Over recent days, Iran has been rocked by massive protests in its southwestern Arab-majority Khuzestan province as power stations have failed and water supplies have been cut off.
Dust storms and poor weather in this region, where temperatures can easily exceed 50 Celsius, are being blamed for the breakdown in utilities.
However, the underlying environmental crisis that has prompted the unrest is a greater threat to Iran’s existence than any internal or external enemy. If Tehran does not listen to the protesters’ demands, it could bring about the death of Iran through hunger and civil war.
Ahwaz’s grassroots environmental movement
Thousands joined protests in Ahwaz, demanding action to resolve an escalating environmental crisis caused by the damming of the region’s rivers, the desertification of wetlands and industrial pollution.
Passionate street protests also greeted the UN Development Program (UNDP) resident coordinator in Iran Gary Lewis when he visited the province earlier this month, accompanied by Iranian chief of Department of Environment (DOE) Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar. Many protesters and some local officials have bravely demanded Ebtekar be sacked for failing to act to resolve problems that have left residents without basic amenities. The authorities have responded with arrests.
The crisis is fuelling regional resentment in this ethnic Arab region against the central government that is shared not only by protesters but also many local politicians and officials. Many are prepared to go on the record to condemn the government’s atrocious environmental record.
Jalil Mokhtar, member of parliament for Abadan, demanded apologies from the government for the crisis, asking: “Why does the President not take Khuzestan’s problems such as dust storms, desertification, blackouts, sewage problems and unemployment, more seriously?”
Dams: Weapons of marsh destruction
While repression may end the current protests, the causal environmental factors will worsen. The Iranian government has not completed its dam construction plans that have contributed to the dust storm problem. In the Karoun and Karkheh watersheds, a total of nine dams have been built or are under construction with a further 12 under study.
The damming of the Karoun and Karkeh rivers in Khuzestan – Iran’s largest rivers – is intended to increase supply of water to cash crops, generate hydroelectric power and power the country’s industrial sector.
Billions of cubic metres of water are being siphoned off by dams and river diversion, largely for the benefit of large agro-industrial projects in already arid areas of Isfahan and Fars. The plan is to divert 1.1 billion cubic metres per annum to Isfahan.
What is left is a trickle of toxic pollution that people in the region rely on for drinking water. Around half the Karoun’s water flow is now waste water as upstream fresh water has been restricted. This will rise further when Iran’s dam building project is completed, according to some Iranian scientists.
The marshlands, meadows and crop-growing fields once fed by the waters of the Karoun and Karkeh rivers that flow from the Zagros mountains are now dust bowls. Ali Mohammad Shaeri, the vice president of the Iranian environment organization, claims that “500,000 hectares of marshlands of Ahwaz have dried out and this is the main cause of sand storms in the region.”
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned that the marshlands of southwest of Iran are facing a situation similar to the environmental catastrophes that have affected the Aral Sea and the Amazon.
In a major study on the marshes of Iraq and Iran, the UNEP concluded: “The cumulative impacts of dam construction upstream and intensive drainage schemes in and around the marshlands have been devastating. In less than a decade, one of the world’s largest and most significant wetland ecosystems has completely collapsed.”
Sayed Sharif Hosseini, Majlis member for Ahwaz City, said: “Khuzestan used to have a third of the country's water resources with five major rivers. Today we are facing a disaster in terms of shortage of clean water and water for agriculture... We are seeing the death of Khuzestan.”
The death of Iran?
The death of Khuzestan would precipitate the death of Iran. Without sufficient downstream water, the province’s agricultural sector will collapse with dire national and international consequences. Khuzestan province is Iran’s biggest source of food crops. It is the leading producer of wheat (1.1 mln tonnes per annum) and the second biggest producer of maize (400,000 tonnes) and rice (300,000 tonnes). Over 40 percent of Iran’s sugar production, a vital cash crop, comes from the province, mostly from sugarcane.
However, the Iranian government is prioritising aggressive industrialisation to bolster is economic power and stabilise an increasingly restive society. In water resource management, the needs of industry, which is largely in the hands of the state and the elite oligarchy, are being placed ahead of the food requirements of the population.
Khuzestan contributes 90 percent of national onshore oil production as well as a third of petrochemicals and steel output. These industries are responsible for much of the pollution in the region as well as soaring water demands.
The situation is going to get worse with global trade and sanctions relief with global majors piling in to bolster Iran’s industrial base. The government has targeted a 1 mln barrels per day increase in oil output to over four million barrels in the current Iranian year.
The province’s steel industry requires 1.4 billion cubic metres of water every year to produce five million tonnes of steel – the equivalent of six percent of the river Karoun’s annual average flow. Iran plans to increase annual steel production by 240 percent over the next decade, raising water requirements for the steel industry to around 15 billion cubic metres per annum or eight percent of current national renewable water consumption.
Tehran is also aiming to raise annual petrochemicals capacity by two-thirds to 100 million tonnes by 2025, which will also place a massive toll on water supply as well as requiring more hydroelectricity generation.
At the same time, Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei wants to raise the population to 150 mln and achieve 100% food self-sufficiency. Currently, Iran can only feed 33 mln of its 75 mln population, while agriculture represents 90 percent of the country's water withdrawal. Coupled with massive growth in demand from heavy industry, the government's development agenda is heading for disaster. There is a possibility of widespread hunger and even conflict.
Iran's leading specialist on desertification, Prof. Parviz Kordavani, warned last week that Iran has depleted 70 percent of its ground water. He said that the provincial competition for water will lead to domestic conflict within five years.
While the Iranian government’s enemies may rejoice in the prospect of its destruction, the price would be massive. Environmental collapse would carry with it the prospect of conflict on a par with Syria’s civil war, which itself had environmental causes. Millions of Iranian environmental refugees would pour over its borders, seeking food that is unavailable in their parched homeland.
Issa Kalantari, the adviser for water, agriculture and the environment to Iran’s vice president and a former minister of agriculture, warned that if Iran does not change its approach to water use, the result could be mass migration. He said: “Approximately 50 million people, 70 percent of Iranians, will have no choice but to leave the country.” He did not offer a timetable on when this would happen but asked, “With the state of our foreign policy, which countries are ready to accommodate 30 to 50 million Iranians?”
In December, the Global Military Advisory Council on climate change stated that climate change, including water resource management, is the greatest security threat of the 21st century. Climate change was a factor that led to the Syrian civil war. Could Ahwaz's environmental disaster lead to civil war in Iran?
If Iran and the world do not listen to the peaceful protests in Ahwaz, they will pay the price of Iran’s collapse.