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Dying Lake Gives New Life To Iran's Antigovernment Protests

A motorbike is set on fire by protesters and rocks remain on the street during a protest in the northwestern city of Orumieh (Urmia) on August 27.
A motorbike is set on fire by protesters and rocks remain on the street during a protest in the northwestern city of Orumieh (Urmia) on August 27.
Iran's largest lake is dying, but it's giving new life to antigovernment protests along its receding shores.

Lake Orumieh, one of the world's largest saltwater lakes, has shrunk by some 60 percent in recent years due to drought and misguided development policies. Environmentalists warn that unless something is done, the lake will disappear forever.

This dire prospect has put locals who depend on the lake on edge. And seeing as the lake straddles the border of Iran's East and West Azerbaijan provinces, centers of the country's ethnic Azeri population that have a rich and volatile history of protest against Tehran, the central government is on edge too.

Tensions over the lake's falling water levels boiled over last week, after parliament, the Majlis, decided against local lawmakers' proposed fast-track solution to the problem in an August 17 vote. Scores of locals took to the streets of Orumieh (aka Urmia) on August 27, and open conflict with security forces ensued.

"Let's cry and fill Lake Orumieh with our tears," protesters chanted in Orumieh, as well as, "Lake Orumieh is dying; the Majlis is issuing its death sentence" (see video here).

And what might have been heard loudest by the authorities -- already sensitive to any signs of a return of the large-scale protest that followed the country's 2009 presidential election and wary of any outward signs of ethnic discord in the country's Azeri regions -- were chants like these: "Azerbaijan rise up and cry out," and "If Azerbaijan doesn't rise up, it will lose."

'Numerous Injuries, Arrests'

The protest was met with force by security forces, who reportedly used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Videos purportedly from the protest that were posted on YouTube show activists throwing stones, and antiriot forces firing back.

Yashar Hakkapour, a Canada-based human rights activist, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that he heard reports of numerous injuries and arrests among protesters. "Local sources informed us that some of the people were injured because the special forces attacked them with batons," he said.

A protest planned the same day in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan Province that lies 80 kilometers east of the lake, never materialized.

An eyewitness told RFE/RL that security forces prevented citizens from expressing their concerns over the state of the lake, and at least three people were detained.

An abandoned ship is stuck in the solidified salts of Lake Orumieh.

The failed protest came after a spate of arrests and incidents related to the outcry over the government's perceived inaction over the lake issue.

Some 30 activists in the city were arrested on August 24 during a fast-breaking dinner in the middle of Ramadan. They were reportedly discussing the poor state of the lake.

A day earlier, several activists were detained before and after a soccer match in Tabriz. Soccer fans assembled for the August 23 game reportedly chanted slogans against the Iranian parliament and accused it of issuing an execution order for the lake.

In April, 70 people in Tabriz were reportedly arrested at a protest against the lake's rapid demise. Several of them were later sentenced to lashes and fined.

Tehran's Azeri Fears

The region's history as a hotbed of resistance -- highlighted by the Tabriz-centered constitutional revolution of 1906 aimed at bringing modern democratic practices to Iran -- could help explain the government's heavy-handed response.

As Washington-based analyst Ali Afshari explains, Iranian authorities are concerned about an awakening of ethnic tensions that have led to large scale protests in the past. "We have to see it in the frame of political and ethnic tensions that exists in that region between some of the ethnic Azeri Iranians and the government," he says. "Some are after [more rights] while others might have separatist demands. This has led the government to react."

The development also comes amid strains in Tehran's relations with neighboring Azerbaijan that stem largely from Baku's concerns over the treatment of Iran's large Azeri minority.

Activists in Azerbaijan have called on Iran to release Azeri political prisoners and to provide more cultural and political rights for Azeris in Iran. In the wake of the violence and arrests related to Lake Orumieh, groups such as the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran have condemned the Iranian government's response to the protests and have called for the release of those detained.

Responding To Protests, Not Issue

Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, a top adviser to opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi who left Iran a few months ago, told the opposition Kalame website that the Iranian government's response showed how much it fears protests of any kind. "A government that is facing a legitimacy crisis is afraid of everything, from youths' joy, to having iftar in parks, everything," Arjomand said. "They even see the water of Orumieh Lake as a security issue."

The security implications are not lost on those outside the government either. In covering the protests, the business-oriented website Aftab noted, "If officials did not want to rescue the dying Lake Orumieh, then they should at least be aware that not doing anything serious about the issue can create deep security issues in the northwestern region of the country."

In April, demonstrators in Tabriz and Orumieh demanded Lake Orumieh be saved.

Questions have also been raised over whether the lake's demise is the true reason for the protests, or just a convenient excuse to air political grievances.

Analyst Afshari doesn't think it really matters either way. "Some of those who took part in the protests have genuine environmental concerns -- Lake Orumieh is a key factor for development and the environment of that region, not only the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan but also for other provinces, so some are really concerned," he notes. "Others might use the issue for their own political and ethnic activities; yet we shouldn't forget that it's the people's right to protest."

Does Tehran Have A Plan?

If there is one point of consensus, it is that saving the lake appears to be the goal of all parties and in the interest of all Iranians. The polarizing point is just how to go about it.

The parliament's August 17 vote against the "double urgency" bill was not the final nail in the coffin for Lake Orumieh, even if that is how the decision is perceived by some.

What the vote did kill was a proposal submitted by lawmakers from Orumieh that called for allocating funds to channel water from the Aras River to raise the level of the lake. In rejecting the proposal, the parliament effectively opted to continue its current review of the situation.

This has led to accusations of inaction by some, but those who voted against the bill defended their decision by saying it was submitted in haste and had little chance of restoring the lake.

Among them is lawmaker Salam Khodadadi, who told Iran's official IRNA news agency last week that the regional representatives who proposed the bill should have presented the bill as a national project and not as a regional one.

Only the central government can solve the problem of the lake, he said, adding that 8.5 billion liters of water evaporates from the lake every year.

"If it continues like that, we will be left face-to-face with a national tragedy in two years' time," he said.

Another lawmaker, Jamshid Ansari, described the drying-up of the lake as a national problem and warned that if the issue was not dealt with properly, 18 of Iran's 31 provinces would be affected.

Iranian authorities have blamed a variety of factors, including drought, for the lake's dropping water level. And the government has announced a plan to invigorate the lake that includes reducing the amount of water drawn from the lake for irrigation and supplying it with remote sources of water. In 2010, Vice President Mohammad Javad Mohammadizadeh said 2 billion cubic meters of water would be added to the lake over five to 10 years.

Environmental experts and others cite misguided policies and poor decisions as the biggest contributors to the lake's demise. "We've built 35 dams and 10 more are being constructed," says Ismail Kahrom, a well-known environmental expert and university professor in Tehran. "It means we have deprived Orumieh Lake of 5.5 billion cubic meters of water per year."

Experts have called for action before the lake -- a UNESCO Biosphere reserve home to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, and mammals -- fades away forever.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.