Water scarcity led Iran’s farmers to stage one of the largest protests in the province of Esfahan in November after several peaceful protests against chronic water shortages earlier in the year. The Iranian police cracked down on protesters assembled in the dried-up Zayandeh Rud riverbed. The river once supplied an abundant water flow for Iran’s agricultural lands.
Calls for mass protests were made despite Iranian authorities warning against such gatherings. Disregarding these warnings, 300 to 400 farmers gathered at the river basin, representing 450,000 local agricultural guild members. The gathering ended peacefully when farmers handed a list of their demands to the local authorities. When the public began to support the farmers, the storm picked up. According to the head of the local law enforcement agency, Hassan Karami, between 30,000 and 40,000 people gathered in the course of a few days at the river basin.
The local authorities accused some protestors of carrying explosives and throwing rocks at riot police who clashed with the protestors and arrested dozens. According to official accounts, 67 protestors were arrested, however, Iranian human rights organizations say that the number arrested is at least twice higher.
According to eyewitness accounts, police brutality heightened when the Iranian government blocked access to the internet. This step was taken in response to protesters chanting slogans against the Iranian political system and forecasting its downfall. Esfahan’s local police claimed that it had restored calm in the city, however, to achieve this end, reports indicated that people had been shot in the eye with plastic bullets and tear gas was used to disperse protesters. Between 16 to 30 people checked into local hospitals with corneal ruptures including some as young as 18, and hospital records showed that several were permanently blinded by the plastic bullets.
The US State Department and Western governments expressed grave concern over the heavy crackdown as plain-clothed security officers prevented large crowds from protesting at the riverbed. On November 25, the police stepped in again and burnt down the tents used overnight by the protestors as some protestors chanted anti-government slogans. Then, the police imposed nighttime curfews and traffic restrictions, even cancelling the annual prayer for rain that is held in Esfahan in the fall season during Friday prayers.
Iran’s government has refused to accept responsibility for the brutal crackdown. Instead, it claims that the protests were motivated by hostile anti-government opposition groups living abroad. Iranian national television even aired the testimonials of individuals who confessed to receiving external support. Based on Iran’s track-record, these testimonials are likely to have been made under duress.
A sign that the latest protests actually pose a major threat to the Iranian political system’s stability is the fact that it rallied government loyalists against the farmers. The “reformist” newspaper Jomhuri Eslami blamed the farmers for exaggerating the ground realities. The “hardline” newspaper Kayhan went as far as labeling the protestors “leased hooligans” who were paid by foreign-based hostile agents to stir unrest in the country.
In recent years, Iran’s water scarcity problem has worsened not only due to severe droughts, but more importantly because of poor water management such as the Iranian government re-diverting water to other drought-prone regions in the country. Even Iran’s national media admits that water mismanagement over the past two decades is the real problem. The water problem in Esfahan has been exacerbated over the years by the presence of lucrative state-owned water-intensive tile production, cement and steel industries, which have used up a lot of the province’s water at the expense of the farmers.
Experts warn that because of the aforementioned factors, the revival of Zayandeh Rud will not happen for at least another five years. In the last 15 months, the river’s water flow was so low that it provided water for only 20 days of farming. Iran’s government, meanwhile, has given no indication of how it plans to address the farmers’ grievances including a list of nine demands which Tehran must respond to within three months to prevent further protests. For the protests to subside, Tehran will also need to quickly re-direct water flows to Esfahan and halt the over-supply of water to more lucrative state-owned industrial projects.
The Iranian government has said that it is unable to realistically meet all the farmers’ demands, and it will not shut down the water-intensive industries. In addition, it has said that it has a limited budget to reverse the industrial pollutants that are contaminating Esfahan’s water. The province is home to several industrial cities, turning the city of Esfahan into Iran’s most polluted urban area in the last two years. In light of the province’s harsh water reality, the Iranian government says that the people of Esfahan must adapt to the new water shortage predicament, even though local authorities are attempting to introduce new technologies to offer at least more potable water solutions to the local population. However, such introductions are unlikely to prevent future protests, which will no doubt rock the political system further, with brute force likely to be deployed once again to quell the protests and prevent them spreading to other provinces.