During the COVID-19 pandemic, in Iran Ahwazi Arabs are being denied the basic human right of access to water

By Dr Gill Gillespie, article written by Rahim Hamid for Dur Untush Studies Centre

Typically, water shortages occur when the amount of drinkable water doesn’t meet the requirements for the population in question. The Ahwaz region in southwestern Iran, however, has an abundance of rivers, such as Karoon, Karkheh and Jarahi [1], which collectively comprise the largest source of fresh water in Iran [2], 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 larger 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 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 [3]. 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.[4]  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) 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 (named Khuzestan after the occupation of al-Ahwaz in 1925) 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 well resources, whereas there are around 171 wells 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 Karon River, 13 cities from the Karkheh River, two cities from Jarrahi, two cities from Al-Zahra, and four from other rivers. Additionally, he states that “in 2017, 130 million cubic meters of groundwater was extracted from Ahwaz, which has decreased by 34 per cent in 2018.” [5] 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.” He added:

“The water issue in Ahwaz has become a major 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.” [6]

“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  water crisis. These include the villages in Ramiz, Bab Hani (Arjan), Khalafia, Amidiya, 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 meters of water. By comparison, in 2018, only 9 million cubic meters 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. [7]

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 diseases, respiratory system and cancer as a result of consuming the region’s water.  The Iran government has so far shown no concern or made plans to alleviate these issues for the population in Ahwaz.

 Ghizaniyah

Ghizaniyah district, located 45 km south of the capital, Ahwaz, is severely affected by the water crisis. Failure to provide water risks 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 organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization to investigate and intervene in issues like water shortages throughout the world. There is much evidence that man-made and deliberate policies which discriminate against the Ahwazi people has 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 organizations, start urgently advocating on behalf of Ahwaz and its population, before even more damage is done.”

Approximately 25 thousand people reside in 89 villages and across Ghizaniyah district. The region is home to 300 oil wells, which provide its inhabitants with the potential and history for 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 Khomenei, hardly any part of this Declaration has been observed in respect of Ahwazi Arabs.”

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 Al-Ahwaz, the Ministry of Energy and the rest of the Iranian state institutions – citizens in Ghizaniyah 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 in a Ghizaniyah is a deliberate policy, not only because of mismanagement. The deliberate policy aims to compel citizens to emigrate in order to erase the Arab identity in Ahwaz.  All of these actions are serious transgressions against Arabs in Iran and amount to ongoing discrimination, persecution, poverty, displacement and loss of life.

Similar protests have been witnessed across Ahwaz in recent weeks, as residents of Umm al-Tamir village in the western quarters 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 organized 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 and culture.

Observers pointed out that in the past month there was a widespread water crisis in Rofayyeh town of Khafajiya district (Missan) and the village of Al-Ruwaidat Sofla in Khalafia, although the two areas have an abundance of water, evidenced in the Al-Jarrahi River, Karkheh and Hor Al-Azim marshland. 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 Dur Untash Centre, an Ahwazi resident said that “the situation in Ghizaniyah and the rest of the Ahwaz regions 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 Ghizaniyah 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, the capital of Ahwaz, before the occupation of lands by the Iran regime , 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 city 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, 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 local media in Ahwaz 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 claims that the water is unsafe even to be administered 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 even without the COVID-19 pandemic but 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.

The Iranian regime changed the name of Ghizaniyah to Qassim Soleimani (the name of the terrorist recently killed by the USA), instead of meeting the demands of the locals for access to clean water, demonstrating they have no concern whatsoever for people living there. Any lack of access to water has an impact on agriculture, health of residents, livestock and the local economy, as people will continue to face death, disease, or migration from their areas if they cannot access to clean water. Although the governor of the regime in Ahwaz Gholam-Reza Shriati claimed that the residents will be granted access to clean water within two weeks, they have thus far been left without a restoration of basic services and have had to fend for themselves. Many such promises have previously not been upheld by regional and national governments.

