Environmental problems fuel Iran protests
The large-scale protests that broke out in Iran on Nov. 15 were the most significant since the 2009 Green Movement protests. They did not occur in isolation but have been preceded by hundreds of smaller, more sporadic protests throughout the country since late 2017.
A Nov. 8 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., drew on data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project to examine protests in Iran from January 2018 to October 2019. It found that economic grievances were the most common driver of protests but noted that political, environmental, and cultural grievances also play roles.
The environmental drivers behind protests in Iran often receive less attention than economic and political factors, but they are increasingly important and are very likely to play a growing role in the future.
Iran is experiencing increasing environmental pressures. Drought — and related desertification and dust storms — is the worst problem. Iran has experienced a cycle of extreme droughts since the late 1990s, with some regions afflicted for as long as 20 years. In January 2018, an official with Iran’s Meteorological Organization said that nearly 96 percent of Iran was suffering from prolonged drought. Drought has taken a major toll on Iran’s agricultural sector, damaging food production and leading to significant internal migration, as farmers and their families have left failing farms to seek work elsewhere.
Severe heatwaves are another major problem, with scientific research pointing to more frequent and extreme occurrences in the future. In June 2017, the city of Ahvaz reportedly hit 53.7 degrees Celsius – a record for Iran and just short of the world record. Ahvaz, one of the cities that has experienced frequent protests, was ranked as the world’s most polluted city by the World Health Organization in 2015.
In the spring of this year, Iran also experienced historic, massive flooding that affected 12 million people and displaced 366,000 people. Perceived government failures to prevent and respond to the floods led to protests in several affected regions.
Extreme weather patterns are a risk in many parts of the world, including Iran, but several factors are exacerbating the effects. Afghanistan’s damming of the Helmand River has badly damaged the Hamoun wetlands in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. Water mismanagement by Iranian authorities is a major cause of many recent environmental issues. The government has practiced excessive damming and has redirected water away from agricultural communities to industries and more populated centers. In one famous example, Lake Urmia has shrunk by 80 percent or more since the 1970s; while this partly reflects drought, the primary causes stem from water mismanagement.
Climate change will worsen all of these problems. Studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have projected significant reductions in rainfall in the Middle East, with significant increases in temperatures. In 2017, the World Bank noted that “while population and economic growth will increase water demands, climate change will be the primary driver for the most pronounced changes in surface water stress across the region.”
Poor management, corruption and climate change are stirring up widespread popular dissatisfaction.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
These environmental concerns are fueling protests in several ways in Iran. Some protests in the recent years were in direct response to environmental issues. The CSIS report cited 261 environmental protests between January 2018 and October 2019. There are many examples of farmers protesting over a lack of water. The drying up of Lake Urmia led to protests in Tabriz in 2010-2011. The spring 2019 floods also sparked unrest. Such protests have occurred in several areas, but the city of Isfahan and the province of Khuzestan have been hot spots for environmental-related demonstrations.
Environmental issues have also served as a risk multiplier — exacerbating other problems that spark protests. Prolonged droughts, as well as this year’s massive floods, have damaged the agricultural sector and overall economy, contributing to economic grievances. Climate migrants who left dried-up farms add to strains and unemployment in urban areas; notably, drought-fueled internal migration from farms to cities in Syria was a factor that led to Syrian uprising. Climate change exacerbates inequality — yet another factor behind public frustration, as those with fewer resources are less able to afford adaptations; they must deal with extreme heatwaves without air conditioning, work in unhealthy conditions, rely on poor quality water, and leave unproductive farms. Furthermore, a significant factor in water mismanagement is corruption, with accusations of officials taking bribes for water rights and of powerful factions directing water toward their industries. Anger at corruption is a huge driver of protests in Iran, and environmental corruption plays into that.
The Iranian government has publicly recognized the growing environmental concerns and, until recently, allowed relatively open public discussion of such issues. Given US sanctions and the effects of anthropogenic climate change, the Iranian government would face major challenges in addressing the public’s environmental concerns even if it undertook a highly effective and transparent approach toward water management and climate resilience. However, it so far has failed to address the mismanagement and corruption that are major factors behind water shortages and lack of resilient infrastructure.
The combination of a lack of effective and fair government action, combined with the effects of climate change, guarantee that environmental grievances will increasingly be a factor behind protest movements in Iran.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch