Iran’s Water Protests are Not About Water

09 Dec 2021

Iran’s Water Protests are Not About Water

By Zep Kalb

December 9, 2021

On November 8, a group of local farmers arrived in the city of Esfahan to protest in front of the offices of the official state news agency and the regional water authorities. The protestors called on the government to release water into the Zayendeh River, which has laid dusty and bare for months, a reoccurring phenomenon. Over the next days, the farmers continued their demonstration in the dried-out beds of the river, camping out close to one of downtown Esfahan’s iconic bridges.

But what started out as a small-scale protest action by farmers from east Esfahan quickly turned into the Ebrahim Raisi administration’s largest popular challenge since taking office in August. On November 19, a day after negotiations between the Esfahan Farmers’ Union and the regional government broke down again, thousands of city-dwellers suddenly joined the farmers to demand that the Zayandeh River be filled up.

The government’s initial response to the mass demonstration was conciliatory and supportive. State media broadcasted the Friday rally widely. Officials came to speak to the protestors directly, expressing their sympathy and promising to address the problem promptly. The minister of energy even formally apologised to the farmers, saying he felt “ashamed” that the government had failed to provide enough water.

Soon enough, the tone changed. Within days, security forces moved in, cracking down on the remaining protestors. Police brutally dispersed the protestors and destroyed their tents. On social media, images of farmers drenched in blood circulated widely.

In theory, water protests should have broad popular support in Iran. Not only is the country mostly arid and semi-arid, but Iranians have also suffered from worsening draughts and environmental degradation provoked by climate change, government mismanagement, and economic sanctions.

In reality, however, solidarity has been hard to obtain as ordinary Iranians, state organisations, and political elites compete fiercely about how to share the country’s increasingly scarce water resources.

Many of these rivalries are long-standing, and they broke out again following the Esfahan protests. In the capital of the neighbouring Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, hundreds of residents and farmers took to the street to protest against the Esfahan protestors’ demand for more water. The Chaharmahal protestors argued that their province, located in the mountainous Zagros region of southwestern Iran, already supplies too much water to the dry central plateau region, of which Esfahan is part. In turn, Esfahan farmers deployed an old tactic: they sabotaged the water pipes headed to the even drier Yazd province, arguing that “their” water is unjustly being diverted elsewhere. 

This nasty and zero-sum type of group politics has become deeply entrenched in Iran over the past two decades. In this configuration, Esfahan province has certainly emerged a winner. Its rural residents earn on average about a quarter more than peers in the Zagros region or Khuzestan, which is home to the Karoon, the largest river in Iran. Moreover, Esfahan’s urban and provincial elites have been successful in turning local distributional conflicts over water use into demands for more water from the Zagros. Farmers from eastern Esfahan have long complained about excessive water use by the city of Esfahan. Regional authorities have used these protests to claim more water from upstream provinces.  

Yet, rather than being diverted to eastern Esfahan, much of that extra water has gone into urban consumption and toward large-scale steel manufacturers in the region. These inefficient and wasteful factories, mostly built before the 1979 revolution, are heavily subsidized by a central government keen to maintain a degree of self-sufficiency in steel production.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, following the November 19 demonstrations, much of the debate on social media centred on Esfahan’s privileges. One popular Twitter user argued that “Esfahani greed is what has turned the Zayendeh River into an issue. Esfahanis do not only want [to produce] steel but they also expect the water of Khuzestan and Chaharmahal to be transferred to this industry. If we are to believe you, you should protest in front of the Mobarakeh and the Esfahan Steel Companies.”

Rather than blaming specific individuals, entities, or social groups, many other activists accused the “water mafia” for the opaque and mean-spirited machinations of the country’s water politics. Seyyed Yousef Moradi, an environmental activist from Yasuj, commented that: “Even though you think that people from the Zagros Mountains are simple, we are not ignorant. We understand that a ten day sit-in in Esfahan for water provision, with the wide-spread support of media and the government, is a part of the water mafia’s plan to justify projects to transport water from the deprived provinces of the Zagros.”

The term “water mafia” is also popular among the country’s political elites, who are keen to avoid direct confrontation among each other, and fear turning the conflict into an ethnic struggle between the Persian majorities of the central plateau and the Arab, Lor, and Bakhtiari minorities of southwestern Iran.  

Indeed, while Esfahan’s relative wealth and power is undeniable, upstream provinces and groups do not lack political representation. In the past, the local elites in the Zagros and Khuzestan have often supported their constituents’ protests about water rights. For instance, in early 2014, the local MP and the local representative of the Supreme Leader came to the support of several thousand people who had gathered in Shahr-e Kord, the capital of Chaharmahal province. The protestors demanded a halt to construction work on tunnels designed to transport water to the central plateau.

Following similar protests in Khuzestan in the summer of 2016, Ayatollah Abbas Ka’bi, the province’s representative in the powerful Assembly of Experts, issued a fatwa prohibiting the transfer of water from Khuzestan to the central plateau for agricultural or industrial purposes. When rumours circulated last July that these water tunnels had been officially opened—thus breaking the religious ruling—protests flared up across the province. Initially, Ayatollah Ka’bi supported the protestors and called the demonstrations legitimate. He turned quiet when, as protests continued and spread over the next days, security forces decided to crack down violently.

The July protests in Khuzestan and the November protests in Esfahan are intimately related. The Esfahan protests, and the Esfahan Farmers’ Union’s failure to reach an agreement with the government over the Zayendeh River’s fate, is at least partially the product of recent struggles in Khuzestan and the Zagros to prevent the transfer of water to Esfahan. Because water in Iran is not a public good, the protests are not really about water. Rather, what protestors are fighting for is access to the government. Protestors want the government to enable their consumption of water.

For their part, state authorities are locked in a delicate balancing act. Strapped of cash in the face of a severe US-led sanctions regime, the government has not been able to cough up the investments necessary to update the country’s outdated irrigation systems and water infrastructures. While security forces are eager to crack down on what they perceive as disturbances and unrest, many other state elites are caught between, and often on the side of, various social groups and their competing demands for water.

In order to make water resource management in Iran more efficient, fair, and equitable, the country needs to move beyond its current form of interest group politics. Unfortunately, there are few indications that the broad-based solidarity such a movement requires is in the making. As a result, it is likely that water protests will continue to flow.