Iran is Drying Out: Network Discourse on the Protests by Farmers in Isfahan Province

Raz Zimmt discusses the farmers’ protest in the Isfahan province of Iran, which erupted because of the growing water shortage therein.

Iran Farmer's Protest, April 2018.
Iran Farmers Protest in April 2018, as documented on Twitter.

Last March, farmers in Isfahan Province in central Iran took to the streets to protest the province’s increasingly severe water shortage. This is not the first time that protests have erupted in Isfahan because of issues related to water. In March 2013, farmers from the region clashed with security forces, following the government’s decision to reduce the water quotas allocated to Isfahan, and reassign them to the neighboring Yazd province. The authorities’ failure to provide a solution for the farmers’ demands provoked intense discourse on social media, which gave voice to the public’s criticism of the regime’s weakness, as well as growing awareness of the water crisis that has, in recent years, become one of the greatest threats faced by the Islamic Republic.

The protest by farmers in Isfahan erupted against the backdrop of the authorities’ decision to cut the water quotas for agriculture. Iran has been suffering a grave water crisis in recent years caused, inter alia, by a severe drought that has afflicted the country, inadequate planning of the water economy, population growth and flawed water policies, including uncontrolled use of water for agriculture, using outdated and inefficient irrigation systems, and constructing dams of dubious feasibility that have caused some reservoirs to shrink or dry up altogether. In the absence of adequate media coverage, social networks became the major channel for updates on the protest, in a manner similar to other protests in Iran. Users uploaded videos and pictures showing hundreds of demonstrators protesting the water crisis (figure 3), and chanting slogans condemning the authorities. The social media discourse that followed the demonstrations included harsh criticism of the government, including President Hassan Rouhani, who failed to fulfill promises made to help solve the crisis. Users stressed that the worsening crisis cannot be blamed on the drought alone; they assigned most of the responsibility for the crisis to the government’s poor management and corruption. According to the farmers in Isfahan, the government gives preferential treatment to other provinces when allocating water quotas, and does not leave them sufficient water for irrigation. One user accused the government of setting up heavy industries in the center of the country while ignoring environmental conditions and natural resources. He noted that this policy created both the water crisis and severe air pollution, and accused the authorities of “treason,” in his words, against the citizens of Iran.[1]

Social media discourse was also used to increase citizens’ awareness of the growing water shortage in the country as a whole. Journalist and social activist Ebrahim Garavand warned that the water shortage is turning into a severe social, human and employment crisis that is expected to cause serious harm to farmers and industrial workers, given that 93% of Iran’s water consumption is currently used for agriculture and industry.[2] Another user reminded his followers that the war in Syria broke out as a result of a water crisis. “Whether we want it or not, believe it or not, or whether an outside party is involved or not, we have a water problem and it is dangerous,” he tweeted, pointing to the farmers’ protest in Isfahan as a living testimony that proves his point.[3]

Similar to the wave of protests that broke out in Iran at the end of 2017, criticism was also directed towards the relocating?  of the country’s resources to places and causes beyond its borders, such as Syria, which exacts a heavy economic price, rather than dealing with the hardships faced by Iran’s citizens. The slogans carried by the demonstrators were echoed quickly on social media. At one demonstration, protesters shouted, “Our enemy is not America, our enemy is here.” Shortly thereafter users launched a hashtag: “Our enemy is here” (#دشمن_ما_همینجاست) which they used to tag updates on additional protests throughout Iran, and criticism of the regime that allegedly favors confrontations with foreign enemies over solving the problems of citizens at home.[4]

As protests expanded in April, the authorities dictated aggressive conduct against the demonstrators, which was manifest in the aggressive dispersion of protests by security forces, who used repressive means including tear gas and water cannons. These tactics were documented in videos distributed on social media. The representative of Iran's Supreme Leader  in Isfahan province, senior cleric Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabaeinejad, accused the farmers of incitement, and warned them against creating further disturbances. He noted that the water shortage in the province is so acute that this summer it will be necessary to consider rationing drinking water as well. The allocation of additional water to agriculture under these circumstances is neither possible nor reasonable, he declared.[5]

Tabatabaeinejad’s remarks provoked anger and frustration because he did not take the citizens’ side, and presented the demonstrators as inciters.[6] This highlights the growing alienation the public feels towards their religious leaders, who are now identified as representatives of the regime rather than representatives of the citizenry. Another expression of this trend, also in the context of the farmers’ demonstrations, occurred in March when residents of Isfahan turned their backs on the preacher at Friday prayers in the mosque to express their protest against the authorities.[7]

The discourse surrounding the farmers’ demonstrations clearly reflects the mounting protests against the performance of the Iranian authorities on environmental issues, especially those relating to the water crisis and air pollution. These issues have persisted for several years, with social media serving as a main arena where the public can protest, because other media outlets do not allow dissent. The protests in Isfahan show that the struggle is no longer restricted to the online realm, but has in fact moved onto the streets, thus posing a growing political challenge to the authorities. Expressions of dissent, both on social media and in physical space, testify to the growing frustration of the Iranian public as it faces growing distress in all areas of life, and the authorities’ failure to provide them with an answer.


[1] @HampaHa, April 19, 2018, 

[2] @ebi19730, April 19, 2018,  

[3] @trigimo, April 19, 2018,  

[4] #دشمن_ما_همینجاست, April 19, 2018, 

[5] “Response of the Friday Preacher in Isfahan to the Farmers’ Protests: There isn’t Enough Water.” IRNA, April 13, 2018.

[6] @DrHadiyazdani, April 19, 2018,  

[7] “Protesting Farmers Turn Their Back on the Preacher during Friday Prayers in Isfahan,” Radio Farda, March 16, 2018.