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Running Dry: Nik Kowsar on Iranian Censorship and Water Scarcity

For Nik Kowsar, civil unrest in Iran is not new. As a geologist and journalist, he’s been sounding the alarm about water shortages and censorship in his home country for decades.

After being arrested and jailed for one of his cartoons and receiving death threats from pro-regime Islamists, Kowsar fled Iran in 2003.

Today, he is an award-winning Iranian-Canadian journalist and water issues analyst. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. where he produces and broadcasts ‘Abangan’, a weekly Persian-language show covering water issues for Iranian citizens.

In this episode, Kowsar shares the story about how and why he harnesses the power of media and technology to spread the word about water.

In this episode, Kowsar shares the story about how and why he harnesses the power of media and technology to spread the word about water. In our Last Word, we turn to Daniel Harrich, a German documentary filmmaker who recently released the three-part documentary series “Unser Vasser” (Our Water) for the German Public Television Network, ARD. Jay traveled around the southwest United States with Daniel last year to film for the documentary, which now has over 5 million views.

And as promised, here is the “Water” episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver that Jay mentions in the show.

Guest Bios

Nik KowsarNikahang (Nik) Kowsar

Nik Kowsar is an award-winning Iranian-Canadian journalist and water issues analyst residing in the U.S. He studied geology and sedimentology and worked as a cartoonist, writer, and geology expert before fleeing Iran in 2003. He was arrested for one of his cartoons in 2000 and received death threats from pro-regime Islamists. The Khatami administration officials censored Kowsar for exposing their water management policies that led to the current nationwide water crisis, where many lakes, marshes, and groundwater resources have disappeared.

He now produces a weekly show on water shortages in Iran aired via Yourtime.tv, Iran-e Farda, and Channel One (LA), and appears as an analyst on water and environmental issues for Iran International TV based in London, UK, BBC Persian, and Radio Farda. Kowsar is producing his first documentary on Iran’s water problems.

Kowsar frequently writes for BBC Persian and Radio Farda on water issues and runs the websites Abanganiran.org and Aabnews.org, which specialize in covering Iran’s water crisis.

He is a member of the board of directors of Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) and a former winner of CRNI’s International Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.

Daniel HarrichDaniel Harrich

Daniel Harrich is a German filmmaker and co-founder of Diwafilm, a film and television production company. He is the director of the three-part documentary series “Unser Vasser” (Our Water) for the German Public Television network, ARD. Deutsche Welle recently translated the series into Spanish, English and Arabic. Collectively, they have over 5 million views on YouTube.

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Photo Credit

  • Nik Kowsar – Nik Kowsar
  • Daniel Harrich – Submitted

Full Transcript

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
As we speak, people in the city of Hamadan that is supposed to be considered a water rich area are thirsty. They don’t have water in their taps and the dam near the city has dried up. The government wants to transfer water that’s contaminated by arsenic from about 100 miles away.

Jay Famiglietti:
Anti-government demonstrations have once again swept through Iran, this time sparked by the death of a 22 year old woman. She died in police custody after allegedly violating Iran’s strict headscarf law. The protests are directed at the ayatollahs morality laws and the police enforcing them. It’s not the only time. In recent years Iranian people have taken to the streets.

Jay Famiglietti:
That’s the sound of a protest last year in Isfahan, Iran. Thousands of Iranian farmers and their supporters rallied there on the bed of a barren river, protesting chronic water mismanagement by the Iranian government. At least eight people were killed in water protests like this one as the driest conditions in 53 years pummeled the country. Already in a severe water crisis, none of this is new to Nik Kowsar.

Jay Famiglietti:
He first started raising the alarm about the state of Iran’s water decades ago that got him in trouble with the regime, forcing him to leave his home country.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
[In Persian] Hello, I’m Nikahang Kowsar, Let’s talk about water.

Jay Famiglietti:
Nik now lives in Washington, D.C. He’s kept up his advocacy work. He produces and hosts a Persian show about water shortages called Abangan. We sat down with Nik earlier this fall.

Jay Famiglietti:
Welcome to “What About Water?”, Nik.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Thanks Jay for having me.

Jay Famiglietti:
It’s a real pleasure. So, Nik, those those angry farmers that we heard in the protest, what happened to them?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Some of them were summoned by the security forces. Some of them spent a few hours or even days in prison. And most of them still do not have the water they were promised.

