Over the past two years, large protests for clean drinking water spread throughout drought-stricken Iran. The protests, deemed the Uprising of the Thirsty, were largely unsuccessful and resulted only in greater state violence. The autocratic elements of Iran’s Islamic republic facilitated water mismanagement, and anthropogenic climate change exacerbated water scarcity. Despite hopeful expectations that drought will bring on democratic improvement, Iran’s water scarcity is unlikely to result in regime transition.
In 2013, Iran’s environmental protection agency published that only 15% of Iran’s groundwater remained. A combination of natural phenomena and human mismanagement causes water scarcity when standard demand surpasses the available water supply. In Iran, changing precipitation patterns, rising temperatures, politically motivated water infrastructure, overuse, and corrupt water management created the water crisis.
Throughout 2021, Iranians gathered to protest water mismanagement. The state consistently met the protestors with violent suppression. In July, the lack of clean drinking water in the southwestern province of Khuzestan sparked four consecutive days of protest. A water outage caused the tap water in several cities throughout the region to be undrinkable due to contamination with salt, minerals, mud, and bacteria. Some protesters began calling for regime change and using the water shortage protests to draw attention to other social and political issues, such as inflation and unemployment. Authorities shut down most of the internet in Khuzestan in response to the protests, and police arrested hundreds of protestors in an effort to quell the turmoil. Several months later, in November 2021, farmers camped for two weeks on the dry, dusty basin of the drained River Zayandeh Rood to draw attention to the water shortages in Esfahan. Before dawn broke, police descended upon the camps, setting fire to tents and tear-gassing protestors. In response to outcry around police brutality, Iranian officials argued that the security forces only responded to the terrorists and thugs seeking to exploit protests.
Corruption played a significant role in the mismanagement leading up to the crisis. In the 1980s, the Iranian government built hundreds of dams and extensive networks for water transfer pipelines and channels to collect and supply water to Iranian projects. Instead of achieving the proclaimed public good, the state awarded the construction contracts to the regime’s supporters, the dams blocked aquifer replenishment, and the executives used the new infrastructure to divert water to achieve political aims. Without sufficient executive accountability, poor centralized planning persisted, leading to state-sanctioned water infrastructure being essentially unregulated.
Most researchers agree that water scarcity causes conflict, but experts disagree on whether that conflict prompts democratization. There are several theories on how and why water scarcity influences democratization: Water scarcity may impact migration, gross domestic product, or anger towards the regime, which in turn encourage conflict and influence democratization. However, under current social and economic conditions, Iran’s water scarcity does not reflect patterns of democracy-causing water crises.
Iranian migratory patterns are nondisruptive, rendering the disruptive migration theory inapplicable. Iranian internal migration is limited, and nondisruptive to the social order. The population movement is mostly urban-to-urban migration, and there is little population redistribution. The disruptive migration theory argues water scarcity causes migratory patterns that lead to violent conflicts. In this theory’s scenario, little rainfall causes agricultural production shocks, prompting populations reliant on agriculture to migrate to urban centers or other regions of the country. In states already struggling to provide services to their citizens, increased population density places greater strain and demands upon the state. Large amounts of migrants may escalate existing ethnoreligious or regional tensions, sparking conflict between groups. Both scenarios increase discontent with the regime and the nation as a whole, which easily serves as kindling for civil conflict.
The Iranian drought is not proving to be an economic shock powerful enough to open the window for democratic improvement, making the economic shock theory a weak predictor of change in Iran. The theory claims water scarcity creates economic shock, which opens a window of opportunity for democratic improvement. In countries where high portions of the population’s income depend on sufficient quality and quantities of water, severe water scarcity drags down the gross domestic product. Economic decline lowers the opportunity cost of contesting power. Consequently, autocratic regimes turn to democratic concessions as a less costly method of maintaining control than costly coercive methods. Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1990s supported this theory. Countries with low levels of rainfall underwent twice as many democratic transitions compared to countries with normal to high levels of rainfall. Drought correlated with competitive political participation, open and competitive executive recruitment, and more constraints on the executive.
Unlike the Sub-Saharan African countries where drought drove democratic improvement, the Iranian agricultural sector is relatively small. For example, free and competitive elections followed a drought in 1992 Mali, where agriculture is 30% of Mali’s GDP and employs 80% of the Malan population. In contrast, Iranian agriculture is responsible for 9% of GDP and employs 18% of the population. Additionally, the Iranian economy is slowly growing with some job growth in the oil and service sectors, despite some agricultural sector contraction. In these ways, water scarcity is not causing a significant change in the oil-dominated economy. Consequently, the theory that a drought-caused drop in GDP sparks democratization would not work in Iran.
Most Iranians suffer from poor social and economic conditions, but that suffering has led to discontent and demonstrations, not widespread and violent radicalization, leaving the theory that drought-induced anger may lead to democratization as non-pertinent to Iran.
That theory contends the disproportionately felt effects of drought may prompt the affected peoples in autocratic states to radicalize and violently organize against the regime. In authoritarian states, communities without close ties to the state are frequently left vulnerable. During climatic shocks, they are more likely to be exposed to environmental damages and less likely to receive government assistance. This neglect leads to anger towards the regime and radicalizes the community against those in power, which easily escalates into violent conflict. Additionally, marginalized groups for which the state fails to provide services are more likely to join criminal or extremist groups that give an alternative to state services. This theory argues support for political violence does not increase only due to drought; the pattern necessities unfavorable social and economic conditions. The state increasingly struggles to provide the quantity and quality of its promised services, most visibly with rising food prices, which prompted violent demonstrations in May, 2022. However, the state continues to provide extensive services, including subsidies on fuel, water, education, healthcare, and food, increasing the cost of contesting the regime and making rebellion appear less favorable. There is a difference between dramatic demonstrations and a true and bloody uprising. For drought to provoke violent organization against the regime, water scarcity must first act in some way to lower the cost of challenging the state for a sizeable portion of the population.
Considering that Iran does not fit within the bounds of the most prominent theories about how drought affects democratization, scholarship suggests it’s unlikely the current drought will bring social change. As water scarcity increases globally due to anthropogenic climate change and population growth, it is increasingly important we take note of the relationships between regime format and access to water. Whether insufficient quantity or insufficient quality, water scarcity will come to impact the majority of the global population. Thus, analyzing and recording how regime types manage water and how that (mis)management influences the regime’s stability will allow analysts to predict future democratization trends.