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Iran arrests several for protesting drying up of lake once seen as Mideast’s largest

Police claim those detained are ‘evil and hostile elements’; super salty Lake Urmia began shrinking in 1995 due to prolonged drought and over-extraction of water

Illustrative -- Iranians spend time in Urmia Lake near Urmia, northwestern Iran, August 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Illustrative -- Iranians spend time in Urmia Lake near Urmia, northwestern Iran, August 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

TEHRAN — Iranian police have arrested several people after they protested the drying up of a lake once regarded as the Middle East’s largest, official media said Sunday.

Lake Urmia, in the mountains of northwest Iran, began shrinking in 1995 due to a combination of prolonged drought, and the extraction of water for farming and dams, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Urmia, one of the largest “hypersaline” — or super salty — lakes in the world, is located between the cities of Tabriz and Urmia, with more than six million people dependent on agriculture around its shores.

On Sunday, Rahim Jahanbakhsh, the police chief of Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, reported the arrests.

He described the suspects as “many evil and hostile elements, who had no other objective than to destroy public property and disturb the security of the population,” according to state news agency IRNA.

On Saturday, the Fars news agency reported that “dozens of people in the cities of Naghadeh and Urmia had protested against the authorities’ lack of attention to the drying up of Lake Urmia.”

Fars said protesters had shouted slogans in the provincial capital of Urmia warning the lake was shrinking.

“Lake Urmia is dying, parliament orders its killing,” some shouted, Fars reported, with others calling out that “Lake Urmia is thirsty.”

Largely arid Iran, like other nearby countries, has suffered chronic dry spells and heat waves for years, which are expected to worsen with the impacts of climate change.

In the last few months, thousands of people have demonstrated against the drying up of rivers, particularly in central and southwestern Iran.

Lake Urmia is an important ecosystem, a key stopping point for migratory birds, and home to an endemic shrimp as well as other underwater species.

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