Environmental problems exacerbate Tehran’s political tensions
Widespread flooding that affected 26 of Iran’s 31 provinces and killed at least 70 people, shocked Iranians and jolted the government. While Iranian President Hassan Rohani, touring affected regions northern Iran, promised compensation for tens of thousands forced to abandon their homes and farms, the main effects may be political.
Flooding is common in Iran’s humid northern provinces near the Caspian Sea but it is rare in other parts of the country more used to drought. Unusually heavy rain fell over the Nowruz holiday, a busy tourist season, disrupting transportation and commerce. Videos posted to social media showed vehicles swept away, submerged houses and victims clinging to ropes and traffic signs.
Particularly savage were flash floods March 25 in Shiraz, the provincial capital of Fars, famed for its roses and graves of poets Hafez and Saadi. The city’s 19 flood victims died mainly because of cascading water engulfing a traffic jam. A tourist guide said campers were also in a dried-up river bed. Officials blamed the blocking of an old waterway by new construction. There was extensive damage to Shiraz’s Vakil bazaar, a national heritage site.
This followed floods in the northern regions of Golestan and Mazandaran beginning March 19, where Iranian media reported five people killed. Two drownings were reported in the western provinces of Kermanshah and Lorestan and another two in Khuzestan.
Fars News reported an entire village in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province was buried by a landslide shortly after residents were evacuated. In Tehran, sandbags were laid at entrances to underground metro stations.
While the Iranian Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were deployed in relief efforts, there has been a virulent politicised reaction. The judiciary, placed in March under the stewardship of Ebrahim Raeisi, who unsuccessfully challenged Rohani in the 2017 presidential election, is conducting an investigation into the government’s handling of the disaster.
Principlist media highlighted Rohani being at Qeshm Island for Nowruz as the flooding developed and mocked Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian for blaming global climate change.
Environmental issues have been rising on Iran’s political agenda. They were prominent in the 2017 presidential election. Water shortages contributed to the widespread civil unrest in the winter of 2017-18. Many villages on the central plateau have been abandoned in recent decades and there has been widespread criticism of schemes diverting water, especially for “inappropriate” crops such as wheat or sugar cane.
Such issues have become highly factionalised. Principlists have taken clear aim at environmentalists, detecting conspiracies in any international links. Eight activists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation face spying charges based on their cameras used to survey the endangered Asiatic cheetah.
Last year, principlists forced the resignation of Kaveh Madani, a scientist at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College, London University, who had gone home after the 2017 election to become deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment. A social-media campaign highlighted old pictures of him dancing at a party — considered inappropriate behaviour for a senior official — and accused him of “water terrorism.”
The recent floods also oiled the wheels of Washington’s campaign against Iran. US State Department special representative Brian Hook blamed severe mismanagement of water resources and corruption.
The evidence for that is sketchy, partly because Iran has not allowed foreign journalists to visit affected areas. Law and planning enforcement have certainly been inconsistent but Madani said there was no simple explanation. “One can blame human decisions and mismanagement almost any time when a flood causes damage to human systems. With better designs and policy decisions based on a better understanding of nature, humans can decrease flood damage,” he said.
Madani added that “concurrent floods of this magnitude” were not common in Iran. “For years people have been complaining about water shortages, dried-up rivers and wetlands, dust storms and desertification. So, beliefs and memories had changed,” he said.
“In most places where damage has been significant, people and managers had forgotten about the possibility of floods in dried riverbeds. Settlements had been developed and some seasonal river valleys had been turned into parks and business areas.”
The costs of clearing up will be significant, although the Oil Ministry and the National Iranian Gas Company have said there was no damage to pipelines. With the economy in recession in the face of tightening US sanctions, the government is ill-equipped to meet substantial bills for repair.
Paying compensation is notoriously tricky and any delays will be seized on by Rohani’s critics. Whatever the roles in the floods played by incompetence, corruption and climate change, there is every likelihood that environmental problems will continue to exacerbate Iran’s political tensions.
Madani said climate change will very probably mean more floods. “Even though Iran is expected to get drier generally, floods will get bigger and more frequent. While it’s hard to disaggregate the effects of nature and humans on a complex event such as a flood, we may well see more extreme cases like this one in the future,” he said.