Water crisis and the Isfahan Uprising: Is self-management of water resources a solution?

Only a few months after the uprising in Khuzestan, known as the “thirsty uprising”, in another region of Iran, protests with many thematic similarities have ignited in a place that few expected. Isfahan has traditionally been known as a stronghold of the Islamic Republic. This image, continuously reflected by the Islamic Republic’s propaganda, is also the result of misjudgement and ignorance of progressive forces from the social context existing in this region.

There are significant differences between the thirsty uprising in Khuzestan and the water uprising in Isfahan. The purpose of this text, however, is to focus on the similarities and most importantly the possibilities these bring about for liberating politics.

Progression of the water uprising in Isfahan

In recent years, farmers in parts of Isfahan, especially in the east of the province, have held large protests over the right to control water distribution. These include farmers in Khorasgan, Ashkavand, Ziar, Eje, Jargaviyeh Sofla and Olya and Varzana. Many of these protests saw hand-to-hand clashes between farmers and the repressive forces of the government’s special counter-insurgency unit.  The accumulation of dissatisfaction among farmers has led to their active participation in nationwide uprisings such as the one in January 2018,  in which Nematullah Shafiei, a 40-year-old farmer from the west of Isfahan was shot dead. 

This round of protests started on the Zayandeh Rud (i.e., Zayande river). Farmers again were protesting around the “water rights” issue, a demand that has been in their protests for several years. After a couple of days, the government decided to take a gamble by sending their apparatus to the protest and try to stage control the demands. They did so by dispatching all kinds of pro-government militant forces, e.g. Basij, among the demonstrators and gaining control of the megaphones. The rally was also covered on national and provincial radio programs. If the gamble turned out to be successful, this would have become a new guideline for dealing with mass protests.

As a result of the arrival of the government apparatus, the owners of factories, agro-industries, water supply projects, and traditional Isfahan bazaars supported the protest. Due to their presence, the rally faced a heterogeneous class composition. In this way, the owners of capital, whose interests were tied to the continuation and expansion of water transfer projects, tried to use the initial stage of farmer protest to their advantage. For example, the bazaars of Isfahan provided the food supply for the sit-ins. Consequently, the initial days of the rally became a family carnival, whose immediate function was to turn the farmers’ protest into an “Isfahan” protest to save the whole under the name “Isfahan”, even if this rescue involves imposing dehydration elsewhere in the country. 

On the other hand, people of the Chaharmahal Bakhtiari province, who, especially in the last decade, have been severely affected by water transfer projects to various places including Isfahan, formed large rallies in Shahrekord. For them, the arrival of government forces to the Isfahan protest, meant yet another acceleration of establishing destructive water transfer projects. The government followed the same policy in this protest as in Isfahan. Many forces were sent to the region under the name of “water justice seekers” to set up official and controlled stages and the rally was covered in the state media. It is worth noting that the government did not send their forces to the Khuzestan uprising as the people in that region are mainly Arab and Sunni. The security experts and strategists of the Islamic Republic must have thought that the Isfahan protest is less challenging to control as  Isfahanites are mainly Shiite and Persian, like most supporters of the Islamic Republic. 

Once the formal rallies were over, the government envoys left the staged protest.  But among the protesting people, who had now increased in number and power, there were whispers of solidarity and the need for more aggressive protests. This was a clear indication that it was no longer possible for the government apparatus to control and direct the rallies. Only a few hours after these whispers of solidarity began, a special counter-insurgency unit set fire to and dismantled the protest tents of Isfahani farmers, then sporadic clashes began which eventually led to a “water uprising.” 

A mass and radical uprising which lasted for two days was suppressed with difficulty and only through establishing martial law in the city of Isfahan. Once again what we have seen in Isfahan shows that the Iranian government is well aware of the dangers of solidarity between the underprivileged and the oppressed. They can ignore the insults hurled at Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, by the protestors of both Isfahan and Shahrekord, but they do not hesitate for a second in the face of solidarity among the oppressed. It seems that the security experts were taken in by their own propaganda image of the protests, the image of an “Isfahan” where all support of the Islamic Republic. Most opposition forces, also, had forgotten that the stronger the Islamic Republic’s base in Isfahan has become, the more severe repression it has inflicted on the province. Extensive executions of political prisoners in Isfahan throughout the 1980s was a manifestation of this severe suppression. 

