Iran’s oppressed Ahwazis protest at months-long water shortages in sweltering summer heat
by Rahim Hamid and Mostafa Hetteh, edited by Penina Sarah
The local Ahwazi population is denied its most foundational rights, with the Iranian regime even reserving jobs at the oil and gas refineries on their land to those identifying as ethnic Persians…
The water crisis is worsening in what should naturally be the water-rich Ahwaz region. In the city of Chobeideh, 30 years of acute water shortages have recently been exacerbated. Its residents have to travel 35 km to Abadan city – home to one of the largest oil refineries in the Middle East – simply to purchase water for drinking and washing. While Abadan has been the source of much of Iran’s exports, its native Ahwazi population have not received any economic benefits from its presence and still lack essential services like running water. They have received nothing from the state except eight years of war against neighbouring Iraq, followed by rounds of displacement without any reconstruction of their destroyed homes and villages.
In this video taken on June 1, residents of Chobeideh voice their complaints: “it’s summer, and the weather is scalding. How long should we continue (to live) with this problem? Chobiedeh never has any water. If we could, we would have been using hand pumps to draw water for our homes, but we don’t have those either. Otherwise, there is no water. Some people are even buying water for washing. We don’t have any water, and the pipe water is unsafe for drinking. We don’t have any water. No one has come to see us (please come and investigate our problem). The pipe water is salty, and there is no clean water to drink. There is no water, how can I explain it? We buy water every two days in about 60,000 Tomans.”
In this second video, also taken on June 1, locals state the following: “the main pipe has no water. We have been struggling to draw water from it, but there is no water at any time – day or night.” The reporter asks how the villagers attempt to deal with this problem and inquiries into whether or not they resort to using tankers to extract water. The man replies: “I swear, that’s it. We have been without water for seven months. Using electrical pumps to draw water has proven extremely dangerous as well, as local residents have gotten electrocuted and died. My 27-year-old uncle was one of them” (the people who died).
Likewise, in the nearby rural area of Jafir, Ahwazi residents are suffering from severe water scarcity. On May 30, a group of people from the Bani Saleh district of Neysan in Howeyzeh city blocked the main road leading to a collection of local oil and gas wells and refineries, known collectively as the Jafir oil wells, in protest at the suspension of water services for months.
Dismayed with the state’s neglect of their essential services, protesters have threatened that unless action is taken immediately to rectify the water situation, they will consider sabotaging the oil and gas facilities to prevent staff from working there. Any such actions could potentially disrupt oil production, which serves as the Achille’s Heel of Iran’s embargoed economy. According to the locals, the rural lands possess vast oil-gas fields, yet the Ahwazi villagers do not have access to clean water and essential health services.
The people of the marginalised Jafir rural area, 50 kilometres west of Ahwaz city, told Dur al Untash Studies Centre (DUSC) that although regime officials have visited several times to talk with the local population about the severe hardships they face due to water shortages, especially in the scorching summer heat, they have delivered nothing but empty promises and lies. Instead, their inaction has been underlined by public photo-ops and disingenuous assurances.
Locals also said that they have voiced their discontent repeatedly to staff within the oil and gas companies working in the area, with management officials likewise pledging to resolve the issue without taking any action.
The local Ahwazi population is denied its most foundational rights, with the Iranian regime even reserving jobs at the oil and gas refineries on their land to those identifying as ethnic Persians, most of whom are incomers brought to the region by the Iranian regime. These workers are given homes in ethnically homogeneous settlements and provided with facilities not available to the locals. This has led to the bleak observation, common amongst Ahwazis, that while the regime’s elite in Tehran reaps the financial benefits, all they have received from the vast oil and gas resources situated on their ancestral lands is pollution and disease.
For more than ten years, local people have complained of water shortages, adding that when water is available, it is mostly foul-tasting – acrid and saline in summer, and discoloured, muddy, and foul-smelling in winter.
MPs have frequently raised the subject of the water scarcity in parliament, and it has even been covered in the media. However, it is still unclear how long the Ahwazi inhabitants, whose province is renowned for its great water and energy resources, must wait for healthy water.
The state of the water supply and of the water and sewage network and infrastructure in Ahwaz is unfit for use. Most of the dilapidated network routinely breaks down due to disrepair. It is insufficient to cope with the population growth since it was first installed decades ago.
