Dialogue of the day – dealing politically with an environmental issue

“The thirsty Lake Urmia looks forward to drinking water”

8 Sep 2011

8th September 2011

Ardavan Roozbeh / Radio Koocheh

Translated by Avideh Motmaen-Far

When concerned people warned about the Sivand dam, the tomb of the Achaemenid king, destruction of Persepolis, the collapse of the remains of a historical school in Neyshaboor, the crossing train in the middle of historical Imam Square in Isfahan and drying of Zayand River, for those who are responsible, everything seemed unimportant. One would have thought that attentions were oriented elsewhere, and perhaps, priorities were different. The environmental crisis that became a political issue of the past few days is drying of Lake Urmia.

If we review the news, with no doubt, an unprecedented protest to ecologic change of Lake Urmia has not been only a news of the recent days. Many of the pro-environment activists repeatedly protested the irrecoverable change of the lake conditions that concerns the environmentally aware people in the world.

But with regards to the government’s reaction and dependent organizations in this field, Urmia, just like many other national historical sites are unwontedly left to oblivion and destruction.

The rivers which used to irrigate Lake Urmia have been stopped by dams, so the lake is not connected anymore to its sources. This has caused close to half of the lake to dry and the crisis against which many active environmentally aware people warned us for years is showing his real face. Yes, Lake Urmia is drying.

It is in this regard that residents of Urmia city and Tabriz took to the streets to protest the lack of attention to the drying lake and once again faced with violence and political conflict. These protests reached its climax last Saturday.

According to the spokesman of the ”’Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners”, almost fifty thousand people from Urmia city and Tabriz protested the conditions of Lake Urmia on Saturday September 3.

This protest, with interference of counter-insurgency forces and air shot bullets and tear gas became a violent scene and left many wounded and even according to some unconfirmed reports, two people were killed. But so far, there is no mention of their names. According to people, the security forces have taken away some wounded people from the hospital “Motahari” in Urmia city.

In Urmia city, also, a number of protestors have been arrested and we have no information about their status so far. In Tabriz, conditions have been the same. There are reports mentioning that a lot of arrested protestors have been transferred to the governor’s office of Azerbaijan and many others to an unknown place.

About ten thousand people in Tabriz and more than fifty thousand people in Urmia protested. It was a  peaceful civil demonstrations that has been dealt with by violence

One of the witnesses in Tabriz pointed out: “We were going to gather and protest the drying of Urmia Lake that the security agents became violent and attacked people. We were supposed to gather at 6pm but the gathering started at 6:20. They have made a dam over the river that poured into lake Urmia and this caused the Lake to dry.

The ”Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners” denounced the violence by the security forces and demanded the release of more than a hundred people who have been arrested in the cities of Tabriz and Urmia. In the city of Urmia, up to the moment I covered this report, in some parts of the city, people are in scattered gatherings and the security forces try to prevent the gatherings and the protest.

A resident of Urmia describes the situation of this city on Saturday as follows:

“For the drying lake, people took to the streets and there have been clashes and tear gas. People chanted various slogans, and the conflict grew. But the security forces tried to suppress the protest.”

But with regards to a large number of Turk Iranians in different parts of the country and even outside the country, the scope of the protests arrived to some other cities. In Tehran, security forces were deployed everywhere in major intersections. Also many Iranians protested in Ankara, Turkey.

“Yashar Hakakpour”, the spokesman of the ”Association for Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners” told Radio Koocheh: “As it was mentioned in the reports, thousands of people in Urmia and Tabriz took to the streets on Saturday September 3. The extent of the protest was bigger in Urmia. According to the reports, hundreds of people were arrested in the two cities and we are still collecting information about the names of the detainees. We have also received reports of shooting at people in Urmia. According to witnesses, many are wounded and transferred to hospitals such as Motahari Hospital, and some of them have been taken away from the hospital by the security forces to an unknown place.

“There is also the probability that some protestors in these cities have been killed. We could have traced one case in Tabriz. The security forces agents attacked protestors and one of them was killed hit on his head by a nightstick. The security forces took the body from the crime scene and it is not clear where they took it.

In Tabriz, they used nightsticks and paint balls but in Urmia violence was much more serious. They had brought thousands of counter-insurgency forces from other cities to Tabriz where it has been the place of gathering forces to suppress the protest.

About ten thousand people in Tabriz and more than fifty thousand people in Urmia protested. It was a  peaceful civil demonstrations that has been dealt with by violence. “

When did the clashes start? Given that the Lake Urmia issue is not new, why has this issue recently been the subject of conflict? is this a political protest or only a matter of environment?

“Lake Urmia has been an issue for several years and activists in different cities of Azerbaijan organized some gatherings in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and invited people to join at the Lake Urmia or in the major squares in Urmia or Tabriz. Since then we have had hundreds of detained whose names we have been able to record and some of them such as Mr. Hussein Nasirri got prison sentences that they served.

But the main issue about Lake Urmia is discrimination. Azerbaijani activists say that it is not a simple  environmental issue, it is a bigger problem. It is part of the discrimination imposed to Azerbaijanis.  And it is believed that the government of Iran deliberately destroys Azerbaijan environment to force  Azerbaijanis to migrate to other regions.”

While protests are still going on in Tabriz and Urmia, even scattered, on Monday, September 5, it is mention of a budget of $900 million dollars allocated by the government to prevent drying of the Lake by transferring the Aras and Kurdistan rivers water to the lake Urmia. The head of the Environmental Protection Organization Mr. “Mohammadizadeh”, announced on Monday that the budget for the transfer of water has been allocated to the lake. This is while, previously, the Parliament of the Islamic Republic has rejected two programs about Lake Urmia.

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