Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran's Angry Water Protests Turn Deadly Amid Severe Drought

Iranians protest in Ahvaz on July 16.

A woman in southwestern Iran was heard pleading for security forces not to use violence against those protesting water shortages after at least two demonstrators were killed.

“Sir…the demonstrations are peaceful, why do you shoot?” the woman in the city of Susangerd told anti-riot forces in an audio widely shared online and cited by Iranian media.

She was among hundreds of citizens, including children, who have taken to the streets of more than a dozen cities and towns in the western Khuzestan Province, including the capital, Ahvaz, for five consecutive nights to demand access to potable water.

The protests turned deadly shortly after they started on July 15, with local authorities blaming the death of a 30-year-old man described as a passerby on "rioters" firing in the air, though opposition sources have accused security forces of causing the death. Some reports say as many as four people were killed.

Internet disruptions -- believed to be caused by officials to prevent protesters from organizing -- have also been reported in the province.

Iranian authorities have sent a delegation to the region to try to reassure the public, with outgoing President Hassan Rohani saying that people in Khuzestan will be compensated for the situation and media reports saying an assistance program had been approved.

Judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei also urged officials to resolve the water crisis and prevent the recurrence of similar problems.

Amateur videos posted online appear to show a heavy police presence using tear gas to disperse protesters in several cities. Gunshots are heard in some of the videos, while in others protesters appear to be burning tires to block streets and are throwing rocks at security forces.

'Thirst Of The People'

The severe drought -- exacerbated by years of mismanagement and poor planning -- is being blamed for the water crisis.

Energy Minister Reza Ardekani warned earlier this year that the summer would be the driest in the country in 50 years. The drought has devastated agriculture and livestock and led to power cuts amid scorching temperatures that sometimes reach 50 degrees Celsius.

The use of force against "thirsty" protesters in the war-stricken province has caused widespread outrage among Iranians, with many taking to social media to express their concern and solidarity with those who are desperately calling for access to more water.

Khuzestan, which borders Iraq, became the front-line during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, when tens of thousands of people were killed and many of the region's cities were left in ruins.

The province is home to around 80 percent of Iran's oil fields and 60 percent of the country's natural-gas reserves.

Locals -- the majority of them ethnic Arabs -- have long complained of discrimination and say they don't benefit from the province's wealth.

"The people of Khuzestan don't [deserve] bullets. They acted as shields against bullets during the war," former reformist lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi tweeted on July 18, using the Persian hashtag "Khuzestan is not alone."

Lawmaker Mojtaba Mahfuzi from the Khuzestan city of Abadan said in parliament on July 19 that the province had witnessed many crises, including "dust [storms], floods, and droughts, the drying of wetlands, and the thirst of the people."

"Listen to the cries of the oppressed people of Khuzestan and give this region a share of what it has offered," Mahfuzi said.

Heavy-Handed Response

Nabi Nissi, a journalist in the region, told the reformist Iranian daily Etemad that demonstrations in Susangerd were largely peaceful, adding that the deployment of riot police led to "tensions."

"When the police forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were tolerant toward the people, nothing happened," Nissi said. "Unfortunately, when the special units entered the city they took action, which unfortunately led to physical clashes and shooting."

"I don't know what caused [the security forces] to come," he added. "People's demands are focused on water shortages."

The protests come amid rising public frustration over a decimated economy that has been crushed by crippling U.S. sanctions. There has also been public anger over power cuts, brownouts, and a slow vaccination campaign amid a surge in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in recent weeks.

The country has also faced protests by nurses, workers, pensioners, and thousands of oil contractors demanding higher wages.

Paris-based political analyst Reza Alijani told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Tehran's heavy-handed response to the protests in Khuzestan highlights its fear of its citizens.

"Whenever the Islamic republic sees a threat to its existence it uses force," Alijani said, noting the factors behind the authorities' sensitivity about Khuzestan, where separatist groups operate. Tehran has in the past blamed unrest in the province on its foreign enemies, accusing them of provoking ethnic strife.

"Khuzestan is also a special province -- it's a border province which has its security issues, it's an oil province, it's the spinal cord of the economy, our Arab ethnic brothers live there, and it has been also damaged by the [Iran-Iraq] war," he said. "It's a province that has faced many crises."

The province also saw protests over water shortages and pollution in February 2017 and July 2018 when many chanted anti-establishment slogans.

  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on 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.