Food and Water Insecurity in Iran: A Factor in Recent Protests?

21 FEBRUARY 2018
 Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
Background High inflation, unemployment and the perception of widespread corruption have weakened Iranian’s faith in government. Protests broke out in the country’s second-largest city, Mashhad, on 28 December, 2017. Beyond economic hardship, however, lie other factors that could contribute to the ongoing civil unrest. Drought conditions have continued to intensify in Iran and for the past 14 years the country has experienced below average rainfall. Food and water insecurity alone do not explain the outbreak of protests in January and the simmering tensions that continue in many Iranian cities. The failure to mitigate the water crisis and maintain stable food prices, however, is one of the most visible signs of administrative failure in the eyes of many Iranians. Comment Early reports of the protests in Iran suggest that a rapid increase in the price of eggs were the trigger that sent people onto the streets. The price of eggs and other staple foods rose by up to 50 per cent over the course of the past year. While inflation has declined from close to 40 per cent a few years ago, it is still running at about ten per cent. Water was also cited as a factor in early reports of the protests. In the western province of Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari, a small protest that was attended by about 200 people took place outside the regional governor’s office on 30 December. The protesters were angered by a water transfer project that diverted water from the region’s highlands to the city of Isfahan, 60 miles away. These protesters were joined by other disaffected members of the community in the days that followed and adopted a broader range of concerns. Water is used as a political tool in Iran. Rivers are dammed across the country – Iran is the third-largest builder of dams in the world – to divert water to key rural areas and garner support from important parts of the country. Most of the rain falling on the country evaporates before it reaches rivers or dams, however, making them a poor water security guarantor. Groundwater abstraction is also moving at such a pace that, by some estimates, 12 of the country’s 31 provinces could exhaust their aquifers within the next 50 years. Surface water runoff, according to government projections, is expected to decline by 25 per cent by 2030. In response to the rising water stress, the government has placed restrictions on the cultivation of crops in areas of the country where groundwater sources are under immense stress. There are also suggestions that water will be rationed in some major cities, including Tehran. The ongoing water crisis contributes to the concentration of Iranians in urban areas as people migrate from parched rural areas. Upon reaching these areas, however, they have found it difficult to secure employment. Just as the rising price of bread brought disgruntled citizens into the streets in the early stages of the Arab Spring, the increased price of basic food items in Iran has become emblematic of the poor state of the economy. Food and water insecurity is not an intrinsic factor in the recent Iranian protests but, unless efforts are made to reduce food and water pressures, it will continue to provide Iranians with another reason to protest.
Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.
Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
80 Birdwood Parade, Dalkeith WA 6009, Australia.
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