Rivers of foul-smelling fetid floodwater caused by a combination of seasonal rains and overflowing and broken sewage networks are once again making the streets of towns and villages across Ahwaz unbearable and leading to a growing fear of disease outbreaks in the long-suffering region, whose usual parched heat has given way to the freezing torrential rains of winter, with the Iranian regime once again leaving the Ahwazi people to suffer flooding as it leaves them to suffer sandstorms during the rest of the year.
While Ahwazi farmers welcome rainfall for irrigation of their crops, having struggled during the rest of the year due to the regime’s damming and diversion of the rivers that once made Ahwaz a fertile regional breadbasket, the torrential rainfall has washed some of the crops away, while they and other Ahwazis are struggling to prevent their homes from being submerged by the floodwaters.
Many citizens have already had to flee their homes due to the flooding, with the region’s long-neglected drainage and sanitation networks which the regime hasn’t repaired or upgraded for decades despite a rising population, either struggling or breaking down completely due to the massive rainfall.
Speaking with DUSC, a woman from Ma’shour city, one of the worst affected areas, said, “The water flooded my home around midnight. We were submerged knee-deep in it. I fled with my husband and five children, taking a handful of our belongings. Our possessions are destroyed – we’d struggled to buy a new refrigerator and heater, but they’re destroyed in the flooding – who’ll help us? If we had a working sewage network, we wouldn’t face disasters like this.”
An elderly lady in the town wept, gesturing at her home, half-submerged under the floodwaters. “Look – look at my house! Oh my God, who’s going to drain this foul water that reaches half my height?! We’re already struggling to feed ourselves with prices rising and now our suffering is complete. The water is mixed with sewage, it’s disgusting!”
Another resident of Ma’shour, a young man appealed for help, saying, “We need help from international organisations – my mother is sick – look at her. I carried her to the roof of our home. We have nothing now, thanks to the Iranian regime.”
Another young man says, “As you see, we are desperate, our life is torn apart, filthy morasses and water ponds are cutting across the streets, encircling homes and blocking trade movement. These scenes are the hallmark of the life of the Ahwazis. These painful experiences recur every fall, during the rainy season. This annual disaster is economically and socially devastating. The cause for the predictable destruction is the lack of a sewage system in the Ahwazi cities and regions. Despite the farmers’ concern with access to irrigation, due to the lack of a drainage system and the central government and municipality’s negligence towards the issue, the citizens have long suffered from the flooding on the one hand, and inadequate access to rainfall for agricultural needs, on the other. “Our life is framed in oppression; we once protested this miserable situation, just one year ago, our people took to streets to demand the local officials to allocate funds to fix our roads, and our sewage network. The authorities reacted by massacring our people in Ma’shour. In many regions in the world, rain is a blessing, but for us, it is a war. Our fate is either to be thirsty in summer or to drown during the floods in winter”.
The recent announcements by local authorities that they were taking precautions against the expected flooding and reassuring the public that there would be no major problems have turned out to be empty promises, with stagnant water, often mixed with sewage, turning streets and homes into foul-smelling lakes and rivers, leaving residents stranded with many homes either destroyed or uninhabitable due to the flooding, which has left vehicles unusable and drowned many livestock.
The region, which is now arid for much of the year after the regime’s aforementioned massive dam-building and diversion projects, is hit hard by flooding annually, with the leadership in Tehran not only failing to act to reduce the resulting suffering, but actively making the situation worse; in 2019, regime authorities acting on the personal orders of President Rouhani opened some of the 73 massive dams’ floodgates to ease the pressure on them, submerging entire towns and villages downstream, though only after regime forces carefully dug channels and created berms to protect the oil and gas facilities downstream, ensuring that the floodwaters would ‘only’ flow into Ahwazis’ lands and homes rather than risking the regime’s income generators.
The primary concern about this year’s disastrous flooding is probable outbreaks of cholera, typhoid or other lethal infectious diseases resulting from exposure to the heavily polluted, sewage-tainted floodwaters adding to the existing severe health crises in the region, which has also recently been hit hard by COVID-19 amid grossly inadequate healthcare provision by the state.
Although Iran’s regime has repeatedly been notified of the dangers of the region’s antiquated and decrepit sanitation system, these warnings have fallen on deaf ears, with the long-suffering indigenous Ahwazi people repeatedly paying the price for this negligence. Much of the infrastructure which was severely damaged during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 has never been repaired in the subsequent decades. What remains, mostly dating from the 1960s or ‘70s, is outdated, dilapidated and severely inadequate.
It should be noted, however, that the settlements built specifically and solely for ethnically Persian workers from other parts of Iran brought to the region by the regime to work in the oil and gas industry (Ahwaz contains over 95% of the oil and gas reserves) and in an effort to alter the region’s demographic balance are supplied with their own separate, modern and fully functional sanitation networks, as well as freshwater, gas and electricity supplies, and other infrastructure. It should also be noted that the indigenous Ahwazis are not permitted to live in or around these settlements or allowed to benefit from any of the infrastructure provided for them.
Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based human rights lawyer, added: “The systematic negligence of basic repairs in the Ahwaz region by the government is emblematic of Tehran’s systematic racism and discrimination against majority Arab popuation in Ahwaz, considered inferior, second class citizens by the regime. They make no effort of hiding this fact, and in fact, take measures to enhance the impact of the calamities befalling this marginalised population with the hope of the locals dying out or being forced to flee, and taking complete control of the oil rich lands in the region. “
Tsukerman indicated that “The European Union, US institutions, international organisations, and large corporations spend fortunes to fight the alleged racism in Western institutions despite data pointing to well-integrated societies; when it comes to confronting real, obvious, and measurable oppressions they either ignore it, emphatically dismiss it, or make excuses for these issues out of self-interest and because the real fight for human rights is no one’s priority. Confronting Tehran on this issue would mean a systematic boycott of all business and services related to the regime, and complete restructuring of narratives painting out Western countries as oppressors, and Iran as somehow a legitimate state free to treat anyone under its control with utmost cruelty. Those who claim to want to better humanity should be confronting Iran’s inhumane practices and dehumanising subjugation of non-Persians.”
As a result of the regime’s policies, including this deliberate neglect of the region’s infrastructure, the Ahwazi people, already suffering from denial of fundamental human rights, endure a terrible ‘feast or famine’ situation, with the dam-building and river-diversion programme causing desertification and severe water shortages for much of the year, leaving the remaining water supply often brackish and undrinkable even by livestock, alternating with horrendous flooding in winter. Any protest by the Ahwazi people at the injustices inflicted on them, and the intolerable conditions they are forced to endure invariably results in the protesters being detained by regime military or security forces and often charged with fabricated crimes and given long prison sentences or executed.
With no regional allies or support from the international community to deter the regime or force it to institute humane laws or even at the very least update the crumbling infrastructure and help ease the suffering of the indigenous people, Ahwazis are left to lurch from crisis to crisis without help and abandoned to face this terrible suffering alone.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.