Although the first phase of the uprising began due to the water crisis and with a clear demand for water rights, Isfahan and many small towns on the outskirts have been under pressure from poverty, inflation and unemployment, especially in recent years. The actions of government-affiliated forces including acid attacks on women have deepened public dissatisfaction among the people of Isfahan. Thus, the massification of protest, which was a direct consequence of the arrival of government forces to control these rallies, led to the accumulation of various grievances at one point. This fuelled the moment of uprising in response to the government’s crackdown. As the protest progressed, the capitalists stopped supporting the protest. From the intersection of the oppressed, another force was formed in the field, which with empty hands repeatedly forced the repressive force to retreat, and finally, the uprising resulted in hundreds of wounded, many of whom were wounded by bullets to the head, chest and eyes. 

The water crisis and the story of contradictions

The water crisis in Iran has affected people in various geographical areas. When we talk about the water crisis in Isfahan, we are talking about the same water crisis affecting Chaharmahal Bakhtiari, Lorestan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, Yazd and Khuzestan. 

It is clear that in the water crisis, there are commonalities and conflicts of interest among the regions of Iran. These commonalities and contradictions are portrayed as a “national” problem by tendencies who are either pseudo-fascist or support identity politics. We argue that this portrait does not reflect reality. For example, during the strikes of the Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz steelworkers as well as the ‘thirsty’ uprising of Khuzestan, some Arab activists claimed that there was an irreconcilable conflict between the indigenous people of the region and the migrant workers – often in the industrial centres including Hafta Tappeh and Ahwaz Steel. This identity-based statement claimed that “migrant workers” were concerned about the closure of factories, while ignoring the fact that the Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz steel fields had been stolen from the indigenous Arab people of the region, and that the polluting industries had caused water shortages and environmental pollution in Khuzestan. Hence, by ignoring this fact, the workers are contributing to the centrist colonial policy of the government that permanently marginalizes the indigenous people of the region.

In this claim, however, one can identify and extract points that truly depict forms of “national oppression” and “systematic anti-Arabism”, but the whole formulation of this claim as an irreconcilable contradiction, especially with the help of fascistic phrases such as “migrant worker,” destroys the potentials of a liberating policy to resolve these conflicts. In fact, in such a case, against the central government fascist discourse, a fascist discourse rises from the margins whose final solution is not much different from that of the one advertised by the government. Relying on the central political power and the Persian-Shiite government of the Islamic Republic, the solution to “save Khuzestan” is to relocate the region’s indigenous Arabs to other regions which results in a form of migration that alters the region’s ethnic composition. The fascist, or at least quasi-fascist, discourse emerging from the margins also prescribes the expulsion of “immigrants,” including “migrant workers,” as the final solution. This discourse, naturally, never addresses the fact that some of the so-called “immigrant” population have been living in the area for generations. In this sense, not considering them “indigenous” and wanting to expel them is a formulation similar to the fascist discourse of Iranianism, which constantly repeats that Arabs, or other oppressed peoples, who cannot or do not want to identify with Iran and being Iranian, were immigrants that “Iran” has sheltered for some time and now they can and should leave the country. Yet another issue that this identity formulation ignores, or more explicitly disguises for its own political gain, is that in Haft-tappeh, Ahwaz Steel, and other water-consuming and polluting complexes and factories in the region, large numbers of Arab workers work alongside others, and some have been the organizers of the labor struggles whose main demand has not been the closure and destruction of the factory, but the revival of it and the continuation of production. The organizers of the fascist discourses have, however, shown that they were even willing to de-identify these Arab workers, exclude them from the scope of “being Arab,” and at least call them sellout Arabs who have joined the colonial immigrants, so that their rhetoric would not crack when it faced the material reality outside of itself.

