The water crisis and decline of legitimacy in Iran
The water crisis and successive droughts in Iran are fueling people's frustration with the government. While part of this crisis is rooted in climate change, a huge part of this problem stems from the government's inefficient policies and failure to address the country’s water shortages. This has caused unrest among Iranians, who blame the government for the water crisis gripping the country.
The large demonstrations by Iranians in the provinces of Isfahan in November 2021 and Khuzestan in July 2021, and the violent treatment by authorities of the protesters, revealed the government’s lack of a concrete policy to tackle the water crisis as well as its lack of tolerance toward peaceful protests. The government’s failure to devise an effective water strategy and aggressive behavior toward its people will only further increase internal tensions and social disturbances, which will ultimately lead to the deterioration of the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of Iranians who, in addition to the water crisis, are faced with economic hardships and rising inflation.
This paper examines the water scarcity situation in Iran and the challenges it has posed for farmers. Further, through an examination of the country’s water policies, it will analyze the government’s role in water insecurity and the consequent decline in its legitimacy in the public eye.
Iran is located in an arid and semi-arid region, with 22% of the country's 164 million hectares made up of desert. The average annual rainfall in Iran is 250 mm, which is less than a third of the world average. In the last two decades, Iran has lost 211 km3 of its total water reserves, with groundwater levels decreasing by 28 cm between 2003-2016.
Two factors contributing to the continuous water crisis in Iran are population growth and climate change. After the 1979 revolution, the regime's policies encouraged population growth without considering food security and availability of water resources. While the population growth rate at the beginning of the twentieth century was at 0.6%, this percentage increased to 3.19% between 1976 and 1986. This represents a six-fold increase. Prior to the revolution, with a population of less than 34 million people, the country’s renewable water resources were at about 135 billion cubic meters. However, in the past few years, with the population reaching 86 million people, renewable water resources have decreased to 80 billion cubic meters due to low rainfall and high evaporation.
Climate change, like other countries in the Middle East, has significantly impacted Iran. Average evaporation in Iran is 2,100 mm/year, which is three times the global average of 700 mm/year. This is attributed to increasing temperatures and lack of rainfall. Low rainfall and high levels of evaporation coupled with high population growth and high per capita consumption, has plunged Iran into a crippling water crisis.
Figure 1: Map of Water Evaporation in the World
Source: University of Montana
The low annual rainfall and high levels of evaporation resulting from climate change have severely impacted rainfed farming. About 70% of the country's lands has been rendered unsuitable for rainfed agriculture, while only 11% meet the requirements for rainwater farming (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Land Suitability for Rainfed Agriculture
Source: Mohsen B. Mesgaran, Kaveh Madani, Hossein Hashemi et al.
Impact of the water crisis
The agriculture sector, which accounted for about 17.4% of the labor force in 2019, has been the most affected by the water and drought crisis. As a result of low rainfall and severe drought, farmers are using wells for irrigation, which has led to the depletion of underground water resources. In 1965, Iran’s groundwater extraction was about 66 million m3. In 2019, the cumulative depletion of the country’s groundwater storage reached ∼133 km3. This increase is about 3.4 times the capacity of the famous Three Gorges Dam in China. As groundwater decreases, the farmers dig deeper into the wells, which not only leads to the depletion of groundwater but also to contamination by saltwater.
The water crisis has forced the rural population to migrate to cities. A study conducted during the period 2002-2013, found that 72% of rural migration in Iran was due to climatic variations, 24% by reason of personal choice, and 4% because of financial difficulties. This migration has only added to the social unrest in the country since those migrating from rural areas are poorly-educated unskilled workers, who are unable to find jobs in the city. Financially vulnerable and frustrated by the lack of job prospects, they are quickly motivated to join protestors who are dissatisfied with the status quo, as was the case in the protests of 2009, 2017-2018 and 2018.
About 30% of the rural population of the province of Sistan and Baluchistan – which was once referred to as "Iran's grain storehouse" – has migrated to the suburbs in recent years due to the water crisis. This province has a population of 2.8 million people and is the only province in which over half of the population (51%) lives in rural areas. Nationwide, 74% of Iran is urban. The migration of villagers in this province to the cities can quickly change the equation of the rural population of Iran.
In July 2018, Iran's Interior Minister warned that the water crisis in the country was becoming a "big social crisis" and that climate migration could change the face of Iran within five years. Earlier in 2015, Issa Kalantari, former vice-president and head of the Department of Environment, warned that if Iran did not change its approach to water use, “approximately 50 million people, 70% of Iranians, will have no choice but to leave the country.”
The water crisis has caused many nationwide protests in Iran, two of which took place last year. On 7 November 2021, Isfahan farmers protested against the unfair distribution of water and the government's indifference to solving the water problem. They held a sit-in for twenty days by setting up tents in the bed of the Zayanderud River, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Isfahan and the city's water source. Security officials raided farmers' tents on November 25 and set some of them on fire. 130 farmers were arrested in this attack.
Another protest erupted in Khuzestan province on 15 July 2021, which continued for six days and led to the death of three protesters. The people of Khuzestan protested against the lack of access to sufficient water and what they called ‘polluted and unsanitary water’. Khuzestan is an Arab and oil-rich province. The mismanagement of water resources, pollution from oil development, construction of hydroelectric dams, and water transfer to neighboring provinces caused outrage among the people of Khuzestan, who were deprived of access to safe and sufficient drinking water.
There have been several other protests over the water crisis in past years. In 2018, in the cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr, people congregated in the streets to protest the lack of drinking water. In 2013, the farmers of Isfahan clashed with security forces, setting fire to three police buses. For years, the farmers had been protesting against the “unfair” diversion of water from the Zayanderud River of Isfahan to Yazd province, which left their lands dry and their livelihoods threatened.
