Growing Unrest in Azerbaijan Region over Imperiled Lake Orumieh
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI
04 Sep 2011 23:00
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Iran Daylight Time (IRDT), GMT+4:3011 p.m., 13 Shahrivar/September 4 Demonstrations were held Saturday in Tabriz and Orumieh -- the capitals of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces, respectively -- and in several other towns in the two provinces to protest the disastrous condition of Lake Orumieh. The salt lake has been drying up rapidly in recent years; approximately half of the area it formerly covered is now completely dry. Experts predict that unless drastic actions are taken, it will completely dry up and disappear in about five years. Reports by several sources indicate that the demonstrations were broken up by police and security forces, and a large number of protestors were arrested. (For amateur video purported to be of Saturday's protests, see here and here.)
In addition to the fact that the disappearance of the lake, which has existed for thousands of years, would be an ecological catastrophe, the spread of the salt that will remain behind will affect agriculture and water resources. Experts predict that at least 18 provinces will be affected. The demonstrators and other activists believe that much of the blame for what is happening to Lake Orumieh rests with the government, which they say lacks any plan to address the situation.
On Wednesday, August 24, the security forces arrested a large number of civil activists in Tabriz. The first large-scale demonstrations to protest what is happening to Lake Orumieh were held on Saturday, August 27. Those demonstrations turned violent when the anti-riot police used tear gas; many protesters were injured and a large number of people were arrested. The same day, 22 Majles deputies from the Azerbaijan provinces issued a statement warning that the government would be responsible for the social, political, and economic consequences of Lake Orumieh drying up.
There were large demonstrations again on Sunday, August 28. Since Thursday, September 1, when human rights advocates and civil society activists called for new protests against the government's inaction, security and intelligence forces in the two provinces have been on high alert. Eyewitnesses reported that Motahari and Taleghani Streets in Orumieh were controlled by demonstrators for several hours, and that there was a confrontation between the people and the police in Ataei Street. In Tabriz, police confronted the demonstrators in Bazaar-e Mohammadi and Bazaar-e Rasteh; clashes then spread to the Ghoonfa Bashi, Bagh-e Golestan, and Sa'at Ghabbghi neighborhoods. Police used tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse the demonstrators. Eyewitnesses reported that dozens of people were arrested in both cities. Reports indicate that the protestors were shouting "Join us, my Turkish brothers," and "Lake Orumieh is thirsty; if Azerbaijan does not wake up, it will be lost." An eyewitness said that there were four security agents for every demonstrator.
In preparation for this Saturday's demonstrations, security forces collected all the curbside trash cans to prevent the people from using them against the police. Early Saturday morning, two police helicopters began hovering over Orumieh. The presence of a large number of plainclothes agents in the two cities has been reported. Internet speed has been reduced to practically zero, there is disruption in phone service, and SMS communications have been cut off.
Several reports indicate that similar demonstrations were held in Miandoab, Mianeh, and Salmas. At least 20 people were arrested in Miandoab and Mianeh. Reports indicate that even in Tehran, the police and plainclothes agents were present in large numbers around the Majles building at historic Baharestan Square to prevent any possible demonstrations by Azeri people who live in the capital.
HRANA, the news agency for human rights activists, reported that anti-riot police and security forces attacked a bazaar in Emam Street in Orumieh, although it was closed in solidarity with the protest, and inflicted extensive damage on people's property. HRANA also reported that the police attacked demonstrators in Tabriz, injuring and arresting many.
Mehr news agency reported that the demonstration and confrontation between the people and the police in Orumieh continued until 11 p.m. local time. According to Mehr, Sunday has been a normal day in Orumieh and the bazaar that had been closed was once again open. There are rumors that a number of demonstrators were killed, but local officials denied those reports according to Mehr.
At the same time, Isa Ghanbari, West Azerbaijan deputy governor-general for security matters, told Mehr that the protests not only did nothing to help the situation of Lake Orumieh, they disrupted economic activity as well. He added that the problem with the lake developed over many years and cannot be solved by closing the bazaar and holding demonstrations. He also denied that anyone was killed or injured in yesterday's demonstration -- in which he claimed only 200 people took part -- but did confirm that some had been injured in the protests on August 27.
Javad Jahangirzadeh, who represents Orumieh in the Majles and sits on the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, strongly criticized the harsh treatment of the protestors by the police. He said that "the issue must not be turned into a security problem and viewed politically. This is a social problem important to the indigenous people who live in that area. We should not prevent the protests, but think of a solution for the problem." Another Majles deputy from Orumieh, Nader Ghazipoor, said that "all Iranians must help save Lake Orumieh, because it belongs to all Iranians."
With the exception of Fars, the news agency controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, none of the hardline websites, news agencies, or dailies has provided any coverage of the demonstrations. Fars carried a report about a gathering of 50 people.
Tehran City Council member Dr. Masoumeh Ebtekar, who was vice president for environmental affairs in the Khatami administration, said that those who are protesting about the condition of Lake Orumieh are "civil and environmental activists and if they warn us, we should heed it for the environment." She added that Lake Orumieh is a great resource for Azerbaijan that contributes to the region's mild weather and its agricultural fertility. "If nothing is done, we will have salt storms that will destroy all the towns around the lake," she warned, adding, "I do not know who is responsible, the government that did not carry out the plan [for saving the lake], or the Majles that did not oversee [what the government was supposed to do]. Passage of time has worsened the crisis, and we are now at the height of it."
Nearly two weeks ago a group of Majles deputies proposed a plan to transfer water from the Aras River, which lies on the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan, to Lake Orumieh. Their request for an urgent vote was denied and the matter was returned to the parliament's Economy Commission and Research Center for further study.
One hundred and forty journalists have written an open letter to the Majles deputies, the head of Iran's environmental protection agency, the ministers of power and agriculture, and the governor-generals of the two Azerbaijan provinces and Kurdistan province warning about the consequences of doing nothing. They said that a number of villages and small towns around the lake have already been evacuated, and evoked the catastrophe of Central Asia's Aral Sea -- known in Persian as Lake Kawrazm -- which used to be one of the largest lakes in the world; after years of degradation and neglect, only 10 percent of it remains.
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