The role of Iran’s water crisis in the recent protests
Posted on louisproyect.org on January 10, 2018.
On January 2nd, an NY Times article about the protests in Iran included a couple of paragraphs that caught my eye:
For decades, those living in Iran’s provincial towns and villages were regarded as the backbone of the country’s Islamic regime. They tended to be conservative, averse to change and pious followers of the sober Islamic lifestyle promoted by the state.
In less than a decade, all that has changed. A 14-year drought has emptied villages, with residents moving to nearby cities where they often struggle to find jobs. Access to satellite television and, more important, the mobile internet has widened their world.
In a nutshell, these are exactly the sort of social/ecological contradictions that helped to pave the way for the Syrian revolution as I pointed out in an article titled “Syria, Water and the Fall from Eden”, where I quoted a high-level government official:
There is no more rain, but there are more and more people. We forget that we are living in the desert here and that more than a quarter of the Syrian population now lives in Damascus. We have no water anymore and our Barada River cries. In the plain, in the Ghuta, it’s the same thing: there used to be five large springs there that fed the crops. They have all dried up.
–Nizar Hussein, agricultural engineer, Barada & Awaj River Authority, Damascus, Syria
In going through 16 years of articles on Lexis-Nexis about the drought in Iran, I came across a Financial Times article dated August 21, 2014 that cited a high-level government official who was just as terror-stricken:
Thousands of villages rely on water tankers for supplies, according to local media, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily hazard in factories around Tehran. At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed, according to a water official who declined to be named.
The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will not be liveable in 20 years’ time if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crisis, Israel or the US.
It is important to understand that the migration of countryside people to the cities of Syria and Iran was not exclusively made up of people like the Joad family in “Grapes of Wrath”. It did not just include farmers but those tied into the agrarian economy as well– such as farm equipment vendors and their workers, shopkeepers, professionals and the like. When the farm is the hub of a wheel, the spokes will certainly be affected when it is removed.
Most dramatically, Iran has suffered the loss of major sources of water in the last few decades that were as much of a cultural landmark as they were economically critical. It would be somewhat analogous to the Rio Grande river drying up in the USA (a not far-fetched comparison in light of this article.)
On September 18, 2001, the NY Times reported that Lake Hamoun, Iran’s largest body of fresh water and one of the largest in the world, had turned into a desert. The drought was to blame but so was the geopolitical conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which controlled a major dam on the Hirmand River that fed Lake Hamoun. Despite a 30-year-old agreement that allowed some water to flow even in dry years, the Taliban cut off the supply. After the Taliban were ousted, the American-supported regime had just as little interest in cooperation with Iran for obvious reasons. As I pointed out in my review of Müşerref Yetim’s “Negotiating International Water Rights: Resource Conflict in Turkey, Syria and Iraq”, this is not uncommon:
Competition for Euphrates and Tigris water has reverberated in domestic politics, especially in Iraq and Turkey. Following the March 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, Iraq began to step up suppression of the Kurdish movement in the north. This prompted Syria to undermine Saddam Hussein by reducing the Euphrates flow. In effect, the conflicts between states in the Middle East over strategic goals almost inevitably spills over into the conflicts over water.
Lake Urmia, another key water resource, was also deeply impacted but in this instance, drought was conjoined with government mismanagement to create an environmental disaster as the Guardian reported on September 6, 2011. This time it was not an Afghan dam that was drying up a lake but the 36 dams within Iran built on rivers flowing into Lake Urmia. Since Urmia was a salt lake, the ecological impact would be catastrophic for farms surrounding it. When salt lakes go dry, the salt diffuses into the surrounding terrain and will kill crops such as almond and garlic found near Lake Urmia. It is also necessary to understand that its loss would be a major loss to the Azeri people who lived in the region. This video shows a protest held in September 2011 about the pending loss of the lake.
One other example should give you an idea of the gravity of the situation. Zayanderud is a river whose name means “life-giving waters”. In the FT article referenced above, you discover that it has flowed through Isfahan for more than 1,000 years from its source in the Zagros Mountains to the vast wetlands of Gavkhooni south of Isfahan. But the FT now described it as “a vast, gravelly beach, a dead stretch of sun-baked land that winds through the heart of Isfahan”. A man quoted in the article has the exact profile of those who were raising hell a few days ago:
“No water in this river means I had to leave my farmlands in the town of Varzaneh and work for the Isfahan municipality for 15,000 tomans [$5.6] per day,” says Afshin as he cuts weeds on the riverbed.
A loss of this river meant that about two million people who depend on agriculture have lost their income, according to Mostafa Hajjeh-Foroush, head of the agriculture committee of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce. “If this situation continues they should think of changing jobs,” he adds.
Despite the FT’s obvious neoliberal bias, its analysis of how this came about is quite accurate. Under Ahmadinejad, profits generated through the sale of oil helped to prop up a water distribution system that was unsustainable. As a rentier state, Iran’s economy was based on handouts rather than the production of manufactured goods. Ahmadinejad targeted the farmers as a primary source of support without regard to the broader consequences for the nation. Cheap oil and subsidies made the massive use of pumps feasible just as was the case in Syria. As groundwater became more and more diverted into growing water-hungry crops like melons for the export market, the mostly urban population had to pay the piper. According to the UN, groundwater extraction nearly quadrupled between the 1970s and the year 2000 while the number of wells rose fivefold.
