Iran: Azeris protest against dams and government neglect

Azeris in Iran have joined together to protest against dam construction on Lake Urmia’s tributaries that is destroying the region’s ecological and economic resources.

Lake Urmia, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is situated between the East and West Azerbaijan provinces and is one of the largest salt lakes in the world. But over the past 15 years it has shrunk by 60 per cent due to the construction of 36 dams on the lake’s tributaries, prolonged drought, and the construction of a major highway bisecting the lake to connect the cities of Urmia and Tabriz. The region now faces a growing ecological disaster, with serious negative consequences on Azeri communities whose livelihoods depend upon the lake.

In April 2011, Azeris gathered to protest in Urmia and Tabriz, calling on the government to save the lake. According to Amnesty International, 70 people were arrested in Tabriz and 20 in Urmia for protesting illegally. During the summer, Azeri activists escalated their protests after the Iranian government dropped plans aimed at reviving the lake. On 24 August, 30 Azeris were arrested at a private gathering, and on 27 August, thousands of protesters in Urmia clashed with riot police, resulting in 300 arrests, according to HRW. Police shot tear gas at protesters and beat them with batons. At another environmental rally in early September, security forces resorted yet again to violence and arrested 60 people.

As the lake recedes, its salt content is gradually dispersed into the local environment, causing increased soil salinity in surrounding farmland. Experts estimate that if the lake dries up completely, the surrounding cities will be covered by layers of salt, eventually displacing up to 1.3 million people. The lake also plays an important role regulating regional weather systems, and its disappearance will lead to damaging shifts to seasonal weather patterns

Thousands of Azeris in the cities of Tabriz and Urmia depend on the lake for their livelihoods, especially for ecotourism, irrigation and salt production. The shrinking of the lake has already affected tourism and regional investment has dropped significantly. Proposals made by the Iranian government to save the lake have been dismissed by activists and experts as short-term measures. For example, rather than launching a cloud-seeding programme to increase rainfall and supply the lake with remote sources of water as the government proposes, activists argue that releasing the water held behind dams would be far more effective in the long run. But for years, the Iranian government has chosen to ignore the problem and shirk responsibility, instead blaming global warming.

For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

Photo: An Azeri man in Kandovan, near Lake Urmia, Iran. Credit: Piotr Bystranowski.

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Date: 15/06/2012

Countries:

Iran

Categories:

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Refugees/Displacement/Migrants
Advocacy
Campaigns

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