Protests erupt in Iran over water shortages

Three protesters were reportedly killed during protests over water shortages in south-western Iranian cities
Las protestas estallan en Irán por la escasez de agua


A long drought has been plaguing Iran, a largely arid country with scarce water resources, for decades. Persistent drought, inadequate management, and extreme weather, compounded by the effects of international sanctions, have pushed the Asian country to the brink.  

The case is not isolated; large tracts of water have dried up due to low rainfall, putting the authorities on alert as they now try to avert a human and natural disaster that could lead to mass migrations in search of fertile land. Criticism of outdated infrastructure and lack of maintenance has led to the spread of protests across the country. 

AP/VAHID SALEMI - En esta foto del martes 10 de julio de 2018, el río Zayandeh Roud ya no pasa por debajo del puente Si-o-seh Pol, de 400 años de antigüedad, llamado así por sus 33 arcos, en Isfahan, Irán
AP/VAHID SALEMI - In this Tuesday, July 10, 2018 photo, the Zayandeh Roud river no longer flows under the 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol bridge, named for its 33 arches, in Isfahan, Iran

Water and electricity shortages have increased in recent weeks, particularly in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, where temperatures have been recorded as high as 50 degrees Celsius. The protests in Khuzestan reportedly used political slogans against the current system, including clashes with security forces and arrests that have cost the lives of three protesters at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards, as they shouted "We will not accept humiliation" and "The people demand regime change". 

The special anti-riot units tried to disperse the protesters by firing tear gas and pepper spray, and directly targeting the defenceless demonstrators. However, the youths defied them by throwing stones while chanting anti-regime slogans. The protests in Khuzestan come as Iran struggles with repeated waves of coronavirus infections and as thousands of workers in its oil industry have launched strikes for better pay and conditions.

AP/VAHID SALEMI - En esta foto del martes 10 de julio de 2018, el río Zayandeh Roud ya no pasa por debajo del puente Si-o-seh Pol, de 400 años de antigüedad, llamado así por sus 33 arcos, en Isfahan, Irán

This emergency situation is also affecting the agricultural sector, which is responsible for the use of farming and cultivation systems with zero eco-efficiency. Faced with the tremendous drought affecting the country, which has forced occasional water cuts not only in the south but also in the capital, Tehran years ago promoted water transfers and artificial dams. Ambitious projects are on the table to transport water from the Caspian Sea, the Gulf and the Sea of Oman to southern Iran, which could provide water for 47 million people. 

However, meeting the needs of Iran's 81 million people has led the country to overexploit its aquifers. According to an analysis by Geopolitacl Futures, 55 per cent of Iran's water consumption is supplied by groundwater, 92 per cent of which is used for irrigation. Inadequate water management has been compounded by a harsh and worsening climate. Decreasing rainfall, rising temperatures, and increasingly frequent extreme weather events are putting further pressure on water resources. 

AFP/ADEM ALTAM - Una foto tomada el 23 de julio de 2020 muestra el suelo agrietado después de una sequía en el estanque
AFP/ADEM ALTAM - A photo taken on 23 July 2020 shows the cracked soil after a drought in the pond.

The country has few options available, all of which will be costly and difficult to implement. Rainfall had fallen by almost 50 per cent in the past year, leaving dams with dwindling water supplies. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has invested heavily in building dams, many of poor quality, to the detriment of other water infrastructure, such as irrigation systems, which could increase the efficiency of water storage and use. However, the population is frustrated with the government's management of water resources, which pose a serious danger to the country, where protests over water shortages have led to violence.

AFP/ASAAD NIAZI - Esta foto, tomada el 20 de junio de 2021, muestra el cuerpo desecado de un pez muerto sobre la tierra que se está secando
AFP/ASAAD NIAZI - This photo, taken on 20 June 2021, shows the desiccated body of a dead fish on the drying earth.

Drought and excessive groundwater pumping have dried out these lands and caused land subsidence. Iran has suffered the most intense and prolonged drought in more than 30 years over the past decade, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. An estimated 97 per cent of the country has suffered droughts of varying degrees, according to the Iran Meteorological Organisation. Part of the problem is the inefficient use of water for crops, which accounts for 90 per cent of the water consumed in the country, according to experts.

The dichotomy between water management and sustainability will continue until the real causes of Iran's dramatic drought - rapid population growth, inefficient agriculture and poor resource management - are overcome.