Jay Famiglietti:
Can you take us back to your life in Iran? Do you notice that there were big water issues in your country?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
It has mostly something to do with my dad. When we went back to Iran from the States in 1976, after my dad got his Ph.D. in Oregon State, he started thinking more and more about ways to control flood water. He had learned something about flood water spreading in Australia, but he wanted to use the traditional ways and means of controlling flood water in different parts of Iran and recharge the aquifer.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So he started this project in the province of Fars a few months after the revolution. He actually escaped from Tehran because they wanted to give him a high ranking government position and he didn’t want anything to do with the cabinet. He wanted to be in the field. So he moved to southern Iran and he started this flood water spreading project.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
And then it worked out very well for the people. Later, he moved to another place about 100 miles southeast of Shiraz, and it was actually an arid zone. And many people had migrated from that area because of loss of water, the aquifer and then the dryness and the hotness. But after they started this project, everything changed and many people actually moved back.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
You could see a reverse migration in that area. And this research actually was supposed to be considered a way, a means to get rid of the bad situation in dry zones where we had alluvium and also had flash floods. The government officials had fallen in love with major dams and they wanted to build bigger and bigger dams. And because of those dams, many lakes, marshes and aquifers dried up in a very short period of time.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So those policies destructed most of our water resources and made one big problem that we have is how we use the water in the country, and mostly for agriculture without understanding the amount of water that we’re using. And because the Iranian leaders wanted the country to become self-sufficient in food production, they encouraged the farmers to use whatever water they have in their reach.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
And gradually, this emptied a lot of aquifers all around the country so I could see what was happening. I connected the dots. And so when I was studying geology, I used to also draw cartoons and I became a cartoonist.

Jay Famiglietti:
Wait a minute. You became a cartoonist?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
A professional cartoonist. I started drawing cartoons when I was an undergrad student and I drew the caricatures of my professors. And a bunch of those reached out somehow to a popular satirical magazine. And they hired me. They hired a geologist that was funny. And then two years after that, I was hired as an editorial cartoonist by Iran’s top newspaper.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So I started using cartoons to criticize policies and politics. But in Iran, it’s really hard to criticize major policies because they’re made by the ayatollahs. And the ayatollahs are enjoying a certain amount of impunity and immunity. And year 2000, I drew a cartoon that actually was considered something that had undermined national security. I had hit a nerve because the Ayatollah had claimed that a CIA operative was in Tehran with a big suitcase full of U.S. dollars to bribe Iranian journalists against Islam.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So I just made fun of him sitting crocodile tears, and his name rhymes with the name of crocodile. His last name was “Mesbah”, and crocodile in Persian is “Timsah”. So “Timsah” and “Mesbah” rhymed and people got the point. I was sent to prison and people were chanting for my death. Of course, not all people, the clergymen. And for that reason I went to the Evin Prison,

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
that’s the most notorious prison in the Middle East. A very short while, but it wasn’t that pleasant. But to remember, I always wear this Lacoste polo shirt because of the crocodile it has. So crocodile is part of my life. I’m I’m sponsoring Lacoste. They’re not.

Jay Famiglietti:
You know, in solidarity. I wish I had known. I could have worn an Izod shirt, too.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Oh, thank you. And I heard that more than 2 million copies of that newspaper cartoon were made by individuals in just a few days after that. So that was funny.

Jay Famiglietti:
So but I mean, you you are also trying to communicate to the regime, right? You’re not necessarily always criticizing. You’ve gone directly to the regime to warn them about water issues. What brought you there?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
When I started writing those op-eds about water issues, I wanted to warn the Ministry of Energy and the government of its policies. That putting too much money in the building dams and water allocation schemes, because they’re mostly interbasin water diversions, and the harm that those projects bring to the original basin are humongous and the water rights are being stolen.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
The sad thing is that, look, if you go to the history of aquifer management, you read about qanats: the system, the underground aqueducts. But, unlike aqueducts, they are very, very sustainable. We have qanats that are still functioning after thousands of years in different parts of the country. But what they did was they poured all the money in construction firms.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
And the other thing is that they started over-exploiting aquifers all around the country for the sake of agriculture and producing more grains and making the Supreme Leader happy. So this was a recipe for disaster. I have the platform, the media, to raise awareness about this. Many people didn’t have it, so I wanted to take advantage of my situation and I knew that — okay, people knew me as a cartoonist.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So I wanted to be known as somebody that could also talk about other factors as well. And I hit a nerve and in 2001, a number of my op-eds caught the eyes of the Iranian president, then President Khatami. And I was summoned to his office a short while. After that, I, I was being censored and they didn’t publish anything from me.