In the early stages of the Isfahan protests, we also witnessed the emergence of such tendencies. Ignoring these tendencies, however, does not help with understanding the situation in Isfahan and will not help create opportunities for effective intervention. The truth is that turning the water crisis into an “Isfahani”, “Chaharmahali”, “Khuzestani”, “Zagrosi” or similar local crisis will disguise some irreconcilable contradictions in favor of the contradictions for which a name must then be chosen. Our preference, in the tradition of the communist movement, is to call them “intra-people contradictions”. In other words, there are contradictions within the oppressed masses, the laborers, and the working class that are real and objective, but it is not necessary to eliminate one side of the contradiction to resolve them. For example, a permanent expropriation of private and public owners and fundamental change in the capitalist management of factory affairs are necessary. To resolve the conflicts between a polluting industry and local farmers, one can think of creative ways and initiatives such that even though part of the solution may be closing a polluting factory, it would only occur in the context of securing the common class interests of factory workers and indigenous farmers.

In the current situation, Haft-tappeh workers want to revive the company and continue production in the factory. The ousted private investor, as the continuation of production did not provide him with “profits” and “interests”, pushed the company to closure, so that he could ultimately secure his profits and interests by selling its lands and equipment and, of course, receiving large loans in the meanwhile. Now that the private sector capitalist has been expropriated, the government still does not support the revival of Haft-tappeh in defense of the sugar import mafia and with the same logic of securing the “profits” and “benefits” of the capitalist order. Instead, it is managing the situation through a security/police approach. Sugar production at Haft-tappeh, however, in a deeper analysis, is not the ultimate goal of the workers. Their struggle to revive the company and continue production is not aimed at production for its own sake but making a living for the workers. Therefore, in an alternative order, which we will discuss later, it will be possible to take creative initiatives that, while making a living for the workers, could either repair the polluting and water-consuming sectors of the industry to preserve the environment and peacefully coexist with the oppressed of the region, or completely close and replace them. There are a few exemplary cases of this. After occupying the factory and expropriating its private owners, the workers of Fralib, a tea factory near Marseille, stopped the use of chemical flavors in the production of teas and replaced them with natural additives that local people produce. Hence, not only environmental pollutants were removed from the factory’s production line, but also side jobs were created for a group of local people who had no previous connection with the factory. In another experience in Thessaloniki, Greece, workers at a construction materials factory changed its main production line to produce environmentally friendly detergents after occupying the factory. These are new experiences that have been obtained not after a fundamental change in the capitalist order, but because of occupying a very small part of the ruling realm of capital, thus their interpretation as “utopian” experiences would be the negation of material possibilities of liberation within the current situation.

In the Isfahan context, what should be emphasized is not the real intra-people conflicts of farmers in Isfahan and Chaharmahal Bakhtiar. Instead, we should focus on the existing conflict between the water transfer projects and the farmers both in Isfahan and some in the west of Iran. The water transfer projects are on the route through Baq Bahadoran and Dorcheh that supply water to water-consuming factories such as steel, tile industries, gunpowder and paint productions affiliated with the Ministry of Defense and other military institutions. They are also for large-scale agricultural and livestock industrial farms mostly linked to institutions or individuals affiliated with organizations like the Foundation for the Underprivileged, the Revolutionary Guards, and other government agencies. These projects not only provoke the water crisis in the neighboring water-rich provinces but also suffocate small-scale farmers in the west and most farmers in the east of Isfahan province. Moreover, improper construction of villas and gardens by the rich in Chaharmahal Bakhtiari scarce the water for Bakhtiari farmers. In short, the result of water transfer projects from Chaharmahal Bakhtiari, Kohgiluyeh, Boyer-Ahmad, and Khuzestan has been to disrupt the natural order of people’s lives and rationing of water for the laborers in favor of capitalists, looters of public property, and looters of water. The existence of historical waterways and water distribution canals in the Isfahan plain indicates that before the lootings by the government and capitalists, there have been localized methods apropos to the agricultural conditions in Isfahan, especially in the east of the province, which have been able to survive by maintaining the aquifers and underground reserves, using natural water resources and without causing water crisis in other areas.

We know that the water crisis is a global crisis, but state policies and the policies in favor of capitalists or capitalist management of affairs have exacerbated the crisis in different parts of Iran. Through overt and covert interventions, they have made groups of people confront other groups to cover up and erase the main and truly irreconcilable contradiction.

Council management of water 

The first immediate consequence of the water uprising in Isfahan was that many political forces realized that the water crisis was a real and serious issue that needed special attention. For many of these political forces, however, an affirmative approach to the water crisis does not matter. For them, the water uprising in Isfahan is yet another insurgency whose negative aspect only should be pointed out, formulated into the most concise phrase as “the Islamic regime should go”, and that’s all.

The main problem that prevents many political forces, especially in the right-wing opposition bloc, from presenting affirmative ideas lies precisely in the fact that they do not fundamentally differ from the logic of water resource management in the Islamic Republic, but at best have a problem with the way it is implemented. In other words, they believe that if competent and expert managers replace the “incompetent and unprofessional” managers of the Islamic Republic, it is possible to resolve the water crisis in a way that serves the interests of “everyone”. We have already explained that in the context of the water crisis, like other existing social tensions, there is no “everyone”; and the only force that claims to satisfy the interests of “everyone” is the one whose real intention is the ultimate suppression of the struggles of the oppressed in favor of the continued domination of the oppressors.

In terms of history and class, it is in this way that the right-wing opposition bloc of the Islamic Republic takes sides with the regime itself, reducing the origin of the water crisis to the ‘incompetency and lack of specialization’ of the current administrators insomuch that they even temporarily retreat from their own rhetoric of regime-change. For instance, they claim that the Islamic Republic has not only allowed the Iranian people participation in their own affairs, but has done so exceedingly well. So, with a little difference, the right-wing opposition bloc of the Islamic Republic absolves all the military, paramilitary and capitalist apparatuses of the regime, who have profited hugely from the construction of agribusiness and animal husbandry complexes, and other water-dependent industries which flourished in the wake of water conveyancing projects funded by the state. Then, this opposition bloc brazenly underlines the role of ‘state capitalism’, ‘military capitalism’, and ‘state-owned privatizations’ in propping up Iranian capitalism. For these opposition forces, to protect capital and its logic of dealing with affairs is the sacred, fundamental principle which they must abide by, even at the cost of tactical temporary alliances with corporations affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In this way, they can avoid the development of irreconcilable contradictions so that the possibility of capital’s dominance, under the Islamic Republic or without it, could not be endangered.

Some local activists in Isfahan and Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari provinces have independently advocated the necessity of forming ‘water parliaments’ as a concrete solution. On the one hand, as they are local activists, it seems that the calls to form ‘water parliaments’ and dissolution of the High Commission For Water (HCFW) have gained some acceptance. On the other hand, these demands carry the possibility of being adopted by the regime, though it does not seem to have been considered so far.

But what is a ‘water parliament’? To answer this question, we first need to know that HCFW is the current planning structure regarding water resources. After integration of the Agricultural Jihad Organization and Ministry of Agriculture, which were combined in the Ministry of Agriculture Jihad under Khatami’s government, the High Commission for Water was formed. Its constituent members are as follows: the ministers of Energy, Agriculture Jihad, Industries and Mines, and Interior Affairs; heads of the State Management and Planning Organization and the Environment Protection Agency, a member of the Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Commission in the parliament as a spectator and two specialists from the agriculture sector. The chairman of HCFW is the president or the vice president of the Islamic Republic. It is clear that no-one whose life depends on the resolution of the water crisis is present among these members of the Commission. In the course of recent crises, local officials have sought to deal with the problems through enabling the participation of some state organizations such as the Corporate System of Farmers and the House of Farmers. In doing so, they have activated ‘people’s participation’ in plundering the water resources.

Given the current state of water management, let us get back to examining the idea of water parliament. Although the term ‘parliament’, at first sight, has nothing to do with the conception of people’s and councils’ management, it paves the way for concrete ideas. While there is a commission from above that is operating under the rule of the regime and makes plans for plundering of water resources in favor of capital and the ruling class, it is not possible to speak of ‘council management’ immediately. At the same time, what matters is not the name, but the main conflict over the constructing logics of the organization. Both in Iran or in other parts of the world, we face a sort of council which does not have anything to do with the management of affairs, as an institution based on the political power of the oppressed. Therefore, we avoid debating the name but focus on the makeup of a ‘water parliament’, for which different commentators make divergent suggestions. For instance, an agriculture professor at Isfahan Industrial University, Ahmad Khatonabadi, in a conference held by Isfahan Chamber of Commerce in 2013, put forward his suggestion that “A board of officials from the catchment basin of Zayendeh Rud should form this parliament”. Some years later, Yosef Farhadi Babadi, a local activist in Shahrekord who has been arrested several times due to his activities, put forward a more radical interpretation of the water parliament and its constitution. In an International Assembly of Water held in Sulaymaniyah University in Iraq in 2019, Yosef Farhadi explained his suggestion: “the water parliament is an institution consisting of all representatives of beneficiaries including those of the sectors such as agriculture, industry, service, public, environmental organizations and people for the provision and sanitation of drinking water. Needless to say, the representatives of different sectors who are present at the parliament should be elected democratically and should be their own sector’s real representatives”. While in Khatonabadi’s understanding the water parliament is a totally state institution that is differentiated through the local character of its members compared to the High Commissioner for Water, in Yusef Farhadi’s understanding there are some representatives from the people added to the state presence in the water parliament. However, Farhadi is not clear about what ‘the representatives of the agriculture and industry sectors’ means. Can the owners of large agriculture complexes and water-dependent industries, who can probably affect the results of ‘a democratic election’, be among the candidates of such an election? We can find the answer in Farhadi’s partial understanding of the current possibilities in another part of his speech. According to him, “György Lukács, the writer of History and Class Consciousness speaks of an intermediary institution which transforms the idea into practice. When we talk about public health, the intermediary institution is the hospital and health center, when we speak of public education the relevant institution is the school. Without schools as intermediary institutions, can we expect public education? I believe that in the context of the environment, water parliament is an intermediary institution”. 

We have to dwell on this ‘intermediary institution’. What matters regarding public education and public health is not the presence of school or hospital at all. In today’s Iran, there are schools and hospitals, but neither education nor healthcare is public. In addition, the lack of schools or hospitals is beside the point, I mean, that it is not due to the lack of schools and hospitals that education and healthcare are not public. What matters is the commodification of education and healthcare that excludes the oppressed from access to them and consequently does not make those services public. So, regarding an institution such as the ‘water parliament’ or any other name attributed to it in the course of the struggle, what matters is not the presence of the water parliament itself, rather it is the makeup of such an institution that is of significance. It is only through handing on the management of water resources to the oppressed that we can move towards the resolution of the contradictions between different parts of these people. But the guarantee of effective intervention by such an institution lies exactly in it being a space where creative solutions, in which the interests of all classes and layers of people are provided for, and this would not be possible except when it becomes simultaneously an organ of the class struggle against irreconcilable contradictions, and an organ of the proletariat’s wielding of political power, for controlling the water resources. In this way, a concrete solution that can be termed both ‘democratic and popular’ and at the same time can be expected to resolve the water crisis in favor of the majority of people to the greatest extent possible, is the formation of an institution, whatever it would be called, which is constituted by representatives of the farmers of east and west Isfahan, the farmers of Charmahal, Khuzestan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad etc. These representatives have to be called and dismissed whenever necessary. Workers and specifically those who work in the industries near to the crisis axis, the Arab local people of Khuzestan, small farmers, nomadic tribe members and other local people of these districts should gather in this institution to deal with the contradictions within the people and to wield political power on the water resources. And this in turn needs a political-economic expropriation of the capital holders who have been unceasingly plundering the water resources in these districts. In this sense, council management is the only way of resolving the non-natural factors of the water crisis. Moreover, rather than a futile conflict on ‘how to name’, we should focus on a concrete, material struggle over providing possibilities by which we can reappropriate political power on behalf of those who have been disqualified by the dominance of capital, to intervene in favor of their self-determination: These people are the subjects who appeared in the course of the general protests of December 2017, November 2019, the rise of the “thirsty” and water shortage protests.

Comment here