The recent events in Afghanistan have made us think we know what regime collapse looks like. Militias roaming the streets, soldiers scrambling to helicopters, up against the clock to escape the anarchy below. But in some instances, the reality can be far more mundane. Across from Afghanistan’s own border, another Islamic theocracy — Iran — is struggling to manage a dangerous water shortage. As one hardline Muslim regime arose in Central Asia this year, another could yet be at the very beginning of its fall.
In July, during the worst drought in half a century and scorching heat of over 120°F, protests erupted in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan as a water crisis that has been slowly bubbling for decades hit boiling point. With at least 700 villages without a drop of water, and 28 million people facing shortages, the protests quickly spread to other provinces and turned political. Even the censored state-run media was forced to acknowledge the dire situation, as the shortages affected all sections of society: urban and rural. Today, these protests show no sign of abating and indeed merely foreshadow what may lay ahead.
It is a crisis entirely of Tehran’s own making, notionally led by an 82-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, but in reality coordinated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the same military force formerly headed by Qasem Soleimani. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the ayatollahs have secured the IRGC’s ongoing support by finding ways to keep them busy during peacetime. They have done so by awarding their IRGC protectors contracts to build dams, irrespective of need. The figures are staggering. There were 13 dams built in total under the Shah. Since the 1979 revolution, more than 600 have gone up, often diverting puny water supplies from poor to rich populations.
This policy of building dams for political expediency rather than ecological need shows no sign of stopping, and is finally coming back to haunt the mullahs. Overexploited aquifers, river diversions and corrupt water management have depleted Iran’s groundwater by 85 percent over the past 40 years, leaving much of the remaining groundwater unusable. Iran is the world’s worst offender in terms of consuming its renewable water resources, using up to 92 percent — way above the recommended 40 percent limit.
At the same time, an obsession by Iran’s isolationist leadership with becoming self-sufficient has pressured farmers into increasing production despite dwindling supplies. The government has undermined its farming regions by pushing farmers to grow water-intensive crops, such as wheat, rice and sugarcane. This has led to 780,000 deep wells being dug — 430,000 of which are illegal, used at night and covered during the day, with inspectors bribed to turn a blind eye. In the once-lush farmlands of Khuzestan, which sits on 80 percent of Iran’s oil and 60 percent of its gas reserves, crops are shriveling and cattle are dying of thirst.
According to Issa Kalantari, a former minister of agriculture and the current head of Iran’s Department of the Environment, Iran faces losing 70 percent of its farmland in the next 20 to 30 years as a result. In the longer term, this ecological disaster risks displacing more than half of Iran’s 83 million residents as the terrain becomes uninhabitable due to drying rivers and dwindling groundwater.
What’s more, the results of depleting the groundwater go beyond dehydrating the country. The water shortage can cause irreversible damage to the quality of the land itself as it dries out the ground, making natural disasters such as earthquakes more likely and more intense.
The water shortages have also been compounded by the building of hydroelectric dams like those on Khuzestan’s Karun river. They have been feeding agriculture without supplying the area’s wetlands and wider ecosystem. The result? The country has been losing two billion tons of soil per year.
The current wave of protests centers on accusations that the government is diverting water to drill for oil. Consistent with their past practice, the regime has suppressed dissent with an iron fist, leading to the deaths of at least eight civilians in recent weeks. Despite the authorities’ disruption of internal mobile internet services, videos have emerged online of shots being fired and tear gas being used against demonstrators.
Unlike past protests however, the regime cannot silence the cries of the thirsty indefinitely. If people have no water to drink, then they have nothing to lose. The unrest can be expected to continue despite the attempts at suppression.
Could this spell the end of the road for the regime? It is not unthinkable. Thirsty people, naturally, are angry people. In the early 2000s, a similar situation in the north of Syria led many farmers to move to cities. This, in turn, played a part in the protests which ultimately led to the civil war.
Iran’s leaders could attempt to address the problem themselves, but they always favor short-term solutions, like their current fix of importing tankers of water. This will do little to address the underlying problem.
The developing crisis potentially offers the West some hope as it seeks to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to hammer out a comprehensive treaty covering Iran’s illicit nuclear program. The severe water crisis and groundswell of unrest it is causing could well encourage Iran to recognize its need for assistance. The offer of Western cooperation over water technology and investment is more likely to be welcomed in Tehran than alternative measures, since its low profile offers the regime opportunities for cooperation without losing face. Handled deftly, Iran’s self-induced crisis could give the West the upper hand in nuclear negotiations and offer hope to the Iranian people that sanctions relief might be forthcoming. More urgently, a change of policy on water could ease the plight of those suffering most from the drought.
Sir Ivor Roberts is senior advisor to United Against Nuclear Iran and former Head of Counterterrorism at the Foreign Office.