Jay Famiglietti:
So it was this… was it the cartoon that was, you know, I know that you got in trouble and you realized you had to leave the leave the country. Was it the cartoons? Was it the op ed? What was the final straw that got you into trouble and made you realize you had to get the heck out?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I think a combination of both because the Iranian government was actually in partnership with the Revolutionary Guards in building dams because the major firm that’s building dams in the country is Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters. That’s part of the Revolutionary Guards. And the Ministry of Energy is actually pouring money into their hands. So, one, I had messed up with the ayatollahs. Two,

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I was messing up with this new partnership of the reformists — that’s the funny thing — the people who call themselves reformists were actually destroying Iran’s water resources. So at one point I felt that, look, I’m expendable. And when I — when my name was on a list of people who were supposed to be assassinated. And also I had received a letter they had left that letter under my seat at a Iran’s press association.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
And it said that Nikahang Kowsar had to be executed.

Jay Famiglietti:
Okay, wait, wait, wait. [CROSSTALK] Let’s just — let’s stop for a second. So you’re on [CROSSTALK] a list that says you should be assassinated. You’re getting a person executed [CROSSTALK] executed. You’re getting a personal letter that says what? Like there’s a fatwa on this guy?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Yeah.

Jay Famiglietti:
Right? I — I’d pretty much hit the road quickly.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I did. [CROSSTALK] But it wasn’t that easy because. Because, look, for Iranians, getting a visa to leave the country is not that easy. First of all, we didn’t have a U.S. embassy in Iran since 1979 functioning. Two, many countries do not hand Iranians visa easily, so it takes a lot of elements so they would actually give you a visa.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I was lucky that I was invited by the Canadian Cartoonists Association to give a speech in Quebec City, and that helped me a lot. But I wasn’t able to take my wife and daughter or bring my wife and daughter to Canada. So it took me four years to see my wife [CROSSTALK] and daughter again.

Jay Famiglietti:
That’s that’s absolutely terrible. I’m sorry you had to go through all that. These are amazing, amazing stories. I’ve heard similar stories from from some of your Iranian colleagues. And, you know, I’ve I’ve followed a similar path in terms of writing opinion pieces and being very outspoken. And I haven’t ended up in jail. I get in trouble once or twice when I was at NASA, but nothing like — nothing like what you have experienced.

Jay Famiglietti:
So, eh you know, I have to know, Nik, why do you keep doing this right? Or why would — why did you continue to do this when it was so risky? And actually, it may still be risky for you in the United States.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I don’t know. Being nuts?

Jay Famiglietti:
Yeah. There’s that.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Possibly.

Jay Famiglietti:
Is that. No, no. I mean really tell me why. What keeps you — what keeps you doing it?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Look, I love telling people that they’re not seeing the whole picture. I wanted to use cartooning as a platform to educate people. Not that I’m better than them, but I think I understand some stuff and I don’t fall into these political traps. So I liked what I was doing.

Jay Famiglietti:
And that’s really, really important work. So they know you were really close to your father, as you told us earlier. He was such a big part of your life. You know, protecting fresh water was such a passion. So not only were you not able to see your wife and family for four years, but I mean, when was the last time you saw your dad?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
In the last 20 years. I’ve just seen him for three days in France, and that was in 2012. And under very weird circumstances, because we weren’t supposed to be seen by anybody else, because government officials or government spooks could have caused problems for him. And now he’s back. But of course, he’s ill. And I don’t think they want to bother an 86 year old individual who’s suffering from cancer.

Jay Famiglietti:
Right. So, yeah, he’s he’s probably being left alone, but it’s really tragic that, you know, you’ve basically been exiled or escaped to protect your life because you’re a passionate environmentalist.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
It’s a — it’s an honor, actually, to be an environmentalist in a way. But the thing is, I love my country. I love my people, and I love the future generations who haven’t been able to destroy our country as the previous generations have.

Jay Famiglietti:
So I agree with you. I mean, it’s a privilege to be able to call yourself an environmentalist. I always feel privileged to be able to work with the satellite data that that I see. And I think if we you know, we have to do our best to communicate and get the next generation prepared and how we use technology to communicate.

