Hostages of Iran’s water policies in Ahwaz region
by Kamil Alboshoka
Besides lack of access to clean water, there are many other Iranian regime policies which marginalise Ahwazis and cause suffering to the rural residents
Typically, water shortages occur when the amount of drinkable water doesn’t meet the requirements for the population in question. The Ahwaz region in the south and southwestern Iran, however, has an abundance of rivers, such as Karoon, Karkheh and Jarahi [Ref], which collectively comprise the largest source of fresh water in Iran [Ref], even one of the largest in the Middle East. However, due to a number of policies deliberately enacted by the Iranian regime, a large number of citizens in Ahwaz is suffering from a drinkable water crisis. Water mismanagement – or water hostage policies – by the authorities are part of a broader set of intentional policies designed to displace and impoverish Ahwazi residents. Why would a government do this to such a productive proportion of their resources and population? This is the question Ahwazis hope journalists will pay more attention to. It is being done in order to alter the geopolitics of the region in respect of its native Ahwazi people, whom the government in Tehran view with a mixture of disdain and suspicion. Consequently, Iran’s policies have caused many agricultural areas to be deserted and a number of residents of rural areas displaced [Ref]. The continuation of this policy may continue to result in prolonged droughts, starvation, and large-scale deaths in Ahwaz, with those in rural areas particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
According to the United Nations, at least two billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water. Such a water crisis in Iran is also on the rise, but the residential areas in Ahwaz suffer disproportionately more than other regions across the country. Water is actually withheld from their people and traditional industries, so many parts of the region are on the brink of a severe shortage of drinking water.[Ref] While environmental experts have confirmed that the situation with regard to deteriorating water levels in Iran is chronic, the situation in Ahwaz is at a critical stage and continues to deteriorate due to deliberate policies. In July 2018, the Washington Post reported that Iran (including Ahwaz region) is “heading towards a large-scale water crisis,” and that there are “few ways to tackle the crisis”. The article indicated that mismanagement by the country’s authorities played a major role in facilitating the calamity, which continues to worsen.
A number of Iranian officials in Ahwaz have acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis and the lack of desire to end the water crisis. “Many cities in North Ahwaz (Khuzestan in Farsi) are on the verge of a drinking water crisis,” Ali Reza Qarineh, Deputy Director of Ahwaz Water and Sewage Company, said at a meeting of the Water and Electricity Council in the governorate. He stated that “with the exception of the city of Ahwaz, the capital, the water of the remaining cities of Ahwaz is provided with 70% of surface water resources and 30% of wells water, whereas there are around 171 wells water in North Ahwaz.”, meaning that there is a disproportionate lack of water in Ahwaz, despite its natural resources.
According to Qarineh,” drinking water is provided for 19 cities in the north of Ahwaz from the Karoon River, 13 cities from the Karkheh River, two cities from Jarrahi, two cities from Zohreh, and four from other rivers. Additionally, he states that “in 2017, 130 million cubic metres of groundwater was extracted from Ahwaz, which has decreased by 34 per cent in 2018.” [Ref] The decline before March 2019 was between 50 and 55 per cent of groundwater, despite heavy rains and flooding in Ahwaz.
Hidayatallah Khademi, the representative of the city of Izaj (Izeh) and Orwah (Baghmalek) in the Iranian Parliament, said in an interview with Borna News Agency: “If the water crisis is not solved in Ahwaz, residents must migrate to other cities in Iran.”
