Tara Orami, citizen journalist
Just one night before the one-year anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death in custody, the Islamic Republic's authorities unexpectedly released water from the Cheraghweis dam in the western city of Saqqez as part of efforts to prevent protest gatherings
After the anniversary and the threat of renewed protests passed, the dam’s valves were closed again.
The drying-up of the Saqqez River means the local farmers and residents in the area are grappling with many issues, and it seems that there is no official willing to take responsibility for this dramatic situation.
In this report, we delve into the repercussions of the Cheraghweis dam’s opening and closing through interviews with landowners and environmental activists.
The opening of the Cheraghweis dam on the anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death led to the sudden discharge of approximately 54 million cubic meters of water.
According to IranWire sources, water experts had voiced concerns about abrupt water release from the dam, but the government's decision prevailed over the experts’ recommendations, resulting in a significant water surge in the riverbed at midnight on September 16.
Recent images show that the dam has once again been closed, and the river is drying up again.
The experts argued that the sudden water release could potentially damage agricultural lands and infrastructure, posing a serious threat to people who live near the river.
"On the day of Mahsa, I awoke in the morning and saw from my window that people were heading toward the river in various groups. However, they returned after a few minutes. When I inquired about their sudden change of plans, they explained that it seemed like a flood or a dam had burst, given that the tremendous volume of water had made the river impassable," a resident of Qavakh, near the river, told IranWire.
"I found it hard to believe because just a few hours earlier the river was completely dry. My curiosity got the better of me, and I ventured outside. After a few minutes, I was astounded by what I witnessed," the resident added.
"I was concerned that the farms belonging to my relatives downstream might have incurred damage. That's why I reached out to them to inquire about the sudden surge, and they confirmed that the dam's valves had indeed been opened the previous night," the resident continued.
Agricultural Equipment Damaged
Another resident in the area, whose farmland lies along the riverbed, expressed his frustration, saying, "We've been promised for years that the water from this dam would be a boon for our region. The plan was to introduce a mechanized irrigation system, and even though we've long advocated for our rights to access water, the Water Department's rigidity prevented any water release, especially during the summer."
"However, the sudden water release on the anniversary of Mahsa's death wreaked havoc on our electrical motors along the way. A portion of our irrigation system, which we constructed at our own expense and with loans, sustained damage…additionally, agricultural lands belonging to many families in two downstream villages have been severely affected," the resident added.
Despite extensive damage inflicted on these farms, the officials do not seem to be willing to address the human and environmental impact of the sudden water release.
Thousands of Fish Killed, Bridges Destroyed
"For a government that disregards human life, discussing the environmental damage it inflicts may seem out of place. Nevertheless, this action has undoubtedly caused environmental harm,” a Saqqaz-based environmental activist said.
"In general, any intentional or unintentional environmental disruption yields dire consequences. Over the entire past summer, the riverbed was left parched…soil erosion, a critical consequence of three months of a dry riverbed, poses a significant problem. Previously, during early autumn, the dam's valves were methodically opened with a controlled release and minimal volume, which allowed the ground to absorb the water, minimizing erosion," the environmentalist said.
"In addition, based on available information and objective observations, thousands of fish perished in this area. These losses are merely a portion of the hazardous outcomes caused by this deliberate action in the region's fragile ecosystem. However, the exact manner and extent of the damage remain uncertain due to the prohibition of discussions and investigations in this field," the environmentalist added.
Water Depletion and Soil Erosion
Another environmental expert from Saqqez emphasized that most projects in the area lack environmental considerations.
"If they do exist, they've likely been influenced by political directives, and the Cheraghweis dam is no exception. However, given the lack of preparation and the river's dredging within the city by the municipality, it's undeniable that the flood resulting from the dam's reopening could potentially alter the river's course, leading to a catastrophic outcome."
"And who would bear responsibility in such a scenario? Virtually no one! Therefore, they ought to permit geological and climatological experts to conduct thorough investigations. This would allow for the assessment of the consequences of this action, which may not be immediately evident but could manifest in the future, and the necessary precautions could be taken to prevent any impending disaster," the environmental expert said.
More than a week has now passed since the anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death. According to local sources, the dam's water level has receded by about one and a half meters, leaving the river within the city dry once again.
The construction of the Cheraghweis dam clashed with the ineffective policies aimed at restoring Urmia Lake, but mounting water scarcity in Saqqez prompted officials to reluctantly greenlight the dam's construction.
The original plan was to supply drinking water to Saqqez and approximately 60 surrounding villages, as well as converting around 6,000 hectares of arid land into irrigable areas.
Aside from the initial promise to supply drinking water to Saqqez, which has also been marred by uncertainties, none of these objectives have been realized.