Police fire live ammunition, tear gas at protesters denouncing Iran’s water crisis

Since July 16, 2021, many cities across Iran’s Khuzestan province, in the southwest of the country, have been the scene of multiple strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations that have already resulted in at least two deaths. The reason for the unrest: a lack of water for daily consumption, but also for agriculture and livestock. According to our Observer, an Iranian water expert, these shortages are likely to intensify in the coming years. 

Residents of Ramhormoz block a main road during demonstrations (top). In Ahvaz, rallies take place outside the governorate to demand the resignation of the governor (bottom). Photos taken on 19 July.
Residents of Ramhormoz block a main road during demonstrations (top). In Ahvaz, rallies take place outside the governorate to demand the resignation of the governor (bottom). Photos taken on 19 July. © Observateurs

Update July 21, 2021: Three more people have died in multiple cities in Khuzestan province, according to Iranian human rights activists and journalists, bringing the total number of deaths during Iran's water crisis protests to five.

Videos of water protests in Khuzestan province, which has a large population of Iranian Arabs, show demonstrators chanting in Arabic: "We are thirsty!", "We want the regime to fall!"

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In this video published on July 17, 2021 and taken in the southwestern city of Shadegan, protesters chant "People want the regime to fall" in Arabic. 

However, other videos show the repression of this social movement. To quell the protests, Iranian police and riot police have used tear gas, shrapnel shells and even live ammunition. 

Amnesty International confirmed to the FRANCE 24 Observers team that at least two protesters have died. Ghasem Khaziri, 17, from the southwestern city of Ahvaz, and Mostafa Naemavi, 30, from the nearby city of Shadegan, both lost their lives on July 17, 2021, during a protest to increase their access to water. The number of people who have been injured or arrested in the demonstrations is still unknown.

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In this video published on July 19, 2021, a police officer can be seen shooting a protester at close range in Khuzestan.

>> Read on The Observers: Protests for safe drinking water in southwest Iran

Since May and the arrival of hot weather that can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius, protests against water shortages in Iran have intensified. In several regions, including Khuzestan, sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations have been organised by citizens who live in towns and villages where their running water sources have dried up, as well as by farmers who now lack water to irrigate their farms. But these protests gained momentum in mid-July.


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This video published on July 18, 2021 shows thousands of people demonstrating in Sousangerd, Khuzestan province, against the lack of water in the area.

According to the Iranian Department of Water and Sewerage, at least 110 Iranian cities have been struggling with regular water cuts during the summer of 2021. Iran ranks fourth in the world in terms of water scarcity, meaning that water resources are insufficient for consumption.

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Farmers in Kharkheh district of Khuzestan protesting over water shortages on June 10, 2021.

"More than 200 Iranian cities are suffering from water shortages"

Ahmad (not real name) is a water expert in Iran, who wanted to remain anonymous for security reasons.

We literally have cities without running water in Khuzestan. People are dependent on water tank deliveries. They have to spend hours and hours in queues to get a few cans [of water]. In these towns and villages, lives are interrupted by the lack of water.

More than 200 cities in Iran are suffering from water shortages, including most towns and about 30 villages in Khuzestan province, where more water is consumed than produced. 

The water level of the Karkeh River in Khuzestan, [one of the most important rivers in Iran, editor's note] has decreased considerably because of the environmental damage that has already taken place and that cannot be reversed.

In terms of agriculture, I must say that if the situation continues, we will soon be at the point where it will be impossible to harvest anything, because there will not be enough water in Khuzestan. Because of the shortages, running water, rivers and lakes have become too salty, which have made certain agricultural activities, such as livestock breeding and orchard maintenance, impossible. For example, more than 1.2 million date palms, which are one a main source of income for locals, have died of drought in Khuzestan province.

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'The dam-building mafia has killed nature in Iran'

As well as being linked to climate change, the water crisis we are experiencing in Iran today is also the result of decades of resource mismanagement. We have severe water shortages in most of the country and a lack of water in areas where we have less rainfall, like in Khuzestan.

We have consumed so much water, mainly from deep water sources, that nature is too damaged to be repaired or regenerated. In fact, sinkholes form after periods of water shortages in these regions.

>> Read on The Observers: In Iran, a giant hole is digging in the ground due to drought

This excessive water consumption is linked to our industries with obsolete infrastructures [these include steel production plants for example, editor's note]. However, the installation of water-consuming industries in semi-arid regions, such as Isfahan in central Iran, have worsened the situation. Not only have scarce water sources been depleted in these regions, but water has also been brought from other regions, such as Khuzestan, via canals, to feed these factories.

For 30 years, hydraulic dams were built across the country, not because we needed them, but because building dams is extremely profitable for builders [for example, many experts consider the Gotvand dam to be useless because it has led to a significant decrease in the region’s water flow, editor's note]. This "builder's mafia" has such close ties to the state and the Revolutionary Guards that no one can stop them.

By building dams, these builders have disrupted the natural river system of the environment and killed nature. In many parts of Iran, we have already crossed the line of no return. And this is the case in most of our plains, all over the country.

Moreover, climate change has aggravated the crisis and we were not ready for that. The environmental problem for the Islamic Republic regime is not an issue, they don’t understand it and they don’t care. Iranians are paying a high price for these mistakes.

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On May 25, 2021, farmers in Baghmalek, a village in Khuzestan, blocked the main road to Ahvaz, the provincial capital, to protest against the lack of water.

'We have 5 to 10 years to reverse our fate'

According to official figures, Iran consumes 88 percent of its renewable water resources. However, according to scientific research, consumption of more than 40 percent of water resources causes shortages, while consumption of more than 60 percent will inevitably lead to a water crisis: 

All this means that the quality of life decreases. Conflicts between different social groups arise, migration begins, social crises multiply, the costs of daily life increase.

If the situation continues, initially we will see mass migration from one part of Iran to another, and then we will see mass immigration of Iranians to other countries, or even to other continents, where there will be better access to water.

I think we have five to ten years to reverse this, otherwise we will reach a point of no return and face a crisis never seen in our country.

Ahmad is not the only expert to be concerned about the situation: many scholars are worried about the path that Iran is taking when it comes to managing its water resources, as this 2018 New York Times article demonstrates. 

Furthermore, according to an article published in April 2021 by Nature magazine, one of the largest international weekly science journals, food security in Iran has deteriorated significantly due to the overconsumption of water.

According to the same report, Iran depleted more than 74 km³ of its underground water sources between 2002 and 2015, which is equivalent to 1.6 times the Lake Urmia, the largest lake in the Middle East.