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In a small Kur­dish vil­lage near the town of Sanan­daj in Iran, some dozens of peo­ple stand in line wait­ing to fill cans with pure spring water.

In late Octo­ber, the video was shared wide­ly on social media in Rojhe­lat1Access to drink­ing water is a recur­ring prob­lem. One Telegram chain devot­ed to this top­ic was launched on Octo­ber 24: it had almost 20 000 sub­scribers by ear­ly Novem­ber. Although repeat­ing that these were not polit­i­cal demands – in order to pro­tect them­selves from repres­sion by the author­i­ties — its sub­scribers appeared angry enough to sug­gest the immi­nence of an impor­tant protest move­ment. Besides water short­ages due to the deple­tion of sources of ground­wa­ter, the qual­i­ty of the avail­able water makes it unsuit­able for drink­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly because of an impor­tant pol­lu­tion by arsenic. Protests have erupt­ed, notably at the local lev­el in region­al vil­lages. Essen­tial­ly, inhab­i­tants are protest­ing about the bad taste of the water, hold­ing the pub­lic author­i­ties respon­si­ble for the pollution.

Tap water in Sanandaj : Water flowing from the tap has a yellowish tinge

Accord­ing to Ali2, a local jour­nal­ist, the water short­age is due to a short­fall in the rains and an over-exploita­tion of the resources for agri­cul­ture, deplet­ing the reserves. The water is notably used for grow­ing wheat, some­thing the gov­ern­ment has turned into a polit­i­cal issue, as explained by an activist from the Çiya asso­ci­a­tion. Ciwan3 says: “When the regime took pow­er in Iran, it set up agri­cul­tur­al divi­sions in the dif­fer­ent regions. For exam­ple, cit­rus fruit in North­ern Iran, wheat and grains for the cen­ter and for Kur­dis­tan. (…) As an encour­age­ment, the gov­ern­ment gives cer­tain aids to those who grow what is asked of them. But these aids are not based on agri­cul­tur­al research and they are not envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound, rest­ing only on demand. For exam­ple, Kahmenei said we want­ed to be self-suf­fi­cient for wheat. There­fore, a large amount of under­ground water was pumped for this rea­son, only so Iran could claim it was self-suf­fi­cient in wheat pro­duc­tion. This is not envi­ron­men­tal­ly war­rant­ed. There are 600 plains in Iran, of which 270 are entire­ly dried out and unfit for agri­cul­ture. This is the result of an exces­sive reliance on under­ground water. (…) No more than 20% of under­ground water should be used, in the most extreme cas­es. (…) Iran has already used up close to 80% of its water reserves. Iran is expe­ri­enc­ing an agri­cul­tur­al cri­sis and the plains are being trans­formed into deserts. The water issue will turn into a cru­cial prob­lem for Iran’s future.” 

sanandaj eau water

Wide­ly shared on social media this text reads: “To our dear com­pa­tri­ots in Sanan­daj, pure water should be col­or­less, odor­less and taste­less. This is a basic cit­i­zens’ right. In order to demand this right, join Telegram in our campaign”

Arsenic pol­lu­tion could be the result of gold min­ing activ­i­ties accord­ing to Azad. Sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies claim that this pol­lu­tion orig­i­nates in the earth­’s crust. It is hard to learn any­thing more about it: author­i­ties refuse to con­duct any seri­ous stud­ies, while pur­su­ing dan­ger­ous mis­man­age­ment of the resources accord­ing to the inhab­i­tants. Far from the inhab­i­tants’ con­cerns, a study done in 2014 by Iran­ian researchers con­clud­ed that water pol­lu­tion by heavy met­als was infe­ri­or to inter­na­tion­al stan­dards, and that the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of veg­eta­bles by chromi­um and lead should be attrib­uted to the cir­cu­la­tion of cars and trucks on roads near agri­cul­tur­al operations…

Yet anoth­er study, in 2020, con­firmed heavy pol­lu­tion by arsenic attrib­uted to process­es in mag­ma dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion as the earth­’s crust was in formation.

