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

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.”


Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 21 November 2019

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

A camel is silhouetted against the sunset in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

A camel herder guides his flock in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.