Iran should solve water crisis instead of attacking protesters, UN says

UN rights chief blames water shortages in south-western Iran on years of mismanagement

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet speaks from her office at the Palais Wilson on her first day as new United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, September 3, 2018.  Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

Iran should improve water supplies across its drought-stricken south-west instead of killing, injuring and jailing those who protest against shortages, the UN’s human rights chief said on Friday.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner on human rights, said she was “extremely concerned” by the deaths, injuries and arrests of those demonstrating against water shortages in Khuzestan province.

The wealthy, oil-producing region has been gripped by drought since March, triggering protests in several towns and cities this past week that have been met with a heavy-handed response.

“The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” Ms Bachelet in a statement.

Iranian media and officials have said at least three people have been killed, including a police officer and a protester, and have accused “opportunists” and “rioters” of shooting at protesters and security forces.

But campaign group Amnesty International said on Friday it had confirmed the deaths of at least eight protesters and bystanders, including a teenage boy, as the authorities used live ammunition in a bid to quell the demonstrations.

The Khuzestan region was once Iran’s most reliable source of water, but years of mismanagement, droughts and the diversion of water to dryer regions have seen supplies dwindle, the UN says.

The Karkheh and Zohreh riverbeds and the Hawizeh marshes in western Khuzestan have all dried up in recent months.

The province’s five million inhabitants include a large Arab minority and its people regularly complain of being sidelined by Tehran. The area was in 2019 a hotspot for anti-government protests that shook other parts of the country.

Rallies against water shortages and mismanagement erupted across the province on July 15, with protesters, including children, chanting, “I am thirsty, water is my right.”

“Water is indeed a right,” said Ms Bachelet. “But Instead of heeding the legitimate calls by its citizens for that right to be upheld, the authorities have, for the most part, concentrated on oppressing those making those calls.”

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday warned Khuzestan residents not to give ammunition to Iran’s opponents.

“The enemy will try to use any tool against the revolution, the nation and the people's interests, so we must be careful not to give him any pretext,” he said in comments posted on his official website.

President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday that the people had the right to protest. State security chief Admiral Ali Shamkhani said anybody who has been detained for protesting peacefully would be released.

Updated: July 23, 2021, 4:01 PM