Iran's water crisis stokes another round of protests

By Struan Stevenson
Renewable water resources in Iran, which were estimated at around 135 billion cubic meters in 1979, have fallen to 80 billion cubic meters. Photo courtesy of Struan Stevenson
Renewable water resources in Iran, which were estimated at around 135 billion cubic meters in 1979, have fallen to 80 billion cubic meters. Photo courtesy of Struan Stevenson

July 26 (UPI) -- Prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran's population of 34 million people relied on a stable water supply, sourced from millennia-old underground canals and aquifers. The Iranian revolution, hijacked by the mullahs, changed all that.

The theocratic regime handed control of the nationalized water industry -- and indeed over 80% of all other business, industrial and service sectors -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the regime's equivalent of the Gestapo. The IRGC answers directly to the elderly supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It pays no tax and corruptly siphons vast financial resources into its own pockets and into financing proxy wars and terrorism across the Middle East and further afield.


The IRGC members use oil revenues stolen from the Iranian people to race ahead with the clandestine construction of a nuclear weapon and ballistic missile delivery systems capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Israel. They have impoverished the nation. As the country with the second- largest gas and fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, Iran is a crumbling ruin, the legacy of 42 years of Islamic fundamentalism.


Combining rank incompetence, venal corruption and a total disregard for environmental concerns, the IRGC set about a decades-long program of widespread hydropower dam building in a series of huge and dishonestly lucrative infrastructure projects that blocked and diverted rivers and drained lakes and aquifers. As the population of Iran expanded exponentially to its current 83 million, and climate change saw summer temperatures often soaring to 50 degrees C (122°F), the water crisis grew.

Iran's farmers account for more than 90% of water usage and have been repeatedly encouraged to accelerate crop and stock production to feed a population starved by government ineptitude and mismanagement. Faced with dwindling water supplies, Iran's farmers have been forced to bore deeper wells into the depleting groundwater resources to irrigate their crops and water their livestock. It is reckoned that the number of wells has multiplied more than 13 times since the 1979 revolution, with most of them illegal and draining far more water than can be sustainably maintained.

Now renewable water resources, which were estimated at around 135 billion cubic meters in 1979, have fallen to 80 billion cubic meters, with experts predicting that water shortages may force up to 70% of Iranians, or 58 million people, to move to other parts of Iran, or eventually to flee the country altogether, if something is not done to resolve the crisis in the next 20 to 30 years.


The current extreme heat and lack of rainfall has caused an extended drought, creating catastrophic water shortages and desertification, particularly in Khuzestan province in the southwest of the country. The "Islamic Republic" has reacted in its usual brutal fashion, ordering a vicious crackdown on large-scale street protests that have resulted in the deaths of at least 10 young demonstrators and the injury of many others.

This has enraged the thirsty and frustrated crowds, who have seen their running water dry up and are protesting in mass, angry and often violent strikes, sit-ins and uprisings that have continued for more than 11 days. Thousands of largely Iranian Arab citizens can be heard in videos chanting in Arabic: "We are thirsty!" and "We want the regime to fall!" Iranian police and IRGC personnel have used teargas, shrapnel and live ammunition to try to disperse the protesters.

According to the Iranian Department of Water and Sewerage, at least 110 Iranian cities have experienced regular water cuts during the summer so far, although resistance units of the main democratic opposition group, the Mojahedin e-Khalq state that more than 200 towns and cities have been seriously affected. They claim there are some cities in Khuzestan that have no running water.


Water levels in the Karkeh River in Khuzestan, one of the legendary four great biblical rivers of the Garden of Eden, have fallen dangerously low due to environmental damage and mismanagement. The situation has been exacerbated by water shortages in other semi-arid Iranian provinces like Isfahan, where irrigation canals have diverted water from major river systems to supply heavy industry.

The resulting severe water shortages have caused running water from rivers and lakes to become excessively salty, impacting negatively on crop and livestock production. It is claimed that over 1.2 million date palms, a crucial income source for farmers in Khuzestan, have died of drought. The ongoing protests in Khuzestan have ignited further mass demonstrations in Tehran, where the 9 million city inhabitants have reached a breaking point with the clerical regime.

Recent videos on social media showed women outside a Tehran metro station chanting "Down with the Islamic Republic" in solidarity with the Khuzestan protesters. Similar mass protests have erupted in towns and cities across Iran. In an anti-regime protest in Tabriz, in Azerbaijan Province in northwestern Iran, demonstrators were filmed chanting "Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Persians united" and "Azeris are awakened, support Khuzestan."

With 75% of the Iranian population struggling to survive on daily incomes below the international poverty line, protests against the mullahs have grown in size and ferocity. On top of the water crisis, the people are suffering from high unemployment, rampaging inflation, spiraling prices, disintegrating living conditions and a collapsing economy. The coronavirus pandemic has spread out of control across the country, with, according to MEK resistance units, an estimated 337,000 dead from the disease. The mullahs, embarrassed by their catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, falsely claim the figure to be nearer 90,000.


Water is life. When it disappears, there are enormous economic and social consequences. Mass migration of environmental refugees may be the end result, and this may only be the tip of the iceberg. The cataclysm in Iran may be the last straw. It may be the final spark that ignites the seething fury of the Iranian people into a new revolutionary uprising. Until the repressive mullahs are swept from power, there can be no hope for re-establishing freedom, justice and democracy and ending the social, environmental and economic devastation that the turbaned tyrants have caused.

Struan Stevenson is the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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