By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Iranians in some of the regions hardest hit by years of drought have taken to public prayer sessions in desperate bids to end the dry spell and ease the strain on Iran's dwindling water supplies. Religious services have been routinely held outdoors in Iran since the cleric-led revolution in 1979, but the recent rain prayers were unique in their focus, and in at least one case worshipers gathered in a remote, arid location.
The events were staged in Birjand and Qaen, both in the parched eastern province of South Khorasan on the Afghan border, and in Zabol, in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan, according to Iranian news agencies.
Photos posted online show many hundreds of men and women, boys and girls, supplicating for rain.
People in Birjand, eastern #Iran, praying and offering sacrifice, asking God for rainfall, based on an old tradition— Reza Khaasteh (@Khaaasteh) January 15, 2018
This year, precipitation in Iran has been lowest in 50 years#WaterCrisis pic.twitter.com/7FX4Ga9vVy
The rain prayers in Birjand on January 15 were led by Hojatoleslam Seyed Bagher Asadi, who teaches at Birjand's religious seminary. He appeared to suggest that such natural disasters were divine warnings to people that they should change course.
'Repent And Beg Forgiveness'
"We have to [to stop] sinning and repent and ask for forgiveness," Bagher Asadi was quoted as saying. "Drought, earthquake, [and] disasters such as the fire in Tehran's Plasco building" -- which killed at least 20 people in January 2017 -- "and the burning and sinking of the [Sanchi] oil tanker"-- which took 32 lives this month -- "are all warnings and hints to us."
“When people don't respect divine, individual, and social rights, the doors of divine blessing are shut," the cleric told worshippers, according to local media.
Photos from Qaen on January 8 were posted by the official government news agency IRNA, which said citizens prayed together for rain in the deserts around the city.
IRNA reported that rainfall in the South Khorasan province has fallen by 81 percent from a year ago, placing the province among the regions with the least rainfall in the country.
South Khorasan is home to many farmers who are being directly affected by the drought and water shortages, which have reportedly resulted in water rationing in some of the province's villages.
Domestic media report that more than 50 percent of South Khorasan province has been affected by severe drought.
National Security Issue
Iran’s deputy energy minister, Rahim Meidani, warned over the weekend that the decline in rainfall in the Iranian year that began on March 21 is unprecedented in the last 50 years.
Meidani said on January 14 that rainfall has been "normal" in only two provinces: Ardebil in the northwest and Golestan in the north.
Iranian officials have acknowledged the problem by identifying the water crisis as a national security issue.
Speaking in July, Meidani said the issue was raised at a meeting of the country's Supreme National Security Council.
"We should tackle it with all the scientific tools and expertise available to us," he said.
Experts cite a number of factors for the water shortages in Iran, including climate change, rapid population growth, wasteful agriculture practices, mismanagement, and poor planning.
The crisis has led to migration and the desiccation of some lakes and rivers, prompting protests in some cases.
Experts have warned that the crisis could worsen if authorities don't come up with some long-term solutions.
A 2015 study by the World Resources Institute predicted that Iran would be among the world's 33 most water-stressed countries by 2040.
Meanwhile, Hossein Komeili, the head of prayer headquarters in South Khorasan, was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying that an order has been issued for rain prayers to be held across South Khorasan.
"In times of famine, drought, and water shortage, there's nothing anyone can do. Only God can spread mercy on the people by sending rainclouds,” Komeili said.
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