Iran water protests spread through country

Drought and decades of mismanagement blamed for nationwide shortages

The "Si-o-Se Pol" (33 Arches) bridge over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan, Iran, which now runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city. AFP
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Anger over water shortages in Iran’s key oil region in the south-west have spread to surrounding provinces, including Lorestan, and to major cities such as Tehran and Isfahan.

Thousands have since last week been protesting about the lack of water, mostly in the southern areas of Khuzestan province. The recurring problem, blamed on decades of poor water management and bad environmental policies by the government, is being made worse by record summer temperatures and drought.

Footage on social media showed crowds calling for water and chanting slogans against the Islamic republic. Iranian media reported that four civilians and a police officer had been killed in the protests since July 15, but activists and human rights groups say the number is likely to be higher.

Human Rights Watch said that Iranian authorities appeared to have "used excessive force against demonstrators" and the government should "transparently investigate" the reported deaths.

"Iranian authorities have a very troubling record of responding with bullets to protesters frustrated with mounting economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions," said HRW's Iran researcher Tara Sepehri Far.

A video from Lorestan circulated overnight shows people running as a man says security forces are shooting at people.

A resident of Shush in Khuzestan, who asked to be identified only as Mohammed, said security forces killed a protester there. Internet access had been shut several times, he said.

Government officials are divided in their reactions to the protests. Most condemned the protests, often blaming them on outside forces, while trying to acknowledge that water scarcity is a problem in the Khuzestan region and the country as a whole.

Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran's vice president for women’s and family affairs, posted an audio clip on Twitter of a woman in Khuzestan apparently pleading with a member of the security forces to stop shooting at peaceful protesters. The tweet, circulated widely on Wednesday, sparked anger among social media users for having been edited to cut out the woman being harassed and beaten by security forces. The complete audio clip was circulated on Telegram.

President Hassan Rouhani spoke about the protests in a speech broadcast on state TV on Thursday, saying, “the people of Khuzestan have the right to speak, express themselves, protest and even take to the streets, within the framework of the regulations”.

On Friday, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iranians protesting about water shortages in the south-west cannot be blamed for their anger. He called on officials to deal with the water problem, Iran's state media reported.

"The people showed their displeasure ... but we cannot really blame the people and their issues must be taken care of," he said.

"Now, thank God, all the various agencies, governmental and non-governmental, are working [to resolve the water crisis] and should continue with all seriousness," Mr Khamenei said.

Officials have tried to address the crisis by sending water tankers and bottled water, but this has done little to appease protesters. Mr Rouhani, who will step down on August 3 after completing his second term as president, said he had instructed his first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, to visit the south-west region immediately.

Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline cleric who will replace Mr Rouhani, said he would appoint a special governor for the area.

Updated: July 23, 2021, 9:28 AM