Nuri 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 stressed that “the aim of the Iranian regime in this policy is 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 aims to make Ahwazis a minority in order not to pose a possible threat to Iranian domination in Ahwaz through evacuating them and replacing them with other ethnic groups.” 

Nuri Hamzah stated that Iranian authorities provide housing, work opportunities, health centres and all life services to settlers in all Iranian settlements in Ahwaz, but the regime does not provide 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.” 

International Law 

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 government is violating international law and denying basic human rights to Ahwazi Arabs.

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. [8]

Mahmoud Abohosh, an Egyptian expert on political affairs, in an interview with Dur Untash 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 in order to change the demography of Al-Ahwaz, in accordance with the Iranian regime’s vision based on ending the Arab presence in Ahwaz.

Controversially, Ahwazi citizens, therefore even on their native homeland, are having to endure the practices of the Iranian regime in building dams in Ahwazi rivers.  These then deliberately bypass Ahwaz and instead are transferred to other Iranian cities to support agriculture, drinking water and factories in the Persian regions in central Iran. This is, in fact, part of the regime’s marginalisation policy against the people of Al-Ahwaz in order to destroy their lives through the drinking water crisis. This is completely contrary to international treaties and covenants, even ones the Iran government signed up to themselves.  They must guarantee this right to Ahwazi citizens.

 Conclusion

Causing deliberate suffering to residents in Ghizaniyah and other areas in Ahwaz, the Iranian regime is violating international law by denying Ahwazis access to clean drinking water (violation of the right to life in Ahwaz). As mentioned, lack of access to water is, and will continue to affect the life and economy of Ahwazi because the majority of Ahwazi in the rural areas and other villages mentioned in the report are farmers, and therefore lack of access to water will affect their agriculture and livestock.  Not only this, but the situation is becoming critical in the context of the appalling conditions imposed on Ahwazi Arabs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Ahwazi rural residents therefore continue to suffer from the Iranian regime’s many policies of marginalising Arabs, not only access to clean water. 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 regime and others claim it due to ‘mismanagement’ or a deliberate policy because failure to provide water to citizens will directly affect them. The Iranian regime also uses a policy of violence or propaganda (lying) in relation to meeting the demands and protests of citizens regarding access to water, as happened in the village of Ghizaniyah against demonstrators who were only, after all, demanding their basic right to life, through access to drinking water.

Indeed, if bad services are due to mismanagement, the problem could and must quickly be solved through MPS representing their citizens’ interests. If instead this is due to racism, then the problem must be solved by changing Iranian officials in Ahwaz. However, the fact that the problem persists, and that many Ahwazi areas are facing critical situations because of polluted water and lack of safe drinking water all point to deliberate policies and discrimination. This means that the regime justifies and programs the problem against Ahwazi people to force the majority of the population to leave Ahwaz. Hence, poor services and lack of safe drinking water (due to building dams and changing the course of the rivers) and unemployment are well-crafted plans by the regime to target the Ahwazi identity. In the meantime, the Iran government continues with impunity, as the international community and, especially the bodies under which Ahwazi Arabs should be protected, stand silent.

References

[1] The Guardian Newspaper, 16 April 2015. Link <https://bit.ly/38txPm0>

[2] Tabnak Javan, 23 July 2019. Link <https://bit.ly/2NYJxeP>

[3] UNPO, 27 June 2018. Link <https://unpo.org/article/20921>

[4] DW, 19 March 2019. Link <https://bit.ly/2VRG4mL>

[5] Mehr News Agency, 5 February 2018. Link <https://bit.ly/2Cee7yk>

[6] Borna News Agency, 1 July 2018. Link <https://bit.ly/2D5SyR5>

[7] IRNA News Agency, 29 May 2019. Link <https://bit.ly/2C7MEyr>

[8] UN, 29 May 2014. Link <https://bit.ly/3fgGPO4>

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