Widespread anti-government protests that broke out in Iran early this year were fueled in part by what protesters say is the government’s failure to monitor and manage the country’s sparse water resources.
While anger over government corruption sparked demonstrations in major cities, lack of access to water was the main point of contention in rural areas, analysts say.
Farmers accuse local politicians of allowing water to be diverted from their areas in return for bribes.
“And this lack of water has disrupted people’s income,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group.
In total, at least 25 people were killed and up to 3,700 people were arrested during the anti-government demonstrations, according to one Iranian member of parliament.
According to the Islamic Republic of Iran Meteorological Organization, approximately 97 percent of the country is experiencing drought to some degree, Reuters reported on March 29.
“Towns and villages around Isfahan have been hit so hard by drought and water diversion that they have emptied out and people who lived there have moved,” said Ghaemi.
“Nobody pays any attention to them. And people close to (President Hassan) Rouhani told me the government didn’t even know such a situation existed and there were so many grievances.”
Rouhani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioned drought as a problem that needs to be addressed in the country during their speeches last month commemorating Nowruz, the Iranian new year, while condemning “lawlessness and violence.”
In early January, protests in the town of Qahderijan, some 6 miles west of Isfahan, turned violent as security forces opened fire on crowds, killing at least five people, according to activists. One of the dead was a farmer, CHRI said, and locals said water rights were the main grievance.
A journalist in Qahderijan who asked not to be identified said the attack on the police station was not the right thing to do but that water mismanagement had deprived farmers of their livelihoods.
In early March in the town of Varzaneh, near Isfahan, dozens of farmers faced off against riot police on motorcycles.
“What’s called drought is more often the mismanagement of water,” said a journalist in Varzaneh
In late January, Kavous Seyed-Emami, the director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists were arrested, the Reuters report noted.
Two weeks later, authorities said Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel. His family has denied the allegation.
State TV later aired a report saying Seyed-Emami and his colleagues were telling Iran’s enemies the country could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of a water shortage and needed to import food.
A United Nations report last year noted, “Water shortages are acute; agricultural livelihoods no longer sufficient. With few other options, many people have left, choosing uncertain futures as migrants in search of work.”