Iran is battling a fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, an economy battered by US sanctions and stalled talks to save a nuclear deal that was once seen as an economic salvation.
Now the country is grappling with a different but easily observable crisis: a severe water shortage.
Prolonged droughts and rising temperatures from climate change, coupled with decades of government mismanagement of natural resources and a lack of planning, have turned the water crisis into a volatile incubator of protests and violent unrest.
For the past week, protesters have taken to the streets of dry Khuzestan province in the southwest, the epicenter of the protests. They are met by security forces whose actions have at times been deadly – fueling more anger that is spreading elsewhere.
Khuzestan is home to an ethnic Arab population that has historically faced discrimination and includes a turbulent separatist movement. But the protesters have insisted that their complaint is not related to separatism.
“We kept shouting, ‘We need water, just water, we don’t have water,'” Mohamed, a 29-year-old Arab street vendor from Ahvaz, the provincial capital of Khuzestan, said in a phone interview with The New York Times. “They answered us with violence and bullets.”
Large crowds in Khuzestan are shouting, “I am thirsty!” – Captured in amateur video and shared via social media – have demanded immediate relief and the resignation of local officials. Some of the protesters have gone on to condemn top officials in Tehran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Indicating that the protests have caught his attention, Mr Khamenei commented on them publicly for the first time on Wednesday, saying his Instagram channel: “The authorities are obliged to address the problems of Khuzestan.”
This new challenge to the authorities, though long-running, comes just weeks before an ultra-conservative new president and Khamenei disciple, Ibrahim Raisi, is to provide a preliminary test of how he will respond.
Known for his ruthlessness to political dissent, Mr Raisi, the country’s former judiciary chief, faces the more delicate task of dealing with ordinary Iranians, whose basic complaint is a lack of water.
The protesters have allies of Iran’s lawmakers who, like Mr Raisi, have been strong defenders of the hierarchy that has ruled Iran since the Islamic Revolution more than four decades ago.
“Save Khuzestan and its oppressed people! Give it back what it deserves!,” shouted Member of Parliament Mojtaba Mahfouzy from Abadan, an oil-rich city in Khuzestan, in a speech on the floor of parliament on Monday.
Not that government officials can surprise. The consequences of severe drought are coming to the fore.
The energy minister warned in May that Iran was facing the driest summer in 50 years and that temperatures reaching 50 °C – 122 °F – would cut electric power and water shortages.
Iran’s Meteorological Organization warned in June that there was a 50 to 85 percent reduction in rainfall and an increase of two to three degrees Celsius in the southern and western regions.
Khuzestan sits on 80 percent of Iran’s oil and 60 percent gas reserves, and is an important economic pillar. Sugarcane, wheat and barley were once grown in its lush green fields. But the government is facing one of its most serious crises, with water shortages, crops shrinking and cattle dying of thirst.
Its response is in line with a familiar pattern so far: massive suppression of protests, even as officials say they consider the complaints of protesters on the water to be legitimate.
July 21, 2021 at 5:50 pm ET
Security forces and anti-riot police officers were deployed to quell the initial unrest in Khuzestan. According to witnesses and videos shared on social media, they beat up the crowd with batons, fired tear gas shells, tracked them down with drones and opened fire.
According to rights organisations, three youths were shot dead by security forces. Local officials said in a typical narrative of the casualties of the protest that tribal gunmen were responsible for at least two deaths. State media reported that a police officer had died.
Any indication that the protests were linked to the separatist movement would certainly be used by the government to justify an even more harsh response. But protesters on the streets and online have made it clear that their complaints are about one main issue: the lack of water. And separatist groups have not captured the protests to advance their cause.
Nevertheless, the action has fueled further unrest and turned into suppressed frustrations targeting the Islamic Republic’s leadership. And protests have spread to at least two major cities outside the province, Tehran and Mashhad, where crowds showed solidarity with Khuzestan.
In the Khuzestan city of Izzeh, marchers clapped and raised slogans, “Khamenei’s death” and “we don’t want an Islamic republic”, according to videos on social media. In a metro station in Tehran, video showed riders chanting “death to the Islamic Republic” as they waited for trains.
A group of prominent dissidents, including Narges Mohammadi, a rights activist, were beaten and detained for a day after they gathered outside the interior ministry in Tehran in what they described as an act of solidarity with the people of Khuzestan , the husband of Ms. Mohammadi said.
The government sent a delegation to Khuzestan to investigate the water crisis, and Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani promised relief and compensation to the province’s residents. Two former presidents, Mohamed Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also expressed support for the protesters and condemned the violence against them.
But environmental and water experts said short-term measures such as trucking in water tankers would do little to address the underlying problem. The opening of dams and reservoirs would offer a temporary measure in Khuzestan, but would lead to 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, protests over the water spread on social media on Friday, but were slowly building up over weeks.
It began on 6 July when an ethnic Arab tribal sheikh from the village of Marwaneh traveled to Ahvaz with a group of farmers and ranchers to complain to the province’s water and electricity center officials about their growing water crisis.
“Look, we are not going to leave this land, you have brought floods and droughts to make us flee. We will not leave, this is our ancestral land,” according to a video shared with The Times, as Sheikh, Khalifa Marwan, dressed in a white dishcloth and blue checkered head wrap, shouted at officers sitting at a conference table.
Sheikh’s petition went viral on Instagram among ethnic Arabs, fueling a long-standing belief that the central government deliberately implemented policies that would force their displacement and change the demographics of Khuzestan.
People started sharing their stories and pictures and videos of dehydrated water buffalo lying in dry fields and mud. According to two activists involved, he called for protests on Instagram and WhatsApp, emphasizing the water crisis and focus on non-violence.
Khuzestan’s environmental challenges are stark: empty reservoirs, dry wetlands, dust storms, extreme heat, wildfires, and severe pollution of air, water, and soil from the oil industry.
“The pressure they have exerted on the system for a long time exceeds its ecological potential,” said Kawe Madani, a water and climate scientist at Yale University and former deputy head of Iran’s Environment Agency. “Most of Iran, like Khuzestan, is still bankrupt.”
Shri Madani said that successive governments have misappropriated and depleted natural resources in favor of generating employment. For example, he cited a project that redirects Khuzestan’s water resources through pipelines and tunnels to the central desert climate zones.
Protests have erupted in Iran in the past regarding the water shortage. For example, farmers near Isfahan demonstrated when a river that had been their agricultural lifeline dried up. Environmentalists have railed against the drying up of a historic salt lake in Urmia, western Iran.
But the confluence of climate change, drought, pandemics and prolonged isolation due to US sanctions has heightened concerns, underpinning the latest protests.
“We are facing a very serious electricity and water shortage across the country, which is attended by thousands of Iranians,” Sadegh Alhusseini, a prominent Iranian economist, said in a discussion in the popular Clubhouse online forum on Tuesday. If the weather doesn’t improve in the next few months, it will get worse.”
Mr. Alhusaini attributed the problem partly to government subsidies that allow for cheaper rates for electricity and water, leading to excessive and wasteful consumption. But any increase in prices adds to the discontent as most of Iran’s 85 million people struggle financially.
In November 2019, a sudden rise in gasoline prices sparked nationwide protests that quickly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the government. The authorities responded by shutting down the internet for several days and using deadly force against the protesters. International rights groups said at least 300 people were killed and 7,000 arrested.
The residents of Khuzestan led the 2019 unrest and suffered the most casualties.
“The system is in crisis management,” said climate scientist Mr. Madani. “Jumping from one crisis to another and putting a Band-Aid on each one and hoping it doesn’t come back soon.”