Ahwazis’ rivers and lives threatened by Iranian regime’s water transfer

27 mins read

by Kamil Alboshoka, Rahim Hamid, Ruth Riegler and Aaron Eitan Meyer 

Many Ahwazi activists believe that the regime’s policy of dam-building and river diversion is part of a longstanding effort to make the area uninhabitable for the indigenous people…

Problems related to water resources have become one of the most significant economic and social challenges facing the people of Ahwaz. Despite the Ahwaz region being richly blessed with bounteous water resources, including three major rivers as well as wetlands, water shortages continue to worsen, with even groundwater levels being greatly reduced due to the devastating policies of the Iranian authorities. This is exacerbated by climate change, which poses an additional burden on the availability and accessibility of water in Ahwaz, but climate change alone could not inflict the horrendous damage caused by the regime’s actions, particularly by its massive river-damming and diversion programmes, which have seen the regime divert much of the water supply from the three main rivers to other regions of Iran. The regime greatly accelerated these projects since 2006, particularly on the Karoon river, leading to unprecedented and rapidly growing water shortages, drought and desertification in the once verdant region.

The damming and diversion programme is one of the most critical issues directly impacting Ahwazi citizens, whose lives, like those of all peoples, are reliant on the availability of clean water.

Under international law, nations are forbidden from restricting the supply of water to citizens in any way that might adversely affect their health, wellbeing and economic stability; despite flying in the face of this internationally accepted norm and restricting Ahwazis’ water supply to a degree that forces many of the indigenous peoples to move to other areas simply for survival, the Iranian regime’s dam-building and river diversion programme has never been censured.

It is imperative, therefore, that this programme and the ongoing construction of dams must be subject to the rules of international law, so this article will focus on some of the violations already perpetrated by Iranian authorities through this devastating and environmentally ruinous programme in Ahwaz. 

Public anger is growing rapidly amongst Ahwazis over the Iranian regime authorities’ theft of their resources. In the latest revelations, it’s been revealed that the regime is planning to secretly divert more water from Ahwaz to ethnically Persian cities under the implausible pretext that sufficient water will be left for the indigenous Ahwazi people in the reservoirs behind the regime-built dams.

Since the 1950s, successive Iranian regimes have built dams and diverted rivers towards ethnically Persian regions of Iran, which have created a severe and worsening environmental crisis in Ahwaz, with this catastrophic situation worsening further under the current regime which has expanded the dam-building and river-diversion programme.  This policy has been implemented not merely to benefit ethnically Persian areas of Iran, but to change the demographic composition of Ahwaz by illegally depopulating its indigenous Ahwazi population so that the land and its resources can be transferred to ethnic Persian and other favoured groups, ensuring that Tehran has full ownership of the resources there.

The latest revelations came in a leaked news report published on Wednesday, 28 October regarding a meeting between the CEO of the Water and Energy Company and governing officials in the Yazd province in central Iran, during which the utilities head instructed the officials that there should be a media ban on any reports about diverting more water to Yazd to avoid the public outcry that happened following revelations of similar illegal diversions of the region’s water supply to Isfahan.

The chairman of the regime’s energy authority further claimed that the state-run company has not yet completed its study into the logistics of transferring water to Yazd, citing this as another reason why media should not be informed about the matter. 

The utilities head also quoted a local official from Yazd as stating that while the Ahwaz region has a problem with Isfahan, there are no similar problems with Yazd. Therefore, he said, unfavourable media coverage could be problematic in stopping the planned diversion of water to Yazd.

In the footage from the meeting, he said, “I urge everyone to ensure that all decisions taken at this meeting should not be published in media, and should remain secret until we can complete the water transfer safely and comfortably. We will also continue to follow the work of studies and financing of the project [regarding transferring water to Yazd]. We will also try to get a water transfer permit from the Environment Organisation as soon as possible.”

The regime’s plan to transfer more water from Ahwaz, which is already suffering from chronic shortages due to the regime’s large-scale diversion of its rivers to other areas is another flagrant violation of international law, effectively victimising an occupied minority population in order to benefit the occupier and its favoured ethnic groups.

The regime’s efforts to conceal these illegal and immoral actions should be publicised and broadcast globally in order to show the regime that it can no longer act with impunity and try to hide its crimes against the indigenous Ahwazi people behind media bans.

Amongst the ways in which the dam-building and river diversion programme has adversely affected the indigenous Ahwazi people and the regional ecosystem are: increasing poverty, unemployment and instability through forcing mass migration, essentially using water deprivation as a tool of demographic change;  spreading disease and illness through leaving the people of Ahwaz with only filthy, untreated water to drink and use domestically; massively polluting the remaining river waters and marshlands; devastating the ecosystem by destroying the habitat of native species of birds, fish and animals, leading to mass species migration or imminent extinction. This article will clearly explain the nature of each of these violations and how to address these policies that threaten the lives of an entire people in Ahwaz.

The construction of dams, particularly on the largest main rivers in Ahwaz – the Karoon and Dez – also has a major impact in neighbouring Iraq, particularly on the quality of drinking water and on agriculture, specifically in the adjacent provinces of Basra and Maysan, as well as having a severe impact on the ecosystem in the Arabian Gulf.

International treaties should theoretically prevent Iran from building dams capable of having such a damaging effect on the environment and local populations.  While international law states that nations which share borders and water supplies should hold consultations beforehand on such major initiatives and should reach agreement on issues such as the quality of dam construction, the materials used, and how this will affect water availability and quality, as well as reaching consensus on their shared ‘absolute sovereignty’ over the water resources,  these protections do not apply to the indigenous people in affected regions when the rivers in question, such as the Jarahi and Karkheh, also in Ahwaz, are controlled by the regime governing their own nation; Iran takes full advantage of this lack of any oversight to dam these rivers and divert their waters to a massive extent that further threatens the already precarious lives and wellbeing of the indigenous Ahwazi people and inflicts additional devastation on the regional flora and fauna and the ecosystem.  Meanwhile, the restrictions on water flowing into the Gulf and the pollution of the remaining waters causes massive environmental damage not only in Ahwaz but in all the Gulf nations. 

To make this article more accessible for readers and followers, the primary focus will be on some of the major problems caused by the construction of dams and diversion of rivers in Ahwaz.

It is hoped that focusing on these violations will increase the awareness of the magnitude of the violation of international law inflicted through the regime’s river-damming and diversion programme in Ahwaz and the level of risk these dams cause to the lives of Ahwazi citizens and to the ecosystem. Later, we’ll analyse how these waters could be used in a positive way that would respect citizens’ right to life and rehabilitate the Ahwazi environment.  

Introduction

International law plays an important role in resolving domestic and foreign disputes, with the growing tensions over water resources falling into both categories,  the conflict over water has become both an internal and regional issue between Iran and Iraq, with disputes over the Karoon in particular stoking regional tensions; meanwhile, although the dams themselves restricting that and other rivers in Ahwaz are solely within Iran’s borders, the regime’s actions have had a devastating impact on the ecosystem of the region. Given all these factors, the crisis over the regime’s river diversion and dam-building programme is considered one of the most serious violations of international law not only threatening Ahwazis’ future in their historic lands due to the danger posed to the indigenous people, flora and fauna and to the fishing and agriculture that are the historic occupations of the Ahwazi people, but to the wider region.  

As indicated above, provisions in international law and international agreements can play a crucial role in restricting dams and limiting their impact on human life and the environment. According to the principles of international law, it is prohibited for a nation housing the headwater or origin of a river to divert its waters at the expense of nations downstream, with no country, region, state or canton permitted to change the natural conditions of its territory at the expense of its neighbour. According to the provisions of international law, the country of origin can use the right of veto against any plan that might harm it. Such a government has the right to oppose any change in the situation of the river. [1]

Access to water in Ahwaz has become one of the most important and central issues in the lives of Ahwazis; by building dams upstream, Iranian authorities have limited and severely reduced the availability of freshwater for the Ahwazi people, as well as severely polluting the remaining water, leaving citizens facing many serious problems linked to deprivation such as unemployment, poverty, displacement and diseases. [2]

An estimated 3 million people in the Ahwaz region (a number that would only include the population of Ahwaz city, Abadan and Muhammarah) lack access to safe drinking water in their homes. [3] According to international law, this is unquestionably illegal since these dams have deprived citizens of their natural rights to life, health and wellbeing. International law also links the miserable situation in Ahwaz to the dams that have caused disaster for citizens.

To address the ‘global water challenges’, the United Nations declared 2005-2015 the ‘International Decade for Action’, and “Water for Life”. These aspirations were restated in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, with the objective of ensuring that everyone has access to water and sanitation. More specifically, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted Resolution 64/292 confirming the human right to water and sanitation.

Freshwater resources in Ahwaz

Freshwater resources occupy a prominent position alongside other natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals in making Ahwaz an important region for the rulers in Tehran.  While the whole area of Ahwaz has access to freshwater resources and a number of rivers, as well as coastal marshlands, they’re particularly concentrated in the northern part of the region, known as Khuzestan in Farsi, with Ahwaz being characterised by its fertile lands, extensive cultivation and extensive water supplies.

Most of the area’s water resources are from conventional sources such as the Karoon, Jarahi and Karkheh rivers, which feed the marshlands in areas like Hor Al-Azim, Falahiyeh, Hor Susa (Bamdej Wetland) and Tamimiyah (Hendijan), with plentiful winter rainfall representing another conventional or natural water resources in the region. While unconventional, manmade water resources such as desalination plants are also present, these have been limited in Ahwaz given the presence of rivers there.

Ahwazi rivers have played a central role in the regional economy and ecosystem, with the 950-kilometre Karoon being the largest river in Iran and the only navigable one large enough to carry oceangoing vessels which has borders with international waters across the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

The Karoon runs from narrow high valleys at its head before forking into two primary branches downstream as it nears the delta; one of these, the ‘Salij’ (or ‘Bahmanshir’ in Farsi), empties directly into the Arabian Gulf, while the other, the extension of the Karoon, flows into the Shatt al-Arab waterway, connecting with the Arabian Gulf. The waters of the Karoon have enabled generations of Ahwazis to make their living as farmers and fishermen, with the region renowned for its agriculture and livestock, as well as for its rich variety of fish and wildlife. The second largest regional river, the Karkheh, enters the plains region between Hamidiyeh and Khafajiyeh after crossing Susa, from where it empties into the Hor Al-Azim. The river is currently cut off and rerouted at the site of the Karkheh Dam and hydro-power plant in Iran.

The third largest river, the Jarahi, divides into two branches, one of which, the Falahiyeh river, joins the Karoon before emptying into the Hor Falahiyeh marshlands, while the other, empties into the Arabian Gulf through Khor Musa.

The Dez River, the fourth largest river in Ahwaz, begins near Tester (Shushtar) before entering the Shatit tributary which flows into the Karoon. The Dez Dam is located on this river. The Zohreh or Hendijan river, with an approximate length of about 490 km, is the fifth largest river, also located in the north of Ahwaz.

After flowing through the city of Arjan (Behbahan), the Zohreh joins the Kheir Abad river; 36 km to the southwest of Tamimiyah  (Hendijan),  it flows into the Arabian Gulf. There are four other rivers in Bushehr in South Ahwaz, namely the Dalki, Hilla, Shapor and Mand. All these rivers empty into the Arabian Gulf. There are also smaller rivers in Jambaron which also empty into the Arabian Gulf such as the Minab, Kal, Shomil, Jalabi, Jagin, Mehran and Jask. However, all these rivers are now greatly diminished by Iranian dam projects which have led to massive suffering among the Ahwazi people, as well as causing an environmental catastrophe in the once verdant region.

Dams and Disputes

According to Iranian statistics, there are currently 72 dams in Ahwaz (including Khuzestan, Bushehr and Hormuzgan), with Iranian authorities seeking to build more dams to divert the waters to other regions. According to official reports, more than 40 dams and tunnels have been built on the Karoon, Karkheh and Jarahi rivers in Ahwaz to date, with 25 of these constructed on the Karoon, seven on the Karkheh, and eight on the Jarahi. A further 19 dams are planned for the Karoon, 12 for the Karkheh, and five on the Jarahi, while studies are underway into another 140 dams.

Iranian authorities, mostly working under the supervision of the regime’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), also constructed several dams in the Abu-Shahr area in Ahwaz, effectively cutting the rivers off downstream and preventing the flow of water essential for drinking water and domestic use as well as for agriculture, fishing and for the regional ecosystem and marshlands of the Arabian Gulf.

Speaking about the regime’s plans for the dams’ project, Ali Mohammadi, CEO of Bushehr Regional Water Company, said: “There are currently 15 large and small dams in this province with a number of other dams under construction or under study, and these dams will play an important role in controlling water before it reaches the Gulf.”

Mohammadi noted that “The water stored at Rais Ali Dilavari Dam, as the largest dam at Bushehr, has increased by 47% compared to previous years.”

Iranian authorities have also reported plans for the construction of a number of dams in Hormuzgan province for electricity and other industries. Iran has revealed that seven large dams have been built in the province, all of which have a significant negative impact on agriculture and fishing, as well as on the ecosystem of marshlands at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf.

Crisis and impact

Given the critical importance of water to every aspect of life and the natural environment, the challenges facing Ahwaz in this context are among the most crucial issues to be analysed in determining the region’s future. Although a number of other challenges face the freshwater supply in Ahwaz, including increasing urban demand, changing land-use patterns and environmental requirements, along with the increasingly climate change occurs with severe and diverse impacts, but Iranian dams represent the most prominent challenge that threaten the Ahwazi presence and pose the greatest threat to Ahwazi water security. Therefore, water scarcity and the threat of Ahwazi water security due to the construction of dams by Iran are increasingly fuelling conflict inside Ahwaz and even with neighbouring countries.

The growing water shortage in Ahwaz and other environmental challenges caused by the construction of dams have recently reached a crisis point. Water scarcity and air pollution exacerbated by the desertification and pollution caused by the river-damming and diversion  programme not only caused social, political and security problems inside Ahwaz, but has also led to tensions between Iran and neighbouring states due to Iran’s policy causing water shortages and pollution in Hor Al-Azim and the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which has also affected the economy and wellbeing of Iraqi citizens in Basra and Maysan.

Among the other factors causing horrendous problems for Ahwazi citizens as a result of the regime’s damming and diversion of rivers in the region are downstream salinity in the remaining river waters, along with increasing desertification, pollution and flooding in the winter season when heavy rains mean the regime routinely opens the dams to relieve pressure, diverting the floodwaters away from its lucrative oil and gas facilities and refineries around the coastal deltas towards Ahwazi farmlands, towns and villages.

The regime’s habitual endemic corruption mean that the dams have been built and the rivers diverted with little planning and few safeguards or protection often using substandard materials and with inadequate infrastructure provision. The diverted waters are transported via a massive network of pipes to ethnically Persian areas of Iran, leaving Ahwazis struggling to survive on the vastly reduced available water supply. For one example, the salinity levels in the Karoon River rose sharply after the IRGC ordered the Gotwand Dam to be constructed on land close to salt beds, despite warnings of the disastrous potential impact, which proved correct.

The high heightened salinity levels in the groundwater and rivers resulting from this decision have done incalculable damage to agriculture in the region, with the land often left barren and even livestock unable to drink the water. Although there has been growing recognition by some figures in the Iranian regime of the seriousness of the problem, this is too little too late, with the regime unable to reverse the trend and even continuing to build dams inflicting similar devastation on the population and environment.

These dams and the diversion of the rivers’ waters are now the largest obstacle to economic development for many Ahwazi citizens who need the Karoon’s water for agricultural irrigation and for maintaining livestock, as well as for domestic use.

As another example of the devastation unleased by the dams, environmental officials announced in 2015 that the construction of the Gotwand Dam had contributed to the deaths of 400,000 palm trees in the county of Abadan in Ahwaz due to the resulting huge increase in the salinity of the Karoon river, which severely impacted agriculture and the local economy in northern Ahwaz which had produced the vast majority of exported Iranian dates.

As explained, the water shortage crisis, desertification, pollution and other severe problems caused by the regime’s damming and river diversion in the region not only threatens the wellbeing and livelihoods of the indigenous Ahwazi population but also has a devastating effect on the natural environment and ecosystem.

It is no exaggeration to say that this project has left Ahwazi citizens facing the most serious threat to their existence to date, one which could end their presence in their homeland; this is clearly a crime against humanity and a violation of international law.

Increasing diseases

As explained above, the pollution caused by the river damming and diversion programme, especially in combination with the regime’s concentration of heavy industry and oil and gas facilities and refineries in the region and its indifference to the indigenous Ahwazi population, has led to widespread contamination of drinking water and water for domestic use, leading to an increase in associated diseases including skin diseases, cancer and respiratory diseases.  

Much of the drinking water now delivered to homes in Ahwazi cities is untreated, foul-smelling and brown in colour, containing bacteria and viruses that have resulted in widespread disease. While the deterioration of water resources in Ahwaz has been a continuous problem for decades, it has become a particularly grave crisis since 2006, when dozens of dams were built to transport water to Persian cities in Iran. In 2019, at least 40,000 people were hospitalised in Ahwazi cities (12,000 in Ahwaz city alone) due to symptoms identified as being directly related to water quality.

In the last two decades, following the deterioration of environmental conditions in Ahwaz, doctors have warned of a steep increase in cardiovascular disease and cancer. Dr Shahram Ebrahimi, a consultant oncologist at the Ahwaz Health Centre, revealed that out of more than 100 known types of cancer identified, 52 varieties are commonly seen in Ahwaz, with the number of deaths from cancer alone being greater than those resulting from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

The BBC revealed the reason for the lack of statistics on the high level of fatalities in Ahwaz in an unusually forthright report in which it stated that “except for some other comments, no more information can be found about the significant growth of cancer in Ahwaz. The reason for this is the ban on the publication of any statistics about cardiovascular disease, cancer and other diseases related to the current environmental crisis in Ahwaz.” Mohammad Alawi, the head of the Khuzestan Health Centre, also reported an increase in bowel diseases in Ahwaz due to contaminated drinking water in the region.

Migration

As well as denying thousands of Ahwazi people of the clean water essential for daily life, the construction of dams in Ahwaz has also displaced thousands of indigenous Ahwazi people who previously lived in the dam basin areas. For the Iranian regime, this is only the beginning, with a recent report on the Iranian dam project showing plans to build 40 additional dams on the Ahwazi rivers and water basins, 33 of which will be completed by 2030. If work continues according to the regime schedule, it will cause the mass migration of many Ahwazis who live in areas where dams are planned or who depend on agriculture, fishing or livestock farming for their livelihood.

Another side-effect of the regime’s programmes of damming and river diversion is rapidly worsening sandstorms; although these have always affected the region to a degree due to its location and low humidity levels, the increased desertification now affecting much of Ahwaz, including the once-vast former wetlands areas, coupled with climate change and pollution mean that means that they are now far heavier and last for longer, with a smog of polluted wind-blown sand regularly blanketing Ahwaz city and the region. 

The Deputy Head of the Iranian Environment Organisation, Ali Mohammad Shaeri, noted recently that “500,000 hectares of marshes have dried up and this is the main reason for the sandstorms in the region, as it has caused the displacement of many citizens living in the marshes.”

Poverty, Unemployment and Displacement

The river-damming and water diversion projects also play a role in the significant decline in wheat production, a long-time source of staple food for the indigenous people and livestock. Ahwaz is the second largest wheat-producing region in Iran, with around 62% of wheat production in the region being dependent on irrigation utilising water from its rivers. According to reports, wheat production in 2012 was half of that in previous years due to water shortages, which increased the prices of meat and bread across Iran. These problems have worsened since.

Whilst Ahwaz previously had around 2.3 million hectares of arable land in Ahwaz due to the five large rivers in the region, the dams and river diversion means most of these now heavily saline lands need extensive treatment and restoration in order to return to being productive farmland. Meanwhile, regional rainfall levels have decreased to an average of 120 mm, meaning the land cannot be cultivated without irrigation and drainage. Ecologists believe, however, that drainage will lead to environmental degradation, a sharp drop in groundwater aquifers, and increased pollution due to leakage, threatening an increase in water-related diseases affecting millions of hectares of land in Ahwaz.

Ahmad Landi, a faculty member at Ahwaz University (known in Farsi as Chamran University), revealed recently that “There are about 2.3 million hectares of land in northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan) suitable for cultivation, but only 18% of the land is in a good enough condition for cultivation.” Landi also revealed that 64% of agricultural lands in Ahwaz is now partly or wholly unsuitable for agriculture.

Many Ahwazi activists believe that the regime’s policy of dam-building and river diversion is part of a longstanding effort to make the area uninhabitable for the indigenous people, with Tehran attempting to change the demographic composition of Ahwaz as a means of securing its control over the region’s resources and denying the Ahwazi people any right over their lands or resources.  

 In a report published by DUSC in 2020 notes that agriculture has historically been an integral part of the life of Ahwazi citizens, with more than 40% of people engaged in agricultural employment of some form. While the amount of land in the region dedicated to agricultural purposes currently amounts to approximately 900,000 hectares, experts estimate that 2.5 million hectares there would be suitable for farming;  this is impossible at present, however, due to the regime’s marginalisation of the region and implementation of devastating projects that have severely damaged the land and either wasted or exported massive amounts of the water supply, along with introducing vast quantities of fertilisers and toxins in an irregular manner, particularly in the regime’s economically loss-making sugarcane plantations and refineries. As a result of all these factors, 40% of Ahwazi farmers and others engaged in agricultural work face poverty, destitution and homelessness, with many Ahwazis forced to move to other places in Iran or migrate abroad to survive.

The regime’s aforementioned sugarcane plantation project alone has caused the displacement of between 200,000 and 250,000 Ahwazis, according to a United Nations special rapporteur after a visit to the region.

Damaging Ecosystem

Along with the river-damming and diversion programmes, the regime’s obsessive focus on oil and gas production and refining and its sugarcane-growing project in Ahwaz, which Tehran is keen to turn into a heavy industry centre (without any benefit for its people, as always)  have helped to devastate the once-renowned marshes of Hor Howeyzeh and Falahiyeh, which not only sustained generations of Ahwazi fishermen, but wrecked the delicate ecosystem of marshes and the unique flora and fauna there. The increased salinity of the Karoon, which has risen by a quarter due to the reduced water flow, has left much of the remaining marshlands parched and lifeless, killing off marine life and forcing many of the native birds to migrate.

The level of the Karoon river, where oceangoing vessels once sailed alongside fishermen’s boats, ferries and yachts, has fallen by 80 per cent since 2000, showing the terrible effects of the regime’s dam-building initiatives.

 In some areas, the river is only 20 to 30 centimetres deep, while the stench of sewage in some parts of Ahwaz city which is bisected by the river, which is now too weak to carry the effluent away, makes the residents’ already tough living conditions even more difficult.  The continuing construction of more dams on Ahwazi rivers’ upstream leads many to expected that in the future the river will simply be a sewage channel.

The water crisis and the dam construction have caused other problems in Ahwaz. Ahwazi Organisation for Human Rights published that more than 700 villages in North Ahwaz have been suffering from lack of drinking water for more than 20 years, despite the government promises to resolve this crisis. For example, dozens of citizens of the village of Dab Hardan protested in front of the governorate’s headquarters in the city of the capital city, Ahwaz, calling on the Iranian authorities to resolve this crisis.

A report by DUSC revealed that the water crisis in Ahwaz has also spread across several rural areas, noting that “the water crisis in the city of Chobeideh continues to worsen, with its residents having 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.”

Radio Farda also reported that the water crisis led to a huge protest in the village of Gheyzaniyeh, noting: “Security forces stepped in and fired tear gas and plastic bullets into a crowd of residents in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province [Ahwaz] who were protesting at the lack of drinking water.”

The report continued “The residents of Gheyzaniyeh’s district in the city of Ahwaz initially assembled in front of the district governor’s office on Saturday, 23 May, and then blocked the old Ahwaz-Ma’shor road, protesting the cut-off of drinking water in the area.”

Human Rights, Citizens’ Rights

The right to clean water for drinking, washing and ensuring economic wellbeing is a human right protected by international law. In 2010, the UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution 15/9, which “affirmed that the right to water and sanitation is derived from the existing right to an adequate standard of living” in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Another article of legislation concerning freshwater resources, the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention/UNWC), calls on countries to focus on development and avoid pollution, although this convention focuses on the relationship between state parties, omitting any focus on citizens’ human right to water, being more concerned with cooperation between states over transboundary water resources.

More importantly in this context, Article 13, paragraph 1 (a), of the Charter of the United Nations provides that the General Assembly shall “initiate studies and recommendations to encourage the progressive development of international law and its codification. The codification and progressive development of rules of international law relating to the non-navigational uses of international watercourses would help to promote and implement the purposes and principles set forth in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter of the United Nations, taking into account the problems affecting many international watercourses resulting from, among other things, increasing demands and pollution. Expressing the conviction that the framework agreement will ensure the utilisation, development, conservation, management and protection of international watercourses and promote the sustainable use of present and future generations.” Invocation of this legislation could help put pressure Iran to focus on development and work to avert or clean up pollution in areas close to the Karoon and other rivers in Ahwaz.

The role of International Law

The essential nature of water for survival, not just for humans but for all other species, and in all aspects of life, including food production, urban development and environmental wellbeing, means that international law plays a crucial role in ensuring access and limiting the impact of devastating initiatives such as the Iranian regime’s dam-building and river diversion programme through urging states to focus on developing and conscientiously utilising water resources and penalising those states and leaders who harm human populations and the environment through reckless or malicious withholding of these resources.

In addition, many regulations in international law that focus on relations between different countries regarding transboundary rivers, lakes or marshlands, such as the Hor al-Azim shared between Iran and Iraq, could be invoked to help address the crisis suffered by the Ahwazi people due to the Iranian regime’s theft and misuse of this crucial natural resource.

All international treaties, in accordance with the provisions of the principles of international law, clearly prohibit diversion of river water by an upstream country to the detriment of a downstream country, with no state, territory or canton allowed to alter the natural conditions of its territory to the detriment of its neighbour. According to the provisions of international law, any downstream state affected in this way has the right to veto any plan which may cause harm to it, with the government of the affected state having the right to oppose any change in the situation on its waterways, a regulation which would surely be applicable to Iraq.

To resolve the challenges facing states utilising shared water resources, several doctrines and international legal instruments have been adopted by states and international bodies. Four guiding theoretical principles – including territorial sovereignty, territorial integrity, equitable utilisation, and common management – have been used in allocating the resources of watercourses. Among these principles, equitable utilisation represents customary international law. This principle states simply that “the substantial interests of all riparian states should be reconciled in the most effective way,” adding that “the equitable and reasonable utilisation of shared watercourses is one of the fundamental principles of international water law.”

Many international regulations and treaties related to this issue have reflected the international community’s wish to find mutually agreeable solutions to problems related to water resources, in particular the exploitation of water resources and their environmental protection, with these efforts leading to the ratification of a number of conventions, including the Helsinki Rules of 1966, the Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Operation of Lakes and International Waterways in 1992, and the New York Convention on the Right to Use Waterways for Non-Shipping Uses in 1997, all of which led to the creation of solutions to problems regarding the use of waterways.

The Institute of International Law serves as a guide on international law in regulating the ban on the diversion of river water. The institute’s research findings were adopted at the Helsinki Conference in August 1966 under the title ‘Regulations on the Operation of International Rivers’, also known as the Helsinki Regulations. According to these regulations, if a government diverts international rivers at the expense of another, it will be responsible for all of its actions. In the United Nations in 1972, the United Nations General Assembly also ratified the sovereignty of states to exploit their share of water resources, provided that their actions do not prejudice the areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Moreover, the 1933 Montevideo Declaration affirms that states have the right to withdraw river water only on condition that this action does not to harm adjacent states. Indeed, this declaration emphasises the principle of restricting the free use of water, making it conditional on agreement between states.

The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) aims to protect and ensure the quantity, quality and sustainable use of these transboundary water resources by facilitating and promoting cooperation. Hence, parties are required to take measures to prevent, one party monopolisng control and reducing any transboundary impact on the environment, human health, safety and socioeconomic conditions. These measures include undertaking environmental impact assessments and other means of assessment, preventing and reducing pollution at its source, licensing and monitoring wastewater discharges and developing and applying best environmental practices to reduce inputs of fertilisers and hazardous substances from agriculture and other diffuse sources. Parties to this convention are obligated to use water resources sustainably, taking into account the ecosystem approach. They are also required to set water-quality objectives and criteria, draw up contingency plans and minimise the risk of accidental water pollution.

Article 1 of the San Salvador Protocol, adopted in 1988, also states: “Everyone shall have the right to live in a healthy environment and to have access to basic public services. The States Parties shall promote the protection, preservation, and improvement of the environment.” Principles 1 to 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration contain similar rules. Principle 10 states: “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.”

Iranian Law

According to Iran’s domestic law, any actions that result in destruction or pollution of the environment or which upset the environmental balance are criminal and punishable, with Articles 57, 679, 680, 686, 688, and 689 of the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran laying out the penalties against violators. Article 50 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran also provides for the protection of the environment, stating “Economic activities associated with environmental pollution or irreparable damage are prohibited.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, access to clean water is one of the most critical issues facing the people of Ahwaz, with the current situation not only leading to horrendous consequences for the indigenous Ahwazi people but for the region’s natural environment. While the demand for water continues to increase, its availability is dwindling due to the mass construction of dams and the diversion of most of its water resources to other regions. The remaining water resources are also under pressure because of excessive use and pollution, with severe climate events such as sandstorms, floods and droughts becoming more frequent and intense across the region as a result. 

These devastating and callous actions inflicted by Iran’s regime have caused numerous problems and created massive resentment not only in Ahwaz but across the border in Iraq whose peoples and natural environment are also suffering as a result. Although international law clearly states that legislation regarding inter-state waterways also applies domestically to use of the country’s internal rivers, which means that the Iranian regime does not have the right to dam and divert the rivers of Ahwaz, leaving its people without clean or potable water and devastating its environment,  Iran’s leaders have simply disregarded international law, and indeed Iran’s own laws, repeatedly violating fundamental legal precepts and treating the law and the people with contempt. 

Ahwazis view the regime’s dam-building and river-diversion programme as part of a deliberate long-term policy of ethnic cleansing aimed at changing the demographic balance in the region, due to its status as home to most of Iran’s natural resources such as water, oil and gas, through making the region uninhabitable for its indigenous people, destroying the economy and ecosystem and leaving Ahwazis with no choice but to emigrate. In this process, the regime is also destroying the unique flora and fauna of Ahwaz, devastating its wildlife, and wrecking the immense biodiversity of the region, with environmental experts warning of ecological catastrophe if these problems are not addressed.

An additional new crisis is the massive damage done to the marine life in the Arabian Gulf by Chinese trawlers which the Beijing-allied Iranian regime has given carte blanche to essentially strip the once-teeming waters of their fish stocks, leaving many Ahwazi fishermen destitute and forcing others, along with their Iranian peers, to travel to Somali waters where they must pay massive bribes to pirates in order to be able to fish.

The availability of freshwater throughout Ahwaz due to the clearly illegal actions of Iran’s regime is a critical issue and one of the most crucial challenges facing Ahwazis, with its importance set to increase in the future when it will undoubtedly result in mass migration.

The regime’s ongoing construction of dams in Ahwaz and diversion of the region’s  rivers must be subject to the rules of international law since these dams and the diversion of the indigenous people’s water supply currently play a major role in “harming people such as the spread of diseases; increasing poverty, unemployment and displacement as a result of building dams; and affecting the ecosystem, such as affecting the water level and damaging rivers and marshes,” in clear violation of international law and fundamental human rights.

As mentioned before, it should also be noted that international treaties also apply to domestic water issues. On this basis, some articles of international law in relation to international waters also apply domestically to the Ahwazi situation. For example, in terms of the amount of water available compared to the annual water consumption, Ahwaz now suffers from severe water shortages, despite the region being home to most of Iran’s rivers.

Chronic water pollution resulting from the discharge of polluted water from oil and gas refineries, factories and municipal wastewater contaminated with detergents, chemicals and toxins, also leaves much of the remaining water supply unusable, further undermining the security of the indigenous people, adding to their suffering and severely damaging the region’s ecosystem.

From the viewpoint of international law, the Iranian regime is responsible for the loss of lives and economic wellbeing in Ahwaz. For example, the first article of international law addressing the human right to a healthy environment was the Stockholm Declaration, adopted in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, states in its first paragraph that “human beings have the basic right to freedom, equality and adequate living conditions in the environment, which enables them to live an honourable life.” The Declaration also states in its second principle: “The natural resources of the earth, including water, air, plants and natural ecosystems, must be protected and safeguarded through careful planning and proper management for the benefit of present and future generations.”

Ignoring these and other principles, the Iranian regime has chosen to inflict devastating policies that have directly caused an increase in deaths, migration, pollution, diseases, poverty and homelessness among Ahwazis through its programme of dam-building and river diversion. Although the Ahwazi people, as well Ahwazi and Iranian ecologists, numerous international reports, and Ahwazi MPs urging the Iranian regime to stop building dams and diverting rivers and to act in accordance with the principles of international law, the regime has flatly ignored all these appeals, leading to a crisis for the region’s indigenous people and devastation for their natural environment.

Given the regime’s awareness of the effects of its policies, this policy is, in short, a violation of international law by a leadership indifferent to international law and human rights, as well as being a violation of international humanitarian law which has caused and continues to cause grave harm to the health and lives of countless citizens.  

Article first published on Duruntash Studies Center. For the verification of references, please visit the original link.

Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka.

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

Ruth Riegler is a Scottish writer, editor and supporter of universal freedom, democracy and human rights who previously lived in the Middle East.

Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. He tweets under @Aaronemeyer.

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