Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province’s lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion in Isfahan on Nov 19, 2021. (ISNA)

By Shima Shahrabi

November 29, 2021

A haze of tear gas hangs over the dried-up Zayanderud riverbed. Motorcycle-riding riot police attack ordinary citizens as they stand, row upon row, chanting “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, we are all together”. Shouts of “Scoundrels, scoundrels” follow.

Images and videos posted on social media on November 26 showed yet another mass rally by Isfahan’s farmers and people in against water shortages in the province – but also the security forces’ brutal response. The new round of demonstrations in Isfahan started on Monday, November 8, when farmers first set up tents on the dried-up Zayanderud riverbed.

What’s been happening, and why is Isfahan engulfed by a water crisis? IranWire spoke to citizens on the ground and an expert to find out.

Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people from Isfahan have taken part in intermittent protests and rallies over the water crisis since November 8. Friday’s was one of the biggest yet, with huge crowds gathering on the Zayanderud riverbed to rage against both the shortages and top-tier mismanagement that caused them.

The previous Friday, Islamic Republic had tried a new tactic: “adopting” the protests instead of the usual censorship and crackdowns: pictures and videos of the protests in Isfahan were startlingly shared by national the national media. But just a week later, the regime had returned to business as usual.

On Thursday, November 25, security forces attacked the tents set up by protesting farmers and set them on fire. These reports were denied by the media close to the regime which predictably blamed “undesirable” and “hostile” elements for burning down the tents, but the incidents were captured on video.

Calls for a Friday protest had gone out on social media. But, as a resident of Isfahan said on Friday, “Yesterday they poured in, set the tents on fire and deployed anti-riot police so today people wouldn’t go there. They want to force people to accept the farmers’ rally is over.”

According to a number of Isfahan residents, in the past two days they have received threatening text messages, warning them against participating in Friday’s protest rally. “Dear fellow citizens: considering that the farmers of the province have announced that they have ended their rally today, please be careful that your presence in the area would not be exploited by foreign media and the enemies.”

“Pray for Rain”

“Despite all the threats, many went down,” says the citizen in Isfahan who spoke with IranWire om Gtifsu. “It’s still crowded over there now and new videos are coming out all the time. The farmers of Isfahan have fought hard for their water rights and appealed to everybody. They don’t deserve to be beaten with batons and be thrown in jail. Do you realize how many times these farmers appealed to officials, have prayed for rain? Where was the response?”

“Pray for rain” is an echo of how Iranian clerics, Friday Imams and politicians have typically reacted to news of water shortages. The latest instance came on October 6, when Isfahan MP Hossein Mirzaei said people needed to appeal to the Shia saints, and pray for rain, in order to replenish the longed-for Zayanderud.

Drought or Mismanagement

The water crisis in Isfahan has been going on for at least 10 years, and is now devastating agricultural yields and farmers’ livelihoods. What caused it – drought or mismanagement?

“Both,” says Kaveh Madani, a professor at the City University of New York’s Remote Sensing Earth Systems Institute and a former deputy head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Agency. “Drought has always been there, and now it’s worsened with climate change. But it’s not something that should have caught the country by surprise. The root cause of the problem is mismanagement of water resources and flawed management structures in Iran, something that has been the subject of warnings for years.”

Madani has been among those leading calls for better water resource governance in Iran. In his view, the easy remedy for Isfahan’s water crisis – transferring water from other parts of Iran to the Zayanderud – must be resisted because of the damage it would inflict elsewhere.

“The issue of the Zayanderud basin is a complex one,” he told IranWire, “because of its physical, economic and social significance. One aspect is the difficulty of transferring water, which has been a point of contention for years. The Environmental Protection Agency and the people resist these projects.

“What’s the difference between protests by industry owners and farmers, and demands made by the people and environmental activists? They are markedly different. One might put them under the same umbrella because they’re all chanting for the Zayanderud. But behind the scenes, different political games are being played.

“Sometimes these protests are exploited on behalf of certain development projects that replicate what made the problem so severe in the first place. The people of Isfahan want the water to flow down the Zayanderud from its source to the river’s mouth. But when water is scarce, the ‘solutions’ might again be the kinds of projects that have always been hampered by corruption and other issues, and that created these problems to begin with. Calming down farmers by allocating more water and paying damages could also end up by distorting the protests, changing the game to the detriment of people and environment.”

