Remembering Syria: Iran struggles with potentially explosive environmental crisis
Credit: Maps of the World
By James M. Dorsey
Iranian leaders are struggling, three months after anti-government protests swept the Islamic republic, to ensure that environmental issues that helped sparked a popular uprising in Syria in 2011 leading to a brutal civil war don’t threaten the clergy’s grip on power.
Like Syria, Iran has been confronting a drought that has affected much of the country for more than a decade with precipitation dropping to its lowest level in half a century. Environmental concerns have figured prominently in protests in recent years, often in regions populated by ethnic minorities like Azeris, and Iranian Arabs.
Unrest among ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of Iran’s population, takes on added significance with Iran fearing that Saudi Arabia’s activist crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s antipathy towards the Islamic republic bolstered by the appointment of a hardliner, John Bolton, as the president’s national security advisor.
Mr. Bolton has called for regime change in Iran, aligning himself with a controversial exile opposition group, while Prince Mohammed is believed to have tacitly endorsed thinking about stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities even if he has yet to decide whether to adopt subversion as a policy.
Iran has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia in the past year of supplying weapons and explosives to restive groups like the Baluch and the Kurds.
Yet, concern about environmental degradation and its potential political fallout goes beyond fear that it could facilitate interference by external powers. Demonstrators in the province of Isfahan last month clashed with security forces after they took to the streets to protest water shortages. The protest occurred some three months after Iran was wracked by weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
The protest was the latest in a series of expressions of discontent. Anger at plans in 2013 to divert water from Isfahan province sparked clashes with police. The Isfahan Chamber of Commerce reported a year later that the drying out of the Zayandeh Roud river basin had deprived some 2 million farmers or 40 percent of the local population in the Zayandeh-Roud basin of their income.
“Over 90% of (Iran’s) population and economic production are located in areas of high or very high water stress. This is two to three times the global average in percentage terms, and, in absolute numbers, it represents more people and more production at risk than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa,” Al-Monitor quoted Claudia Sadoff, director general of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, as saying.
A panel of retired US military officers noted in December that “since the 1979 revolution, the per capita quantity of Iran’s renewable water supplies has dropped by more than half, to a level commonly associated with the benchmark for water stress. Even more troubling, in large swaths of the country, demand for fresh water exceeds supply a third of the year. Fourteen years of drought have contributed to the problem, as has poor resource management, including inefficient irrigation techniques, decentralized water management, subsidies for water-intensive crops like wheat, and dam building. As a result, parts of the country are experiencing unrest related to water stress.”
By identifying water as one of the country’s foremost problems, the government recognized that mismanagement leading to acute water shortages risks becoming a symbol of its inability to efficiently deliver public goods and services.
The government has sought to tackle the issue by promoting reduced water consumption and water conservation, halting construction of dams, combatting evaporation by building underground water distribution networks, introducing water metres in agriculture, encouraging farmers to opt for less water-intensive crops, multiplying the number of treatment plants, and looking at desalination as a way of increasing supply.
With agriculture the main culprit in Iran’s inefficient use of water, Iranian officials fear that the crisis will accelerate migration from the countryside to urban centres incapable of catering to the migrants and, in turn, increase popular discontent.
A US study suggested in 2015 that decades of unsustainable agricultural policies in Syria; drought in the north-eastern agricultural heartland of the country; economic reforms that eliminated food and fuel subsidies; significant population growth; and failure to adopt policies that mitigate climate change exacerbated grievances about unemployment, corruption and inequality that exploded in 2011 in anti-government protests in Syria.
The Syrian government’s determination to crush the protest rather than engage with the protesters sparked the country’s devastating war, currently the world’s deadliest conflict