For the last six days, the people of Gilan province have faced significant hardship caused by heavy snowfall, with many people being stranded on blocked roads and without water and electricity.
Ismail Najjar, the head of Iran’s disaster management organization, declared on February 15 that "the province was out of danger, and told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA): "With the measures taken, major roads have now been opened, both main and rural, and traffic on the main axis of transport has increased." He then admitted: "A number of rural roads in the highlands and areas badly affected by snow remain in trouble. Efforts to reopen them are underway. It has also been reported that water and gas supplies are back to normal and there are no problems with the grid. Electricity has been restored and only about five percent of the power outage persists, which will soon be resolved. There are no problems with fuel stations and these services continue normally."
Measuring the Damage
According to Najjar, four people lost their lives in the crisis. "Damages have not been very bad,” he said, “but the exact amount is being investigated and compensation will be made once it has been determined."
Two days after the incident, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, the head of Iran’s Budget and Planning Organization, announced that he had allocated 20 billion tomans [$1.5 million] to Gilan province to deal with the crisis, and resolve the ongoing problems caused by the storms.
But the magnitude of the crisis in the province goes beyond damage to utilities, roads, and agriculture. A large part of the province has been shut down for the last six days, and has had a direct impact on the economy, with private, state, and public businesses all making losses over the last week.
According to International Monetary Fund estimates, the current total volume of the Iranian economy (Iran's GDP in current prices) is around 3 trillion tomans [$2,200 billion]. If this is measured on a day by day basis, the volume of Iran's current economy this year will be 82,000 billion tomans [$6 billion] a day. According to the latest regional statistics, Gilan province's share of the country's economy is about 2.25 percent. Accordingly, the daily production volume of the economy in Gilan province is estimated at about 1,850 billion tomans [$137 million] daily. Assuming that about half of Gilan's economy was disrupted or wiped out between February 10 and February 15, the province’s economy has suffered at least 5,000 billion tomans’ [$370 million] worth of damage to private, state, and public businesses and transactions.
The Pathology of Crisis Management
The 2020 snow crisis is in many ways similar to the crisis caused by snow in the province in 2005. That year, snow began falling on the night of February 10 and covered the entire province within two days. The snow was two meters high in Rasht and three meters high in Dilaman and Jirandeh.
According to officials, water and electricity were cut off to residents in more than 40 percent of the Rasht. Highways in the province were completely cut off for the first few days, and some rural roads were blocked for several weeks. Some provincial towns and villages suffered electricity and gas outages for more than a week. Garbage went uncollected in Rasht and other cities in the province, prompting a warning from Gilan University of Medical Sciences that there was a risk of the spread of infectious diseases.
The snowfall in 2005 coincided with rallies to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on February 11, and the media paid little attention to the crisis, choosing to focus on the 26th-anniversary events — fuelling anger and criticism from many people in Gilan.
This time, however, most people in the country were aware of the situation in the province because the media reported on it widely — thanks to fact that people had access to other news apart from that reported by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), and a more entrenched disregard for the revolution anniversary this year. Although the electricity failure meant the internet was disconnected or severely disrupted, the fact that social media networks are now so widely used and people are generally used to having full access to the internet, access to information is greatly enhanced compared with 15 years ago. Although this fact did not change the situation for most residents of Gilan affected by the snow, people applied pressure on the Crisis Management Organization to help them. In recent years, the organization has wavered in its authority, and has been unable to cope with financial, administrative, political, and social crises it has been tasked with handling, leading to massive mistrust among the public.
1- Financial Crisis
Numerous reports have been published about the budget allocated to crisis management in Iran, including an IranWire report in 2019 that compared its annual budget to various religious and ideological institutions in the country.
The total budget earmarked for the Crisis Management Organization in this year's budget is 12,750 billion tomans [$0.9 billion]. Comparatively, the year's budget for the Seminary Service Center is 80 times higher, the Qom Seminary Propaganda Office budget is 12 times higher, Jameatol-Mostafa is 16 times higher, the Endowment and Charity Organization is 24 times higher, the Supreme Council of Seminaries is 24 times higher, the Khorasan Seminary budget is seven times higher, the Sisters' Seminary budget is 13 times higher, the Leader's Institution in Universities is eight times higher, and the Ayatollah Khomeini's Shrine Organization enjoys twice the budget than what is allocated for crisis management.
In addition, in this year's budget, the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization has 26 times, and the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought and Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly have twice the budget as the Crisis Management Organization.
The Coordination Council for Islamic Propaganda spends 15 times the budget for the Crisis Management Organization. The budget of the Research and Cultural Institute of Islamic Revolution, which publishes the Supreme Leader’s statements and announcements, is allocated twice the budget of the Crisis Management Organization, equal to 25 billion tomans [$1.8 million]. And the budget of the Friday Imams Policy Council, whose most important responsibility is preparing a unified copy of Friday sermons across the country, is seven billion tomans [$500,000] greater than the budget of the country's Crisis Management Organization.
The Crisis Management Organization is not an executive body, but it does require extensive structural development, including the provision of a national alert system, a specialized information unit, an information and statistical department, and an active and efficient research center — all of which make considerable demands on the annual budget.
2- Administrative and Political Crisis
The Crisis Management Organization is poorly administrated and suffers from a weak political structure. A lack of coordination between various agencies, from the Revolutionary Guards to government bodies and relief organizations, exacerbates the organization’s bureaucratic and political crisis.
Countries around the world regularly mobilize military and other capabilities when dealing with crises, but Iran is usually less active in this type of collaborative initiative to deal with crises. Yet in the recent crisis, one Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) commander visited flood-stricken areas by boat, and also ordered the closure of a section of a railway that was causing problems in the recent storms — an almost unprecedented move.
In addition to the chaotic situation for crisis management, Gilan province, like many provinces in Iran, is also badly affected by political corruption, and by officials taking advantage of the situation. Although no detailed research has been done, the IRGC's political manipulation of the crisis seems evident, as a Google search using the keywords IRGC, snow, and Gilan shows — presenting an overview of reports in the official media, press releases and how they reflected events in the province.
There have been widespread calls for political leaders in the province to answer for their mismanagement of the crisis, and for municipalities to take legal action against them.
The scope of the performance of the Crisis Management Organization in Iran is limited, but reforming its administrative and political structure is key, a necessary step to ensure the organization is better equipped to deal with natural disasters, especially as they are on the increase.
3- Social crisis
Iran’s Crisis Management Organization suffers from mistrust among the public, and its relations with the community has deteriorated in recent years so that, generally, the public does not trust the organization’s warnings about impending crises or problems, including warnings about traffic disruption or power outages.
Building trust in the organization will not be an easy task — especially given recent events, including authorities’ failure to give the public an honest account of the casualties of the November 2019 protests, the delay in claiming responsibility for January’s plane tragedy, and the scandal of economic and political corruption in the Red Crescent, the country’s relief organization.
Iran will continue to face a range of natural and environmental risks, hazards and crises. Managing these crises will not be an easy task, even under normal circumstances, let alone in a situation where social and political crises are at an all-time high, as is the public’s mistrust of the government.