Ahwazi: Iranian Government Responds with Violence to Calls For Better Environmental Protection and Water
Iran has an impending environmental and resource crisis on its hands and the Ahwazi communities are also affected by it. Social movements in the Arab-speaking province have been demanding better access to water and for an end to the pollution caused by oil extraction and use. The Iranian government’s response has been to react with disproportionate levels of violence, just as international actors such as the European Union look to re-engage in diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic. The UNPO points towards this event as a timely reminder that Iran has little respect for its responsibilities toward its own peoples and respect for their human rights.
The article below was published by the Middle East Monitor:
Iranian government forces used tear gas and live ammunition against Ahwazi protesters in the city of Muhammarah on Saturday [30 June 2018]. One protester was shot dead, while dozens of others were wounded in the demonstration calling for clean, drinkable water and condemning government injustices.
Footage on social media shows a few moments of the chaos following Saturday’s demonstration, with protesters on the street attempting to drag a friend to safety as he bled heavily from his wounds after being hit by gunfire. This was in the middle of tear gas and petrol bombs.
Similar scenes were seen in the city of Abadan, with anger growing over the intolerable living conditions. The lack of drinkable water in searing summer temperatures that regularly rise to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit — the only mains water supply is brackish and foul-smelling — is viewed as the final straw by the region’s indigenous Ahwazi population, who have long been subjected to brutal, systemic racist injustice and persecution by the government in Tehran. Moreover, the lack of clean water is attributed widely to the regime’s massive river damming and diversion programme which has rerouted the two main rivers in the once-lush region in south-west Iran to other, ethnically Persian, areas of the country. This in turn has led to widespread desertification across Ahwaz, worsening the suffering among the already marginalised Arab population, who already have to cope with horrendous pollution from the oil and gas terminals across the region. Although Ahwaz contains over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, its indigenous population live in conditions of near medieval poverty.
Ahwazis in other parts of the region expressed outrage at Saturday’s killings, holding more protests on the following day to condemn the murderous brutality of the regime forces, and chanting the same slogans, as well as others expressing solidarity with those injured and killed. Calls for “revolution” were heard in the regional capital, Ahwaz.
Ahwazi activists in the diaspora used social media to post images of the protests as a way of helping to expose to the world what the current Iranian regime, like its predecessors, has done to Ahwaz for almost a century. The oppression is ongoing with the covert and overt complicity of the international community.
“The oppressed Ahwazi people have listened to Iran’s brutal leadership talk about its principled support for Palestinian and wider Arab freedom in stunned disbelief,” commented Mostafa Hetteh, an Ahwazi political activist based in Canada. “For them, Iran is another occupying power no better than the one it condemns, with the theocratic regime simply being the heirs of the monarchy which preceded it in subjugating and brutalising the people and stealing their resources.”
The Ahwazi population lives in what is now the southern and south-western region of Iran, forming the majority of the population in the provinces of Khuzestan [Arabistan], some parts of Ilam, Bushehr, Hormozgan and Qeshm Island. Whilst the people previously had a unified single territory, Iran’s leadership has very deliberately divided this between different provinces in an effort to dilute the Arab presence and eradicate Arab culture and identity. It is a testimony to the resolute determination and proud heritage of the Ahwazi people that almost a century of unrelenting efforts by Iran to eradicate them from history have failed.
“With only seven years left till the centenary of Iran’s 1925 occupation of Ahwaz,” explained ex-political prisoner Ghazi Haidari, “the region has seen successive regimes steal Ahwazi land and resources with impunity.” His people, he pointed out, are subjected to “vicious racist persecution” and subjugation. “The governments [in Tehran] disregard the most basic human rights of the Ahwazis, and there’s little sign that the international community or the UN intend to take their own obligations seriously or end their complicity in Tehran’s constant murderous violations, let alone hold it accountable.”
According to Adel Abdolrahim, an Ahwazi activist based in Sydney, left without adequate or clean downstream water by the government’s river-diversion and damming program, much of what remains of the agricultural sector in Ahwaz seems likely to collapse. “This will have dire consequences both locally and internationally,” he pointed out. “As well as being the home of almost all of Iran’s oil and gas resources, Ahwaz is the country’s primary source of food crops. The region is both the leading producer of wheat (1.1m tons annually) and the second biggest producer of maize (400,000 tons) and rice (300,000 tons). In addition to all this, it provides over 40 per cent of Iran’s sugar production, a vital cash crop, and is also famed regionally for its date palms.”
