Between US Sanctions, Bad Governance, And Global Warming Iran's Water Shortage Protests Intensify
Several killed during protests over water shortages in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province.
Why are people protesting?
Iran has faced rolling blackouts for weeks partially created by severe drought. Precipitation in 2020 decreased by almost 50% in the last year, leaving dams with dwindling water supplies. This year Iran has been hit by extremely hot temperatures and water shortages. Mojtaba Youssefi, a member of parliament from the city of Ahvaz, reported that 702 villages in Khuzestan province lack drinking water. He also said that in the southern and northern parts of the province, “their livestock are dying” for lack of water and “agriculture is a dream for [the] local population.” At least 660 villages in the area do not have tap water and that tankers are used to deliver water to all the villages in the area.
For decades environmental experts have warned that development projects in Khuzestan, including the construction of hydroelectric dams, irrigation schemes, and water transfers to neighboring provinces are causing environmental harm and leading to water shortages. While the oil-rich Khuzestan has faced water problems for decades, today it is the worse hit region in the country by far. Protests have now erupted thanks to a combination of US sanctions, pandemic, inflation, bad governance, and drought which have pushed thousands to the brink. The protests also come on the back of a wave of oil industry labour protests that have resulted in strikes for better wages and safety conditions.
The hashtags #KhuzestanIsThirsty and #KhuzestanHasNoWater are being widely used to draw attention to the crisis and protests that have been largely ignored by the international media.
There have been efforts to buy water bottles and tankers for Khuzestan by civilians and activist groups. According to the Iran based lawyer, Fereshteh Tabanian, “Khuzestan’s problem stems from illegal water transfer projects from river forks and stealing water from the source of the rivers by water mafias" Others are raising awareness that the situation in Khuzestan requires a sustainable solution that includes better governance, policing, and water management expertise. They demand Tehran do more to fix internal governance and infrastructure issues.
Khuzestan residents have also taken to social media to pointed out that the province has never had drinkable tap water in the first place and the drought has only highlighted an issue they've experienced for decades now. They say that they have had to buy their water or take it from the rivers for years, but now with global inflation and global warming many of their natural sources have dried up, and buying bottled water is no longer financially feasible for most residents. Additionally, power outages worsen the situation since many homeowners use electric pumps to obtain water.
Protests and solidarity with Khuzestan nationwide
Activists and human rights advocates demonstrated in front of the interior ministry in the capital, Tehran, to express support for the people of Khuzestan and demand better governance. The protestors were instead arrested but later released the next morning
Two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticised the government ham fisted reaction to the protests. Mohammad Khatami said, “No political, security, military or law enforcement organisation has the right to confront the people’s protests with violence, weapons or bullets with the excuse of countering chaos"
Officials confirmed that two civilians, 18-year-old Ghasem Khozeiri and 30-year-old Mostafa Naimawi, were shot dead during protests on Friday. Protestors allege they were shot dead by government forces, meanwhile, the government claim that young men were not protesters and were murdered by “opportunists and rioters”.
More protesters are feared dead according to protestors online but officials or independent investigators have yet to confirm further fatalities, which is suggested to be at least 8. While online dissidents claim a hefty amount of protestors have been arrested, the number has not been disclosed by the government or independent 3rd parties.
The UK based Amnesty International claims that at least 8 people have been killed since the protests began. “Video footage verified by Amnesty … and consistent accounts from the ground indicate security forces used deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas to disperse protesters,” it said.
On Wednesday, Iranian officials also announced the death of a police officer, identified by officials as Zargham Parast, was shot dead in Khuzestan amid six nights of protests. State media reported that another police officer in Bandar Mahshahr was wounded after taking a bullet to his leg on Tuesday night.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iranians protesting over water shortages cannot be blamed, and called on province officials to deal with the crisis. Khamenei said, “The people showed their displeasure … but we cannot really blame the people and their issues must be taken care of." Officials acknowledge that Khuzestan has been hit hard and claim to be working to alleviate the water shortage problem. The government of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani claims it has allocated new funds to alleviate the situation while the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are deploying water tankers to the region.
Additionally, the government blames separatist groups for the violence, and they claim foreign media is trying to take advantage of the situation to oppose Iran's government, a long-time regional rival of the United States.
Internet shutdown and censorship
Sporadic internet slowdowns or blackouts have been reported across Khuzestan for days. Despite the internet censorship, videos of the protests have been leaking out.
Internet-access advocacy group NetBlocks.org attributed part of the disruption to “state information controls or targeted internet shutdowns.” It identified the outages as beginning July 15 when the protests first began. NetBlocks warned its analysis and user reports were “consistent with a regional internet shutdown intended to control protests.”
NetBlocks reported that the region was undergoing, “a near-total internet shutdown that is likely to limit the public’s ability to express political discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world”
How US sanctions are increasing tensions
Iran’s economy was heavily disrupted by U.S. sanctions by former-President Donald Trump, who in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal brokered by the Obama administration and several world powers. The withdrawal from the deal, according to some experts, assures perpetual conflict with Iran which translates to continued weapons and warfare-related commerce in the region, worth billions. The deal was meant to mend relations with Iran and prevent it from securing a nuclear weapon. According to its framework, Iran would redesign, convert, and reduce its nuclear facilities and accept the Additional Protocol in order to lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets which would stabilize the country's economy. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal crashed the value of the Islamic Republic’s currency, the rial sending the country into an economic spiral.
The future for Iran and the right to water
According to HRW, The right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General Comment No. 15 on the right to water, stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to water can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.” The UN special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation stated in a 2014 report that violations of the right to water may result from action or may be the result of the unintended consequences of policies, programs and other measures as well.
Iran is currently suffering from a combination of foreign pressure and poor governance, organized crime, and global warming; this together assures that Iran will experience further protests, unrest, and continued infrastructure decay.
This isn't the first time Iran has faced water shortage protests and it is unlikely to be the last.