port in the Khuzestan province, water mismanagement and environmental issues caused by the drought can also lead to disruptive migration. Indeed, an Abadan city official said in June that over 80 thousand people have left the city in the past year alone. These migratory movements may lead to further instability in the cities, as well as to a further strain on resources and infrastructure in other regions.

Despite the clamor for better planning and solutions, the events surrounding the water crisis highlight Iranian society’s vulnerability to water shortage. Considering the ongoing issues with corruption amongst officials and inefficient infrastructural planning, it can only be expected that these problems will continue.