Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Between a lake and a river: government neglect in Iran

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Between a lake and a river: government neglect in Iran, 28 June 2012, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Azeris, Lake Urmia

Azeris in Iran have joined together to protest against dam construction on Lake Urmia's tributaries that is destroying the region's ecological and economic resources.

Lake Urmia, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is situated between the East and West Azerbaijan provinces and is one of the largest salt lakes in the world. But over the past 15 years it has shrunk by 60 per cent due to the construction of 36 dams on the lake's tributaries, prolonged drought, and the construction of a major highway bisecting the lake to connect the cities of Urmia and Tabriz. The region now faces a growing ecological disaster, with serious negative consequences on Azeri communities whose livelihoods depend upon the lake.

In April 2011, Azeris gathered to protest in Urmia and Tabriz, calling on the government to save the lake. According to Amnesty International, 70 people were arrested in Tabriz and 20 in Urmia for protesting illegally. During the summer, Azeri activists escalated their protests after the Iranian government dropped plans aimed at reviving the lake. On 24 August, 30 Azeris were arrested at a private gathering, and on 27 August, thousands of protesters in Urmia clashed with riot police, resulting in 300 arrests, according to HRW. Police shot tear gas at protesters and beat them with batons. At another environmental rally in early September, security forces resorted yet again to violence and arrested 60 people.

As the lake recedes, its salt content is gradually dispersed into the local environment, causing increased soil salinity in surrounding farmland. Experts estimate that if the lake dries up completely, the surrounding cities will be covered by layers of salt, eventually displacing up to 1.3 million people. The lake also plays an important role regulating regional weather systems, and its disappearance will lead to damaging shifts to seasonal weather patterns.

Thousands of Azeris in the cities of Tabriz and Urmia depend on the lake for their livelihoods, especially for ecotourism, irrigation and salt production. The shrinking of the lake has already affected tourism and regional investment has dropped significantly. Proposals made by the Iranian government to save the lake have been dismissed by activists and experts as short-term measures. For example, rather than launching a cloud-seeding programme to increase rainfall and supply the lake with remote sources of water as the government proposes, activists argue that releasing the water held behind dams would be far more effective in the long run. But for years, the Iranian government has chosen to ignore the problem and shirk responsibility, instead blaming global warming.

Ahwazi Arabs and the Karoun River

In 2011, the World Health Organization declared that Ahwaz City, the capital of the Khuzestan governorate, was the most polluted city in the world, with high asthma levels among children and teenagers due to industrial waste and emissions. Industrial pollution has damaged the natural environment, and marshland biodiversity is so seriously threatened that migratory birds have left the area. The Bandar Iman petrochemical complex is a major pollutant, and has created environmental devastation and low fish stocks, directly impacting the livelihoods of the Ahwazis.

Despite or more likely because of their region's strategic importance – most of Iran's oil wells are there – many Ahwazi Arabs have been forced to migrate. The Iranian government has pursued a policy of encouraging ethnic Persians to move in from other provinces. The confiscation of Ahwazi land has been so widespread that it has amounted to a government policy of dispossession. The creation of the Arvan Free Zone in 2005 involved the mass expulsion of Ahwazis and the destruction of their villages. Iranian authorities have also followed a policy of ethnic segregation in Khuzestan, by constructing walls that separate Ahwazis from non-Arab districts and neighbourhoods. In urban areas, many Ahwazis live in shanty towns which lack plumbing, sewerage and safe drinking water.

In recent years, the Iranian government's decision to divert the Karoun River in Khuzestan to other drier regions has had further serious implications on the livelihood of Ahwazis. In May 2011, the director of the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization claimed that the diversion of waters from the Karoon and Karkhe rivers from Arab lands to ethnically Persian provinces of Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman represented a further erosion of Ahwazi farmers' economic security. The river is essential for agriculture and fishing, and is the largest source of income for them. The disruption of water sources will lead to a lack of safe drinking water, diseased fish and a decline in fish stock. River diversion erodes farmer's economic security. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has repeatedly warned the Iranian government of the disastrous environmental impact of diverting the Karoun River, but the Iranian government has rejected concerns. The governors of Khuzestan, Chahar Mahaal va Bakhtiari and Lorestan provinces have also reportedly expressed their opposition to the diversion project. The project was due to start in 2011, but as a result of the protests the project was postponed.

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