Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Political Dimensions Of Iran’s Water Crisis

Via CRIA Views, a report on Iran’s water crisis:

The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing a new threat to its national security: shortage of water resources. For the first time in Iran’s history, high-ranking government officials, including President Rouhani, Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, and Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian, have declared Iran’s water crisis as ‘critical’ and have demanded an immediate solution to the problem. President Rouhani, who was elected to office in June 2013, has formed a taskforce and pledged an annual US$2 billion fund to address the issue.

The crisis is visible. Zayanderud River in Isfahan Province, Karun River in Khuzestan Province, and Lake Urumiya between the East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan Provinces are either nearly or completely dry, prompting protests by residents in these river basins. In response to drying surface sources of water, farmers are increasingly tapping into Iran’s non-renewable groundwater sources. According to Tooraj Fathi, the Deputy Director of Water in Iran’s Environmental Preservation Organization, as much as 70 percent of Iran’s ground water has been used, a tragedy of the commons directly attributable to Iran’s lack of adequate regulation.

This is a political crisis, not only because Iran’s shrinking water resources have given rise to protests, but also because Iran’s nationalistic pursuit of development has itself been a primary driver of the water crisis.

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Dam constructions have always been integral to Iran’s development policies. In 1979, Iran had 14 dams, many constructed by foreign companies and financed by foreign banks, a process that ended abruptly after the revolution. After a decade of destructive and costly war with Iraq, dam construction reemerged on the country’s agenda in the late 1980s, with most of the 527 dam contracts since going to Khatam al-Anbia, an engineering wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Dam construction exemplifies the intersection of economic development, nationalism, and securitization in Iran’s public sphere.

Iran’s post-revolutionary economic development policies have been formed in international isolation, removed from the global market, knowledge pool, and technological advances. Iran’s revolutionary mantle of ‘Neither West nor East’ has led successive governments to frame economic policies in the context of independence from global political and economic ideologies. At the same time, Iran has been subject to a hostile international environment, culminating in the post-2006 economic sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and gas sector. Since 2007, Iran has sought to grow other sectors of the economy – notable mining, iron ore extraction and steel – both as a matter of economic urgency and as a security strategy, a means of lessening the strategic impact of the sanctions.

Dam construction – and the hydropower it provides – is a key infrastructural requirement for such development, especially as the sanctions on importing oil and gas leave Iranian businesses without power. Moreover, Iranian leaders and the public frame the dams themselves as evidence of Iran’s technological advancement. Iran is proud of its ability to engineer and execute such large-scale sophisticated projects. Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, contrasted the Islamic Republic’s track record in engineering and science to the Shah’s: “Under the former regime, our engineers were not provided with an opportunity for constructive work, research and scientific growth,” leaving dam construction to foreign contractors. “Today, our engineers and scientists build dams, power plants, highways, railways and different factories.”

Former President Ahmadinejad similarly connected dam construction with Iranian nationalism. When speaking at the inauguration of the world’s tallest dam in Iran’s Lorestan Province, Ahmadinejad described the project as “a turning point in the path towards development progress,” and one which is built by “the able hands and expertise of Iranian scientists and workforce.” This is the same nationalistic narrative that surrounds Iran’s scientific and technological advances, including its controversial nuclear program. At a recent conference on Iran’s environmental challenges, Dr. Kaveh Madani, of Imperial College London, summarized this connection between development, nationalism, and dam construction succinctly: “Iran has a thirst for development. And we try to be developed. It shows to the world that we can be independent, we can be modern, and we can do a lot of things on our own.” Unfortunately, he adds, Iran is too concerned with development—‘aggressive development’—that it has failed to recognize that many developed countries are in the process of dismantling dams, due to their negative ecological consequences.

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At the same time, dam construction has given rise to its own political crisis, over the diversion of water resources. Iran’s geography is diverse, ranging from deserts to mountains, and its climate is semi-arid. 75% of the country’s precipitation falls in only 25% of the territory.[1] Despite this, the country has historically been able to meet its water needs. Early settlers used qanats—underground tunnels that transfer water from water-abundant to water-scarce areas of the country. This system is now under threat.

The government’s policies of water redistribution have resulted in provincial competition for access to water resources in Iran, where, critically, provinces are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. This is a particularly sensitive issue in Khuzestan, a majority Arab province that borders Iraq. Iran’s Arab communities have historically been politically marginalized, and government programs to divert water resources between provinces have caused tensions between Arab and non-Arab communities. With sectarian conflict along similar lines in neighboring Iraq, the politics of water access in Khuzestan are potentially explosive. Water shortages have provoked protests across Iran since 2011, although their frequency and intensity have increased since 2013. Some of these protests have turned violent, as was the case in West Azerbaijan Province in 2011.

The government’s response to water shortages has been short-term and reactionary. Maliheh Yazdani, in Isfahan province, told me: “Zayanderud [a river in Isfahan, a historic city in Iran] is dry because they [the government] took its water to give to pistachio farmers in Rafsanjan [Kerman Province]. Two months ago, they promised us that they would bring us water from Karun [Khuzestan Province]. Now they say that they are going to buy water from China to fill our river.”[2] Pistachio is Iran’s most internationally competitive non-oil export. The water diversion and transfer projects to pistachio farms, therefore, imply the government’s priorities. Moreover, this shift in the government’s priorities may suggest state concern about threat of instability in an Arab-majority province.

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As exemplified in the case of dam constructions, Iran’s quest for development has been too aggressive and short-sided. The desire for development and independence has overruled a thorough and long-term development planning. Iran has to identify ways to meet its energy demand, water needs, and minimize distributional conflict. So what can be done?

First, Iran can invest in more efficient irrigation technology and practices: Iran has a low irrigation efficiency rate and the government has discouraged modern irrigation practices by levying tax in the past. Therefore, the government should provide institutional incentives for more efficient uses of water.

Second, Iran should evaluate the consequences of its development policies and investigate the distributional consequences of development projects, being particularly mindful of depriving minority ethnic and religious groups of resources. This is a strategy for long-term planning, a corrective to the short-sighted approach the state has deployed thus far.

Third, Iran does not have a legal framework for regulating groundwater resources and sharing them. Legally, they are private property and landowners have the ownership of the water in their ground. The government should develop a legal framework and the capacity to monitor and regulate access to water, to prevent wastage.

Fourth, Iran must foster open dialogue regarding the country’s national priorities: the water protests indicate discomfort not only with water usage policies, but with the underlying national goals they advance. The government could address these grievances by opening a line of communication, on the state’s priorities, concerns, and efforts to address Iran’s water shortage problems.

Finally, climate change is affecting global sources of food and water, and Iran is not the only country that is realizing the catastrophic effects of environmental degradation. Iran, together with its neighboring countries, needs to cooperate on policies that tackle pollution and other critical threats to the regional ecosystem.



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