“The water issue in Ahwaz has become an acute problem. The reason is clear. The improper management over the years, the uncontrolled extraction of groundwater, land subsidence, changing the course of the rivers to other cities in Iran and dozens of other reasons have affected the quality of drinking water in Ahwaz.” [Ref]
“If the crisis in rural water is not managed in Ahwaz, it will become one of the future crises in the region,” said Director General of Crisis Management in Ahwaz, Kiomars Hajizadeh. Currently, several counties within the governate, especially the rural areas, are experiencing a water crisis. These include the villages in Ramiz (Ramhormoz), Arjan (Behbahan), Khalafiyeh, Falahiyeh, Amidiyeh (Omidiyeh), Masjed Suleiman, Abadan, Muhammarah and Ahwaz, the capital. He pointed out that compared to 2018, 2019 has seen a 367 per cent increase in water flow to dams – comprising an additional 42 billion cubic metres of water. By comparison, in 2018, only 9 million cubic metres of water was available for Ahwazi citizens, the rest, therefore, having been diverted. In spite of this dramatic surge in water flow, many people in Ahwaz still suffer from severe shortages. [Ref]
In addition to shortages, Ahwaz suffers from widespread pollution in its water supply. Poor sanitation and lack of waste treatment plants have resulted in water that isn’t fit for consumption. Similar to the shortages, this too disproportionately affects the rural areas of the region. Multiple reports have indicated that many citizens suffer from skin, respiratory and cancer diseases as a result of consuming the region’s water.
The Iran government has so far shown no concern and made no plans to alleviate these issues for the population in Ahwaz.
Gheyzaniyeh district, located 45 km south of the capital, Ahwaz, is severely affected by the water crisis. Failure to provide water risks with the mass migration of many citizens to other areas, where their displacement will lead to a host of issues, such as unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. It is posited by many that this is the intention of the Iran government, as part of their wholescale persecution of Ahwazis.
Dr Gill Leighton, a Professor in Political Science, agrees. She comments: “The world is currently paying multinational organisations like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to investigate and intervene in issues like water shortages throughout the world. There is ample evidence that man-made and deliberate policies which discriminate against the Ahwazi people have directly resulted in desertification and severe regional water and health crisis. The UN and the WHO, whilst occasionally expressing ‘concern’ about the Iran regime’s actions, has not attempted to alleviate this situation or stand up against it. It is time they, and other human rights organisations, start urgently advocating on behalf of Ahwaz and its population, before even more damage is done.”
Approximately 25 thousand people reside in 89 villages across the Gheyzaniyeh district. The region is home to over 600 oil wells, which should theoretically provide its Ahwazi inhabitants with the potential of better living condition and meaningful employment. Despite the presence of the wells, and the Karoon River, just kilometres away from the rural district, its citizens have suffered from water shortages and unemployment for years; their repeated calls for change have not been met by the Iranian regime, although these demands constitute part of the “right to life, liberty and security of person” in respect of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, which, according to Dr Leighton, “Iran signed in 1967, yet since then, and particularly after 1979 and the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini, hardly any part of this Declaration has been observed in respect of Ahwazi people.”
After years of follow- up to resolve the crisis by communicating with the MPs in the Iranian Parliament, the Municipal Council, the Iranian Governor in Ahwaz, the Ministry of Energy and the rest of the Iranian state institutions – citizens in Gheyzaniyeh desperately protested the policies of the Iranian authorities. On the day of the demonstration, citizens blocked the highway between the city of Ahwaz and Ma`shur to protest against the shortage of drinking water. However, security forces with weapons attacked the demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them, which resulted in the injury of a number of citizens, including children, and the arrest of many others. Observers believe that the failure to provide water to Ahwazis in Gheyzaniyeh is a deliberate policy, not only because of mismanagement. The intentional policy aims to compel citizens to emigrate in order to erase the Ahwazi identity in Ahwaz. All of these actions are serious transgressions against Ahwazis in Iran and amount to ongoing discrimination, persecution, poverty, displacement and loss of life.
Similar protests have been witnessed in other Ahwazi areas in recent weeks, as residents of Umm al-Tamir village located in the west of Ahwaz City, the capital, protested against the regime’s failure to provide drinking water amid the coronavirus pandemic, necessary for basic hygiene as well as observing WHO worldwide recommended protocols for slowing the virus’s spread and loss of life. Residents in the village organised protests, which quickly expanded to other rural areas. However, they were unable to achieve their goal of obtaining clean drinking water. As the rest of the world snapped into action to help their citizens, Ahwazis have been a shocking exception, because of their ethnicity.