Jay Famiglietti:
You’ve continued to expose water mismanagement in Iran and broadcast Iranian citizens with your show. Can you tell us about it?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
We have used different platforms such as Telegram, WhatsApp, even Twitter and Skype, whatever means possible to receive information from within the country and get video files or even written documents that we have been able to verify. It’s not that easy to verify a lot of reports because many of the people who are sending them do not have faces, and we don’t know many of them, although we’re thankful, but we have to double check all of them.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So I usually send back a number of these documents to experts inside Iran. They are helping us as volunteers, and that’s beautiful. Many of them are actually working for the government or they’re professors, government officials, journalists, experts, consultants, and they review these documents and then check if they’re real or unreal. That you — we could rely on them or not.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
And mostly these days, people are sending us real material. As we speak, people in the city of Hamadan — that is supposed to be considered a water rich area are thirsty. They don’t have water in their taps and the dam near the city has dried up. The government wants to transfer water that’s contaminated by arsenic from about 100 miles away from an other basin.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So you see, we have to tell these things to the public that, okay, if you’re getting water, you have to be aware of the quality of that water, because we have reports saying that there’s some levels of arsenic in that water and oh, and other heavy metals. So it sounds crazy, but it’s real. It’s happening right now.

Jay Famiglietti:
[CROSSTALK] — Yeah, it’s it’s really it… it does sound surreal. And I’m curious about these people who are basically acting as, you know, your informants, right? Your sources. Is this a safe vehicle for them to communicate with you if they’re using Twitter or WhatsApp or whatever?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So far, so good. Couple of years ago, one of our sources was arrested, but they couldn’t find anything to actually put him in jail. He was just arrested for a few days and they had to leave him alone. But the thing is, right now, even members of the security agencies are somehow feeling the heat for the problems that have been created by the regime.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
They are thirsty as well. They need to wash themselves after going to the toilet. And when there’s not enough water, they cannot just use stones to go back to the Stone Age

Jay Famiglietti:
Now, so I’m curious, Nik, tell me about Abangan and who you’re trying to reach.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
So “Ab” means water, “ban” means guardian. So “Abangan” was the festivity to honor the guardian angel of water in ancient Persia. So we started Abangan in 2015 and it was, let’s say, a weekly show. But after a while we produced two shows a week. What we wanted to do was to actually bring the issue of water to people’s table, and so they would talk about it inside the country because many people were enjoying very cheap tap water.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
They didn’t understand what was happening in the countryside and why many farmers were forced to migrate from rural areas to city margins. The main objective was to educate the people who weren’t thinking about water or didn’t take water seriously. We mentioned a few things, one or two things, to our audiences that, look, if you’re enjoying, let’s say, sufficient water, it’s not going to be like this in the near future.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Understand that we’re having less and less rain, snow and also bad agricultural policies and bad water management policies are going to cause major problems for different parts of the country. And when in 2017 and actually December 2017, there was an uprising and people were killed in areas that had suffered from water poverty or water tension, water stress. I pointed out that, look, many people had lost their jobs because of lack of water, lack of sufficient water.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
They didn’t have enough water for farming. So farmers had lost their jobs. They were moving to different areas. And there were also herders. There were villagers in different areas that were suffering because of this. People lose their water and they lose their lands. They have nothing else to lose. And these are the first people to fight against the system forces.

Jay Famiglietti:
I just — I simply hate hearing these stories. What’s your hope for people in Iran and and for their water future?

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I think we need a democratic system. We don’t have water democracy, if you can call it. We don’t have a democratic water management system. The top down decision making process is somehow enforced on different populations and communities, and people don’t have a say. Stakeholders don’t have a say. The leaders decide to build a dam, to build a water allocation scheme, and they do it and they just want to cut the ribbon with their scissors and say what a great job they’ve done.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
The Iranian presidents are famous for that. They love dams. Dams are too photogenic for them. And they they love to be taken over there.

Jay Famiglietti:
Same same [CROSSTALK] — that’s the same everywhere. Right? It’s it’s politically preferable to build something big and shiny and have a legacy and show your constituency that you’re doing something great when really the more important thing might be to conserve more water or to be more efficient in agriculture, things that don’t actually get seen.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
You cannot show groundwater, [CROSSSTALK] but you can show the reservoir. [CROSSTALK]

Jay Famiglietti:
And, you know, you can’t show you can’t show the buried drip irrigation lines [CROSSTALK] either because they’re buried. But they are super important. I want to wrap it up by asking you about the importance of shows like yours and other film and media when it comes to getting the message out and solving our water issues, not just in Iran, but but globally.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
I can talk about my own experience. The good thing about it was that after we started airing the show, different TV channels started contacting me and asking me to go on their news bulletins or giving them commentaries about what was happening. And this was a better way to reach out to bigger audiences. Look like I respect those TV channels that are airing our shows, but it’s it’s not a big chunk of the Iranian population.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
But when I go on, let’s say BBC Persian or I go on Iran International TV, I know millions are watching. So even 3 minutes of airtime on one of those TV channels gives us a platform to raise awareness. And there are days that I have to be on different channels four or five times. So I think it’s really important to use technology to reach out to people and try to empower them because it’s knowledge is power.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
And when you don’t have enough knowledge to think about something, to talk about something, you’re powerless. So I think that’s that’s really important.

