By Thomas L. Friedman
January 23, 2018
After violent protests recently exploded across Iran, President Trump vowed to differentiate himself from President Barack Obama by openly tweeting his support for the demonstrators. It had no effect, though. One reason is that Trump could never send the really killer tweets — the ones that might have gone viral across Iran and rattled the regime.
What would those have said? Something like:
@realDonaldTrump “America stands with Iranian demonstrators!!! Why are so many from the countryside??? Because Iranian Revolutionary Guards mismanaged Iran’s water supply for decades. Stole all the water for their companies, cronies, pistachio farms and stupid dams!!! And now climate change and droughts are making it all worse, forcing Iranians off their land. Unfair!! Sad!!”
The Iran protests were clearly fed by many streams — The Times told a harrowing tale last weekend of how corruption and Ponzi schemes at banks owned by Iran’s clerical regime and its allies had defrauded thousands of savers, and brought some into the streets. But environmental corruption was also a cause of anger.
The Islamic regime and the Revolutionary Guards had ripped off the country’s natural wealth the same way they’d ripped off savers’ wealth. And now climate change is amplifying many of the worst impacts.
That’s not something an American president who thinks climate change is a hoax can tweet about — but it is a key reason the street demonstrations were particularly intense in regions hard hit by a whirlwind of drought, extreme weather events and reckless water use practices imposed by Iran’s clerical rulers.
“When people lose their lands they lose everything, and that means they aren’t scared of anything,” explained Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian exile geologist, and son of a watershed scientist, who grew up in southern Iran. “The water crisis is real and killing the country today. We are getting less precipitation, and the population is rising. There’s bad agricultural policies and bad water governance. It is like a time bomb.” Officials predict that millions of Iranians could be forced to flee their country before the end of the century.
Here’s why: Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has built a crazy number of hydroelectric dams. According to a March 2015 report from Iran in The Financial Times, “Over the past three decades, Iran has built 600 dams — an average of 20 a year — to irrigate farms and provide power. It is unclear how much has been spent on these projects, though it is believed to be second only to gas and oil … and much of the money has been channeled through contractors linked to the Revolutionary Guard. Poor planning and 14 years of drought have rendered many of them useless and, in some cases, they have contributed to environmental damage in the semi-arid country, experts say.”
Once some farmers found they no longer had water for their crops — because aquifers had been overused, or water had been diverted to big agribusinesses tied to the regime, or too many dams had been built and then warmer temperatures shrank the lakes behind them and nearby wetlands — many of the farmers migrated to the margins of cities in search of employment, food and water.
“The government is not giving the exact number of Iranians who fled the countryside and are now living in shanty towns, but it should well be over 16 million, up from 11 million in 2013,” added Kowsar, who, besides his water/geology expertise, is one of Iran’s most followed political cartoonists, which is what got him exiled. “These cities, where employment is scarce, have become hot spots of unrest,” particularly as the government cut back subsidies.
A Jan. 8 essay on ClimateWire by Scott Waldman explained: “Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad understood that climate change and water mismanagement was ravaging family farms, and his government provided subsidies to families who struggled to put food on the table, said Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre.
“When the current president, Hassan Rouhani, signalled that he would reduce those benefits, enraged Iranians across the nation’s arid countryside joined the wave of protests. ‘You have climate change, shortage of water, they can’t grow their crops, and now they’re getting their cash handouts taken away,’ said Handjani. ‘It’s a panoply of issues coming together at once.’”
The Los Angeles Times reported from Iran on Jan. 17: “In the mountains of western Iran, the province of Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari is known for mile-high lagoons, flowing rivers and wetlands that attract thousands of species of migratory birds. But years of diminishing rainfall have shrivelled water sources. Conditions worsened, residents say, after Iranian authorities began funnelling water 60 miles away to the lowland city of Esfahan, sparking protests as far back as 2014. On Dec. 30 of last year, about 200 people gathered in front of the provincial governor’s office to protest the water transfer project. Their slogans soon morphed into chants of ‘Death to the dictator.’”
The Tehran Times reported on Jan. 8 that, according to the head of drought and crisis management at Iran’s Meteorological Organization, “nearly 96 percent of Iran’s total area is suffering from different levels of prolonged drought.”
Lake Urmia was once a giant saline lake, 87 miles wide, in northwest Iran. Beginning in the 1990s, though, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president at the time, started building lots of dams around the lake, an initiative followed by his successors, constricting the water flowing into Urmia. And because of those dams, a group of people — Revolutionary Guards contractors, people close to the Ministry of Energy and large agribusinesses that siphoned off the water — “got very rich,” explained Kowsar.
As National Geographic put it in an August 2015, essay: “Now the lake, once one of the largest in the Middle East, looks more like a gigantic crime scene.” Its dried salts now mix with sand, fuelling toxic wind storms.
The Iran story is repeating itself across the Middle East — environmental stresses mixing with resentment over corruption and mis-governance, sparking uprisings. And it is only going to get worse.
Between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s landmass was ravaged by the worst drought in the country’s modern history. It came after years of overpumping of aquifers by cronies of the regime. That drought forced 800,000 to one million Syrian farmers and herders to abandon their land and livestock and move to the edges of Syrian cities and towns, where they had to scrounge for work. The Assad regime did nothing for them, and they were among the first to join the revolution against it.
The first Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia in late 2010, followed quickly by Egypt’s in early 2011, happened as world food prices were hitting record highs, largely because of a coincidence of extreme weather events: Droughts, wildfires and flooding in China, Russia, Ukraine, Australia and the U.S. sharply constricted their wheat exports. It was not an accident that the chant in the Egyptian revolution was: “Bread. Freedom. Dignity.”
So, kids, if you want to understand the politics of the Middle East today, study Arabic and Farsi, Hebrew and Turkish — but most of all, study environmental science.