To give you an idea of how irrational such practices can become, the Trend News Agency reported on November 7, 2017 that Iran continues to prioritize the agri-export sector even as increased production yields fewer revenues. Last year exports increased by 15 percent but their value fell by 9 percent.
Watermelon was an exception to the norm. It registered an 18 percent and 33 percent growth in terms of volume and value respectively. This is a water-consuming commodity par excellence and as its name implies is mostly water. Some economists in Iran argue that Iran is actually exporting water in a period of drought.
As the drought and the misuse of water resources began to take its toll on society, Ahmadinejad came up with a novel excuse. In 2012, he made a speech claiming that the drought was “partly intentional, as a result of the enemy destroying the clouds moving towards our country”. Supposedly Europe was using high tech equipment to drain the clouds of raindrops. As might be expected, Global Research found this plausible. To bolster its case, the conspiracist website informed its readers:
Hollywood just released a film on Weather Modification gone mad titled, ‘Geostorm’ right after the worst hurricane season in a century. The film is about a network of satellites designed to control the global climate landscape. The plot of the film is that the satellites turns on Planet Earth with the intention to destroy everything in it by causing catastrophic weather conditions including hurricanes and earthquakes.
“Geostorm” earned a 13% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic opining that a Sharknado or two could have livened things up.
Not to be outdone by Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabai-Nejad from the city of Isfahan that lost its legendary life-giving waters blamed the drought on—who else—impious women. In a sermon, he offered this version of why the lakes and rivers were running dry: “They have brought me pictures that shows women by the side of the dry Zayanderud river. These actions will ensure the upper stream of the river will become dry too. Believe me it is true. You may ask yourself why European countries with so much crime and sin have so much rainfall … God punishes the believer, for remaining silent and letting girls take pictures by the river as if they were in European countries.”
Although the Ayatollah might be dismissed as Iran’s version of the idiot living in the White House, he reflects a deep structural problem in the political system that militates against a solution to these deeply entrenched policies that are typical of the short-term mindset of rentier states. With the revenues generated by oil exports, it is likely that the elites will not pay much attention to the overall need for a sustainable economy but to seek out technical solutions, the most recent of which is the use of desalination plants.
Ahmadinejad, the conspiracy theorist, initiated something called the Caspian Project that envisioned a vast network of pipelines that pumped desalinated water to the major cities. This was met with skepticism by the nation’s water and environmental experts who warned that the infrastructure necessary for such a system would cripple fragile agricultural communities and ruin ecosystems, especially near the desalination plants. These massive operations separate the salt from the incoming water and funnel the brine byproduct back into the ocean. In so doing, it has caused irreparable damage to marine life. In effect, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul. There are also heavy financing requirements that are just as onerous as those involved in building nuclear power plants. If Iran is in a race to build a society that has a future, it is probably a big mistake to use technologies so wedded to the past.
There is only one scholarly article that deals with these intractable problems, which fortunately can be read online. Titled “Iran’s Socio-economic Drought: Challenges of a Water-Bankrupt Nation”, it reviews the main causes of the crisis in terms geared to a mainstream audience. The section on the role of agriculture is worth quoting in its entirety:
The agricultural sector uses up to 92 percent of Iran’s water. Due to having an oil-based economy, Iran has overlooked the economic efficiency of its agricultural sector in its modern history.10 The desire for increased agricultural productivity has encouraged an expansion of cultivated areas and infrastructure across the country. However, this sector is not yet industrialized and is suffering from outdated farming technologies and practices leading to very low efficiency in irrigation and production.
The agricultural sector in Iran is economically inefficient and its contribution to gross domestic product has decreased over time. Irrigated agriculture is the dominant practice, while the economic return on water use in this sector is significantly low, and crop patterns across the country are inappropriate and incompatible with water availability conditions in most areas. Recently, concerns about the embodied water content of produced and exported crops have increased, but business still continues as usual as interest in crop choice by farmers is mostly correlated with crop market prices and their traditional crop choices in the area.
The claimed interest in improving the living conditions of farmers is inconsistent with their relative income, which has decreased over time due to increasing water scarcity and decreasing productivity. Forced migration from rural to urban areas has been observed in some parts of the country where farming is no longer possible. However, agriculture continues to play a major role in the country, providing employment to more than 20 percent of the population. This role will remain significant as long as alternative job opportunities are unavailable in other sectors such as services and industry. The recent turmoil in Syria underscores that a loss of jobs in the agricultural sector can cause mass migration, creating national security threats and serious tensions.
While I would agree with the general analysis presented above, I would not call the protests a “national security threat”. If anything I have confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to solve the nation’s problems once they overthrow the Maserati-driving elites and their clerical allies and begin to build a society based on the common good rather than personal gain. Iran has long-standing revolutionary traditions that will acquit the country well as the state lurches unsteadily into an approaching storm that will pose very sharp class contradictions.