Mismanagement of natural resources and poor policymaking and implementation has led to the water shortages — and confrontations — of today.

Hopes were raised over the weekend when high level officials finally visited the southwestern province of Khuzestan in Iran to investigate the devastating water shortages that led to widespread protests across the province and sympathy protests in several other provinces.

The visits happened ten days after protests began on July 15 and only after a green light by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who in a rare show of support for the people, said he understood the protesters’ anger over the drought, but stopped short of condemning the heavy-handed crackdown.

Extensive video evidence verified by human rights organisations reveals that security forces shot and killed “at least eight protestors”. Amnesty International says they “used deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas to disperse protesters”. It called the action “unlawful” and “excessive” and condemned the intelligence forces for having “swept up dozens of protesters and activists including many from the Ahwazi Arab minority in mass arrests”.

“I am thirsty, water is my right,” was the main slogan of the protests heard in at least 20 major cities and towns in Khuzestan and across support protests in provinces of Isfahan, Azerbaijan, Lorestan and Kurdistan. Groups of lawyers, artists, musicians, and writers wrote open letters of support objecting to the violation of the basic rights of the residents. Hashtags in Farsi such as #KhuzestanIsThirsty and #KhuzestanHasNoWater were widely used.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet added her voice telling Iran to “concentrate on taking urgent action” to address the chronic water shortage instead of using “excessive force and widespread arrests to crush the protests”.

Member of Parliament for Khuzestan, Mojtaba Yusofi, said in most areas in the north and south of Khuzestan there is no drinking water amidst a scorching temperature of over 51 degrees Celsius.

While one factor behind the water shortages is a sharp drop in rainfall by more than 40 percent in recent months - mismanagement of water resources is held by most local experts to be the main cause leading to the acute crisis.

Water resources from the agricultural lands of Khuzestan have, over decades, been diverted for industrial use in other provinces. Several dams have been created to store water for seasonal use. 

Farmers are now left without water for their land, cattle and crops as well as drinking water. Many have lost valuable cattle from the water shortage. They are angry and unemployed and nothing has been done to reverse the trend.

Iranian authorities originally blamed the unrest on “rioters” and tried to portray the protests as politically motivated.

Amnesty International says video evidence indicates the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, though in some places, some protesters put up roadblocks with burning tyres, engaged in stone-throwing and arson and damaged state vehicles, as the crackdown by security forces escalated. It clarifies that in some videos, gunfire is heard while protesters are escaping and could not, therefore, represent any danger to the security forces.

But official media such as Tasnim, which is close to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) fabricated videos to blame “anti-revolutionaries” for killing protestors.

“We cannot blame the protestors,” said Khamenei, adding that water shortage in scorching hot weather is no small issue. He called for an investigation.

The Ayatollah is well aware of the danger signs in that turbulent province. Three of the recent terrorist attacks against the IRGC took place in the same province. The dispatching of the IRGC’s chief commander Hossein Salami to the area after Khamenei’s speech was a clear indicator of concerns of unrest.

There’s also long-standing resentment towards what the locals allege is a policy of divide and rule separating the ethnic Arabs of Khuzestan from the rest. The province is home to a large Arab minority, and its people complain regularly of being marginalised.

When Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri paid a visit on Friday, Sheikh Mousa Krushaty, an Arab activist, told him water was not the only problem; that “unemployment and poor infrastructure were devastating life”. Jahangiri, an economist, admitted regional development policies had not produced intended results over the past 40 years.

In a province rich with water and exceptional soil quality, agriculture has been an important source of livelihoods for its five million inhabitants. Khuzestan is also the biggest source of Iran’s oil. But US sanctions have also dropped oil revenues and cut jobs.

“Water is an important catalyst to social instability,” tweeted environmental scientist, Kaveh Madani, who used to be the deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment but was forced to resign and flee in 2018 as IRGC began to interrogate him amidst his revelations about Iran’s environmental crisis.

Khuzestan is the story of a broken jewel in the crown of a nation, a province enraged by neglect and the lack of foresight of a theocratic establishment more focused on gun power and excessive force, a regime that has time and again turned its self-made crisis into a tragic human catastrophe.

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Source: TRT World