WASHINGTON - Iranian state media say two days of protests against water shortages in the country’s southwest have turned deadly, with gunfire killing one person late Friday.
State news agency IRNA quoted Omid Sabripour, a local government chief of the city of Shadegan in Khuzestan province, as saying “a number of Shadegan's people had gathered to protest water shortages due to the drought, during which opportunists and rioters shot dead one of the demonstrators.” He said the person had been killed by a stray bullet fired into the air.
Friday’s incident came on the second day of Khuzestan water shortage protests that have drawn attention to what experts say is long-running mismanagement of natural resources by Iran’s Islamist rulers.
Videos shared on social media and with VOA Persian appeared to show Iranians marching and chanting in Arabic late Thursday and Friday in multiple cities of the province. It is home to ethnic minority Arabs who have long accused majority-Persian Iran's ruling clerics of discrimination and neglect.
VOA cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the videos as it is barred from reporting inside Iran.
In the clips, protesters can be heard shouting slogans such as “I am thirsty” and “water is my right.” One video shared Thursday appeared to show marchers on a street pushing back against riot police who tried to stop them. In another video also shared on Thursday, a narrator identifies the location as the city of Khorramshahr as apparent gunfire can be heard coming from a nearby location.
Iran-based activists told VOA Persian that demonstrations also had taken place on Thursday night in Khuzestan’s provincial capital, Ahvaz, and in the cities of Bostan, Hamidiyeh, Mahshahr and Susangerd.
The street protests are the widest-scale disturbances that Iran has seen in months.
Iranian state-approved news agency Fars acknowledged that Iranians had rallied in Ahvaz and other parts of Khuzestan to protest shortages of drinking and agricultural water, and the drying up of wetlands and rivers in part caused by local authorities’ diversion of those water sources toward industrial sites in neighboring regions.
Fars played down the first night of protests, however, asserting that “several youths” set fire to tires, blocked roads and disrupted traffic for “a few minutes” Thursday until police cleared the streets without any clashes.
Iran’s judiciary news site said judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei responded to the unrest by sending the attorney general and senior energy ministry officials to Khuzestan on Friday to investigate the water shortages and report back to him.
In a VOA Persian TV interview on Friday, London-based exiled Iranian Ahwazi Arab writer and rights activist Yousef Azizi Bani-Torof accused the Iranian government of pursuing a policy of drought and thirst against its minority Arab population.
“These are words uttered by the people in the streets,” Azizi Bani-Torof said.
“The regime media should send its reporters to see that the Dez and Karkheh rivers have partially dried out,” he added, referring to two major water sources in Khuzestan province.
40% drop in rainfall
Responding to a VOA Persian question at Friday’s U.S. State Department press briefing, spokesperson Jalina Porter said Washington has seen the reports of Iran’s water shortages and resulting protests.
“We continue to urge the Iranian government to support the Iranian people as they exercise their universal rights to freedom of expression as well as freedom of peaceful assembly,” Porter said.
One factor behind Iran’s water shortages is a sharp drop in rainfall, which has been more than 40% below last year’s levels in recent months, combined with high summer temperatures. The drought has left Iran’s dams with less water to generate electricity, contributing to rolling nationwide blackouts in recent weeks.
In another Friday interview for VOA Persian, Toronto-based Iranian journalist and activist Hoda Karimi Sadr, who is from Khuzestan, said a longer-term cause of the water shortages is Iran’s poorly considered construction and placement of dams.
“Building a dam over parts of Karkheh River and drying up the Hawizeh Marshes to drill for oil has resulted in people being forced to relocate,” Karimi Sadr said. The Hawizeh Marshes are a marshland region that straddles the Iranian province's border with Iraq.
Mansour Sohrabi, a Hannover, Germany-based Iranian agroecologist who taught at universities in Iran for 14 years, told VOA Persian that another factor is diversion of Khuzestan’s river water.
Iranian manufacturing plants requiring a direct water supply are in provinces without such resources, so officials have redirected water from Khuzestan's Karun and Dez rivers to those factories in those provinces, Sohrabi said. As result, the industrial areas see increases in population and agricultural activity, resulting in even more water consumption, he said.
“What we are witnessing is the direct result of more than 40 years of mismanagement which cannot be resolved overnight,” Sohrabi said.