Police used rubber bullets to disperse the protesters (BBC Azerbaijani)

Police Crack Down on Water Protest in Azerbaijan

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By Heydar Isayev

Farmers in central Azerbaijan staged a protest last week over a long-festering problem –  the shortage of water – and were violently suppressed by police.

On March 13, about 200 villagers in Saatli District tried to block a highway, to protest water shortages in the nearby Kura and Aras rivers.

Police in riot gear were soon dispatched to the area. Videos circulating in social media appear to show they fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.

At least three protestors were injured; one of them, a 15-year-old, was hit with four rubber bullets, the narrator of one of the videos says.

Interior Ministry Spokesperson Elshad Hajiyev said that “only special measures were applied against those who did not comply with the legal requirements of the police” and emphasized that firearms were not used.

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The mother of one of the wounded protestors, 38-year-old Abuzar Soltanov, told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service on March 14 that her son was still in hospital, bleeding.

“Even though it was rubber or whatever, they shot him from such a close distance that if they had hit him in an important area he could have died,” she said. “My son has three kids. He is unemployed. He just went [to the protest] to ask for water, so he could grow crops and put bread on the table.”

The shortage of water in the Kura (Mtkvari) and Aras (Araz, Araxes) river basins has acutely affected several central Azerbaijani districts for several years.

Saatli residents told BBC Azerbaijani that they have to water their fields with brackish water. “These soils will become dead in a maximum of two years,” one resident said. “They won’t yield even 10 centimeters.”

The presence of salt in the local river water is a consequence of mismanagement, according to a report on Azerbaijani state TV in June 2020. Overuse, chiefly for irrigation, has so reduced the Kura’s level that it no longer flows into the Caspian Sea – instead, the salty seawater flows back into the river bed, it said.

In July 2020, President Ilham Aliyev addressed the issue at a government meeting where he said that drought, wasteful practices in agriculture, and in some cases the “indifferent attitude of relevant bodies” had contributed to the country’s water problems.

“From now on, drinking water and irrigation projects will be on our agenda as the most important issues,” he pledged at the meeting.

But the problem has gone unaddressed, according to local activists.

“Since the sea started mixing with the Kura in 2020, people in some districts (Neftchala, Salyan, etc.) have faced very serious difficulties. There is no drinking water, to say nothing of the burning [desiccation] of the trees in gardens,” Vafa Nagi, a political activist and member of a village council in Neftchala District, wrote on Facebook.

“The drinking water is so dirty that even drinking it can cause illness. Because sewage is discharged into the river, and as the river dries up, the level of impurities in it increases even more. People use salt water at home. Our hazelnut trees, which used to yield 900 kilograms and more every year, dried out because they were irrigated with salt water. Such a problem has happened to many people in rural areas. Pets have died from drinking salt water.”

One local official struggled to answer when asked by BBC Azerbaijani what measures were being taken to combat the shortages and managed to say only that they do their best to avoid water waste.

He then echoed remarks by the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mukhtar Babayev in March 2022 that the water shortage and the falling level of the Kura are due not to local mismanagement but to broader processes of global climate change.

But many Azerbaijanis don’t buy that explanation, and instead blame the excessive use of water by local elites connected to the government.

“There are hectares of land owned by some officials in the regions, where grain, pomegranates and other plants are planted and cultivated, and fish are farmed,” Nagi said in her post.

Agriculture expert Vahid Maharramli told foreign-based independent Meydan TV about his recent visit to Saatli.

“The lack of water was causing serious damage to farms, cotton fields, and crops. But right there was a huge canal, full of water, going to the farm of an oligarch,” he said.

“The villagers told me that the police would come to the area whenever they so much as stood near the water. The amount of water in that canal would be enough to solve the water problem not of one region, but of several regions. There are many such examples, almost in every district. Oligarchs privatize water channels and fish in the lakes [created by them].”

Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku. The above article first appeared in Eurasianet.org on March 16.

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