Observers pointed out that in the past months there was a widespread water crisis in Rofaye town of Khafajiyeh district (Missan) and the village of Al-Ruwaidat Sofla in Khalafiyeh, although the two areas have an abundance of water, evidenced in the Jarrahi and Karkheh rivers. Water is simply not being allowed to flow to its citizens, but directed elsewhere. Observers also confirmed that the continuation of this policy must lead to the return of large-scale protests such as occurred in Ahwaz between November 2019 and February 2020, in which dozens of civilians were killed and injured. In December 2019, the US State Department announced that Iranian security forces had killed at least 140 protesters in the city of Ma’shur.
In an interview with DUSC, an Ahwazi resident said that “the situation in Gheyzaniyeh and the rest of the Ahwazi areas is miserable, and this crisis is on the rise.” The resident added that he was one of the many Ahwazis who migrated from his village two years ago and is currently suffering housing and unemployment issues due to the loss of agricultural lands he owned. He stressed that the Iranian authorities aim to displace the Ahwazi residents of Gheyzaniyeh in order to depopulate them from the belt of Ahwaz City, the capital. He rejected the premise that the water shortage is a naturally occurring one, instead confirming it is due to the regime’s mismanagement, as Ahwaz is a wealthy land in water resources. Moreover, the crisis has spread beyond rural areas and to cities that have freshwater sources such as Muhammarah and Abadan.
It is worth noting that in the past few weeks, hundreds of people took to the streets of the city of Muhammarah to protest against the government’s inaction about the quality of water in that city. There were reports of protest marches in the city of Ahwaz, Ma’shur, and Khor Musa, as well as clashes in Abadan, where Iran’s largest oil refinery is located.
In fact, almost all rural areas of Ahwaz are experiencing a water crisis, although most of these villages are adjacent to Karoon river. For example, Kot Sayed Saleh rural area in Kot Abdullah county, west of the capital, Ahwaz, suffers from a shortage of drinking water, as this situation has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. A citizen of Kot Sayed Saleh told DUSC that residents of the town and the surrounding areas are buying water because they do not have clean water to drink, even lacking enough running water for washing. He added that what little amount of water that is provided is often polluted and smells foul. He said that the water is unsafe even to be given to animals and trees.
This claim was echoed by another citizen from Kot Sayed Saleh, who reports that the government provides them with a small amount of mouldy water every two to three days. Another citizen added: “Even during the winter, despite the presence of rain, we suffer from a lack of water for washing and drinking,” she said. “We followed up with the officials, but we did not get any solutions to end the crisis.” This situation is untenable amid the COVID-19 pandemic as it puts many more lives of men, women and children at risk during this time.
Environmental experts in Ahwaz noted that one of the reasons for the water scarcity is due to the construction of large-scale unscientific dams in general by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They said that since 2013 there have been weekly protests, but it is clear that no results have emerged to resolve the crisis.
In a recent provocative move, the Iranian regime changed the name of the Ahwazi village of Gheyzaniyeh to Qassam Soleimani to honour the terrorist recently killed in a US airstrike. Rather than meeting the local demand for clean water, the regime prioritises self-serving propaganda. Thus, the regime amply underscores its lack of concern for the Ahwaz residents. Even water shortage, much less near-complete lack of access, has an impact on the local agriculture, the health of the residents, livestock, and the local economy. Unless the current situation is addressed promptly, the people will continue to face death, disease, or be forced to migrate elsewhere due to the water shortages. Although the Ahwaz governor Gholam-Reza Shariati claimed that the residents will be granted access to clean water within two weeks, so far nothing has happened. The locals have been left to fend for themselves, while the likelihood of the restoration of essential services remains remote. Many similar promises have previously not been upheld by the regional and national governments.
Nouri Hamzah, an Ahwazi expert on Iranian affairs, said that “the Iranian regime is obstructing the lives of Ahwazi citizens by not providing job opportunities and fundamental rights such as drinking water.” Hamzah explained that “the Iranian regime in this policy aims to undermine the psychological as well as family and economic stability of Ahwazi citizens. Therefore, the objective of all these policies is to expel Ahwazis from their homelands and force them to migrate to other regions in Iran. Consequently, the regime seeks to make Ahwazis a minority in their homeland to prevent them from posing any threat to regime interests in Ahwaz, by coercively or forcibly evacuating them and replacing them with other ethnic groups.”