Nevertheless, Iran’s regime has prioritised an aggressive form of industrialisation in recent decades in a disastrous and short-sighted effort to bolster its economic power and stabilise an increasingly restive society. Ironically, this has transferred the management of natural resources, including water, to the state and thus to the regime’s endemically corrupt, oligarchic elite, and so the government’s efforts have had the opposite effect, with the breadbasket of Ahwaz being turned into a toxic dustbowl by disastrous policies, leaving millions across the country hungry.
Another Ahwazi activist based in Canada, Ali Badri, described the potential short- and long-term effects of Tehran’s policies as horrendous. “Issa Kalantari, the adviser on water, agriculture and environmental issue to Iran’s vice president, and a former minister of agriculture, warned in 2015 that if Iran’s leadership doesn’t change its approach to water use, the result could be mass migration; ‘Approximately 50 million people, 70 per cent of all Iranians, will have no choice but to leave the country,’ he said.” Whilst Kalantari didn’t offer a timetable on when this might happen, he appeared to be talking about the near future, noted Badri. “He asked rhetorically, ‘With the state of our foreign policy, which countries are ready to accommodate 30 to 50 million Iranians?’”
The worst effects of these policies are already being seen in Ahwaz itself, with tens of thousands of people who formerly made their living — as their forefathers did for generations — by farming, fishing and hunting in the pristine coastal marsh areas, now left destitute and forced to migrate to urban areas where most live in desperate poverty.
The scale of the regime’s environmental and economic waste in the region is staggering, with a 2017 Iranian government report stating that around 40 per cent of the region’s massive supply of natural gas, which is extracted alongside oil in Ahwaz and which could itself be used as an energy resource, is instead burned off. This in turn causes the emission of millions of tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere every year, contributing further to the chronic environmental pollution already afflicting the region as a result of the sand and dust in the air from the aforementioned desertification.
According to the World Health Organization, air quality in Ahwaz is worse than that in the far more heavily populated global industrial capitals of Beijing and Delhi, with the measure of airborne particulate matter (PM10) in 2017 standing at 372 ug/m3, a third more than the world’s second-most polluted city, Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. Ahwaz is the only city in the world where the average PM10 levels rise above 300 ug/m3. In layman’s terms, this means that the atmosphere is 46 times worse than the UN-defined limit for air pollution, with the people breathing a toxic atmospheric soup of heavily polluted sand, dust and industrial waste.
This horrendous pollution, coupled with an often-untreated water supply that regularly looks and smells like sewage, has, unsurprisingly taken a heavy toll on the health of the Ahwazi people, with life expectancy rates being the lowest in Iran. Levels of chronic respiratory diseases amongst the Ahwazi are, equally predictably, among the highest globally, with cancer rates also far exceeding the national or global norms.
According to Kaveh Jaseb, a paediatric oncologist and former head of the terribly under-equipped Shafa Hospital, the only specialist cancer hospital in Ahwaz, official statistics show that the number of cancer diagnoses in the region is rising sharply as a result of the massive pollution, surging by almost 500 per cent in the 17 years between 1996 and 2013 alone. He added that there is a direct correlation between the increasing numbers of cancer patients and the unacceptable air pollution levels in Ahwaz region. Currently, there are as many as 1,000 patients diagnosed with various kinds of cancer due to the air and water pollution. The statistics back up his claims, with recorded air pollution levels in Ahwaz increasing by 800 per cent between 2002 and 2013 alone.
Many in Ahwaz believe that the regime’s disastrous policies there are far from accidental, arguing that the combination of massive pollution and desertification help the regime in what is widely viewed as a covert strategy to ethnically cleanse the region as a means of dispossessing the Ahwazi people and denying them the right to their lands, resources and Arab heritage. Activists suggest that once this is achieved, the regime will repopulate the area with ethnic Iranian settlers, effectively enforcing a policy of population transfer, demographic change and historical revisionism that will deny the native Arab people any rights or any prospect of one day having a share in their own natural resources.