Faced with the facts, the munic­i­pal and provin­cial author­i­ties rep­re­sent­ing the regime have made short-term promis­es. Thus, this year, they have promised to trans­fer water to the town from the Azad dam, some 40 kilo­me­ters West of Sanan­daj, and to rein­force the fight against ille­gal drilling of wells, con­tin­gent on receiv­ing nec­es­sary bud­gets and autho­riza­tions from the gov­ern­ment. “What mat­ters in this part of Iran,” adds Ali, “is seri­ous man­age­ment. If it is imple­ment­ed, there will be suf­fi­cient water reserves.” This poor man­age­ment, com­bined with recur­ring spells of draught have led to an increase in the cri­sis since 2017. More­over, those denounc­ing the neglect by author­i­ties risk heavy consequences.

Thus, although the envi­ron­ment is one of the only areas in which pub­lic action is pos­si­ble with­out incur­ring imme­di­ate arrest, envi­ron­men­tal activ­i­ties are severe­ly repressed, with dozens of arrests in the past few years. Kha­bat Mafkheri pro­vides one exam­ple. Arrest­ed on August 11 in Sanan­daj, he was lib­er­at­ed after pay­ing a heavy fine, then re-arrest­ed on Sep­tem­ber 26. He is still in prison, for­bid­den all con­tact with his fam­i­ly, and still igno­rant of the charges against him. Ciwan tes­ti­fies: “The gov­ern­ment is not in the least bit kind­ly dis­posed towards us. Cur­rent­ly, some of my friends are in prison. The gov­ern­ment is con­stant­ly putting obsta­cles to our activ­i­ties. It does not con­sid­er the envi­ron­ment as a pri­or­i­ty when it plans a project. The plans con­cern­ing dams are pure­ly polit­i­cal with no envi­ron­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions, they are not in the peo­ple’s inter­ests. (…) Here’s anoth­er sta­tis­tic: Kur­dis­tan province occu­pies the 6th or the 7th rank in agri­cul­tur­al lands but the sec­ond in terms of water resources. In terms of these sta­tis­tics, Kur­dis­tan should be the 3rd or the 4th agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­er in Iran, but it stands in the 19th posi­tion. Agri­cul­ture in Kur­dis­tan is not well orga­nized at all. More­over, the waters in Kur­dis­tan flow to neigh­bor­ing provinces. Kur­dis­tan is heav­i­ly dis­ad­van­taged rel­a­tive to oth­er provinces, it does not even have a sin­gle indus­try or fac­to­ry with 1 000 work­ers. This has led to Kurds emi­grat­ing to oth­er regions in the coun­try in order to work as labor­ers or even as engi­neers in indus­try. Because in their own province, they can­not find work.”

  • Sanandaj

The denun­ci­a­tions of poor man­age­ment are part of a wider protest against the pol­i­cy the cen­tral Iran­ian regime prac­tices regard­ing the 8 mil­lion inhab­i­tants in Kur­dish regions. Ever since Kur­dish orga­ni­za­tions par­tic­i­pat­ed in attempts at auton­o­my for the region dur­ing the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion in 1979, the regime has exert­ed a fero­cious repres­sion against all polit­i­cal protests and iden­ti­tar­i­an demands. Kur­dish regions, on the mar­gins of the cen­tral Per­sian regions, are vol­un­tar­i­ly main­tained in eco­nom­ic pre­car­i­ous­ness and its resources, includ­ing water, are exploit­ed to prof­it the cen­tral gov­ern­ment. There are no indus­tries, unem­ploy­ment is endem­ic, forc­ing inhab­i­tants either to exile in large Per­sian towns in search of word, or to become kol­bars, mean­ing car­ry­ing mer­chan­dise on their backs across the moun­tains between Irak and Iran, at great risk.

Water could very well be an excuse to kin­dle Iran­ian Kurds’ anger again, as they had mobi­lized mas­sive­ly dur­ing the 2019 demon­stra­tions, at the cost of heavy repression.


Pho­togra­phies Key­van Firouzei / inte­gral port­fo­lio : آب-آشامیدنی-در-سنندجo

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Pho­to-jour­nal­iste indépendant
Loez s’in­téresse depuis plusieurs années aux con­séquences des États-nations sur le peu­ple kurde, et aux luttes de celui-ci.