Drying of the Urmia Lake and scorched earth policy in South Azerbaijan

Yashar Bugun

A scorched earth policy is a military strategy or operational method which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area. Although initially referring to the practice of burning crops to deny the enemy food sources, in its modern usage the term includes the destruction of infrastructure such as shelter, transportation, communications and industrial resources. The practice may be carried out by an army in enemy territory, or its own home territory. It is done for purely strategic/political reasons rather than strategic/operational reasons.

Urmia Lake (Turkish Urmu Gölü; Persian daryacheh Urmiyeh) in South Azerbaijan, northwestern Iran, is the largest salty lake inside Iran and the second biggest salty lake in the world. In the Turkic languages of the area the lake’s name, Urmu, referring to Sumerian word "Ur" that means city and there is a historical city with Urmu in western coastline of lake. A body of water with no outlet, the lake is fed by twelve large and small rivers, the jighati chay (Turkish and historical name is Cığati çay and persianazed name is Zarrinehrood) and Tatao chay (Turkish and historical name is Tatao çay and persianazed name is Siminenehrood) rivers from the south are largest and important source of inlet water. The rivers have been heavily diverted for crop irrigation and industrial and drinking uses during the past several decades, reducing the size of the lake by more than 25 percent since 1970. The resulting environmental changes pose a serious threat to the local ecology and human health. As a result, advancing salt winds and storms of salt and a large area of fertile agricultural lands will be destroyed. Also more than twenty cities and tens of thousands of villages around the cities and lake will be empty. In addition, in such a situation many diseases and cancers will prevalence and many social and economic problems will be created for Azerbaijan.

Draining of the Urmia Lake in Iran which is one of the ancient cradles of Azerbaijan has been demographic and political results. According to the native people, the sad destiny of the Aral Sea and those problems which appeared in Central Asia are now threatening the Urmia Lake in South Azerbaijan. The draining of the lake has already turned into an ecological problem and is a threat for the population of the region. The main reason of the catastrophic decline in the level of water has become not only the decline in precipitation in the region but also incorrect irrigation policy held by the Iranian authorities. According to the Azerbaijani activist, central government of Iran has planned policies to changing demographic composition of region since changing of political power from Turkish Qajar dynasty to Persian Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. Reza Shah Pahlavi had ambitious plans for what he called the unifying of Iran and demographic changing is one of those plans. Resettlement of Zabolian people, originally from south east Iran, to Turkmen region, Turkmen sahra, in north eastern Iran and resettlement of Bakhtiyari and Lori people from neighbor provinces to Arabian region, Ahvaz, Mahmareh (Persianzed name is Khorramshahr), Abadan and other Arabian areas is obvious examples of this governmental policy. According to state ministry of Iran, half the Azerbaijani populations migrate to nonazerbaijani provinces like Tehran and Karaj. Official statistics confirms that Azerbaijani provinces always have had highest level in unemployment and migration among provinces of Iran. This huge size of migration from fertile geopolitical region to central regions was resulted by scorched earth policy in 85 years. Ali Akbar Velayati, ex- foreign Minister, have famous statement about economical investment in Azerbaijani areas that clearly shows Tehran's attitude about future of south Azerbaijan and its problems. According to ex-governor of Zanjan, in session with governors of north western provinces, Velayati had stated that Tehran shouldn’t investigate in Azerbaijani provinces because those areas sooner or later will be separated. The bureaucratic structure, appointment of non-native administrators and governors, security attitude to south Azerbaijan, interference of military managers and lack of investment are important factors in Azerbaijan's crises like draining of Urmia Lake. According to Persian politicians, presence of Azerbaijani Turks adjoined to Turkey's borders is considered a threat to Iran's unity and scorched earth policy for population evacuation is carrying on in south Azerbaijan.

Fortunately, Azerbaijani people have started an awakening movement that consists of cultural activities, tendency to Azerbaijani identity, showing close attention to ecological and historical resources. Along with academic criticism, general public of Azerbaijan protest tragic situation of Urmia Lake and for example protesting meeting of Azerbaijanis was performed in coastline of lake in 2th April that were faced with harsh reaction of security forces. Most important protestors of crisis of Urmia Lake are fans of Tractor sazi football club those exhibit their protest in stadiums. Their slogan about drying of the Urmia Lake is: "gəlin gedax ağlıyax—urmu gölün doldurax" that means: Let's go and cry--- fill lake up with our tears.