These problems have led not only to shortages of drinking water, but to several epidemics of previously eradicated diseases like Hepatitis A, Shigellosis, Salmonellosis and Typhoid, transmitted via organisms in the polluted and untreated water reservoirs. On one occasion, in 2018, more than 180 residents of a village in the region were poisoned by drinking contaminated water.
Speaking about the protest on condition of anonymity, one local protester said, “we are disappointed with the authorities’ hollow promises, and we see no solution other than closing the road leading to the oil companies.” Although the area, where temperatures routinely exceed 120 Fahrenheit in summer, is dotted with massive oil and gas fields and refineries, producing over 50,000 barrels of oil and more than 6.5 million cubic metres of natural gas daily, the indigenous Ahwazi people live in abject poverty. None of the local Ahwazi population reaps the benefits of the immense detailed mineral wealth in the region (which houses more than 95% of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran). The Iranian authorities monopolise control over these reserves.
.#Iran regime is causing ecological disaster by diverting & damming rivers. Water supply in #Arab southwest is polluted & undrinkable. When #Ahwazi people demand clean water they are violently repressed. More evidence of anti-Arab racism https://t.co/kVsccaRw56 Via @samireza42— Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell) June 2, 2020
But Abadan and Jafir are not the only areas suffering from extreme water shortages. On May 24, in Gheyzaniyeh, 40 km east of Ahwaz city, violent clashes erupted between the local Ahwazis and security forces belonging to the Iranian regime. The outburst, which saw Ahwazis cut off the main road to protest continuous water cuts and scarcity of drinking water, was prompted by prolonged indifference of the authorities in the face of repeated pleas for assistance by the locals.
The Iranian regime brought in its security services to break up the protest by force. The security apparatchiks attacked the demonstrators with batons, wounding many citizens, including a child. They proceeded to beat up a number of protesters and wounded others by shooting at them. As a result, multiple Ahwazis were arrested.
Rather than helping the affected citizens, the regime responds to complaints by denying any problem. The authorities routinely withhold the official statistics on levels of water pollution as though this might make the problem itself disappear; this is the same head-in-the-sand approach it adopts to other grave environmental problems in the region such as air pollution and the frequent dust storms due to drying up the region wetlands.
Ecological disaster as a result of dams and tunnels Project
According to official reports, more than 40 dams and tunnels have been constructed on water sources and basins of rivers in the Ahwaz region, including the Karoon, the Karkheh, and the Jarahi, all of this to divert waters into the Iranian heartland.
These studies have proved the involvement of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the establishment of twenty-five dams on the springs of Karoon river, seven on springs of the Karkheh, and eight of the dams are on the Jarahi.
Firms affiliated with the IRGC, are also working on 19 dams on the Karun river, as well as 12 others under construction on the Karkheh river, and five on the Jarahi river, with another 1,400 projects under consideration for future development.
One example of the violation of rights of citizens to adequate water is fully illustrated in the rural district of Gheyzaniyeh, which includes the countryside of both Gheyzaniyeh and Mosharrahat, an area housing nearly 26,000 people in 90 villages.
The district contains an oil refinery, plus more than 20 firms working in the oil industry sector for extracting oil, all supporting the Iranian economy. Such industry relies on vast amounts of water. Whilst people living in the region of Gheyzaniyeh have received numerous promises about having the network of water extended to the area and to 42 other villages in the vicinity, none of these promises have materialised on the ground.
Officials have always claimed to be heeding to the demands of the people, but all attempts at solutions to supply adequate water have failed.
In fact, field studies indicate that the number of villages in Gheyzaniyeh and Mosharrahat has decreased to 75, after residents in 15 villages fled their homes due to a severe water crisis.
Many times, people living in the area have demanded heavy transporters deliver them water. However, after only four arrived from other sources rather than the government, officials made vague promises to deliver fifteen.
Even according to Iranian newspapers, officials had promised to increase the number of tankers, but even after such publicity, no water was ever delivered. Officials in the regime admitted that people living in the area had legitimate grievances, the director of Gheyzaniyeh district, Shahin Hashemi, stated that water supplies carried by tankers, only reached 42 villages, out of 90 villages in the area.
As a result, after exhausting all government channels open to them, with their pleas being totally ignored, these violations have forced local people to protest, during which they have blocked main roads between cities on several occasions. But frustratingly for those involved, these protests have brought no benefit whatsoever to those living in the area, and no changes at all in the distribution of water.