Water transferral from Isfahan to Yazd is one such undertaking, about which many of Isfahan’s farmers are furious. Protests against this project started in 2011, when Isfahani farmers broke the pipeline carrying “their” water to Yazd for industrial purposes. That happened again this Thursday, with someone damaging the pipe so badly with heavy machinery that it was rendered completely out of action.

The War of Narratives

Is water transfer to Yazd really what has caused the situation in Zayanderud and Isfahan? The reality, Madani says, is again more complex than that: “When an issue has many facets we also see a war of narratives; the original question gets muddled. What the protesters say is all correct. But no one thing is necessarily the full story.

“Yes, transferring water to Yazd consumes water. Well, when an Isfahani sees there’s no water in the Zayanderud and the water is going elsewhere, he sees injustice regardless of the volume. In the [June-July 2021] Khuzestan protests, too, one of the issues was the volume of water that redirected to other areas. If we quantified the volume of this water, and compared it with the volume that’s going to waste, in Khuzestan or Isfahan or Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, it might actually look insignificant.

“When we see a river has dried up, that a lagoon has dried up, we protest; we say ‘This amount of water could have saved them and shouldn’t have been transferred somewhere else’. But we don’t see the rest of the problem. We don’t see the way we consume water in agriculture or in industry or as drinking water. As such we can’t say transferral to Yazd is the reason the Zayanderud has gone dry; that amount is very low compared to the amount of water that enters the basin. What people see as important is the justice aspect of it: during shortages they ask why others get a share and they don’t.”

First, More Transparency

How to end the war of narratives around water shortages? “The prerequisite for this is more transparency,” says Kaveh Madani. “When people are unaware how much water is allocated to what, the conflict intensifies, and everybody interprets the question differently. So far even the little information that was available was cut off by the Ministry of Energy.”

Over the years, Isfahani farmers have employed different methods in their protests over water shortages and the decision-making exacerbating them. In 2016 one group shut off the main highway entrance into Isfahan: an act of protest that later inspired well-known Iranian director Ebrahim Hatami-Kia’s 2020 movie Exodus.

Then in early 2018, Isfahani farmers went back to Friday Prayers as a group. But they sat with their backs toward the preacher and chanted, “Turn your back to the enemy and look at your homeland.” As this round of protests continued, the number of angry farmers whose livelihoods had been wrecked by water supply issues reached new heights.

In fall 2018, farmers clashed with security forces and in the ensuing protests, the water pipeline to Yazd was damaged again. So dramatic and widely-supported were these demonstrations that even all but one of Isfahan’s MPs resigned in protest against the government’s budget for water allocation that year. Eventually the government retreated, allocating extra water for wheat cultivation that Autumn, so the MPs returned to post.

Promises Made, Promises Not Kept

In 2020, the government promised it would pay compensation to Isfahani farmers who could no longer irrigate their crops. That has yet to happen. From early spring 2021 on the other side of the pandemic, farmers’ protests gradually started up again. This time those present were demonstrating not just over non-receipt of their allocated share of water, but the failure of the state to compensate them for their parched farms, reduced yields, and deaths of domestic and farm animals.

Government officials promised the Isfahani farmers’ grievances would be given priority. But those who stood on the banks of the Zayanderud this year had a different story to tell. And it appears the tide may be turning: this summer the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court of Isfahan issued an statement barring all rallies “for demands concerning agriculture and Zayanderud” if they do not have a permit from the provincial Security Council. This came on the false pretext of “exploitation of the farmers’ protests by enemies”, which angered both the farmers and their mass of supporters all the more. On July 7, cattle farmers gathered in front of the provincial governor’s office and slaughtered their cows to demonstrate over increase in the cost of cattle feed as a result of the drought.

In fall 2021, the protests started again. On October 1, an estimated 5,000 Isfahani farmers ignored the prosecutor’s statement and joined together at a huge rally to demand their water rights. It ended peacefully, with speeches and statements, and farmers declaring if their demands weren’t met within the month they would resume their protests. Eighteen days ago, the demonstrations began anew and after a failed attempt at “appropriation”, the regime has responded in typical fashion: with bullets and fire.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.