By Edward Carney
Citizens of Iran have been struggling against widespread flooding since March 19. The city of Shiraz is reportedly the hardest hit area, but flash floods have affected nearly all of the country’s 31 provinces. The collective impact of those floods remains to be definitively assessed, especially in light of the fact that the national emergency is still ongoing. But even after more than a week of the crisis, widespread disputes were evident in the public reporting on this issue, leading many critics of the Iranian regime to highlight apparent government efforts to conceal the number of fatalities and the government’s own responsibility for conditions that exacerbated the problem and prevented an effective relief effort.
As of Wednesday, the Washington Post was reporting a death toll of 23, but this seemingly reflected older statements from Iranian government officials. The same day, Voice of America News reported updated figures, via the semi-official Iranian outlet Tasnim News Agency. This nearly doubled the account of civilian deaths, to 44. But even this figure was quickly disputed. In fact, it was disputed a day ahead of time by Iran Human Rights Monitor, which accused Iranian officials of moving quickly to downplay the impact of the flooding, in line with a broader effort to preserve the regime’s own security “instead of helping flood victims.”
The National Council of Resistance of Iran corroborated this description of the regime’s response on Wednesday, pointing to specific, early instances of local government officials announcing flood-related deaths as they were identified, only for these statements to later be disputed by the regime in Tehran. On a larger scale, the regime’s official figures as of Wednesday had barely reached to one-third the number of victims who were separately identified in Shiraz alone.
Both IHRM and the NCRI agree that upwards of 120 people were killed in that city over the course of about a week. An editorial in Eurasia Review cites the same figure and uses it to illustrate the notion that the regime is preoccupied with concealing the impact of its own mismanagement of the environment and national resources, and with suppressing expressions of dissent or public outrage in the midst of a national crisis.
The NCRI goes further by saying that across the country, the death toll had exceeded 200 as of Wednesday and that government authorities were hiding the real statistics “out of fear [of] the people’s anger.” This fear is arguably amplified by the recent memory of popular protests, including the nationwide uprising that took place across more than 100 Iranian cities and towns at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. That movement resulted in a series of crackdowns by regime authorities including, notably, on environmental activists whose activities were evidently considered an unwelcome challenge to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Eurasia Review editorial accordingly called attention to the IRGC’s role in the ecological degradation of the Iranian countryside, which almost certainly contributed to the severity of the flooding in recent days. Meanwhile, an IranWire video brief highlighted the seeming irony of Iran keeping experts on the environment in prison even as flood ravage the population and the landscape.
Nine such environmentalists were arrested in January and February of last year, and one of them, an Iranian-Canadian professor, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Four of his would-be co-defendants are currently facing a charge of “spreading corruption on Earth,” which could carry the death penalty. Other arrests have followed, but this initial round also touched upon Kaveh Mandani, then the deputy head of Iran’s Department of the Environment, who was forced to resign his post upon being released after two days of interrogation. Mandani was reportedly targeted on the basis of his Western education and his former research position at Imperial College London, even though these were the very qualifications that prompted some pro-reform Iranians to invest much of their hope for Iran’s ecological future in him.
But on account of hardline efforts to purge the regime of persons with even the most casual connections to Western “enemy” nations, such expertise has been abandoned and a laundry list of environmental issues have remained largely ignored. Another report by Iran Human Rights Monitor explained this trend in the context of the flooding, stating for instance that “the reason these natural disasters recur is that non-expert persons are hired to manage the resources of the region.”
That same report highlights large-scale and ongoing deforestation as a major contributing factor to the severity of recent flooding, along with dam-building projects headed by the IRGC, which have generally proceeded without environmental impact assessments and have led to neglect of proper maintenance after the fact. The IHRM report also underscores the fact that flooding like that which has taken place over the past two weeks is to a great extent predicable, as well as being manageable and even preventable under the right circumstances.
Of course, one important aspect of those circumstances is proper funding for disaster relief and prevention, and this is sorely lacking in the Islamic Republic. In a testament to the regime’s misplaced priorities, IranWire reports that the Iranian government’s annual budget for religious propaganda and religious activities is more than 80 times its budget for disaster relief.
The country’s National Disaster Management Organization devotes almost half of its three million dollar budget to payment of employee salaries, leaving less than 700,000 dollars for “social welfare” and only slightly more for the purchase of relevant goods and services. Meanwhile, the shrine of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, receives roughly twice the annual budget of the NDMO all on its own.
Such figures make a strong case for the conclusion that Tehran could prevent serious flooding or mitigate its effects if it committed the appropriate resources and know-how to doing so. While many reports on the current disaster underscore the sheer volume rain that led to the present conditions – a month’s worth of rain was dumped on some regions in two days – it bears mentioning that those figures are only unusual by the standards of Iran, most of which receives only about 10 inches of rain per year on average.
Sudden onslaughts of rainfall should be manageable by properly-staffed agencies, provided that they have come to expect the possibility of flooding. On one hand, much of Iran has been gripped by drought over the past several years, and this might have underscored the importance of managing and retaining water flows once rains return. On the other hand, floods are by no means unprecedented in the nation’s recent history, with 30 people having died just last year in the nation’s Azerbaijan province.
Yet in absence of preparedness, some Iranian officials have opted to respond to the current disaster by publicly arguing that the issue was simply unforeseeable. Voice of America quoted Energy Minister Reza Ardekanian as saying, “These unprecedented floods in our country are because of climate change worldwide.” But while it may be true that global warming is contributing to erratic weather patterns in Iran, including long droughts followed by heavy rains, this by no means makes it impossible to anticipate severe weather events, much less to plan for an effective government response when they occur.
In this sense, Ardekanian’s remarks can easily be judged as being motivated by a desire to absolve his own agency of responsibility, in light of the fact that it is responsible for dams and the nation’s water supply. Even prior to the latest flooding, public awareness of that department’s failings has been high, with protests erupting in a number of regions over the past year to call attention to severe, local water shortages and a nationwide imbalance of national resources.