As a result of lack of water, desperate people have taken to the streets, and during these legitimate peaceful protests, security forces have reportedly brutally beaten, injured and fired tear gas canisters and live rounds into the crowds to forcibly disperse them.
Various social media platforms have documented many of the protests that have taken place in the area, highlighting criticism laid against the government for its repressive policies in the face of such protests.
Despite the protests of the people and the uproar this issue has caused in both local and global media outlets, and despite decisions made by the Iranian president and the governor of the Ahwaz region, Gholamreza Shariati, to make drinking water available to these villages, the citizens of this vicinity still continue to suffer through not having access to their fair right to water.
These dams are a flagrant breach of the rights of the Ahwazi citizens to water sources, depriving them of their natural, societal and collective right to water. The building of such dams is also in total disregard by the Iranian administration of rights accorded to all citizens and recognised by the international communities. These rights are protected during wartime. Given the Ahwazi situation of decades of oppression by the Iranian regime, they fall into that category.
These rights were implemented as a safeguard to those living under occupation, rights that have been written into international humanitarian law, applied at times of war, outlined by the Hague Statutes approved in 1907, and verified once again in Geneva, after being signed and agreed at the Second Geneva Convention of 1945.
According to the text of these laws, the Iranian occupying state has no sovereign rights over the Ahwaz region, which it annexed in 1925. Under the definition of these rules, the authority exerted by the Iranian state in this region, is nothing more than a temporary status that has been forced upon the Ahwazi people, who had no option but to accept it.
Ahwazis were never given an option of a referendum to decide their legal status; it was decided for them by the British.
As far as the building of dams, IRGC forces have been actively constructing them since the era of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was in office from August 3, 1989, until August 3, 1997.
Where the damming of Ahwazi rivers is concerned, the Iranian authorities have never consulted with water experts in neighbouring countries such as Iraq, to discuss what the negative impact these dams would have in their countries. Rather than hold dialogue with the countries concerned to discuss such issues, the Iranians have always taken unilateral decisions, looking out for their own self-interest.
For Ahwazi people, access to drinkable water should not be used as a political tool, by which to force them from their homes. Also, the Iranian authorities should not be threatening the Ahwazi citizens, by exploiting their need for water in the home and for personal purposes, in return for inflated sums of money, when fair access to water is a right enshrined in international law.
The cost should never be a barrier hindering Ahwazis from acquiring secure sources of water. Customers should only have to pay reasonable costs for drinking water, and should be supplied with enough to meet their basic needs.
But with conditions such as they are, Ahwazis are unable to obtain water at an appropriate cost, which has become very burdensome to those with little money to spare. As a result of this, in the Gheyzaniyeh district, poor families have been shackled by hefty costs in return for adequate water supplies.
Activists at the international forums laid out recommendations for Ahwazis to obtain their rights to water as follows:
First: The Iranian authorities should implement the covenant of a committee on the economic, societal and cultural rights to water and fully abide by its commitments to submit reports.
Second: The Iranian authorities should make available the right of the Ahwazi citizens to water in a sufficient way to ensure life, dignity and health of citizens.
Third: Children in Ahwaz should never be deprived of their human rights, due to lack of water in their educational institutions and households, and they should never bear the burden of having to fetch water.
Fourth: Indigenous people such as Ahwazis should be protected, with their right to obtain access to water resources in the lands of their forefathers, being assured. Water should also be protected from pollution and encroachment. Plus, countries should provide indigenous people with resources to set up facilities to extend and control water.
Fifth: The Iranian state should, according to covenants, act in accord with a constant and unchanging duty to move in a quicker and more effective way to fully implement the right to water.
Sixth: The implementation of the right to water, like any other right of the Ahwazi citizens, involves three types of commitments that should be honoured by the Iranian state: Commitment to respecting, commitment to protecting and commitment to implementing access to the right to water
Seventh: The Iranian state should ensure that it shall shoulder the responsibility for the costs of water. It should implement the necessary measures which ensure:
1) Using a host of low-cost techniques and technologies.
2) Implementing appropriate policies of pricing such as providing water for free or at a low cost.
Any sum that shall be paid to get water should be based on the principle of equality, and it should ensure the financial capacity of all segments of society, including underprivileged groups, to pay the cost of these services, whether provided by public or private entities.
Article first appeared on Duruntash Studies Center.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist: He tweets under @Mostafahetteh.
Editing by Penina Sarah, attorney, human rights advocate and commentator on Middle East and national security issues.