Over 90% of (Iran’s) population and economic production are located in areas
of high or very high water stress
Iran Struggles with Potentially Explosive Environmental Crisis
By Dr. James M. Dorsey
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 818, May 1, 2018
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Iranian leaders are struggling, three months after
anti-government protests swept the Islamic Republic, to ensure that
environmental issues that helped spark a popular uprising in Syria in 2011
leading to a brutal civil war don’t threaten the clergy’s grip on power.
Like Syria, Iran has been suffering a drought that has affected much of the
country for more than a decade, with precipitation dropping to its lowest
level in half a century. Environmental concerns have figured prominently in
protests in recent years, often in regions populated by ethnic minorities
like Azeris and Iranian Arabs.
Unrest among ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of Iran’s
population, have taken on added significance of late. Iran has reason to
fear both Saudi Arabia’s activist crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and US
President Donald Trump, whose antipathy towards the Islamic Republic has
been bolstered by the appointment of hardliner John Bolton as his national
Bolton has called for regime change in Iran, aligning himself with a
controversial exile opposition group, while Prince Muhammad is believed to
have tacitly endorsed the stirring up of unrest among Iran’s ethnic
minorities even if he has yet to decide whether to adopt subversion as a
policy. Iran has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia in the past year of
supplying weapons and explosives to restive groups like the Baluch and the
Yet, concern about environmental degradation and its potential political
fallout goes beyond fear that it could facilitate interference by external
powers. Demonstrators in the province of Isfahan last month clashed with
security forces after they took to the streets to protest water shortages.
The protest occurred some three months after Iran was wracked by weeks of
The protest was the latest in a series of expressions of discontent. Anger
at plans in 2013 to divert water from Isfahan province sparked clashes with
police. The Isfahan Chamber of Commerce reported a year later that the
drying out of the Zayandeh Roud river basin had deprived some 2 million
farmers – 40% of the basin’s local population – of their income.
“Over 90% of (Iran’s) population and economic production are located in
areas of high or very high water stress. This is two to three times the
global average in percentage terms, and, in absolute numbers, it represents
more people and more production at risk than any other country in the Middle
East and North Africa,” Al-Monitor quoted Claudia Sadoff, director general
of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, as saying.
A panel of retired US military officers noted in December that “since the
1979 revolution, the per capita quantity of Iran’s renewable water supplies
has dropped by more than half, to a level commonly associated with the
benchmark for water stress. Even more troubling, in large swaths of the
country, demand for fresh water exceeds supply a third of the year. Fourteen
years of drought have contributed to the problem, as has poor resource
management, including inefficient irrigation techniques, decentralized water
management, subsidies for water-intensive crops like wheat, and dam
building. As a result, parts of the country are experiencing unrest related
to water stress.”
By identifying water as one of the country’s foremost problems, the
government recognized that mismanagement leading to acute water shortages
risks becoming a symbol of its inability to efficiently deliver public goods
The government has sought to tackle the issue by promoting reduced water
consumption and water conservation, halting construction of dams, combatting
evaporation by building underground water distribution networks, introducing
water meters in agriculture, encouraging farmers to opt for less
water-intensive crops, multiplying the number of treatment plants, and
looking at desalination as a way of increasing supply.
With agriculture the main culprit in Iran’s inefficient use of water,
Iranian officials fear that the crisis will accelerate migration from the
countryside to urban centers incapable of catering to the migrants and, in
turn, increase popular discontent.
A US study suggested in 2015 that decades of unsustainable agricultural
policies in Syria; drought in the northeastern agricultural heartland of the
country; economic reforms that eliminated food and fuel subsidies;
significant population growth; and failure to adopt policies that mitigate
climate change exacerbated grievances about unemployment, corruption, and
inequality that exploded in 2011 in anti-government protests in Syria.
The Syrian government’s determination to crush the protest rather than
engage with the protesters sparked the country’s devastating war, currently
the world’s deadliest conflict.
“We’re not arguing that the drought, or even human-induced climate change,
caused the uprising. What we are saying is that the long-term trend, of less
rainfall and warmer temperatures in the region, was a contributing factor,
because it made the drought so much more severe.” said Colin Kelley, one the
“The uprising has…to do with the government’s failure to respond to the
drought, and with broader feelings of discontent in rural areas, and the
growing gap between rich and poor, and urban and rural areas during the
2000s, than with the drought itself,” added Middle East water expert
Francesca de Chatel.
Adopting a different emphasis, de Chatel argued that demonstrations in
Syria, despite the drought, would not have erupted without the wave of
protests that by then had already swept the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt
and that subsequently toppled the leaders of Libya and Yemen.
She asserted further that the protest movement-turned-war in Syria would not
“have persisted without input and support from organized groups in Syria who
had been planning for this moment for years and certainly since before 2006
or the start of the drought.”
For Iranian leaders, the threat is real irrespective of the difference in
emphasis between Kelly and de Chatel. Former Iranian agriculture minister
Issa Kalantari warned in 2015 that left unresolved, the water crisis would
force 50 million Iranians to migrate within the next 25 years. In other
words, the environmental crisis that drives migration and unemployment and
fuels discontent risks political upheaval.
Similarly, multiple groups and external powers have for years contemplated
regime change in Tehran. The issues that were at the core of the initial
protests in Syria in 2011 – unemployment, corruption, and inequality – were
at the heart of Iranian anti-government demonstrations in December and
Despite a renewed focus on the water crisis, the government’s Achilles Heel
could prove to be its tendency to shoot the messenger. Environmentalists
increasingly find themselves in the firing line.
In January, authorities arrested Kavous Seyed-Emami, a dual Iranian-Canadian
national who directed the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, as well as
six other environmentalists. It asserted two weeks later that Seyed-Emami
had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the US and
Three more environmentalists were arrested a month later, and Seyed-Emami’s
wife was prevented from leaving Iran.
State TV subsequently reported that Seyed-Emami and his colleagues had told
Iran’s enemies that the country could no longer maintain domestic
agriculture production because of water shortages, and needed to import
Said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst: “Public
opinion has become sensitized to environmental issues. So the government may
see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is
a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at
Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the
University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family