‘I am thirsty!’ Water Scarcity Complicates Iran’s Problems


Iran is battling the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, an economy pushed by American sanctions and stalling negotiations to save a nuclear deal that was once seen as an economic salvation.

Now the country is grappling with a different but easily foreseeable crisis: a severe water shortage.

Prolonged drought and rising temperatures from climate change, combined with government mismanagement of natural resources and a lack of planning, have turned the water crisis into a temporary incubator of protests and violent unrest.

Last week, protesters flocked to the streets of scorched Khuzestan Province in the southwest, the epicenter of the protests. They were met by security forces, whose crackdowns were sometimes deadly and fueled more anger that spread elsewhere.

Khuzestan is home to an ethnic Arab population that has historically been discriminated against and includes an uneasy separatist movement. But protesters insisted their complaints were not linked to separatism.

“We want water, just water, we don’t have water,” Mohammad, 29, an ethnic Arab street vendor, told The New York Times in a phone interview from Khuzestan’s state capital, Ahvaz. “They responded to us with violence and bullets”

Huge crowds in Khuzestan “I’m thirsty!” she shouts. – captured on amateur videos and shared via social media – demanded immediate relief and the resignation of local officials. Some protesters went even further, denouncing high-ranking officials in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Signaling that the protests are drawing attention, Khamenei made public statements for the first time on Wednesday. Instagram channel: “Authorities are responsible for solving Khuzestan’s problems.”

This new challenge to the authorities comes only a few weeks ago, although it has been under construction for a long time. ultra-conservative new president and Khamenei’s student Ebrahim Raisi will take office and test how he will react early.

Known for his ruthlessness towards political opposition, the country’s former head of the judiciary, Mr. Raisi, faces a more delicate task when dealing with ordinary Iranians whose main complaint is water shortages.

The protesters have allies among Iranian lawmakers, who, like Mr. Raisi, are ardent defenders of the hierarchy that has ruled Iran since the Islamic revolution more than four decades ago.

“Save Khuzistan and its oppressed people! Give him back what he deserves!” Mojtaba Mahfouzi, Member of Parliament from Abadan, an oil-rich city in Khuzestan, shouted in Parliament on Monday.

It’s as if government officials cannot pretend to be surprised. The consequences of an intensifying drought were looming.

The energy minister had warned in May that Iran was facing its driest summer in 50 years, and temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) would lead to power outages and water shortages.

Iran’s meteorological organization warned in June that the southern and western regions are experiencing a 50 to 85 percent reduction in precipitation and an increase in temperature of two to three degrees Celsius.

Khuzestan has 80 percent of Iranian oil and 60 percent of its gas reserves and is a critical economic pillar. Sugarcane, wheat and barley were grown on the once lush farmland. But with water shortages, crops shriveled and cattle dying of thirst, the government faces one of its most serious conundrums.

His reaction so far fits a familiar pattern: brutal suppression of protests, even as authorities say they see protesters’ complaints about water as legitimate.

Security forces and riot police were deployed to suppress the initial unrest in Khuzestan. According to eyewitnesses and videos shared on social media, they beat the crowd with batons, dispersed them with tear gas, followed them with drones and opened fire.

According to human rights organizations, three teenagers were shot dead by security forces. Local officials said in a typical protest casualty narrative, tribal gunmen were responsible for at least two of the deaths. State media reported that a police officer was killed.

Any hint that the protests were linked to the separatist movement would almost certainly be used by the government to justify a harsher response. But protesters on the streets and online have made it clear that their grievances are about one central issue: water scarcity. Separatist groups did not seize the protests to further their cause.

Yet the repression further fueled unrest and led to pent-up frustrations targeting the Islamic Republic’s leadership. Protests spread to at least two major cities outside the province, Tehran and Mashhad, where crowds showed solidarity with Khuzestan.

In Khuzestan’s town of Izeh, marchers clapped and chanted “Death to Khamenei” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic,” according to videos on social media. The videos showed passengers chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic” as they waited for a train at a metro station in Tehran.

A group of prominent dissidents, including rights defender Narges Mohammadi, were beaten and detained for a day after Ms. Mohammadi’s husband gathered outside the Ministry of Interior in Tehran in what they described as an act of solidarity with the people of Khuzestan. I said.

The government sent a delegation to Khuzestan to investigate the water crisis, and Iran’s outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, promised aid and compensation to residents of the province. Two former presidents, Mohammed 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, such as transporting water by tankers, would do little to address the underlying problem. The opening of dams and reservoirs will offer a temporary remedy in Khuzestan, but will cause water shortages in places such as the central city of Isfahan and the surrounding province.

According to an Arab activist and two protesters in Khuzestan, the water protest exploded on social media on Friday, but it had been slowly brewing for weeks.

It began on July 6, when an ethnic Arab tribal sheikh from the village of Marvaneh, along with a group of farmers and ranchers, went to Ahvaz to complain about the escalating water crisis to authorities at the province’s water and electricity centre.

“Look, we will not leave this land, you brought flood and drought for us to migrate. According to a video shared with The Times, sheik Khalifah Marwan, who is a white dish and wearing a blue checkered headscarf, shouted at officials sitting at a conference table.

The Sheikh’s plea went viral on Instagram among ethnic Arabs, fueling a long-held belief that the central government is deliberately imposing policies that will force them to displace and change Khuzestan’s demographic.

People began to share their stories, photos and videos of scorched farms and dehydrated buffaloes left in the mud. According to the two activists involved, they posted calls for protests on Instagram and WhatsApp, emphasizing the focus on the water crisis and nonviolence.

Khuzestan’s environmental problems are very serious: empty reservoirs, dried up wetlands, crippling dust storms, extreme heat, forest fires, and severe air, water and soil pollution from the oil industry.

“The long-term pressure they put on the system is greater than its ecological capacity,” said Kaveh Madani, a water and climate scientist at Yale University and former vice president of Iran’s environmental department. “Like most of Iran, Khuzestan is currently bankrupt.”

Mr Madani said successive governments have been manipulating and depleting natural resources to create jobs. For example, he mentioned a project that diverts Khuzestan’s water resources through pipelines and tunnels to central desert climate zones.

Protests have flared up before due to water shortages in Iran. For example, farmers near Isfahan demonstrated on the drying up of a river with agricultural habitats. Environmentalists opposed the drying up of a major salt lake in Urmia, in western Iran.

But the combination of prolonged isolation due to climate change, drought, the pandemic and American sanctions has heightened the concerns that have underpinned the recent protests.

“We are facing a very serious electricity and water shortage across the country,” Sadegh Alhusseini, one of Iran’s leading economists, said during a discussion on the popular Clubhouse online forum attended by thousands of Iranians on Tuesday. “If the weather doesn’t improve in the next few months, it will only get worse,” he said.

Mr Alhusseini partly attributed the problem to government subsidies that allowed cheap prices for electricity and water, leading to excessive and wasteful consumption. But with the majority of Iran’s 85 million people struggling financially, any increase in pricing only adds to the discontent.

In November 2019, a spike in gasoline prices sparked protests across the country that quickly turned into calls to overthrow the government. Authorities responded by shutting down the internet for days and using lethal force against protesters. International human rights groups said at least 300 people were killed and 7,000 arrested.

Residents of Khuzestan led the unrest in 2019 and suffered the most casualties.

“The system is in crisis management,” said climate scientist Mr Madani. “Jumping from one crisis to the next and putting a Band-Aid on each one and hoping it doesn’t come back anytime soon.”


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