Restive Iran Province Sitting On Water And Oil, Yet Parched
Many in Khuzestan province where big crowds in over a dozen cities and towns have been protesting over water shortages for more than a week blame policymakers. Officials have said that at least 700 villages in the province are receiving regular supplies of water by tanker trucks.
The plains, marshes and lagoons in the southern regions of Khuzestan are irrigated by several major rivers, including the 850km-long navigable Karoun, that flow from Zagros mountains in the north. The fertile plains of Khuzestan produce wheat, rice, dates and sugar. Besides the oil sector, there are major sugar cane, steel and petrochemical industries.
But dams built on the rivers, including Gotvand Dam on the Karoun, and the transfer of water to other areas including Esfahan to support industries such as steel has upset the ecological balance leading to salinization of water and land as well as recurrent dust storms. Marshes, lagoons, and date palm plantations have dried up and riverine water buffalo herds, which once played an important role in the region's rural economy and culture, have been depleted.
Critics also blame policymakers for encouraging self-sufficiency in production of crops such as wheat, rice and sugarcane at the cost of depletion of the region's water resources.
Iran has targeted national self-sufficiency in wheat, rice and sugarcane at the cost of depleting the region's water resources. Isa Kalantari, a former agriculture minister and current head of the department of environment, has been a vocal critic of self-sufficiency for many years. Speaking at a webinar on strategies against drought on May 17, Kalantari said many of Iran's policymakers failed to understand sustainable development. He warned that with 20 years self-sufficiency in agricultural products at the cost of "plundering water resources" would lead to the "extermination of agriculture" south of Zagros mountains.
"War over water has begun between provinces and it will spread to villages,” Kalantari said. “Nature has been a victim of the country's major [economic] policies. It will retaliate the aggression of this self-serving generation in the future.” Kalantari said that agriculture was annually consuming 20 billion cubic meters of water that was not replenished by rainfall.
In the same webinar, Kalantari criticized the push for increasing the population growth. He suggested a larger population was good only if greater food needs did not exceed the country's “natural potentials” such as water resources.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been an ardent promoter of agricultural self-sufficiency over the past three decades. "Although there is shortage of water, God willing, the same amount of rainfall that our country has will be enough for [producing enough] to feed a population four times bigger than its current population and to make the country need less [imports] of others," he said in a speech in October 2000. In two other speeches in July and August 2001, Khamenei argued that self-sufficiency in basic products such as wheat and rice should be the main goal in agriculture.
Khuzestan has a population of around 5 million and is the second richest province in terms of GDP, after Tehran province. Some of the most important battles in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) were fought in Khuzestan, particularly the marshes around the port city of Khorramshahr, as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein claimed the province as Arab. Northern Khuzestan is populated mainly by Bakhtiari tribes while the southern regions are home to Arabs, Lurs, and Persians.