Drought worse than sanctions

“A drought can put much more pressure on the system than sanctions” says Dr. Kaveh Madani, former deputy head of Iran’s environmental department and researcher at London’s Imperial College.

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal is a punch in the guts for Iran’s crippled economy and its plummeting currency.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s promise to impose further sanctions has empowered conservatives and deepened the frustration of disillusioned city dwellers. International sanctions mean isolation, and also a limit to the regime’s capacity to deal with its internal issues. First among these is the worst drought Iran has experienced in the past fifty years.

With precipitation levels dropping to the lowest on record, and with a 1.8°C temperature increase this year alone, 35 million people are currently struggling with water scarcity.

The river Zayanderud—Iran’s “life giver” —once meandered across 40,000 hectares of the country, penetrating the water table and giving life to the cradle of civilization. But this year it  has only a very few drops of life to offer. Iranians, taking selfies next to the famous Si-o-se-pol—the thirty-three arch, Safavid-era bridge in Esfahan—have to content themselves with a dry riverbed, rather than an expansive body of water, as a background. The 90% reduction of water volume in Lake Urmia in the north-west of the country has brought the environment to the top of news coverage in the Iranian media, forcing the government to face a problem that can no longer be ignored.

If citizen in cities such as Esfahan and Yazd are noticing the lack of water in their homes, farmers in the countryside are losing their jobs and trust in the government.

“The hidden function of water in Iran has been to provide jobs”, says Dr. Madani. This is the reason why the slow, yet clear, exhaustion of water is more than an environmental issue.

The Islamic Republic has failed to industrialize the agricultural sector, reducing alternatives to absorb the labor force. Water, soil and nearly free electricity turned into tools to bribe farmers, who were allowed to pump water from the ground without any restrictions.

As Dr. Madani explains, the Islamic Republic has treated the farm community as a poor one. It has protected workers in the countryside, but rather than instructing them, it has made them weaker. Because of the race for dam construction, began by various governments in order to expand the area under irrigation, develop sources of electrical  power and gain votes, Iran has seen the construction of 650 dams since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Forty percent of them are empty or unused. Iranian environmental scientist Hamid Pouran acknowledges that bad planning and poor infrastructure choices have in many cases contributed to environmental damage.

“We encouraged agriculture, without having the natural resources to afford it”. Recently the Minister of Energy has stated that the country can count on less than 100 billion of the presumed 130-billion-cubic liters in the national water budget.

The regime allocates 90% of Iran’s water reservoirs to agriculture, compared to the international average of 70%. Politics plays a role. After eight years of war against Iraq and thirty years of sanctions, the regime was set to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. Iranian leaders embraced the slogan of food independence as a necessity, which then turned into a form of national pride to reinforce the revolutionary narrative. This year the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allocated US$250 million to irrigation, which critics describe as a form of subsidy, the cost of which is the last reserves of precious groundwater.

Addressing the issue with populist policies that focus on curing symptoms rather than preventing them, the government is forced to prioritize the environmental crisis at a time when can least afford to do so.  “We have an infection in our body and we need an antibiotic. But instead of curing the infection, we are trying to cure the resulting headache by taking pain killers. By doing so, the pain is gone for a few hours, but then the infection gets worse” says Dr Madani.

The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal proves to Iranian conservative leaders that food independence is a necessity. Moreover, environmental scientists agree that the lack of foreign investment will force the country to rely more on its natural resources, leading to further environmental destruction and limiting the chances for agrarian reforms.

In the past five years alone, over 400,000 villagers in the province of Khorasan, in the north-east, have migrated towards bigger cities, leaving behind thirsty lands. But those who remained are taking to the streets, impatient with the government’s increasing inability to manage the crisis and the exhaustion of vital water resources. At the beginning of the Persian New Year, protests exacerbated over water shortages and the alleged water diversion in return for bribes. Since then, smaller and sporadic protests have continued to spring up around Isfahan and Khuzestan province.

Can a drought trigger political instability? Dr. Colin Kelley, climate scientist at the U.S. Center for Climate and Security, has published extensive research on the link between the Syrian civilian war and the country’s water crisis. A severe multi-year drought prior to the conflict caused an unprecedented displacement of 1.5 million people from rural areas to cities. The result was a population shock, which led to further tensions. “Food and security are paramount, but the lack of one is not pre-determinant to the second” explains Dr. Kelley. Diplomacy and better water management are always an option and each scenario presents different factors and therefore different results.

According to Dr. Madani, only by accepting that the country is well beyond the point of crisis—and indeed in the middle of water bankruptcy, given the exceeding demand for water compared to supply—Iranians must think about mitigation and forms of adaptation.

The drought in Iran is hardly breaking news, but the question is to what extent the Iranian system is resilient enough to absorb the environmental shock and for how long Iranians are capable of tolerating the pressure. A strong economy is a necessary prerequisite to cope with a water crisis and new sanctions are not going to help.

Water shortages alone are not necessarily the cause of the political unrest. However, commenting on a video circulating on social media which shows farmers in Esfahan turning their backs to a mullah during the Friday prayer, an Iranian filmmaker points out: “Hungry farmers are a real threat to the government because they have nothing to lose. They are fighting for survival, not for reforms.”

AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE