The Middle East is one of the driest regions in the world. The scarcity of water has often been touted as a source of national and interstate disputes in the area. Some scholars have predicted for some time the possibility of deadly national altercations and regional clashes over the distribution of water resources in parts of the region. Although no full-blown war has erupted so far, two current episodes illustrate this point: public protests in the Iranian province of Khuzestan and the growing discord between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over water dispensation from the Nile River. With climate change causing more droughts, the potential for conflict over water cannot be underestimated.
In recent days, the oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan, largely populated by Iran’s Arab minority, has experienced public protests over a shortage of water as the province and all of Iran have been hit by one of the worst droughts in modern times. The protests have rapidly spread into other parts of Iran, which has come on top of the damage wrought by Covid-19 and US sanctions. Public anger is mounting against the Iranian government, which has been unable to provide remedial responses. The security forces’ heavy-handed treatment of the protesters has resulted in several deaths, with many injured and scores arrested.
However, the protests are a reflection of the deeper and wider public disenchantment with Iran’s Islamic regime. The regime’s popular base of support has shrunk over the years. A number of interrelated factors have contributed to this, including not only Covid and sanctions but also poor theocratic governance, widespread administrative malfunctions and corruption, severe economic hardship and lack of a good health system and facilities. The regime is now faced with a multi-faceted crisis. The protests, at which ‘death to the Supreme Leader’, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been loudly chanted, can no longer be contained or reversed by business as usual—that is, repressive security measures. Khamenei has now called on the security forces to be more understanding of the protestors and the outgoing moderate and reformist President Hassan Rouhani has joined him in that message.