A woman and boy walking across dry riverbed (© Vahid Salemi/AP Images)
Two people walk on the dried-up riverbed of the Zayandeh Roud in Isfahan, Iran, in July. (© Vahid Salemi/AP Images)

Cities, towns and farms in Iran are running out of water largely due to poorly administered water resource policies and corruption, driving thousands of people from their homes and inciting protests.

“The protests of the past few months show that the Iranian people are deeply frustrated with their own government’s failures,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this year when he outlined a new Iran strategy. “Government mismanagement of Iran’s natural resources has led to severe droughts and other environmental crises as well,” the secretary said.

And when Iran’s top environmental and water resource experts attempt to identify their country’s severe water shortage problems and offer solutions, the government’s security forces, known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, respond with arrests, torture and intimidation.

Some examples:

  • A Canadian-Iranian dual citizen named Kavous Seyed-Emami, managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, died in prison in February under suspicious circumstances.
  • Kaveh Madani, a prominent U.S.-educated Iranian water expert, left his academic post in London for Iran in late 2017 to help address the water crisis. Within months, Iranian forces arrested and interrogated him, forcing him to flee the country in April 2018.
  • At least 40 more environmentalists were arrested in May, reports the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Map showing areas of drought and locations of protests (State Dept./Doug Thompson, Sources: Voice of America, Associated Press, Reuters)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

Recent protests linked to water scarcity

An increasing number of protests are in areas where drought and water shortages are at a crisis level, especially in the city and environs of Isfahan and numerous towns in the western province of Khuzestan.

In April, Voice of America reported on the days-long street protests in Isfahan, where residents said the government was diverting water to the nearby Yazd province, causing water shortages and damaging farmland.

Street protests in July broke out in Khorramshahr, about 650 kilometers southwest of Tehran. The Associated Press reported residents there complain of “salty, muddy water coming out of their taps.”

The problem stems from the Gotvand Dam on the Karoun River in Khuzestan province that Iran built in 2004 despite environmental impact warnings about the nearby salt beds. Today, the river’s elevated salinity has badly damaged the once agriculture-rich land in the Khuzestan region.

Over the past three decades, Iran has built hundreds of dams, “changing the natural direction of water flow and favoring the elites at the expense of ordinary Iranians, Ahmad Khalid Majidyar, director of IranObserved at Washington’s Middle East Institute, writes.

Majidyar says Iranian leaders blame neighboring countries’ water management policies and other factors for the country’s drought and environmental problems, “yet they largely overlook corruption and mismanagement in the country as well as wrong government policies responsible for the deteriorating crisis across the country.”