Water crisis spurs protests in Iran

A dead cow is seen on dried up grounds in Shahreza, Iran in this undated picture. (Tasnim News Agency/via Reuters)
Updated 29 March 2018
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Water crisis spurs protests in Iran

BEIRUT: A number of protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over water, a growing political concern due to a drought which residents of parched areas and analysts say has been exacerbated by mismanagement.
The demonstrations have been relatively small, sporadic and limited to towns around the central city of Isfahan and Khuzestan province in the west. But they have highlighted an issue that played a role in earlier unrest and the authorities have cracked down, while recognizing the need for change.
In early March, the turnout was light in a town near Isfahan, with dozens of farmers chanting the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Death to farmers, long live oppressors!,” according to online videos. A week later the protests became more tense.
Dozens of riot police on motorcycles faced off against farmers in the same town, Varzaneh, another video showed. Smoke swirled around the protesters and the person filming said tear gas was being fired. A second person reported clashes. Police in the city of Isfahan were not immediately available to comment.
“What’s called drought is more often the mismanagement of water,” said a journalist in Varzaneh, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“And this lack of water has disrupted people’s income.”
Farmers accuse local politicians of allowing water to be diverted from their areas in return for bribes.
While the nationwide protests in December and January stemmed from anger over high prices and alleged corruption, in rural areas, lack of access to water was also a major cause, analysts say.
At least 25 people were killed and, according to one parliamentarian, up to 3,700 people were arrested, the biggest challenge yet for the government of president Hassan Rouhani, who was reelected last year.

Displaced
In Syria, drought was one of the causes of anti-government protests which broke out in 2011 and led to civil war, making the Iranian drought particularly sensitive.
Approximately 97 percent of the country is experiencing drought to some degree, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Meteorological Organization. Rights groups say it has driven many people from their homes.
“Towns and villages around Isfahan have been hit so hard by drought and water diversion that they have emptied out and people who lived there have moved,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group.
“Nobody pays any attention to them. And people close to Rouhani told me the government didn’t even know such a situation existed and there were so many grievances.”
Rouhani and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei mentioned drought as a problem that needs to be addressed in the country during their speech last week commemorating Nowruz, the Iranian new year, while condemning “lawlessness and violence.”
An ad running on state TV which encourages Iranian citizens to conserve water shows a man sitting in a chair in the middle of a desert with the slogan, “Drought is closer than you think.”
A United Nations report last year noted, “Water shortages are acute; agricultural livelihoods no longer sufficient. With few other options, many people have left, choosing uncertain futures as migrants in search of work.”
In early January, protests in the town of Qahderijan, some 10 km (6 miles) west of Isfahan, quickly turned violent as security forces opened fire on crowds, killing at least five people, according to activists. One of the dead was a farmer, CHRI said, and locals said water rights were the main grievance.
Videos posted on social media show protesters chanting outside a police station and throwing Molotov cocktails at the building, one of the most violent incidents documented during the nationwide protests.
A journalist in Qahderijan who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue said the attack on the police station was not the right thing to do but that water mismanagement had deprived farmers of their livelihoods.

Security
Hassan Kamran, a parliamentarian from Isfahan, publicly criticized energy minister Reza Ardakanian this month, accusing him of not properly implementing a water distribution law.
“The security and intelligence forces shouldn’t investigate our farmers. The water rights are theirs,” he told a parliamentary session.
In early March, Ardakanian set up a working group comprising four ministers and two presidential deputies to deal with the crisis.
Since the January protests, Rouhani has repeatedly said the government will do what it can to address grievances. But there is no quick fix for deeply rooted environmental issues like drought, observers say.
“These are local grievances but the solutions are with the national government,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that the government had limited power and widespread corruption.
Rouhani’s office was not immediately available to comment.
Iranian security forces are aware of the potential for water issues to cause instability. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Yahya Rahim Safavi, noted in a public speech in late February that water will play a key role for both the Islamic Republic’s national and regional security.
Environmentalists have found themselves in the firing line.
In late January, Kavous Seyed-Emami, the director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and six other environmentalists were arrested.
Two weeks later, authorities said Seyed-Emami had committed suicide in jail after confessing to being a spy for the United States and Israel. His family has denied the allegation.
State TV later aired a report saying Seyed-Emami and his colleagues were telling Iran’s enemies the country could no longer maintain domestic agriculture production because of a water shortage and needed to import food.
In late February, three more environmentalists were arrested and three weeks ago, Seyed-Emami’s wife was prevented from leaving Iran, according to family members.
“Public opinion has become sensitised to environmental issues,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst. “So the government may see the organizations and institutions who work on environmental issues as problematic.”


Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, the Olypmpia swimmer, escaped conflict in her homeland. A year later she famously competed at the Rio Olympics. (Photo/UNHCR)
Updated 22 July 2019
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Mardini — refugee from Syria rising fast after fleeing war

  • The 21-year-old girl almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago

GWANGJU/SOUTH KOREA: Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who almost drowned at sea fleeing her war-torn country four years ago, heaved a deep sigh after failing to set a personal best at the world swimming championships on Sunday.

Representing FINA’s independent athletes team, the 21-year-old looked up at the giant scoreboard and winced at her time of 1 minute 8.79 seconds in the 100-meter butterfly heats in South Korea.
“I’m not very happy actually,” Mardini told AFP.
“I had some problems with my shoulder but I’m back in training. I still have the 100m freestyle and I’m looking forward to that.”
Mardini’s time was more than 12 seconds slower than that of reigning champion Sarah Sjostrom and 47th overall, but she has come a long way since risking her life crossing from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in the summer of 2015.
Refugee swimmer Mardini knows what she is talking about when it comes to family separation for asylum seekers.
In 2015, she and her sister Sarah had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.
They then embarked on an overland trip from Greece to Germany, evading local authorities in countries with immigration policies that barred them from legal entry. Along the way the sisters slept in train stations or wherever they could find shelter.
Mardini empathizes with families currently separated along the US southern border.
“This is the most terrible thing anyone can have — to live without a mom or to live without a family,” she said on Sunday at the world swimming championships where she’s competing as an independent athlete.
“I arrived in Greece in only jeans and a T-shirt,” said Mardini, who also swims in the 100m freestyle later this week. “Even my shoes were gone.”
“In the beginning I refused to be in a refugee team because I was afraid people would think I got the chance because of my story,” said Mardini, who now lives with her family in Berlin.
“I wanted to earn it. But then I realized I had a big opportunity to represent those people — so I took the chance and I never regretted it,” she added.
Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She famously competed at the Rio Olympics a year later under the refugee flag.

FASTFACT

• In 2015, she and her sister had escaped conflict in their homeland when the boat they were aboard with other refugees began sinking. They jumped out and swam part of the journey from Turkey to Greece.

• Mardini was 17 at the time. She is now a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Rio was amazing. It was really exciting to see the reaction of people to the team. Now I’m representing millions of displaced people around the world and it really makes me proud.”
It is a far cry from life back in Syria, where rocket strikes would often shake the pool she trained at in Damascus.
“There were bomb attacks sometimes that would crack the windows around the pool,” said Mardini, who has addressed the UN General Assembly and whose story is set to be told in a Hollywood movie.
“I know people who lost their moms on the way or in the water — that got drowned — and I feel this is terrible,” she said.
Mardini said that from the time she left Syria she lived without her mother for six months. Eventually, they were reunited in Germany, where they now live in Berlin. “I felt so alone,” she said. “So lonely.”
The experience has prompted her to stand up for fellow asylum seekers in similar situations.
“Someone has to do something about it,” Mardini said. “The least we can do is talk about it, not just ignore it like everything else happening in the world.”
Mardini finished 47th out of 52 swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly heats on Sunday. Her other event in Gwangju is the 100 freestyle on Thursday.
She is attempting to again qualify for the Olympics as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team.
“My goal now is just to swim a new personal best,” she said. “And my next goal will be Tokyo 2020.”
Fellow Syrian Ayman Kelzieh was also forced to flee the country before competing at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
Returning to Korea five years later, the 26-year-old now owns a fistful of national swim records, including the 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly.
“When the war started I had just moved to Damascus and I couldn’t get back home to Aleppo,” said Kelzieh, who now lives on the Thai island of Phuket.
“But even in Damascus bombs sometimes even went off at the swimming pool we trained at,” he added after taking a poolside selfie with his idol, South African star Chad le Clos.
“There were even attacks at the hotel I stayed in — I was lucky.”