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Water conflict for intensive pistachio production and Golgohar iron mine in Sirjan, Iran


Kerman Province in the south-central region of Iran is known for its pistachio farms, especially in the city of  Sirjan. Pistachio production has dropped by more than 50 percent while this province used to provide more than 80 percent of Iran’s pistachios [1]. 

Production of the nut in Iran dates back to 5th century BC. In the last Iranian year (ended March 19, 2016), Iran produced 261,000 tons of pistachios, 50% of which were exported. According to official figures, Iran earned as much as $1.2 billion from the export of 130,000 tons of pistachios last year, making it the biggest source of income in the agricultural sector [3].

For centuries, Iran relied on one of the world's most sophisticated irrigation systems—a web of underground canals known as "qanats" that carried water from under mountains to the arid plains. But then came the electric pumps and mega-dams. The need to preserve water was and still is overlooked [1]. Agricultural industry and mining are seeking water that is not available anymore [1]. 

The changing landscape is all too visible. In a not-so-distant past, the area was a beltway of green stretching for hundreds of square miles, using groundwater to produce grain and pistachios. Now, the sun bakes treeless plains that are increasingly giving way to deserts. During storms, the dead trees lose their branches, turning them into stumps, while the dust swirls about in ever-growing quantities [1].

In the dead pistachio grove, a rare rainstorm recently left white lines in the red soil. “Salt and other things,” a pistachio grower said — residue from the contaminated water brought up by wells that sucked the last remaining groundwater years ago [1].

To make the situation even worse in Sirjan, decisions have begun by local officials on allocating scarce water supplies to opencast Golgohar iron mine, just 50 miles west of the city [1]. "A greater amount of the existing water will be dedicated to areas that have a higher rate of production", a government official stated. 

Daily, a convoy of water trucks waits in line to fill 5,000-gallon tanks. Under a deal with the local water management company, up to 400 of these trucks a day draw water from the city’s main well and head to the iron mine, the largest such mine in the Middle East. It employs over 7,000 people, many of them from Sirjan, and a water shortage has compounded an already difficult situation brought on by collapsing iron ore prices [1].

Residents have objected and even staged a sit-in, but the tankers keep coming for the water. The drivers, often from the city, say they are scorned by their neighbors. “We need to feed our families too,” one of them, said. “When the water runs out, it will run out for all of us. We have to choose between jobs and drinking water” [1]. 

It is not just water levels that are declining. “The quality of the water has decreased dramatically, as have the levels of the underground water,” Akbar Mahmoud Abadi, a deputy at the local department of the Ministry of Agricultural Jihad in Sirjan, said in a written reply to questions. “The condition is very worrisome”[1].

"I met people developing new methods to extract water from 300 metres’ depth. It is not a good situation,” a researcher says. Much of the damage has occurred in recent times as farming expanded – the area devoted to agriculture has increased by 50% during the past 30 years. But the future looks bleak for the region's farmers [2]. 

If the water goes either for intensive pistachio production or the iron mine, residents of the city are also left without water [1] [2] [3]. 

"Drying water bodies and rising levels of pollution mean more people of the region are becoming aware of the need for environmentalism and understand the value of trying to protect nature. But for now, some environmentalists in Iran are still being treated like criminals", an environmental activist in exile stated [4]. In Iran, security forces declared any demonstrations about water shortage illegal [4].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Water conflict for intensive pistachio production and Golgohar iron mine in Sirjan, Iran
Country:Iran, Islamic Rep.
State or province:Kerman
Location of conflict:Sirjan
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Tailings from mines
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Specific commodities:Water
Iron ore

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Pistachios are Iran’s biggest export after crude oil, with 250,000 tonnes of the nut produced per year. Iran earned $1,2 billion from pistachio exports last year (21 March 2017 to 20 March 2018). Likewise Sirjan, other cities in Kerman province have grown rich from pistachios, but time is running out for the industry as unconstrained farming and water issues take a devastating toll. Near the city of Sirjan, a long line of enormous sinkholes mark the points where an underground aquifer was pumped completely dry, and the ground collapsed, while pistachio grovers and other farmers and residents are left without water [5].

The little water that is left, now has been relocated to Golgohar iron mine, as government decided to "invest" the left water in more profitable industry of iron extraction [1].

Golgohar current production capacity is of over 15 million tons of concentrate iron and more than 10 million tons of iron pellet. By Implementation of Golgohar Development Projects and Production Lines Optimization Projects, annual Production of Golgohar Mining & Industrial Company will exceed 30 million tons of iron [6].

Level of Investment for the conflictive project1,500,000,000 (Golgohar iron mine)
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:200,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/2017
Company names or state enterprises:Golgohar Mining Industry and Co from Iran, Islamic Rep.
Relevant government actors:The Government of Iran

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Pistachio grovers
Forms of mobilization:Property damage/arson
Complains since protesting about water issues in Iran is either illegal, censured, or banned


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Air pollution, Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming
Health ImpactsPotential: Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Potential: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Militarization and increased police presence


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Repression
Violent targeting of activists
Proposal and development of alternatives:The government of Iran has proposed to allocate the already little water left for more profitable iron extraction of the Golgohar mine. Resident and pistachio grovers have been left without drinking water.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The conflict for water between two big industries pistachio and iron have left residents of Sirjan in a vulnerable and marginalised position for water needs. The water has been allocated to iron mine and pistachio farmers have been left without water for irrigation as well.

Sources & Materials

[1] The New York Times (2015) Scarred Riverbeds and Dead Pistachio Trees in a Parched Iran

[2] Cosmos 2017: Iran’s pistachio growers get that sinking feeling

[2] Cosmos (2017): Iran’s pistachio growers get that sinking feeling

[4] Environmental Activism in the Middle East: Prospects and Challenges

Meta information

Last update02/11/2019
Conflict ID:4788



Area of the conflict: Sirjan city and the Golgohar Iron mine

Source: The New York Times

The Golgohar iron mine

Source: Golgohar official webpage

Pistachio farmers, Sirjan


Until a decade ago, the pistachio groves were green. Now there is no rain and the groundwater is almost all gone.

Source: The New York Times

Residents in search for water through the Kerman province