Jay Famiglietti:
Well, it sounds like you are reaching millions and millions of people. So thank you so much for joining us today, Nik.

Nikahang (“Nik”) Kowsar:
Oh, my, my pleasure.

Jay Famiglietti:
Nik Kowsar is the host and producer of an award winning weekly show on water shortages in Iran called “Abangan”.

Jay Famiglietti:
Technology and media are a huge part of our lives. That’s what Daniel Harrich is betting on. He’s a German filmmaker who released a star-studded feature film about water earlier this year. And he recently released a documentary version of the feature film and then a three part documentary series called “Unser Vasser”, which means “Our Water”, that’s had over 40 million views in Germany.

Jay Famiglietti:
I’m really fortunate to have been featured in them. And to have spent a couple of weeks last summer working with Daniel and his father, Walter, traveling along the Colorado River.

Daniel Harrich:
My name is Daniel Harrich I’m an investigative filmmaker based in Munich, Germany. We’ve been focusing over the last couple of years on the combination of using star-studded feature films combined with documentaries and radio podcasts and nonfiction programing in order to change reality to have the most political impact for good. Over the week following the initial premiere, our film Till the Last Drop was debated twice in Parliament.

Daniel Harrich:
So you’ve got all these political leaders watching the star-studded feature film debating about the future of water. So you can imagine US Congress or the Canadian Assemblies debating about this, you know, scientific project, this feature film, trying to decide on future legislations and asking for working groups. And so it immediately made the political waves we actually have right now, the data that we reached with that programing over 40 million.

Daniel Harrich:
That’s half of our population. We had one case in north of Germany in Lüneburg, where Coca-Cola, where Coke actually tried to get new permissions, new water extraction rights. And I would say that our feature film was a big part of them not getting that permission or them retracting the application for the permission. You can see that the communication is working.

Daniel Harrich:
You can see that the audience is striving for insights about water and looking back at, you know, traveling with Jay through the United States, we knew that we were doing something really important together. And we knew that, you know, what we’re doing here is something that will have impact and I think that this only works if, you know, science and media communicate and exchange information and, you know, push it for the good.

Jay Famiglietti:
Daniel Harrich created the three part documentary, “Our Water” for the German public television network ARD. More recently, Deutsche Welle has translated them into Spanish, English and Arabic, and collectively they now have over three and a half million views. We’ve thrown those links into our show notes. Also, over the summer, and this was very cool. I got a call to consult on a water segment for an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

John Oliver:
But the most important thing to know about groundwater is that it’s not totally independent of surface water at all. These are often part of one intertwined hydrological system. So when you pump groundwater, it can ultimately dry up rivers. The connection between groundwater and surface water is one of those alarming connections that we just choose to forget. You know, like the one between Elisabeth Moss and Scientology, it’s so much easier just not to really think about it.

Jay Famiglietti:
[LAUGHS] Wow. If you haven’t caught that water episode from Last Week Tonight, it aired back in June. So far, it has over 5 million views on YouTube. We put that link in our show notes as well. Find it there. Please share it with a friend.

Erin Stephens:
Are your questions about water keeping you up at night? Getting tired of having to look up answers on Google? If this sounds like you, you might need Jay. Submit your questions for him to ideas@whataboutwater.org. Email us today and you might just be featured in our next episode. That’s: ideas@whataboutwater.org.

Jay Famiglietti:
Well, that’s it for this episode of “What About Water?” We record and produce this podcast on Treaty Six territory, the homeland of First Nations and Métis people. “What About Water?” is a collaboration between The Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. This podcast is a production of Cascade Communications. Our audio engineer is Wayne Giesbrecht.

Jay Famiglietti:
Our producer is Erin Stephens. Our fact checker is Taisha Garby. The crew at GIWS is Mark Ferguson. Shawn Ahmed, Fred Reibin, Andrea Rowe, and Jesse Witow. I’m Jay Famiglietti — thanks for listening.