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Isfahan Farmers: Where Is Our Water?

January 8, 2019
Javad Motevali
11 min read
“Where is our Zayanderud River?” Isfahanis want the government to pay them damages and return to them the water rights they say belong to them
“Where is our Zayanderud River?” Isfahanis want the government to pay them damages and return to them the water rights they say belong to them
Demand for water has outstripped supply, says Dr. Nasser Karami, a professor of climatology at Norway’s Bergen University
Demand for water has outstripped supply, says Dr. Nasser Karami, a professor of climatology at Norway’s Bergen University

Riot police surrounded and attacked protesting farmers in Isfahan on January 2 as they demanded water rights and called on the government to reimburse them for damage to their livelihoods as a result of water shortages.

Despite the intimidation and aggression from the riot police, the Isfahani farmers continued chanting: “Hey police: We are laborers not thugs,” they shouted, as well as “We will get our water rights even if we die,” “Our scoundrel government is our shame,” and “Hey police: Don’t support the thieves.” Videos and photos published on social media show the riot police violently attacking the demonstrators in response.

The latest round of protests by Isfahani farmers started on December 23, when the farmers gave the government 10 days to answer their demands. On the 11th day, Wednesday, January 2, they continued their protest amidst almost daily reports of water shortages in central Iranian provinces including Isfahan, Yazd and Semnan, and in defiance of the heavy presence of anti-riot police. 

Women, including female farmers, have played a prominent role in the recent protests. “Our lives are bogus,” one woman told the gathered protesters [Persian link]. “Women are baking bread at home or cleaning vegetables. They are maidservants at other people’s homes. This is what pains all female farmers. As God is my witness, we are now miserable, wretched and poor. Please have some pity on us...Why don’t you help us?”


The Smoldering Fire

Also on January 2, Hasan Kamran, a member of the parliament from Isfahan, warned in a public session of the house that the situation in Isfahan was dire. [Persian link]. “Isfahan is a smoldering fire,” he said. “The farmers have risen. Any danger arising in the future will be the fault of the government and Mr. [Parliament Speaker Ali] Larijani. According to the law, whoever gets the water must pay for it, but they do not. People complain but nobody is accountable. So they have no other way but to come to the streets — and the answer they get is beatings with clubs.”

Kamran described the protesters as “revolutionaries, fighters and believers” in the Islamic Republic. “Do they deserve to be beaten?” he asked. “Why don’t you manage things right? Why in this country does nobody listen to the problems of the people of Isfahan?” He also announced that next year’s budget does not provide funds to expand the water supply network. He said that despite the fact that close to 8.5 trillion tomans [over $2 billion] had originally beem earmarked for the province of Isfahan, no action has been taken, and Isfahan parliamentarians have been shocked to discover the funds are now not available. “Unfortunately the government, the Intelligence Ministry and the Supreme National Security Council have turned Isfahan’s problems into security issues, whereas people of Isfahan want what is their right. By law, the province of Isfahan must receive its water rights.”

On December 5, 2018, 18 members of the parliament from Isfahan offered their resignations en masse to protest against “the elimination of water supply projects for Isfahan province from next year’s budget” [Persian link]. Since then, the representatives have held multiple meetings with the Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the head of the Plan and Budget Organization, but they have so far not achieved any results.

Illegal Diversion of Water

On November 1, 2018, Isfahani farmers launched a convoy of 1,500 cars to visit the upstream area of the Zayanderud River, the largest river in central Iran and the main source of water for agriculture in the province. A hydroelectric dam 110 kilometers west of Isfahan has enabled the authorities to divert the water to other provinces, especially to Yazd, for use by industry rather than agriculture. The farmers wanted to see for themselves how the water is distributed and why they have been suffering such catastrophic losses because of water shortages.

The farmers “went to the upstream of Zayanderud in Isfahan province to see up close where the water they are not getting goes,” said Hossein Mohammad-Rezai, a member of the Isfahan’s Farmers' Association board of directors. “Through this gathering they also wanted to register their protest publicly...They visited the pumping station to protest the transfer of water for use by industry in Yazd.”

Esfandiar Amiri, the Executive Secretary of Isfahan’s Farmers' Association, said that water was being transferred illegally. “Around 1.41 cubic meters of water is taken illegally upriver from [the dam of ] Cham-e Aseman in the two provinces of Chaharmahal and Isfahan,” he said in April 2018 [Persian link]. “And from around 40 percent of the water that does flow into Zayanderud from Cham-e Aseman, not one drop gets to Gavkhouni Wetland,” the terminal basin of Zayanderud. One of the reasons he cited is that the water is withdrawn from underground aquifers through wells in Zayanderud basin.

Demand Is Greater than Supply

Dr. Nasser Karami, a professor of climatology at Norway’s Bergen University, compares the situation for Isfahani farmers to a low-income family whose income has been cut in half. “In essence, the story of Isfahan, Yazd, Khuzestan, Semnan and so on is like the story of someone who has been living on two million tomans a month,” he told IranWire. “He has to pay mortgage and debt but he has organized his life around that two million, even though his income was nothing significant. But when this income gradually falls to one million, it is a disaster for him.”

Karami believes these problems have emerged because patterns of agriculture and industry have not been adjusted for changes in the climate. He says that changes to patterns in agriculture, habitation and industry should have started 20 or 30 years ago based on predictions about drought cycles and climate change due to “shrinking water consumption” — but nothing was done. “The demand for water has constantly increased while the supply has shrunk. We have more demand for water but we have less water because of climate change. Taken together, it is like we have three thirsty mouths to attend to. There are farmers who already had water rights or have received water rights in recent years. Then we have industry, and nature itself has also become a thirsty mouth. On the other hand, Zayanderud is like a small dish that can only quench the thirst of one or two of these thirsty mouths. No matter how you divide the water, there is going to be a fight.”

