Climate change helping fuel protests in Iran

After violent protests recently exploded across Iran, President Donald Trump vowed to differentiate himself from President Barack Obama by openly tweeting his support for the demonstrators. It had no effect, though. One reason is that Trump could never send the really killer tweets — the ones that might have gone viral across Iran and rattled the regime.

What would those have said? Something like:

@realDonaldTrump “America stands with Iranian demonstrators!!! Why are so many from the countryside??? Because Iranian Revolutionary Guards mismanaged Iran’s water supply for decades. Stole all the water for their companies, cronies, pistachio farms and stupid dams!!! And now climate change and droughts are making it all worse, forcing Iranians off their land. Unfair!! Sad!!”

The Iran protests were clearly fed by many streams — The New York Times told a harrowing tale recently of how corruption and Ponzi schemes at banks owned by Iran’s clerical regime and its allies had defrauded thousands of savers, and brought some into the streets. But environmental corruption was also a cause of anger.

The Islamic regime and the Revolutionary Guards had ripped off the country’s natural wealth the same way they’d ripped off savers’ wealth. And now climate change is amplifying many of the worst impacts.

That’s not something an American president who thinks climate change is a hoax can tweet about — but it is a key reason the street demonstrations were particularly intense in regions hard hit by a whirlwind of drought, extreme weather events and reckless water use practices imposed by Iran’s clerical rulers.

“When people lose their lands they lose everything, and that means they aren’t scared of anything,” explained Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian exile geologist and son of a watershed scientist, who grew up in southern Iran. “The water crisis is real and killing the country today. We are getting less precipitation, and the population is rising. There’s bad agricultural policies and bad water governance. It is like a time bomb.” Officials predict that millions of Iranians could be forced to flee their country before the end of the century.

Here’s why: Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has built a crazy number of hydroelectric dams. According to a March 2015, report from Iran in The Financial Times, “Over the past three decades, Iran has built 600 dams — an average of 20 a year — to irrigate farms and provide power. It is unclear how much has been spent on these projects, though it is believed to be second only to gas and oil … and much of the money has been channeled through contractors linked to the Revolutionary Guard. Poor planning and 14 years of drought have rendered many of them useless and, in some cases, they have contributed to environmental damage in the semi-arid country, experts say.”

Once some farmers found they no longer had water for their crops — because aquifers had been overused, or water had been diverted to big agribusinesses tied to the regime, or too many dams had been built and then warmer temperatures shrunk the lakes behind them and nearby wetlands — many of the farmers migrated to the margins of cities in search of employment, food and water.

“The government is not giving the exact number of Iranians who fled the countryside and are now living in shanty towns, but it should well be over 16 million, up from 11 million in 2013,” added Kowsar, who, besides his water/geology expertise, is one of Iran’s most followed political cartoonists, which is what got him exiled. “These cities, where employment is scarce, have become hot spots of unrest,” particularly as the government cut back subsidies.

A Jan. 8 essay on ClimateWire by Scott Waldman explained: “Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad understood that climate change and water mismanagement was ravaging family farms, and his government provided subsidies to families who struggled to put food on the table, said Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

“When the current president, Hassan Rouhani, signaled that he would reduce those benefits, enraged Iranians across the nation’s arid countryside joined the wave of protests. ‘You have climate change, shortage of water, they can’t grow their crops, and now they’re getting their cash handouts taken away,’ said Handjani. ‘It’s a panoply of issues coming together at once.’”

The Iran story is repeating itself across the Middle East — environmental stresses mixing with resentment over corruption and misgovernance, sparking uprisings. And it is only going to get worse.

Between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s landmass was ravaged by the worst drought in the country’s modern history. It came after years of overpumping of aquifers by cronies of the regime. That drought forced 800,000 to 1 million Syrian farmers and herders to abandon their land and livestock and move to the edges of Syrian cities and towns, where they had to scrounge for work. The Assad regime did nothing for them, and they were among the first to join the revolution against it.

So, kids, if you want to understand the politics of the Middle East today, study Arabic and Farsi, Hebrew and Turkish — but most of all, study environmental science.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.