ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The United Nations human rights chief on Friday urged Iranian authorities to address severe water shortages in Khuzestan province rather than crackdown on protests. Iran’s Supreme Leader said the protesters have legitimate concerns, yet at least four people have been killed.
“The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the Government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. “I am extremely concerned about the deaths and injuries that have occurred over the past week, as well as the widespread arrests and detention.”
Iran’s southern Khuzestan province has seen a week of protests over severe water shortages. Demonstrations have also broken out in Lorestan and Tehran. People have chanted slogans like “I am thirsty” and “death to Khamenei,” referring to the Ayatollah.
Khuzestan is home to an Arab minority population that complains of discrimination and marginalization. The province used to have ample water resources, but a government scheme to redirect the water to elsewhere in the country coupled with droughts has left the province with a severe shortage of water. Water levels in the province’s dams are down by as much as half.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday said the protesters’ complaints are “legitimate.” He criticized government failures to address water management in Khuzestan and said the administration of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi should “seriously attend to this issue” when it takes office in August.
Bachelet said Iranian authorities appear to have met the protests with “disproportionate force,” killing at least four. She said that with restrictions on civic space, lack of a free press, and internet disruptions, Tehran has left people with no other means of communicating their grievances than through protest.
Amnesty International said security forces have used “live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests.” The rights group documented the deaths of at least eight protesters.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch accused Iran of using “excessive force.”
President Hassan Rouhani dispatched his deputy, Eshaq Jahangiri, to the restive province on Friday where he met with local officials and said the government is doing everything it can.