Southern Azerbaijan: Iranian Dams Threaten Lake Urmia’s Survival
Dams built on more than 20 tributaries that feed into the ancient salt lake have restricted the flow of water into the biosphere reserve. With reduced water sources, 60% of the lake has evaporated, threatening both surrounding environment and traditional indigenous lifestyles. Mass but peaceful protests to protect the Lake have only been met with unlawful and violent detainment.
Below is a statement released by The Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran:
The Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP) is appealing to the international community to assist with avoiding an environmental catastrophe in Iran and to support those demonstrating to call attention to the crisis surrounding the disappearance of Lake Urmia in the country’s Azerbaijani provinces. The deterioration of Lake Urmia impacts 13 million local inhabitants, as well as the nations of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, and Armenia. According to Esmail Kahrom, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Tehran, if Lake Urmia dries up, “six to eight cities will be totally destroyed, covered by layers and layers of salt.”
For the past three weeks, the Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADDAP) has been actively monitoring the peaceful protests regarding the endangered Lake Urmia in Iran, and the subsequent violent reactions and arrests by the Iranian government and police.
When the peaceful demonstrations began, ADAPP called for negotiations and cooperation from the Iranian government to help find ways to address the disappearance of the lake. But the government has continued to apply violent force against innocent civilians exercising their basic human rights to assemble in the hopes of raising awareness about an impending environmental catastrophe.
Lake Urmia is an ancient salt lake that sits between East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces, a region of Iran dominated by ethnic Azerbaijani-Turks. It is one of the largest salt lakes in the world. In recent years, the Iranian government has built dams on more than 20 tributaries feeding into the lake, reducing the depth of the shallow lake by 7 meters. Experts claim that this damming, coupled with an environmentally damaging bridge linking the cities of Urmia and Tabriz, has reduced the flow of water into and within Lake Urmia, causing 60% of the lake to evaporate. According to UNESCO, Lake Urmia is a biosphere reserve crucial for “agriculture, business and industry, recreational activities, (eco) tourism, artemia harvesting, salt extraction and hunting.” A recent bill in Iran’s parliament to allocate funds to divert waters into Lake Urmia was struck down.
The first round of recent mass arrests occurred on August 24  during a private dinner party celebrating Iftar in Tabriz. Over thirty Azerbaijani journalists, students, and poets gathered in a private residence were arrested because of the government’s fears of possible demonstrations regarding Lake Urmia. Neither police nor the central government has released the whereabouts, charges, and conditions of the detainees.
In a similar crackdown on August 25  in Tabriz, 30 Azerbaijanis were arrested in a soccer stadium for chanting “Lake Urmia is dying; the [Iranian] parliament ordered its execution” during a soccer match. When thousands of activists gathered in Urmia and Tabriz two days later to demonstrate for the saving of Lake Urmia, police responded by using tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons in the hope of violently dispersing peaceful demonstrators. ADAPP has learned that “scores have been injured and 3 killed in the clashes with riot police” and, disturbingly, many protestors were arrested while receiving treatment in hospitals for injuries caused by police brutality. Despite escalating the police use of force, the activists have persevered.
On September 3 , ADAPP reported that many were injured with one person killed by Iranian forces. Again, the Iranian police “used brutal force, [fired] rubber and metal bullets, and [used] tear gas and batons” to end the peaceful demonstrations. The body of the peaceful protestor killed by police violence was immediately removed from the streets by the same police forces that took control of important government buildings like West Azerbaijan’s Governor’s Office and Urmia TV Station. Thousands were arrested during the September 3  protests.
On September 9th , an Azerbaijani team won a soccer match in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. After the game, Azerbaijani fans in the stadium along with tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis in the cities of Tabriz, Khoy, and Salmas took to the streets and chanted Turkish slogans in favor of protecting Lake Urmia and demanding for language rights. Around twenty protesters were injured and more than 300 arrested by Iranian riot police who attacked protesters firing rubber and metal bullets and using batons. A day after [10 September 2011], despite heavy presence of Iranian riot police, demonstrators gathered in the central neighborhoods of Azerbaijani cities of Sulduz (Naghadeh), Urmia, Ardabil, Tabriz, Marand, Maragha, and Qoshachay (Miandoab) where hundreds of protesters have been arrested by Iranian security forces. The tensions between civilians and police forces remain.
In light of the devastating effects that the shrinking of the Aral Sea has had on its region and its population, ADAPP asks for action to help address the multiple issues surrounding the deteriorating state of Lake Urmia. We also ask for the international community’s support for those working to protect their environment and their access to water.
Lake Urmia’s healthy existence is crucial to the survival of those who depend on it. The deterioration of Lake Urmia impacts 13 million local inhabitants, as well as the nations of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, and Armenia.
Due to the international scope of this crisis, ADAPP urges intervention and direction from international organizations including the United Nations, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme). We believe that the international community and organizations such as the UN and the UNEP need to stand with the local inhabitants to help protect their basic human rights of free speech, assembly, and peaceful protest along with their right of access to water, a fundamental resource for survival.
ADAPP hopes that neighboring countries impacted by the deterioration of Lake Urmia will also join in the call for action and find ways to work towards a solution;
ADAPP also strongly recommends that Azerbaijani members of the Iranian Parliament represent the people affected by Lake Urmia during any decision-making processes;
Finally, ADAPP calls on the Iranian government to stop the use of police force and to commence peaceful negotiations to help resolve the conflict over Lake Urmia.
ADAPP will continue to fervently monitor and report on the situation of Lake Urmia in Iran, to appeal to the greater international community for assistance in resolving these social and environmental tensions, and to advocate for those struggling for social, cultural and ecological security.
ADAPP is a human rights group that collects information from Azerbaijani Iranians around the world, including from inside Iran.
To read the full text of this statement, please click here.