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Egyptian farmers sit under the shade of a dried-up palm tree in Egypt. Egyptian farmer Makhluf Abu Kassem, center, sits with farmers under the shade of a dried-up palm tree in Fayoum, Egypt, Aug. 5, 2020 (AP photo by Nariman El-Mofty).

Protests in Iran Point to the Middle East’s ‘Water Bankrupt’ Future

Friday, July 30, 2021

Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan has long been a hotbed of civil unrest and instability. In 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, segments of the province’s large minority Arab population led a violent push for autonomy. The oil-rich province on the border of Iraq was also at the center of the first major offensive in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. In 2005, a wave of bomb attacks set off by Arab separatists rocked Khuzestan’s provincial capital, Ahvaz. Six years later, in 2011, an Iranian government crackdown on protests inspired by the Arab uprisings resulted in the deaths of 15 people. 

Now, with unrest once again rocking Khuzestan for the past several weeks, the province also appears to be emerging as another major flashpoint in the Middle East’s ongoing struggles with water scarcity and the increasing hazards of climate change.

Indeed, Khuzestan in some ways is a microcosm of the political challenges Iran and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Basin face as the region grapples with the reality of a likely increase in temperatures before the end of this century. If the recent protests by Iranian citizens over water shortages in Khuzestan province are any measure, the instability in the oil-rich and drought-prone region could be a harrowing sign of troubles to come—not only in Iran, but in the wider Middle East, which has so far waged a losing battle to mitigate environmental risks and adapt to climate change. 

As The Economist noted this week, drought and water shortages have sparked protests from Algeria and Sudan to Iran. With only a few exceptions, most governments in the Middle East are ill-equipped to deal with present-day concerns stemming from long-term water mismanagement, let alone the acceleration of extreme weather threatening the future of the entire planet. The trend is alarming, because we know from recent history that drought in Syria partially paved the way for the civil war there. In time, water shortages could lead to deeper food insecurity in the region, which in turn could trigger armed conflict and population displacement. 

In a rare sign of acquiescence in the face of public pressure this week, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he is sympathetic to demands from protesters for the government to provide solutions to the acute water shortage in Khuzestan. Khamenei’s remarks came only a few days after Amnesty International issued a press release claiming that eight people had been killed there by Iranian security forces, who used live ammunition to suppress the protests. Khamenei apparently made no mention of the government’s shutdown of the internet in Khuzestan. Perhaps not surprisingly, Iran’s state-run television channel reported that authorities there arrested an Israeli spy ring in connection with an apparent “plot” aimed at exploiting unrest in the province to foment an uprising against the government.

In time, water shortages could lead to deeper food insecurity in the region, which in turn could trigger armed conflict and population displacement.

Ethnically diverse, Khuzestan boasts one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Arabs in the country. It is also an important center of agricultural production in Iran, and it accounts for most of the country’s oil and gas reserves. In recent years, a combination of environmental damage from mismanaged responses to a spate of flooding and the squeeze on oil and gas exports due to pressures imposed by U.S. sanctions has shredded the already worn socio-economic fabric of the province. Khuzestan, like a lot of Iran and the broader Middle East region and North Africa, is poorly governed when it comes to mitigating human-induced droughts and adapting to climate change. 

The water crisis in Khuzestan is reflective of decades of haphazard Iranian government development policies, and it is part of a pattern of human-driven water shortages across Iran. According to a report published in April by Iranian climate scientists in the journal Nature, overreliance on inefficient irrigation systems in the agricultural sector is one big cause of the problem. Much like the rest of the wider region, where 85 percent of available water sources are used to irrigate land used for food production, Iran’s security and stability is deeply intertwined with the balance between food security and water scarcity. As Iran’s exiled former deputy environmental minister, Kaveh Madani, put it in a recent interview, Khuzestan—like much of the rest of Iran and the region writ large—is “water bankrupt.”

None of this is a secret, of course. Desertification in the Middle East and North Africa has been a perennial challenge for decades. Yet, despite ample evidence of the security risks posed to the world by a region roiled by climate-induced water insecurity, there has been until very recently a glaring lack of leadership among Middle Eastern and North African elites in seeking out solutions. While the World Economic Forum touts a “new era of climate action diplomacy in the Middle East” and the United Arab Emirates is poised to host the Conference of Parties to the Paris Agreement summit in 2022, showy summit diplomacy doesn’t make up for a lack of investment in basics like unified regional mechanisms for monitoring groundwater levels as well as sharing data on water management policies and the impacts of climate change. 

There is just one substantive standing body in the region with the express mission of addressing water security challenges—the Regional Initiative for the Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on Water Resources and Socio-Economic Vulnerability in the Arab Region, or RICCAR. In 2018, a RICCAR report predicted that parts of the Arab region could see a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius by around 2050 and 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century, making whole swathes of the area uninhabitable. But that analysis is now three years old and does not account for new revelations about the effect of climate change in the region and around the world, which are likely to come out in a highly anticipated report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, due out in August. 

The patchwork of poorly resourced public-sector meteorological and environmental research agencies in the Middle East will continue to make it hard for bodies like RICCAR to keep up. Government officials in Tehran, for instance, only began to ramp up investment in the Iranian National Institute of Oceanography and Atmospheric Science about a decade ago. Although consistent and credible information about weather and climate is vital for decision-making on everything from irrigating sugar crops in Khuzestan to mapping out urban growth in Iranian cities, Iran, like many other neighboring countries, lacks the capacity to integrate the kind of data analysis needed into its development plans. Additionally, critics like Madani say Iran’s government, which is largely run by older men who fall on the hard end of the authoritarian spectrum, also lacks the will to make data collection on key climate indicators such as groundwater levels a priority.

If leaders in Iran and the Middle East truly want to come to grips with their climate problems, they are going to have to do more than shut down the internet and crush local protests with live bullets. Their own security and that of their countries, in fact, depends on their ability and willingness to invest more systematically in understanding and adapting to climate risks.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.

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