Water: Driver of peace and cooperation, or conflict and contention?
Nik Kowsar: In 2021, Iran experienced water-related protests in multiple cities resulting from decades of mismanagement of water resources and misuse of power, exacerbated by adverse effects of climate change. Instead of managing and reducing water consumption in agricultural and industrial sectors, the Iranian government continued policies and projects destroying groundwater and surface water in the name of food security and self-sufficiency. In his New Year remarks, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, emphasized producing more food and reaching food self-sufficiency goals.
Decisions made by the Supreme Water Council, Iran’s higher decision-making body on water-related issues, resulted in some provinces feeling unheard and unseen over shared and scarce water resources. Since 2004, provincial governments have been responsible for water resource management instead of regional/basin authorities, thanks to interventions organized by President Khatami’s administration. Consequently, some of these provinces did not spare any effort to claim larger shares of common resources. Years of large-scale gray infrastructure projects, such as dams and diversion canals, have created tension among neighboring provinces. The water has been redirected to major cities, especially those with strong bonds with individuals in power.
The existence of water was, at one point, the cause for the formation of a civilization. But as time passed, poor management of water resources, discriminatory behavior, and depriving others of their water rights became the driver of contention and conflict. The continuation of such behavior can lead to instability and loss of national security, which will only add fuel to a region already under fire.
While the situation is dire, should the Iranian government choose to put the country’s long-term interests and its people before the short-term gains of a few individuals, there is still hope to turn the page. The clock, however, is ticking, and the current system will not transform without external triggers. In its latest multi-annual indicative program, the European Union (EU) has planned to re-establish its economic relations with Iran. It would be desirable if the EU or any states recognizing water and a healthy environment as human rights uphold Iran to adhere to its obligation to protect, respect, and fulfill these rights.
Nik Kowsar is an award-winning journalist, cartoonist and water issues analyst based in Washington DC. Illustration: Assad Binakhahi