Iran’s problems compounded by water shortages
Iran is grappling with a fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, an economy strained by US sanctions and stalled talks on rescuing a nuclear deal that was once seen as an economic salvation.
Today, the country faces a different but easily predictable crisis: a severe water shortage.
A prolonged drought and rising temperatures due to climate change, combined with decades of government mismanagement of natural resources and a lack of planning, have turned the water crisis into an unstable incubator of protests and violent disturbances.
Over the past week, demonstrators have taken to the streets of the parched southwestern province of Khuzestan, the epicenter of the protests. They were greeted by security forces whose repression has at times turned deadly – fueling further anger that is spreading elsewhere.
Khuzestan is home to an ethnic Arab population that has historically faced discrimination and includes a reluctant separatist movement. But the protesters insisted their grievance is unrelated to separatism.
“We kept shouting, ‘We want water, just water, we have no water,’” Mohammad, 29, a peddler of Arab descent, said during the conference. ‘a telephone interview with the New York Times from Ahvaz, the provincial capital of Khuzestan. “They responded to us with violence and bullets.
Large crowds in Khuzestan shout, “I’m thirsty! – captured in amateur videos and shared via social networks – demanded immediate relief and the resignation of local officials. Some protesters went further, denouncing senior officials in Tehran including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.
Signaling that the protests caught his attention, Khamenei commented publicly on them for the first time on Wednesday, telling his Instagram Channel: “Officials are forced to sort out Khuzestan’s problems. “
This new challenge to the authorities, although long to prepare, comes just weeks before a new ultraconservative president and disciple of Khamenei, Ebrahim Raisi, takes office, providing a first test of his response.
Known for his cruelty to political dissent, Mr Raisi, the country’s former magistrate, faces a more delicate task in dealing with ordinary Iranians whose fundamental grievance is a scarcity of water.
The protesters have allies among Iranian lawmakers, who, like Mr Raisi, are all strong supporters of the hierarchy that has ruled Iran since the Islamic revolution more than four decades ago.
“Save Khuzestan and its oppressed people! Give her what she deserves! Shouted Mojtaba Mahfouzi, MP for Abadan, an oil-rich city in Khuzestan, in a speech to parliament on Monday.
It’s not as if government officials can feign surprise. The consequences of an intensifying drought are looming.
The Energy Minister warned in May that Iran was facing the driest summer in 50 years and that temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Celsius – 122 degrees Fahrenheit – would lead to blackouts and shortages of electricity. ‘water.
Iran’s meteorological organization warned in June that the southern and western regions had experienced a 50 to 85 percent reduction in precipitation and a two to three degree Celsius rise in temperature.
Khuzestan holds 80 percent of Iranian oil and 60 percent of its gas reserves, and is a vital economic pillar. Its once lush farmland cultivated sugar cane, wheat and barley. But with water scarcity, crops drying out, and livestock dying of thirst, the government faces one of its biggest puzzles.
So far, his response has followed a familiar pattern: a brutal crackdown on protests even as officials say they recognize protesters’ water complaints as legitimate.
Extreme weather conditions
Security forces and riot police have been deployed to crush the early unrest in Khuzestan. They beat the crowds with batons, dispersed them with tear gas, followed them with drones and fired shots, according to witnesses and videos shared on social media.
Three young men were shot dead by security forces, according to rights organizations. Local officials, in a typical account of protest victims, said tribal gunmen were responsible for at least two of the deaths. State media reported that a policeman was killed.
Any hint that the protests were linked to the secessionist movement would almost certainly be used by the government to justify an even tougher response. But protesters on the streets and online have made it clear that their grievances focus on one main issue: water scarcity. And the separatist groups did not seize the demonstrations to advance their cause.
Yet the repression further fueled unrest and exploited pent-up frustrations targeting the leadership of the Islamic Republic. And the protests have spread to at least two major cities outside the province, Tehran and Mashhad, where crowds have shown solidarity with Khuzestan.
