[Marxism] Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 19 07:27:46 MST 2018

(I've been plagiarized.)

NY Times, Jan. 19, 2018
Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern

UNITED NATIONS — Nigeria. Syria. Somalia. And now Iran.

In each country, in different ways, a water crisis has triggered some 
combination of civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency or even 
full-scale war.

In the era of climate change, their experiences hold lessons for a great 
many other countries. The World Resources Institute warned this month of 
the rise of water stress globally, “with 33 countries projected to face 
extremely high stress in 2040.”

A water shortage can spark street protests: Access to water has been a 
common source of unrest in India. It can be exploited by terrorist 
groups: The Shabab has sought to take advantage of the most vulnerable 
drought-stricken communities in Somalia. Water shortages can prompt an 
exodus from the countryside to crowded cities: Across the arid Sahel, 
young men unable to live off the land are on the move. And it can feed 
into insurgencies: Boko Haram stepped into this breach in Nigeria, Chad 
and Niger.

Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in 
the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in 
small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched 
regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. 
Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to 
mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, 
lasting roughly 14 years.

In short, a water crisis — whether caused by nature, human 
mismanagement, or both — can be an early warning signal of trouble 
ahead. A panel of retired United States military officials warned in 
December that water stress, which they defined as a shortage of fresh 
water, would emerge as “a growing factor in the world’s hot spots and 
conflict areas.”

“With escalating global population and the impact of a changing climate, 
we see the challenges of water stress rising with time,” the retired 
officials concluded in the report by CNA, a research organization based 
in Arlington, Virginia.

Climate change is projected to make Iran hotter and drier. A former 
Iranian agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, once famously said that 
water scarcity, if left unchecked, would make Iran so harsh that 50 
million Iranians would leave the country altogether.

Is water the reason for the latest unrest in Iran?

Not entirely. Water alone doesn’t explain the outbreak of protests that 
began in early January and spread swiftly across the country. But as 
David Michel, an analyst at the Stimson Center put it, the lack of water 
— whether it’s dry taps in the city, or dry wells in the countryside, or 
dust storms rising from a shrinking Lake Urmia — is one of the most 
common, most visible markers of the government’s failure to deliver 
basic services.

“Water is not going to bring down the government,” he said. “But it’s a 
component — in some towns, a significant component — of grievances and 

Managing water, he said, is the government’s “most important policy 

How did it get this bad?

Like many countries, from India to Syria, Iran after the 1979 revolution 
set out to be self-sufficient in food. It wasn’t a bad goal, in and of 
itself. But as the Iranian water expert Kaveh Madani points out, it 
meant that the government encouraged farmers to plant thirsty crops like 
wheat throughout the country. The government went further by offering 
farmers cheap electricity and favorable prices for their wheat — 
effectively a generous two-part subsidy that served as an incentive to 
plant more and more wheat and extract more and more groundwater.

The result: “25 percent of the total water that is withdrawn from 
aquifers, rivers and lakes exceeds the amount that can be replenished” 
by nature, according to Claudia Sadoff, a water specialist who prepared 
a report for the World Bank on Iran’s water crisis.

Iran’s groundwater depletion rate is today among the fastest in the 
world, so much so that by Mr. Michel’s calculations, 12 of the country’s 
31 provinces “will entirely exhaust their aquifers within the next 50 
years.” In parts of the country, the groundwater loss is causing the 
land to sink.

Water is a handy political tool, and to curry favor with their rural 
base, Iran’s leaders — and particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards 
Corps — dammed rivers across the country to divert water to key areas. 
As a result, many of Iran’s lakes have shrunk. That includes Lake Urmia, 
once the region’s largest saltwater lake, which has diminished in size 
by nearly 90 percent since the early 1970s.

Does climate change play a role?

According to the government, Iran expects a 25 percent decline in 
surface water runoff — rainfall and snow melt — by 2030. In the region 
as a whole, summers are predicted to get hotter, by two to three degrees 
Celsius at current rates of warming, according to the Intergovernmental 
Panel on Climate Change. Rains are projected to decline by 10 percent.

A 2015 study by two scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology predicted that, at current rates of warming, “many major 
cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival.”

For the leaders of water-stressed countries, the most sobering lesson 
comes from nearby Syria. Its drought, stretching from 2006 to 2009, 
prompted a mass migration from country to city and then unemployment 
among the young. Frustrations built up. And in 2011, street protests 
broke out, only to be crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad. It 
piled on to long-simmering frustrations of Syrians under Mr. Assad’s 
authoritarian rule. A civil war erupted, reshaping the Middle East.

Water, said Julia McQuaid, the deputy director of CNA, doesn’t lead 
straight to conflict. “It can be catalyst,” she said. “It can be a thing 
that breaks the system.”

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