As water crisis deepens, Tehran accuses Israel of ‘cloud theft’

Hypothetical or not, the bizarre idea of “foreigners stealing the clouds” is not new to Iranian political discourse.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Dead trees and an abandoned house at a field that farmers left due to the lack of water in a village near the southern Iranian city of Sirjan. (AFP)
Alarming pattern. Dead trees and an abandoned house at a field that farmers left due to the lack of water in a village near the southern Iranian city of Sirjan. (AFP)

Political polemics in Iran are replete with conspiracy theories used to explain various failures. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that Brigadier-General Gholam Reza Jalali, head of Iran’s Civil Defence Organisation, accused Israel of stealing Iran’s share of the clouds.

Addressing an agricultural conference on July 2, Jalali said Israel made “the clouds entering Iran barren.” Iran, he added, was facing “cases of cloud theft and snow theft.”

Jalali’s statements triggered considerable ridicule in the Iranian and international media. They were also flatly dismissed by the Iran Meteorological Organisation. In an attempt to save face, the Civil Defence Organisation issued a statement claiming that Jalali’s remarks were “taken out of a context.” The statement said Jalali was merely sketching out a “hypothetical future scenario” rather than actual “theft.”

Hypothetical or not, the bizarre idea of “foreigners stealing the clouds” is not new to Iranian political discourse. It was first expressed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in May 2011.

Unfortunately, what’s not new either is the problem of drought. Iran’s water crisis is fast deteriorating and it is causing political unrest. On July 1, police and anti-riot forces opened fire on crowds protesting water scarcity in Khorramshahr in Khuzestan province.

There is no single explanation for the deepening water crisis. However, climate change, drought, population growth, rapid urbanisation and the mismanagement of scarce water resources are the main drivers. Iran’s inefficient agricultural sector is particularly culpable. Only 12% of Iranian territory is arable and it accounts for 93% of the country’s water consumption. Agriculture accounts for just 10% of Iran’s GDP and employs less than 17% of the labour force.

So, why does Iran sacrifice its scarce water resources to keep an inefficient agricultural sector alive? Would it not make more sense for Iran to continue the process of industrialisation and gradually reduce the footprint of agriculture, which consumes so much water?

The reasons go back to the revolution of 1979. Ever since, agricultural self-sufficiency has been the primary objective of the regime and those who planned the country’s future. This objective is enshrined in Articles 3 and 43 of the Iranian Constitution. In the Islamic Republic, agriculture has traditionally been considered a cornerstone of social policy because it prevents migration from rural to urban areas.

That said, none of those goals have been achieved in, or by, Tehran.

Iran’s agricultural sector is large enough to secure a degree of self-sufficiency with some products. However, it is not labour-intensive enough to prevent migration from rural areas to Iran’s major population centres. As a result, the regime needs to import agricultural products, in particular rice and other grains.

It simultaneously faces large-scale migration from the countryside to the cities, where peasants reside in shantytowns and try to survive as street vendors or construction workers. This makes for a restive proletariat, angry with the regime, living among city dwellers who look down on peasants.

Iranian cities are short on water, which has been squandered on the inefficient agricultural sector.

The situation appears to be building to disaster but Iran is still capable of averting the worst. It would take the courage to admit mistakes and a departure from ideological economic planning.

However, Jalali’s statements don’t bode well for any such departure. So long as Iranian officials use conspiracy theories to explain the water crisis, there is no prospect for change.

Iran needs a rational policy to address its very real challenges. Accusing Israel of stealing Iran’s water and snow from the clouds will neither bring water nor insight on what needs to be done.

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