In the city of Izeh in Khuzestan, demonstrators applauded and chanted “Death to Khamenei” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic”, according to videos posted on social networks. At a Tehran metro station, videos showed passengers chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic” while waiting for trains.
A group of prominent dissidents, including Narges Mohammadi, a rights activist, were beaten and detained for a day after rallying outside the Interior Ministry in Tehran in what they described as an act of solidarity with the people of Khuzestan, the husband of Mrs. Mohammadi. mentionned.
The government sent a delegation to Khuzestan to investigate the water crisis, and outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged relief and compensation to residents of the province. Two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also expressed their support for the protesters and condemned the violence against them.
But environmental and water experts said short-term measures like trucking in water tanks would do little to address the underlying problem. Opening dams and reservoirs would offer a temporary remedy in Khuzestan, but lead to water shortages in places like the central city of Isfahan and the surrounding province.
The protest against water exploded on social media on Friday but had been slowly brewing for weeks, according to an Arab activist and two protesters in Khuzestan.
It started on July 6 when an ethnic tribal sheikh from the village of Marvaneh traveled to Ahvaz with a group of farmers and herders to complain about the growing water crisis to officials at the center. water and electricity from the province.
“Look, we are not going to leave this land, you brought us floods and drought to make us migrate. We will not leave, this is our ancestral land, ”shouted Sheikh Khalifah Marwan, dressed in a white dish and a blue checkered scarf, to officials seated at a conference table, according to a video shared with the Times.
The Sheikh’s appeal went viral on Instagram among ethnic Arabs, igniting a long-held belief that the central government had deliberately imposed policies that would force their displacement and change the demographics of Khuzestan.
People began to share their own stories and photos and videos of parched farms and dehydrated water buffaloes lingering in the mud. They launched calls for protests on Instagram and WhatsApp, emphasizing the water crisis and non-violence, according to two activists involved.
Khuzestan’s environmental challenges are severe: empty reservoirs, dry wetlands, crippling dust storms, extreme heat, forest fires and severe pollution of the air, water and soil from the oil industry.
“The pressure they have exerted on the system for a long time exceeds its ecological capacity,” said Kaveh Madani, water and climate scientist at Yale University and former deputy director of the Iranian environment agency. “Khuzestan, like most Iranians, is bankrupt right now. “
Mr. Madani said successive governments have manipulated and depleted natural resources for job creation. He cited, for example, a project that redirects Khuzestan’s water resources through pipelines and tunnels to central desert climatic regions.
Protests have already erupted over water shortages in Iran. Farmers near Isfahan, for example, demonstrated against the drying up of a river that had been their agricultural lifeline. Environmentalists have opposed the drying up of a historic salt lake in Urmia, western Iran.
But the confluence of climate change, drought, pandemic and prolonged isolation due to US sanctions have raised concerns highlighting the latest protests.
“We are facing a very serious shortage of electricity and water across the country,” Sadegh Alhusseini, a prominent Iranian economist, said on Tuesday in a discussion on the popular online forum Clubhouse, which was attended by thousands. Iranians. “If the weather doesn’t improve over the next few months, it will get worse. “
Mr Alhusseini attributed the problem in part to government subsidies that allow low tariffs for electricity and water, leading to excessive and unnecessary consumption. But any increase in prices risks aggravating discontent as the majority of Iran’s 85 million struggle financially.
In November 2019, a sudden rise in gasoline prices sparked nationwide protests that quickly turned into calls for the overthrow of the government. Authorities responded by shutting down the internet for days and using lethal force against protesters. International rights groups said at least 300 people were killed and 7,000 arrested.
The people of Khuzestan led the 2019 unrest and suffered the most casualties.
“The system is in crisis management,” said Madani, the climatologist. “Jump from one crisis to the next and put a bandage on each and hope it doesn’t come back soon.”