“Painful Austerity” Required

Dr. Karami emphasized that not only is demand for water higher than the supply at the moment in Isfahan, but that next year the supply will be even less. “You cannot hope for rain or a sudden bounty of water,” he said. “There is going to be less water. Here we need a painful austerity [program]. Portions of agriculture and industry must be discarded. Drinking water must be strictly controlled. And until such time that these things are done the issue will not be solved. This is true for all parts of the country that are beset by water shortage.”

He classifies Isfahani farmers into two groups. “The first are those who have been farmers for generations,” Karami said. “The second group are newcomers who have become farmers over the last 10, 20 or 30 years. For instance, land in Shahreza that was not previously agricultural land is now under cultivation. You cannot say that they have no right to it. This was the opportunity that they had to make a living.”

The government must support protesting farmers for two reasons, he said. “The first is that, in a totalitarian way, the government has become the guardian of everything. Second, the government has assumed total authority over water resources. It manages them and it distributes them, so it must be accountable. This is only logical. The government cannot just tell them ‘Sorry! You have been cultivating this land for 20 or 30 years but now shut it down and go sit at home.’ It cannot say that. All these people who are protesting are right.”

Setting Priorities

But what is more important, providing drinking water for people in these areas or supporting agriculture? If drinking water is more important, then what environmental damage would result from cutting off the Zayanderud’s flow? 

“Drinking water cannot be dispensed with,” answers Karami. “You cannot say Isfahan must live without drinking water for, say, three days. But you can stop agriculture for a year. This is similar to what was done in Iran before, during drought years. I talked about thirsty open mouths. The top [priority] is for drinking water and it cannot be set aside. The second, in my view, is Gavkhouni Wetland, which has now has been deprived of water. The third is industry and the fourth is agriculture. Now why do I give priority to industry over agriculture? Because industry provides more income and more job opportunities using less water.”

What could the government have done in previous years to prevent the current situation? The government, Karami says, could have adapted development and growth to the ecological potential of the region. It should have arrived at answers to the following questions for each region: How many people should live in the region? How much water can it use? What is the capacity of its soil? These are all measurable. With these measurements [it is possible] that Iran’s ‘ecological capacity’ can support 60 million people. Not that this 60 million could live lavishly. No. But that is what the ‘ecological capacity’ allows for, and it requires reductions in agriculture, in industry, in drinking water, etc. But, as you can see, they want the population of Iran to reach 150 million.”

Unrealistic Expectations

“The Sixth Development Program declares that 96 percent of the food for this population must come from Iran itself,” Karami points out. “This would mean that the population would exceed Iran’s ecological capacity. This capacity cannot meet the expectations. Iran cannot provide enough food to feed a population of 120 million or over. Even now, in real terms, Iran is providing food for only 30 to 40 million of its population. This disregard for the country’s ecologic capacity has put its natural resources, its soil, its water and its air under intense pressure and has led to the current situation.”

Karami warns against diverting water from the sources of Zayanderud for use by areas downstream. “However you look at it — from a humanitarian or a moral point of view — the water must be kept running as before. When you dam a river or divert its water to someplace else, you are in fact doing an injustice to living organisms downstream. It does not matter whether they are human or other living organisms. It is inhumane either way. And it does not matter whether it is Zayanderud or Karun [in Khuzestan] or any other river. When you stop the water from getting to Gavkhouni Wetland and it dries up, you are turning Isfahan into a sad and dusty city.” 

According to him, the still industry in Isfahan province has made the situation worse. “There is no doubt that Mobarakeh Steel and similar industries in the region have exacerbated the crisis,”  Karami said. “The location chosen for this big industrial complex is definitely wrong. As far as I know, this complex was to be built next to the sea in the area of the port of Bandar Abbas, a place that its closer to its market. Basically, steel is a water-consuming and polluting industry and it is not right for Isfahan.”

A Competitor for Paris and Florence

“According to Romain Rolland [French literary figure, 1866-1944 ], ‘Isfahan, along with Florence and Paris, is one the three most beautiful cities in the world,’” Karami told me. “This city should have invested in tourism. Even its wilderness is attractive to tourists. Its agriculture should have moved toward agro-tourism. In fact, the city and the province of Isfahan should aim at becoming competitors to Paris, Florence, Prague, Budapest and so on. It should not compete in the steel industry and such. Unfortunately, this was a betrayal of Isfahan. Of course, if you say this now it would upset the Isfahanis because Mobarakeh Steel is already there, makes money and provides jobs for many. Besides, it is also the sponsor of Sepahan Football Club. But a price was paid for this: Isfahan is no longer a competitor to Paris or Florence!”

At the time of publication of this article, protests by Isfahani farmers continue. On January 4, a group of farmers staged a rally in a public square in the town of Varzaneh. “Seventy-three percent of the water behind the Zayanderud dam belongs to the farmers because they have paid for it,” they told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). “Our ancestors bought the water rights and it now belongs to us. They are not part of public property so that anyone can take them.”


More on drought and environmental crisis in Iran:

Severe Water Crisis in Yazd, November 27, 2018

The Zayanderud: Almost a River Again for 10 Days, August 21, 2018

Fathers of Ignorance in Charge of Our Lives and the Environment, September 28, 2018

Gotvand Dam: An Environmental Disaster, July 16, 2018

“We Are Thirsty, Not Saboteurs”, July 2, 2018

Police Open Fire on Thirsty Crowds, July 1, 2018

Forced to Migrate for a Glass of Drinking Water, June 29, 2018

An Iranian Patriot Vs. a Corrupt System, April 19, 2018

Drought in Sistan and Baluchistan, December 14, 2017



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