Nouri Hamzah added that Iranian authorities provide housing, work opportunities, health centres and all life services to Persian speaking settlers in all Iranian settlements in Ahwaz. However, the regime does not provide the basics rights to life such as drinking water to Ahwazi citizens. Therefore, this policy is not due to mismanagement of resources by the regime, but rather a deliberate policy of dangerous discrimination that has been in place for decades against Ahwazi people. Hamzah noted that the Iranian regime prohibits development in Ahwaz, and this indicates that the regime is continuing with a policy of changing the demographics in Ahwaz, saying that “all elements of the Iranian regime, such as the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Presidency, all ministries and the Supreme National Security Council agree on this policy.”
On 28 July 2010, through resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised “the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.” The resolution calls upon states and international organisations to provide such financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all. It can therefore clearly be seen that the Iran regime is violating international law and denying basic human rights to Ahwazis.
In November 2002, the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. Article I.1 states that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights”. Comment No. 15 also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. [Ref]
Mahmoud Abohosh, an Egyptian expert on political affairs, in an interview with DUSC said that “the right of Ahwazi citizens to have access clean water for drinking is a social right, and this, of course, obliges the authorities in Iran to provide services to facilitate the life of the citizen, such as the right to water. Access to clean water is guaranteed as a social right.” However, in reality, Ahwazi citizens, in general, face deliberate neglect and the policy of systematic deprivation and forced displacement at the hands of Iranian consecutive governments with the aim of alerting the demography of Ahwaz. This policy is continued in accordance with the Iranian regime’s vision of ending the native Ahwazis presence in Ahwaz.
Therefore, Ahwazi citizens – even in their native homeland – are forced to endure Iranian regime building dams on Ahwazi rivers. These dams are more properly characterized as water diversion projects which deliberately bypass Ahwaz and instead transfer the water to other Iranian cities to support their local agriculture, provide drinking water, and supply factories in ethnically Persian regions in central Iran. This is, in fact, a core part of the regime’s marginalisation policy against the people of Ahwaz, in order to destroy their lives through weaponising water. This is completely contrary to international treaties and covenants, even ones the Iran government signed to uphold. They must guarantee this right to Ahwazi citizens.
The Iranian regime is violating the international law by denying Ahwazis access to clean drinking water. This policy goes against the fundamental right to life in Ahwaz. It also causes deliberate and unjustifiable suffering to residents of Gheyzaniyeh and other areas in the Ahwaz region. Lack of access to water is, and will continue to impact the life and economy of Ahwazis for the foreseeable future. The majority of Ahwazis live in rural areas and villages, as aforementioned, making their living as farmers. Their agriculture and livestock are heavily dependent on a consistent water source. Moreover, the situation is exacerbated by the context of the rapidly spreading corona infection and related conditions imposed on Ahwazis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its mismanagement by the regime.
Besides lack of access to clean water, there are many other Iranian regime policies which marginalise Ahwazis and cause suffering to the rural residents. Three experts in this report have clearly demonstrated that what is happening in Ahwaz is a violation of international law and human rights. Whether or not the cause of this lack of access is due to “mismanagement” or to malicious intent, is ultimately irrelevant, since the outcome is the same. The Iranian regime has a well-documented policy of using violence and propaganda in response to the demands protests of citizens concerning access to water. One example is the attack by government forces on the demonstrators standing up for their fundamental rights in Gheyzaniyeh.
If the current poor performance in providing services is due to mismanagement, the problem should be quickly solved through the MPs representing the region and the interests of their constituents. If, on the other hand, the root cause is racism, then the problem can only be solved by changing the Iranian officials in Ahwaz. The persistence of the problem and the consistent lack of response to a critical situation of water pollution all point to the likely intentional pattern of discrimination. The regime likely justifies and engineers these social issues as part of its long-term agenda of ethnic cleansing and Ahwazis depopulation of Ahwaz. Hence, poor services and lack of safe drinking water, the illogical placement of dams, and the seemingly reckless diversion of rivers, as well as employment discrimination are well-crafted plans by the regime to target the Ahwazi identity. In the meantime, the Iranian government advances its agenda with impunity as the international community and human rights NGOs stand silent.
Article first published on Duruntash Studies Center.
Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka.