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Iran: Baluch people running out of water due to unfair water management

20 June 2023

Sistan and Baluchistan is a predominantly Sunni and Baluch province in Iran. Once a lush and green land that benefited from fertile soil, Sistan and Baluchistan is home to ancient civilizations that date back more than 5,000 years. One of the world’s most climate-vulnerable regions, Sistan is also enduring an ever-worsening 22-year drought. However, it is not the environmental crisis that is most concerning for local populations but the political crisis, and the ways in which climate change and the water shortage intersect with the discriminatory practices of the local government. Sistan has lost 25 per cent of its population due to forced migration in recent years – evidence of a prolonged social and political crisis, and largely a result of water mismanagement and drought.

The region is now home to some of the poorest and most marginalized people in Iran. Negative stereotyping of Baluch people in Iran has often been underpinned by food insecurity, which is directly aggravated by the ongoing water emergency. And while Baluch and Sunni minorities in Iran feel excluded by the government, water politics in this region has become a major factor, along with religious identity, in Iran’s ongoing discrimination and record of human rights abuse.

The violation of minority rights to water is becoming more extreme across Iran.

After travelling for about 1,050 kilometres from the Baba mountains in Afghanistan, the Helmand River flows into the seasonal lake and wetlands of Hamun Oasis in the largely desert region of Sistan. Given the arid conditions, water availability in the plains of Sistan is highly dependent on the Helmand River, the only perennial tributary of Hamun Lake. Water rights and the construction of the Kamal Khan Dam, however, have been at the centre of a growing political dispute over water governance between Afghanistan and Iran. The Iranian government claims that significant environmental damage will result from the construction of dams on the Helmand River, and that proposed hydroelectric development will affect the water-stressed regions of Iran along the Afghanistan border. Conversely, the Afghan government argues that dam construction is necessary to ensure water security under the 1973 water treaty with Iran. Serious issues have arisen in Iran over the granting of water rights relating to the Helmand River in Afghanistan, despite an international agreement made between the two countries.

Furthermore, water levels have steadily decreased, particularly in Hamun Lake. Once Iran’s largest freshwater lake, Hamun Lake covered an area of around 4,000 square kilometres. In 2001, the entire lake dried up. The water shortage is also exacerbated by the political nature of water use and management in the region. Blaming Afghanistan’s Taliban regime might help the Iranian government domestically, but it does nothing to remedy the chronic misuse of the Helmand River’s waters.

A Baluch woman at a water source in Sistan-Baluchistan.

As a result of ongoing water shortages in the region, the Iranian government has invested public funds in the development of water infrastructure for use in irrigation. These funds are aimed at supporting agricultural production, such as wheat and watermelon farming. Farming subsidies for communities in Sistan are also intended to prevent internal displacement and a possible backlash in the form of anti-government protests. In spite of government support, the absence of economic diversification in the region has meant that communities in Sistan are becoming extremely dependent on scarce water resources from the Helmand River.  

The province uses 94 per cent of its water for agriculture, yet 35–40 per cent of it is wasted. Farming communities lack economic alternatives, which makes them highly susceptible to fluctuations in water availability, whether due to natural factors like climate change or increased demands from water-intensive industries. According to unofficial statistics, there are more than 50 factories operating in this province, mostly steel and cement companies. These industries are considered the most water-intensive industries in Iran. 

Aquifers have also completely dried up due to negligence and poor water management by the local authorities. There are approximately 19,450 deep and shallow wells in Sistan. Groundwater is extracted at the rate of two billion cubic metres per year, of which 1.6 billion cubic metres are extracted from illegal wells. As a result of this uncontrolled use of groundwater, the water and soil have become salinated, which puts both food and water security at further risk. Unfinished water management projects can be found all over the region, many of them lacking adequate sustainable and community-led future planning. The construction of concrete dams in this province also lacks a clear environmental rationale.  

Indigenous people in the region have perfected water management practices through thousands of years of lived experience. A region that once boasted 1,200 qanats or traditional water springs, located mostly along riverbeds and dependent on subsurface water, is now running dry, as wells are vanishing at an alarming rate. Artificial or natural pits known as hotag or hotak were once used for drinking and agricultural purposes throughout the year, but not any longer.  

Despite the extensive traditional ecological knowledge found in the region, the Iranian government and its subsidiary companies are rampantly building concrete dams that fail to address the changing climate and disrespect these traditional forms of water governance. The province has seven reservoir dams and 23 feeding dams, all of which remain half-empty the whole year round. What is more, some of these dams are used for military purposes by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Ongoing water problems forced the local authorities to build four man-made reservoirs and interlinked canals as part of the Chah-Nimeh complex, filled in the 1990s and 2000s. Located on the Iran-Afghanistan border, the Chah-Nimeh reservoirs were the latest water infrastructure project to be carried out on the Helmand River and were aimed at addressing water needs, especially irrigation and urban use. Three of the reservoirs are located in natural depressions, while the fourth is formed by a dike on the north side of the river. Unfortunately, the water levels are greatly reduced due to the extremely high rate of evaporation. Approximately 250 to 300 million cubic metres of water per year evaporates from these reservoirs. Combined agricultural and human water consumption needs are several times higher than this amount.

A boat sits on arid land in Sistan-Baluchistan.

The situation of Baluch women

In October 2019, a parliamentary representative took a bottle of heavily contaminated water to a meeting with the minister of energy, and then requested that the president and members of the cabinet drink from this bottle. Moeineddin Saeedi, a member of the Iranian parliament representing Chabahar, argued that the action was necessary to highlight the current situation of Baluch women, who are driven to extreme measures to get access to clean water. A few weeks earlier, a local Baluch woman committed suicide after having been forced to have sexual intercourse with a local man to secure water for her children.  

Saeedi pleaded:  

A woman from Baluchistan who is more honourable than the minister and the president was forced to sleep with a man and then committed suicide in order to provide water for her children…. One can feel her pain. What does he, the president, have to say?

Within a short period of time, government officials accused Saeedi of lies and denied the existence of pollution and water shortages in Sistan and Baluchistan. As a result, there was no further reporting on this issue by Iranian news agencies.

Massive protests have broken out in Sistan and Baluchistan as part of a wider protest movement known as the ‘Uprising of the Thirsty’, sparked by Arab minorities in the state of Khouzestan, who rose up against water poverty caused by the oil industry, and which led to a movement of solidarity for Arabs across the whole country and a nationwide call for water justice. The Uprising of the Thirsty is a series of water-related social mobilizations that has been convulsing Iran for the last two years, and which mainly seeks to redress the systemic failure of the authorities to tackle water injustices, particularly in the face of worsening climate change and drought. 

Protesters have made it one of their main demands to request safe drinking water from the local authorities, yet incidents like Saeedi’s intervention in parliament clearly illustrate that while elites in Tehran refuse to drink the same water Baluch people drink on a daily basis, and further deny the existence of water pollution in Baluchistan, the violation of minority rights to water is becoming more extreme across Iran. Despite the regime’s attempts to silence the voices that seek immediate water justice on the ground, the reality for many minority groups across Iran is stark, especially in the case of women who, as Saeedi’s example vividly showed, are being driven to extreme measures to ensure local children have, for once, some access to drinkable water.

We are grateful to members of the UNPFII for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: A Baluch man in Sistan-Baluchistan.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >