Iran’s petroleum spraying in Ahwaz puts its unique ecology in grave danger


by Rahim Hamid

When bitumen emulsion is inhaled by humans, its durable adhesive nature could potentially kill a person by blocking airflow to the lungs.

Bitumen emulsion or petroleum mulching, in which a thin coat of petroleum-based material is applied to a surface, has been among the most common methods used by the Iranian regime to attempt to reduce sandstorms in Ahwaz. Studies show, however, that the authorities responsible used this technique without paying any attention to the results or the already-known devastating environmental effects of their mulching operations on the indigenous flora and fauna or on the wider regional ecosystem, particularly concerning regeneration and the damage to the region’s soil.

The area to the west of the Karoon River where bitumen emulsion is being carried out is known as Maysan region to local Ahwazis and Dashte Azadgan in Farsi. It contains a number of villages and towns and four sizeable cities, called Khafajiyeh, Howayzeh, Basitin and Rofaye.

This report intends to analyse the environmental effects of the regime’s petroleum mulching project, particularly on the ecosystem and the habitat of the dunes system in the Beit Kusar area of Khafajiyeh in Ahwaz territory.

The Beit Kusar area is located to the south of the Meshdakh hills, a natural reserve around eight kilometres to the east of Basitin (Bostan) city travelling on the Basitin -Um Al-Dibs road. While the region has sand dunes, it also has rich, varied and extensive vegetation.

 Beit Kusar has a unique natural ecosystem, with a rich diversity of indigenous plants and animals. Along with its rolling fields, the diverse ecosystem makes it a longstanding popular wintering migration ground for some of the best-known protected bird species, the sociable lapwing and the Houbara bustard.

The desert areas of Beit Kusar and Beit Rashed ( Fakkeh area bordering Iraq) are also home to a diverse variety of vegetation such as Tamarind Tree and Calligonum Comosum, with this biodiversity creating a unique ecosystem which has been devastated by the regime’s mulching program;  ironically, the deep-rooted vegetation which has long helped to prevent sandstorms is threatened by the mulching program supposedly intended to stop sandstorms, which will actually undoubtedly increase them. Due to the similarities between the ecosystem of this area and the Meshdakh area which is already under a natural protection order and the continuous, stable connection between them, Iran’s Department of Environment should extend the protection order to the Beit Kusar area to prevent further destruction.

If no such action is taken and the regime continues with its oil-mulching program here, the ecological devastation will be horrendous, leading to the extinction of many already endangered indigenous species of plants, birds and animals in the area, as well as leading to further pollution in surrounding areas when the oil used in the mulching process is washed away during the rainy season to poison the soil.

Explaining the issue of bitumen emulsion or Petroleum mulching

It’s clear that taking ill-conceived, inappropriate and unscientific action to solve environmental problems can actually intensify the existing problems and even make them far worse. In the case of the Iranian regime’s oil-mulching program and related projects, the devastation inflicted on the environment by the ‘solution’ is far worse than the original problem of sandstorms that the program was introduced to solve, leading to terrible destruction of the regional ecosystem that may be irreversible.    Iran’s regime is well aware of the potential damage caused by mulching, with the Budget Law of 2019 introducing legislation prohibiting mulching except in limited cases and in accordance with environmentally sensitive regulations – legislation which it has subsequently ignored.

One of the cases cited for this legislation was the use of oil mulching and the subsequent discoloration and poisoning of lands and sand dunes in the Fakkeh area of Basitin city, carried out under the pretext of fighting sandstorms and still ongoing. Despite the abolition of the use of petroleum products for use in mulching in stabilisation and preventing sandstorms, supported by the Budget Law of 2019, mulching has continued, supposedly in accordance with eco-friendly operations. Indeed, only months after the Budget Law underlining the proscription on this activity was passed, contractors hired by the provincial authorities’ Natural Resource’s Department began mulching operations in December 2019 using the same petroleum products.  Only after widespread opposition from environmentalists in the region and local organisations, were these operations temporarily suspended on the orders of the prosecutor of Maysan (Dashte Azadegan city) who ordered a review of this issue and instructed that scientific studies be carried out to find more appropriate, environmentally friendly methods of preventing sandstorms. Unfortunately, the responsibility for conducting these studies was given to the regional Department of the Environment (DoE), following protocol set out by the Secretary of the DoE’s National Agency for Combating Sandstorm Phenomena in 2018, meaning that operations were resumed on February 25 using the exact same environmentally devastating techniques.

Seyed Baqer Mousavi, an Ahwazi environmentalist and environmental activist, has been tirelessly exposing the horrendous consequences of petroleum mulching on the natural environment in the Meshdakh natural reserve area, posting numerous photos and video footage on social media showing the devastation wreaked on the area’s unique flora and fauna, including heartbreaking photos of creatures killed by ingesting the lethal toxins contained in the mulch materials.

Like other environmentalists, Mousavi is urging an end to the use of petroleum mulching in this Ahwazi area, saying that it poses a lethal danger to the unique and rich biodiversity of the area.

Mousavi condemned supporters of mulching who argue that desert areas are simply arid lifeless wastes, saying such ignorance shows they clearly know nothing about the natural world or the environment and the desert ecosystem of Meshdakh, whose rich and unique biodiversity are endangered by their selfish wish to disregard nature for their self-interest.

Speaking about the deaths among indigenous animals and birds in the area, he said, “We found the bodies of a number of these animals last year in the hills, covered in black, stinking mulch. It is wrong to say that mulching is not harmful because so far, no organisations other than the Ministry of Petroleum have studied petroleum mulching, while Studies should be conducted by a neutral institution. However, these studies have also confirmed some negative consequences.”

Mousavi named a number of the rare reptiles in the  Maysan area which are unique to the Ahwaz region, warning that these species are  at risk of complete extinction due to petroleum mulching, including the Arabian horned viper, Eryx jayakari, the Schmidt’s fringe-toed lizard,  the Arabian toad headed iguana, the Amphisbaena, the Bridled Mabuya or Bridled Skink, and the Middle Eastern short-fingered gecko, along with the common Leopard Gecko.  All of these species, he emphasised, live only in sand dunes and die when these sands are destroyed or contaminated with petroleum products.

He adds: “The most important mammal that lives in the sands of Meshdakh is the Reem deer. The mulch does not kill the deer but causes them to migrate because it [the mulch] is a poisonous, foul-smelling substance whose effects last for several years and pollute the vegetation cover in the region which the deer feed on. Wolves, hyenas and foxes are among the other animals that are emigrating due to mulching. The Cheesman’s gerbil is a mouse found only in Ahwaz and feeds on insects and plants that dies due to mulching in the area. Wild rabbits, which are also indigenous to this area also died, with their bodies found, covered in petroleum mulch last year.”

Mousavi warned that the mulching operations will have a devastating effect on the entire region if they continue. “Petroleum mulching will eventually destroy the region’s vegetation cover,” he asserted. Talking about a regime plan to plant trees there in another ill-conceived effort at environmental protection that is more likely to damage the environment than help it, he added, “Planting American Prosopis Juliflora trees in the mulched areas will take water from the other regional plants, and Prosopis Juliflora forests will replace the sands and vegetation cover.”

He explained that while some people believe deserts are arid environments devoid of life, in reality untreated scrubland in climates such as that in Ahwaz can retain moisture, meaning that there’s an extensive coverage of vegetation around the sand dunes; in the Maysan area, as well as  plant species such as turmeric, squash, rhubarb and various legumes.  He warned, however, that the long roots of Prosopis Juliflora absorb all the moisture in the surrounding soil, potentially leaving the region stripped of its other vegetation and creating a dead zone.

Mousavi pointed out that the millennia-old presence of a longtime local human population in the area, as well as the flora and fauna there, demonstrates the falseness of the idea that desert areas are lifeless wastelands, adding, “We have not had any problems with sand dunes in the  Maysan area so far, and the existence of the surrounding villages confirms this.”

As noted above, this natural wilderness is home to the beautiful and rare Reem deer, with petroleum mulching just one of the causes driving these species to the brink of extinction; other causes are periodic flooding, worsened by the regime’s damming and diversion of local rivers and digging of irrigation canals that the deer drown in during the rainy season.

Environmental rights groups have repeatedly reported that the Reem deer, also known as Arabian gazelles, which are native to the   Um Al-Dibs area to the west of the Ahwazi regional capital, Ahwaz, are in danger of extinction in the area due to dozens drowning in the irrigation canals dug throughout the region. 

Despite being warned about this risk to these already endangered species, Iranian environmental and wildlife organisations have taken no action to protect the remaining Reem deer in the area.

Heartbreaking photos of drowned deer have been widely shared on social media by Ahwazi netizens in recent days, showing tragic images of an entire herd of the graceful creatures which were unable to escape the waters of the irrigation canal in the  Um Al-Dibs area after falling in recently.

In the early 1980s, more than 1,500 of these beautiful gazelles grazed the lands in the region, but many were killed by stray gunfire in the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, while a large number of the remaining deer have subsequently been illegally hunted for sport by senior Iranian army and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps  (IRGC) commanders, according to Ahwazi local eyewitnesses, leaving the species in real and immediate danger of extinction.

Ahwazi environmental experts in 2016  put the total numbers of Reem deer in the region at 200; with the figures continuing to fall due to hunting and drowning,  the same activists are warning that unless state organisations take immediate action to protect the species that has lived in the area since time immemorial, it is in serious danger of extinction.

In 2015 alone, at least 25 of the gazelles have died as a result of drowning in the local stretch of the 107-kilometre irrigation canal which runs from the dam on the Karkheh River, passing through  Um Al-Dibs. Now only around 70 of the deer remain.

Local experts say that the creation of the irrigation channels by the Iranian regime in the early 2000s to irrigate lands forcibly seized by the regime from Ahwazi local farmers in the west of the region led to the deer being cut off from their main pastures on the other side, leading many to make dangerous attempt to ford the channels, during which large numbers of them perished

The experts further stated that they had received confirmation that 25 of the endangered deer had fled to Iraq, where they were either hunted for sport or been killed for food by other predatory species.

A number of Ahwazi environmentalists and other activists have spoken out about the tragedy of the native species standing on the brink of extinction, with one of them, environmental activist Fakher   Maramazi, publishing an article entitled ‘Who Is Responsible for the Elimination of This Cultural and Environmental Heritage, and Why Is This Great and Treasured Rare Deer Dying Out With No Action Being Taken To Date?’

Like the terrible devastation inflicted by petroleum mulching, the heartbreaking disappearance of the Reem deer from the Ahwaz region and their possible extinction has prompted many such questions among the local population. The regime, however, has provided no answers.

The impact of Bitumen emulsion or petroleum mulching on the local population and its livestock

When bitumen emulsion is inhaled by humans, its durable adhesive nature could potentially kill a person by blocking airflow to the lungs. It is similarly, if not more, fatal to animals when inhaled or ingested, sticking to the lungs and obstructing airways or by creating a breeding ground for infection.

In this video, we see a shepherd complaining of having lost many sheep due to the bitumen being sprayed on existing vegetation that constitutes his sheep’s daily diet. He is asking the government not to spray very close to the villages, and lamenting that life is already utterly difficult with the current COVID-19 situation.

The desperate man says: “I am asking the government to help us and urge the local authorities to stop the bitumen emulsion spraying on this sandy area and its vegetation. As you see, we have no other option to make a living except our livestock, Coronavirus is spreading here, many locals are infected, and all the roads are closed. Why do they keep spraying this area with emulsion? Many local reptile species vanished, no snake nor deer survived, even ants and scorpions are eliminated.  Those species that did not die out have been migrating, abandoning the area.”

“As you see, these fauna and flora are native to the area and are preventing the rise of sand particles and [thereby] lessen the sandstorm. Because of the existing vegetation, there is no need for bitumen emulsion for mulching; the vegetation stops the sandstorm. By insisting on spraying emulsion, they are causing our suffering to be more unbearable, our animals – such as sheep – are infected. Now, we are trying to treat our infected animals; treatment of each sheep cost us 5 to 6 million [between $240 and $300 in U.S. dollars]. Once our sheep eat the contaminated plants, its lungs get an infection and severe obstruction, and it dies. I am asking, kindly, of all regime officials and local authorities to have mercy towards our lives and our source of living, which is our livestock, and stop this devastating emulsion spraying on our lands.”

While several nations have experimented by using bitumen as a temporary stabilising measure while creating anti-sandstorm dunes, it is only done in order to provide some stability until vegetation can be grown. When vegetation is already present, however, spraying any sort of petroleum emulsion product is entirely counterproductive, as it kills the vegetation while providing only transitory protection. And unlike bitumen, studies have shown that vegetation covering as little as 15% of sand surfaces is enough to stabilise them. [Lancaster, N. (2011). Desert dune processes and dynamics. In Arid Zone Geomorphology: Process, Form and Change in Drylands (ed. Thomas, D.S.G.) pp. 487–516. 3rd Edition. Wiley].

In the second video, we see an elderly woman villager complaining that they have nothing left except for the sheep and asking the government to stop the spraying of the bitumen as it is taking away the farmers’ livelihood, which is not much to start with. We can also see their poor living conditions, living in tents in remote areas without any apparent services being provided for them. They reside without access to adequate ventilation or air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat of Ahwaz, which underscores the low quality of life in the region.

She says, “please listen to me, see the condition of our lives. We are oppressed and impoverished people, we do not have any water for farming, we have no job to make a living, all we have these remaining livestock, and despite our miserable situation, you add insult to injury by spraying the bitumen on us, while we are struggling with Coronavirus. I am begging government officials to help us and stop spraying this toxic bitumen. We have animals such as sheep for making a living. We have families and children here. Please stop it, where can we go, why do you keep displacing and besieging us here.”

Yasser Hasan, an Ahwazi environmental and civil activist based in London, has stated that the main aim behind the Iranian regime’s use of environmentally devastating mulching in Ahwazi areas is to displace more of the indigenous Ahwazi people from their lands to enable the regime to take control of more of the oil and gas-rich region in order to launch further prospecting and drilling operations there.

Hasan explained that the use of mulching, along with the regime’s massive dam-building program on the region’s rivers which is also causing rapid desertification, is killing plants and wildlife and forcing many farmers and fishermen to abandon their beloved lands simply to survive. The mulching is already helping to accelerate the cycle of desertification caused by the river-damming, helping to push the already searing summer temperatures in the region higher. The environmentalist added that although the regime responded to public pressure by approving the allocation of 200 billion toman (approximately 13.3 million dollars) in 2019 for planting trees in the area as a measure to help in reducing sandstorms in the region and restoring the ecological balance, the regional governor and local officials from the regime’s own environmental service had embezzled these funds for their own use.

The environmentalist said that these policies which actively prevent any move to preserve or protect the natural environment in Ahwaz and to safeguard the region’s flora and fauna make it clear that the primary objective of the regime’s actions, closely coordinated with the regime’s infamous intelligence services, is to empty the area of its local Ahwazi population by making the region intolerable and uninhabitable for the local Ahwazis.

Hasan added that whilst the increasingly unbearable climatic conditions make it difficult for the regime to attract Farsi-speaking ethnically Persian settlers from other areas of Iran to work at its oil and gas facilities and refineries (jobs denied to the local Ahwazi people), they are offered incentives such as high wages and homes in specially built settlements provided with all mod cons to move to the area as a means of changing the demographic balance there; it should be noted that Ahwazis are not allowed to live in these settlements. Even with these incentives, however, these settlers prefer to return to their own regions whenever possible to escape the arid climate, sandstorms and heavy pollution from the oil and gas facilities in Ahwaz, which was once known as a regional breadbasket.

This means that, ironically, the regime’s efforts to make the conditions in the Ahwaz region intolerable for its indigenous people in order to alter the demographic balance have also made it intolerable for the ethnically Persian settlers who it wishes to see outnumber and replace the Ahwazi people. Despite the regime’s decades of efforts to drive out the native Ahwazi people and devastate their lands by persecution, poisonous mulching, pollution, dam-building and desertification, amongst many other strategies, the Ahwazi people remain and will not be driven out. 

Faisal Maramazi, a London-based Ahwazi rights activist, also told DUSC, ” A few years ago the Iranian authorities began a large project to spray bitumen emulsion outside Ahwaz cities and around villages on sandhills covered in vegetation, causing a complex range of environmental problems with animals and natural plants dying as a result.”

He added, ” The Iranian authorities claim this is the only way to control the sand particles on these hills, preventing them from being lifted by high winds and storms and creating sandstorms – but to this day, there is no scientific proof to support this theory.”   

Maramazi explains that the desert areas and scrublands in the Ahwaz region could not be the source of the horrendous sand storms since the topsoil in these areas consists of large sand grains that, even in strong winds, will settle nearby. Ahwaz only began to be plagued by sandstorms around 11 years ago, in 2008, right after the Iranian government started drawing water from the once verdant seasonal lagoons and wetlands for use on its environmentally ruinous sugarcane farms. The clay soil of these dried lagoons has the smallest soil particles found in nature; in their natural wet state this is not a problem, but following desertification, which happens rapidly in the hot climate in Ahwaz, the vast lagoons turn into dustbowls, with the dusty sandy clay soil particles picked up by the wind and carried for vast distances, creating horrendous sandstorms.

Ahwazi rights groups and environmental activists have repeatedly expressed concerns about the environmental issues in Ahwaz, which have been either caused or exacerbated by the Iranian government. For some time, they have been urging the international environmental activists’ community to act collectively.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) should pressure Iran to put an immediate stop to this hideous and inhumane abuse of the natural resources in Ahwaz and all of its components. Iranian authorities have to allow the natural water to return to the drying wetlands. We hope that by doing so, one day Ahwaz can have its nature back, all the local animals and plants have their habitat restored, and all people will have clean air as before and enough water for farming.

Despite repeated warnings from many environmental activists about the catastrophic environmental impact of drying out the lagoons and the wetlands, however, the Iranian government proceeded with its economically and ecologically ruinous sugarcane-farming project, as well as transferring millions of litres of water from the rivers that once made Ahwaz a regional breadbasket to areas of central Iran via a massive system of upriver dams and pipelines.

The desertification of the wetlands has caused worsening droughts across Ahwaz, driving countless species of animals and plants to extinction, as well as leaving the people of the region in catastrophic conditions, with breathing conditions and respiratory illnesses that were rarely seen previously now widespread, incapacitating or killing the region’s indigenous Ahwazi people at a horrific rate. All the evidence suggests that these diseases and illnesses are the results of the sandstorms, with many suggesting that the enriched clay of the dusty, dehydrated lagoons and swamps contains a vast variety of pathogens that could, if inhaled, cause novel respiratory diseases. Despite this, the Iranian regime is refusing to invest in any academic studies, apparently fearing the results which are likely to expose its own terrible incompetence. 

Article first appeared on Duruntash Studies Center.

Rahim Hamidis an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.

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