Mismanagement and corruption in the water crisis
Water insecurity in Iran is not solely the consequence of population growth and climate change. The government’s mismanagement of the country’s water resources, lack of planning, imprudence and corrupt activities have also been instrumental in the crisis. Each time there is a public protest, authorities respond by arresting and killing protesters. Rather than attempt to resolve the issue at hand, the government just sweeps it under the carpet until the next protest erupts.
The Iranian government's lack of planning and poor water management policies are among the factors threatening the country's food security. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the ensuing problems with the United States and the West, the regime pursued a policy of food self-sufficiency to minimize the effect of sanctions. The self-sufficiency policy encouraged farmers to produce more crops, disregarding the limited water resources and the water intensity of certain crops. This led to the digging of water wells (many illegally), use of water pumps (to extract more water), and the building of new dams (mostly unnecessary), which further depleted the already scarce water resources.
In the last forty years, the number of wells has increased from 60,000 to about 800,000. Ghasem Taghizadeh, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, announced in 2018 that 430,000 of these wells were illegal. The government, in its promotion of agricultural self-sufficiency, had turned a blind eye to these illegal wells. Although in recent years the government has sealed some unauthorized wells and referred some illegal well-owners to the court, the process of tackling unauthorized wells has been slow.
Iran’s food self-sufficiency policy imposes significant costs on the country’s economy. The agriculture sector consumes 92% of the country’s water resources, while domestic use accounts for 7% and industrial use 1%. However, only 15% of Iran's total land mass is under cultivation, accounting for only 13% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As a result of soil erosion, increasing desertification, and low rainfall, 24% of Iran's land mass is unsuitable for agriculture, while almost 50% is deemed poor or very poor for agricultural purposes. This means that the areas with the highest water consumption do not have a significant positive impact on the country's economy.
Figure 3: Soil and Terrain Suitability for Agriculture
Source: Mohsen B. Mesgaran, Kaveh Madani, Hossein Hashemi et al.
Indiscriminate construction of water infrastructure is yet another example of mismanagement by the government in the water crisis. The haphazard construction of dams has endangered Iran's wetlands and lakes. Prior to the revolution, there were fewer than 30 dams, but now there are 647 small and large dams in operation, with another 683 dams in the implementation or study stage. While large-scale dam construction may have been justified two decades ago, this is no longer the case given the severe droughts and water crisis.
The construction of dams in unsuitable locations has had severe consequences for the wetlands. One example is the Gotvand Dam, which was built along the Karun River, the country’s only navigable river. The proximity of this dam to the Gachsaran salt mine exponentially increased the salinity of the water, ultimately making the water unfit for irrigation purposes. Before the dam was built, contractors had warned against the construction of the dam due to its proximity to the salt mass. However, the warnings were ignored and construction of the dam began. A clay blanket worth 6,000 billion rials was installed to prevent salt intrusion, but this collapsed after only three days. The salty water from the Gotvand Dam eventually flowed into the Karun river, polluting the water that thousands of villagers depended on for their livelihoods. Issa Kalantari called the construction of this dam "a crime against the land of Iran."
The construction of seawater desalination plants is also on the rise. As of December 2020, there were about 96 desalination plants in operation, with another 20-25 units in development. While desalination plants are a viable solution to water shortages, transporting desalinated water inland requires pumping to high altitudes, which is energy-intensive and costly. According to one report, if farmers were to use desalinated water to grow 10% of their wheat, it would take almost 10% of the country’s natural gas consumption to transport it there. This would significantly reduce the country's gas export leverage to other countries such as Iraq and Turkey.
Government corruption has also played a key role in the water crisis. One example is the extensive damage caused to the Hoor-al-Azim Wetland – the largest wetland in Iran, covering an area of more than 120,000 hectares on the Iran-Iraq border. Following plans by the Ministry of Petroleum to explore the area for oil, the wetland was drained despite objections by the Department of Environment. According to Masoumeh Ebtekar, former head of the Department of Environment, the Department had initially agreed to the planned oil exploration on condition that the wetlands were not harmed in any way. However, in order to keep the cost of the project low, the Ministry of Petroleum proceeded to obtain permission from higher non-specialist authorities to dry the wetland, bypassing the Department of Environment. The damage inflicted on the wetland caused the flood of March 2019 in Khuzestan province, which led to the widespread destruction of urban facilities. Despite calls for an investigation regarding the devastating flood, no report has been submitted so far and no one has been held accountable.
The water crisis in Iran is growing at an alarming rate with no specific plan or strategy to deal with the ramifications. In response to the criticisms, the government provided examples of some initiatives aimed at tacking the crisis, such as wastewater collection projects, water shortage warning systems, desalination plants, the establishment of research institutes and the transfer of water from the Caspian Sea and the Gulf to the center of the country. However, these actions are like a drop of water in the ocean. Many of these initiatives either came very late or were superstructure measures. For example, no action has been taken to change farming patterns and irrigation methods, from flooding to drip and sprinkler irrigation.
The people do not trust the government's water security strategies, and the government is so occupied with the economic problems resulting from the sanctions that it does not have the time and resources to deal with the water crisis that is crippling the country. This will only increase internal tensions, social disturbances, and civil disobedience, which will inevitably result in the decline of the regime’s legitimacy.
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 Deutsche Welle, “Hamdasti Hame Genahhaye Hokomati Dar Sad Sazi Beraveyeh Dar Iran” [Complicity of all factions of the government in the indiscriminate construction of dams in Iran] Persian Deutsche Welle, February 7, 2018, https://cutt.ly/7VLPlTN.
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