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Water Governance, Environmental Justice, and Sustainability in Iran

The Budding Collaborative Communal, Civil Society, and Academic Water Governance Networks in Iran

Shahram Kholdi: The end of the Iran-Iraq war, shortly ensued by the death of the Islamic Republic’s leader and founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, ushered in an era that was dubbed “Sazandegi,” or reconstruction. The new Islamic Republic leader, ex-President Ayatollah Khamenei, who had spent the last years of his presidency largely on the war front ostensibly left the critical matter of post-War reconstruction to the ex-Parliament Speaker and new president Rafsanjani. His vision of reconstruction did nonetheless ensure that the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s most trusted and favorite armed force in Iran, namely, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), received the lion’s share of state “reconstruction” project contracts, i.e. dam-building projects.[1]The 1990-2010 period saw IRGC engineering corporations become Iran’s chief contractor in dam building peppering the geological and hydrological topography of the Iranian plateau with dams of various mantle sizes and reservoir volumes.[2] By the early 2010s, the dams proved to be the primary source of a nationwide water shortage as well as the overall state of environmental injustice in Iran.[3] In short, the dams became yet another symbol of a state maligned by widespread kleptocracy and corruption under whose dry spell millions of Iranian farmers suffered from mass salinization of downstream lands and a great many others became drought-induced displaced persons who were thrust into the ever-expanding shanty-towns and impoverished suburbs of major urban centers. Beyond being a symbol of greed and corruption, the dams also became a symbol of the state establishment’s outrageous disregard for the science of water management in the country in the academic community. Military-clerical centralism and an outdated dominant perception of development were at the core of the administration of this grave environmental injustice. By casting aside scientifically supportable traditions of local water governance, the state is now facing chronic farmers’ riots caused by the construction of Gotvand Dam and Koohrang water canal in Khuzestan and Isfahan province[4].

Against the backdrop of a drought largely induced by the dam-building racket, quite a few communities that were hardest hit are now the various nexuses of the resurgence of communal water governance models, including the historically tried and tested models that were long disrupted by “reconstruction era development models”. The resurgence is nonetheless a hybrid by-product of many collaborative joint civil society and academic ventures that are countering the unholy alliance of the state’s military-security patrons and the aggressive state dam-building rackets in a David-versus-Goliath struggle.[5] Over the past fifteen years, a new firebrand environmental journalist community in Iran has emerged that has provided a voice to all affected communities by disseminating the expert testimony of geologists, water engineers, publicly available archival data, and peer-reviewed scientific sources. The Iranian civil society’s response is certainly comparable to similar endeavors in the developing world from South Asia and Africa to Latin America.

Though one cannot be overly optimistic about the emerging water governance models, collaboration between university academics and water management engineers and local civil society/grassroots can go beyond the herculean task of building sustainable water governance; an effort that seeks to arrive at innovative solutions to lessen the damage done by the aggressive dam building.[6] The emergent water governance networks in Iran have now become multifaceted heuristic networks that not only offer solutions and innovations that are communally viable and locally sustainable but seek to use the available, albeit highly unreliable, legal advocacy methods to halt further dam building and build up new environmentally just and scientifically sustainable and renewable infrastructure. Shahram Kholdi is a Historian and a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Waterloo, Canada. Illustration: Assad Binakhahi [1] Golkar S. The Supreme Leader and the Guard: Civil-Military Relations and Regime Survival in Iran. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; 2019.

[2] Najdi Y, Karim MABA. The Role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Future of Democracy in Iran: Will Oil Income Influence the Process? Democracy and security. 2012;8(1):72-89. doi:10.1080/17419166.2012.654053.

[3] Yazdandoost F. Dams, Drought and Water Shortage in Today’s Iran. Iranian studies. 2016;49(6):1017-1028. doi:10.1080/00210862.2016.1241626

[4] See Jalali L, Zarei M, Gutiérrez F. Salinization of reservoirs in regions with exposed evaporites. The unique case of Upper Gotvand Dam, Iran. Water Research (Oxford). 2019;157:587-599. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2019.04.015. Also see, Khajeh S, Paimozd S, Moghaddasi M. Assessing the Impact of Climate Changes on Hydrological Drought Based on Reservoir Performance Indices (Case Study: ZayandehRud River Basin, Iran). Water resources management. 2017;31(9):2595-2610. doi:10.1007/s11269-017-1642-5

[5] See Inside the Deadly Water Crisis Threatening Iran’s Leadership, BNN Bloomberg, 19 December 2021

[6] See Nikbakht, Jafar, Yaghoubi, Jafar. Traditional Utilization Management of Water Resources in the Villages of Iran. 2019; 6(2):27-38. Also see, Karimi, N.; Azadi, H.; Boussauw, K. The Water Management Regime in Western Iran: A Retrospective Analysis through a Hybrid Transitions Framework. Sustainability 2021, 13, 3323.


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