In the mountains of western Iran, the province of
Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari is known for mile-high lagoons, flowing rivers
and wetlands that attract thousands of species of migratory birds.
But years of diminishing rainfall have shriveled water sources.
Conditions worsened, residents say, after Iranian authorities began
funneling water 60 miles away to the lowland city of Esfahan, sparking
protests as far back as 2014.
On Dec. 30 of last year, about 200 people gathered in front of the
provincial governor’s office to protest the water transfer project.
Their slogans soon morphed into chants of “Death to the dictator,” the
main rallying cry of anti-government protesters who poured into
streets nationwide in the biggest spasm of public anger Iran has seen
The uprising — in which at least 21 people died and thousands were
arrested before authorities reimposed order — had many sparks: rising
prices, persistent unemployment, bank collapses, a wide wealth gap,
corruption in the theocracy.
But an overlooked factor, analysts say, is the impact of climate
change and the widespread perception that Iran’s leaders are
mishandling a growing problem of water scarcity.
“People believe that this is yet another major crisis the country is
facing, and the people at the top are too incompetent and too corrupt
to care,” said Meir Javedanfar, a professor of Iranian politics at
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, an Israeli university.
“It does not seem to be a priority of the regime to address the
drought issue,” he said. “As long as it’s not a priority, nothing will
happen until something breaks.”
Many environmental activists believe Iran is quickly approaching its
breaking point as diminishing rainfall and warmer temperatures have
caused lakes to disappear, kicked up blinding dust storms and emptied
out once fertile regions as farmers seek economic refuge in cities.
Drought is a concern across the Middle East, but Iran’s 80 million
people are especially at risk. This month, the director of Iran’s
Drought and Crisis Management Center, Shahrokh Fateh, said that 96% of
the country’s land area was experiencing prolonged drought conditions,
the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.
In some of the hardest hit areas, including border provinces where
ethnic and religious minorities complain of official neglect, concerns
over natural resources were a key driver of the demonstrations that
began in late December.
“People in my area do not want to politicize their environmental
concerns, but water shortages and pollution of the air and rivers are
seen as political crises,” said Yusef Farhadi Babadi, an environmental
activist in Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari. “People want to reclaim their
rights to clean air and water and efficient water use.”
In the province, which covers an area slightly larger than the state
of Connecticut, there were once 3,800 natural springs, but about 1,100
have dried up, Babadi said, citing official statistics. The Iran
Meteorological Organization forecast recently that for the Iranian
year ending March 20, rainfall in the province would be more than 80%
below the long-term average.
Many in the predominantly agricultural region complain about a
controversial series of canals the government has built to bring
hundreds of millions of cubic feet of water from the Karun River,
which runs through Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari, to growing populations in
Some of the water has gone to state-run steel mills in Esfahan, which
Babadi described as “bankrupt industries.” Meanwhile, with the
exception of Shahr-e Kord, the provincial capital of about 150,000
people, towns in the area rely on tanker water that is riddled with
chemicals, he said.
Farmers and cattle breeders have occasionally clashed with security
forces, including in 2016, when multiple days of protests in the town
of Boldaji left one demonstrator dead and nearly 200 injured. The
Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s powerful paramilitary
organization, reportedly sent troops from 16 units to put down the
In neighboring Khuzestan, an oil-rich province with a large population
of ethnic Arabs on the border with Iraq, desertification and
industrial waste have destroyed date orchards and wetlands. The World
Health Organization lists the provincial capital of Ahvaz as one of
the world’s most polluted cities, and for much of the year a yellow
smog blankets the city, sending residents fleeing to the hospital for
help with breathing difficulties.
Ahvaz saw large protests for more than a week beginning Dec. 30, but
they were the latest in a years-long string of demonstrations over
environmental conditions, said Abafazl Abidi, a correspondent for the
reform-minded Shargh newspaper in Tehran.
“Many are suffering from chronic environmental problems or
pollution-related diseases like asthma and skin ailments,” Abidi said.
“People suffer from acid rain, visibility is only a few meters, there
are outages of drinking water and electricity. The recent protests
seem to me no surprise at all.”
The conditions have worsened because of the rampant construction of
dams, more than a dozen of which have been built in the province in
the last 40 years, many reportedly by businesses linked to the
Experts say the projects have aimed to benefit regions and industries
with better political connections while worsening water access for
“They have built them in a way that the consequences are so bad for
the environment,” Javedanfar said. “And there is so much lack of trust
that even if the water projects were justified, people would oppose
them. If the Iranian regime were to reinvent the wheel, some would
complain that it’s too round.”
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called on the government to
“manage climate change and environmental threats,” but the response
from successive governments has been mixed.
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised populist schemes to help
farmers, but allowed industries to build haphazardly, and he once
blamed Iran’s drought on Western countries. President Hassan Rouhani,
elected in 2013, has pumped funds into restoring the depleted Lake
Urmia, but when he visited Khuzestan last year he was greeted by a
“In every election we try to send defenders of our rights to
parliament or elect presidents who can address environmental
issues…but in vain,” Babadi said.
Authorities cracked down swiftly on the recent protests in Shahr-e
Kord, but Babadi predicted the respite would be temporary.
“The drought and water transfer projects are so dangerous and
detrimental that environmental protests will resume soon,” he said.
By Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim