Iranian Water Protests Turn Deadly

Public outcry over water shortages in Khuzestan has evolved into dissent against the government

Iranians are protesting over water and electricity shortages in the country’s drought-hit southwest, Khuzestan. The ongoing protests began on July 15 and have now expanded to Tehran and other provinces and evolved into defiance against the government, and the country’s Supreme Leader with protesters chanting slogans such as “Death to Khamenei!”

Eight people have died, Amnesty International reports, and at least 102 people have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists News Agency. However, the number of deaths is not clear since the government officials and state-affiliated media outlets have only recognized the death of four people.

Authorities have blamed the deaths on “suspicious bullets shot by some unknown people who penetrated among peaceful protesters”, some state media have stated. They are also claiming that the protests are being driven by separatist groups and that “the foreign media is trying to take advantage of the situation to oppose the theocratic establishment”, Al Jazeera has picked up.

Iranian authorities appear to have used excessive force against demonstrators”, Human Rights Watch explained. Similarly, Amnesty International condemns Iran’s security forces for deploying “unlawful force, including firing live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests”. Videos uploaded on social media have shown how security forces are also using tear gas to disperse protesters while blocking the internet.

Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks has seen some blockages “consistent with a regional internet shutdown intended to control protests”. It is worth mentioning that during these past three years, authorities have restricted information access during other protests.

How has Iran got to this stage? Khuzestan has a large ethnic Arab population and is the main oil-producing region (it has 80% of Iran’s oil fields and 60% of natural-gas reserves), but systematically suffers from droughts due to summer heatwaves and sandstorms from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Moreover, 702 villages in Khuzestan lack drinking water, as a member of parliament from the city of Ahvaz, Mojtaba Youssefi, has told the Asr-e-Iran news website. This rich oil and the natural-gas province also experiences high levels of pollution and destruction of their wetlands that have devastated agriculture and livestock.

A large part of Maharloo Lake in southwest Iran has almost disappeared over the past years due to drought.

The country as a whole is in a vulnerable and fragile state due to harsh sanctions on its oil industry imposed by former United States President Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, and years of economic inefficiencies and environmental mismanagement. As a senior correspondent with RFE/RL, Golnaz Esfandiari has highlighted “the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and a slow vaccination campaign has also led to frustration among people amid a surge in the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.”

Power cuts, low wages, poor working conditions, inflation (more than 50%), and unemployment (especially a 25% young unemployment rate) have fuelled weekly protests for the past months in Iran. In 2019, one of the largest nationwide protests took place due to the abrupt tripling of petrol prices. 208 people were killed, and the internet access was almost completely cut off across the country for a week, Amnesty International recalls.

Economic desperation and growing frustration in Iranian society have contributed to angry demonstrations that began in the province of Khuzestan but are spreading to other parts of Iran, a country that has seen in recent years a growing mass of people defying the government.

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