Thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday, July 7, protesting severe water shortages in the Bushehr province of Iran. Protesters were furious about “inefficiency” and “incompetence” and called on authorities to step in and solve the problem, Iran’s Radio Farda reported.
Just one week before, four were killed and 11 wounded during two days of fierce demonstrations over water scarcity and pollution in neighboring Khuzestan province. Security forces opened fire on a crowd that was “disrupting public order.” Protesters were throwing projectiles and set fire to trash cans and a vehicle, Al Jazeera reported. This comes after a 20-hour water outage ended in 230 poisoned by drinking polluted water, stated Shahrokh Refaei, head of crisis management in Khuzestan province.
Demonstrations form part of a concerning trend in Iran since late 2017, with at least five protestors shot in January alone. Protestors are responding to what experts describe as poor management of inadequate water reservoirs. Several districts have gone without water for weeks during a scorching heatwave, after suffering the “driest” seasonal rainfall of the past 67 years, a government-monitoring agency stated. According to analyst David Michel, 12 of Iran’s provinces “will entirely exhaust their aquifers within the next 50 years.”
“Water shortages are acute; agricultural livelihoods no longer sufficient. With few other options, many people have left, choosing uncertain futures as migrants in search of work,” a United Nations report last year revealed. Iranian elites have been aware of the water crisis since 2013 when agriculture minister Issa Kalantari stated that water scarcity poses a greater threat to peace in Iran “than Israel, U.S.A. or political fighting among the Iranian elite.”
This trend of violent demonstrations is not only a call for action against an environmental crisis of alarming magnitude. It is also a warning signal of a failure of Iranian elites to address the basic needs of its peoples. Environmental stress and climate change have been dubbed by academics a “multiplier” of threats to peace, as water shortages can severely compound existing social and economic strains. The combative suppression strategies undertaken by Iranian authorities could escalate insecurity in the face of environmental stress. Economic and social volatility, combined with a lack of water and ensuing crop failure, diseases, urban migration and displaced populations, could increase both the risk and costliness of internal conflict.
Iran’s Meteorological Organization estimates that 97% of Iran faces drought. But while rising temperatures and water mismanagement are forcing family-run agricultural business to close up shop, it’s not purely a problem of not having enough water. In Iran, a country boasting four of the world’s top ten most polluted cities, around 270 people die each day from pollution-related illness such as cancer and respiratory conditions. This is because it’s not only air they’re breathing: these illnesses are the result of breathing in a toxic mix of rubber particles, sub-standard gasoline smog, nitrogen oxide, asbestos, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and unburnt hydrocarbons.
Insecurity over resource scarcity is no new occurrence. We have seen similar patterns of events in Syria prior to the 2011 uprising. It has also been seen in Nigeria, India, Yemen, and Somalia. Water shortages and pollution is not just an issue concerning humanitarian relief and disaster response. Experts say it is also a major strategic driver of peace and stability.
Iran is devastated by war, has high youth unemployment, and two weeks ago experienced protests in response to a collapsing currency. A lack of access to potable water poses a significant threat to human security and could certainly lead to even further social unrest and political upheaval in the region. The Iranian government must take action to manage environmental stressors before it is too late.