'I am thirsty!': Inside the water protests sweeping Iran

Abandoned boats in Sikh Sar village at Hamoon wetland near the Zabol town, in southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan bordering Afghanistan on 2 February, 2015. [Getty]
6 min read
27 July, 2021
Analysis: Water shortages have sparked a wave of protests in the Khuzestan province of southwest Iran, but the demonstrations are driven by deep-lying social grievances and deteriorating living conditions.

Scenes of impassioned protests emerging across Iran, with some demonstrators even calling for the fall of the government, indicate that the Islamic Republic is facing renewed challenges driven by increasing socio-economic woes.

Iran’s last wave of major protests occurred in November 2019 until July 2020, initially sparked by a substantial increase to fuel prices. Now, this latest wave of social unrest has triggered new concerns within Tehran’s government.

On 15 July, widespread demonstrations erupted in the southwest province of Khuzestan, one of the hottest places on earth, where summer temperatures often rise above 50C. Amid these harsh conditions, people have faced significant water shortages, due to poor planning from the Islamic Republic’s government throughout its 40-year-long history.

"Iran's last wave of major protests occurred in November 2019 until July 2020, initially sparked by a substantial increase to fuel prices"

After protestors took to social media to complain about the management of water facilities in the governorate, hundreds of citizens demonstrated across dozens of cities in the western Khuzestan Province, including the capital, Ahvaz, demanding access to potable water.

The Iranian government initially adopted a forceful response. Last week, Amnesty International said that over eight people in Iran, including a teenage boy, were killed during a deadly crackdown by security forces.

Amnesty’s Evidence Lab, part of its Crisis Response Team, reported it received verified footage showing Iran’s security forces using “unlawful force” with automatic weapons and shotguns to crush mostly peaceful protests taking place across the southern province of Khuzestan.

Protests have also been recorded in Tehran, with a group of women on the metro shown on video chanting: “Down with the Islamic Republic”.

A girls walks across the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan in 2018, which now runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city. [Getty]
A girl walks across the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan in 2018, which now runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city. [Getty]

In an audio clip shared online, one woman was heard pleading for security forces to refrain from violence against protestors.

"Sir...the demonstrations are peaceful, why do you shoot? [The protesters] didn't take your water, they didn't take your soil," the lady in the city of Susangerd told anti-riot forces.

Iranian security forces were reported to have shot dead three young protestors on 20 July in the town of Izeh. On the same day, video footage on Twitter showed huge crowds in the town, with some gunshots fired in the background.

In another video, people can be heard chanting the name of Reza Shah, the US-backed ruler of Iran who was toppled by the 1979 Islamic revolution which created the Islamic Republic.

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The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s leading national security force founded with the stated aims of protecting the Islamic Republic, has also joined domestic security forces in cracking down on the protests.

“Iranian authorities have a very troubling record of responding with bullets to protesters frustrated with mounting economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Government authorities need to ensure the right to peaceful assembly and stop security forces from using excessive force”.

Meanwhile, on 23 July, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged Iran to address the chronic water shortages in Khuzestan instead of cracking down on protesters.

"Iranian authorities have a very troubling record of responding with bullets to protesters frustrated with mounting economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions"

“Shooting and arresting people will simply add to the anger and desperation,” she said, adding that the “catastrophic” situation had been building up for many years.

Iran, however, rejected these “false accusations” by the UN rights chief.

“Khuzestan is one of the richest and most important provinces in Iran. It has oil, fertile land, and water, and it is important for its location and its role in the Iran-Iraq war,” Hazem Kallass, Iran correspondent and Tehran Bureau Chief for Al Araby TV, told The New Arab.

He added that water shortages have merely sparked the protests, which are really driven by deep-lying social grievances and deteriorating living conditions.

“The problem is that Iran is facing drought, and the government and experts have warned about this previously, and the culture of water conservation does not exist. The government is also negligent in it, in addition to the failure to manage water resources properly,” he said.

“Many of the people in the region are also facing unemployment, despite knowing the wealth potential in their governorate. Many workers and employees of the industrial sectors, including oil, are not from the people of the governorate, and this has exacerbated the problem, and the regime recognizes this,” he added.

The protests could die down relatively soon, according to Kallas, as most of them are concentrated in Khuzestan and often take place at night due to the hot weather.

“Because of the transitional period in Iran, between the outgoing Rouhani government and the upcoming government of Raisi, the competition to solve the problem has become clear,” Kallas added. “Rouhani's government wants to show that it is in control, and Raisi's government wants to show it is ready for challenges”.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, urged his officials to address the situation on Instagram.

"Many of the people in the region are also facing unemployment, despite knowing the wealth potential in their governorate"

“Officials are duty-bound to address the problems of Khuzestan, if anyone cares about the people. No one can rest with comfort in face of the difficult situation in Khuzestan if they care about people”.

Indeed, Tehran has shown some desire to address this pressing issue. Iranian officials have also acknowledged the poor planning of water facilities, which have been a key causal factor of the shortages.

Soon after the Islamic Republic’s founding, the government pursued dam-building initiatives to invigorate development. However, there were also concerns that climate issues made reservoirs redundant because of strong evaporation levels, showing that it does face external difficulties.

This comes as Iran grapples with a worsening economic crisis which US sanctions have intensified, despite Joe Biden’s administration promising to pursue efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which Donald Trump’s government scrapped in 2018.

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Talks to revive the nuclear deal have stalled until the new hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi takes office in August, having been elected in June elections.

To make matters worse for the Iranian people, it is also suffering yet another wave of coronavirus cases, having initially endured the worst outbreak in the Middle East region when the pandemic emerged.

“The Iranian government must definitely address the problems, there is no other solution. Because security solutions do not reach a conclusion but may also pose a danger,” said Kallass.

“For the province of Khuzestan, the problems must be resolved, and the regime realizes this, especially in the border areas. In addition to Khuzestan, there is Sistan and Baluchistan, for example, and others as well. These areas, given the ethnic and sometimes sectarian diversity, and for many reasons may constitute a security concern, so its problems should definitely be solved”.

Kallass added that despite the Iranian government’s financial challenges, it does have the capabilities to resolve the issue. He cited that while the protests took place, a 1,000km oil pipeline was opened from the cities of Bushehr to Jask, worth an estimated $2bn.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey