It was a gushing river that turned the ancient town of Esfahan into a cultural jewel that twice served as capital of the Persian Empire. Today, as it trickles through Iran, the Zayandeh Rud is a barren battleground.
Thousands of Iranians flooded the dusty riverbed last month to protest against the state’s management of water resources during the worst drought in decades. Videos on social media showed baton-wielding security forces moving into the crowd, leaving some with bloodied faces, including a middle-aged woman cloaked in a black chador. Deadly clashes also took place this summer in the province of Khuzestan, 180 miles away, where decades of oil drilling have drained wetlands and degraded the once-fertile soil.
“Our drinking water is getting worse, and the farmers are losing their livelihoods,” says Tahereh, an environmental activist who participated in the Esfahan protests and asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisal. “I can’t forget the smell of the breeze that used to lift off the river when I walked to school as a child. Now I can only sense and feel it in my dreams.”
As Iran’s standoff with the U.S. intensifies, support for the country’s leaders has sunk to record lows, reflecting frustrations over their response to crippling sanctions, including a crackdown on dissent. Now a long-brewing water crisis, the result of decades of unchecked industrial expansion, could eclipse Tehran’s fight with Washington over how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal as the most pressing problem facing the government.
Climate change is exposing the weaknesses of an economy built on oil extraction and unsustainable agricultural practices. As the planet gets hotter, Iran is likely to experience more extended periods of extreme high temperatures as well as more frequent droughts and floods, according to a 2019 study published in the scientific journal Nature. “Without thoughtful adaptability measures,” the researchers wrote, “some parts of the country may face limited habitability in the future.”
State-run news agencies carry daily headlines about huge drops in rainfall, dam failures, and depleted reservoirs. The semiofficial hard-line Fars News has warned that more than 300 towns and cities face acute water stress. Government meteorologists estimate 97% of the country is affected by drought, while one academic estimates 20 million people have been forced to move to cities because the land is too dry for farming.
Many dams registered record levels of evaporation this year, triggering power outages at the height of one of the hottest summers on record. The snowfall that accounts for almost three-quarters of the water that flows into the Zayandeh Rud dropped almost 14% from 2017 to 2020.
The changing climate is exacerbating the consequences of earlier government decisions. Lobbying by local politicians in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 turned Esfahan into a major steelmaking hub, straining its water resources. The Zayandeh Rud started drying up two decades ago after engineers diverted its flows to support industrial plants outside another city.
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