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 Weather War: How Iran’s Regime Uses Floods and Drought as Tools of Ethnic Cleansing

In most countries prone to regular severe weather events such as heavy flooding, the governments take precautionary measures in vulnerable regions to at least minimise the probable damage and protect citizens’ lives and property. Even in nations where such disasters are unexpected, national and local authorities automatically put emergency plans in place to protect citizens in the event of disaster, with bodies such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent coordinating with other rescue workers, medical personnel and local authorities to help ensure that damage is kept to a minimum and public safety is ensured as much as possible.

Unfortunately, however, some governments, like Iran’s regime, not only exploit such disasters but deliberately manufacture and intensify them as a strategic weapon against certain parts of the population which threaten the leaders’ economic exploitation of their resources.  These governments spare no effort to engineer or exacerbate the effects of such disasters, effectively weaponising climate change against the people; although the leaders insist that these are purely “natural disasters” and “Acts of God” in an effort to exonerate themselves from blame, these terrible events are calculatingly exploited to make whole areas or regions uninhabitable and dispossess the local people before plundering the resources of their lands. Without any power or influence, the landless and dispossessed peoples, stripped of all they own and left with no means of survival, are disregarded, with the leaders often imposing a media blackout on any coverage of their crimes and punishing those who speak out so that their victims are silenced and their plight is ignored by the world. 

Iran’s theocratic regime is one such government, pursuing policies that effectively amount to ethnocide against the Ahwazi population. Ahwazis have the misfortune to live in an oil-rich region from which Iran extracts 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources that it lays claim to; this massive oil wealth, which was the primary reason for Iran’s forcible annexation of Ahwaz in the early 20th century, has been a far greater curse than a blessing to the Ahwazi people, most of whom now subsist in medieval conditions of poverty despite this immense wealth in natural resources. The international community, meanwhile, seems indifferent to their plight, with no efforts to condemn or raise awareness of this historic injustice.

One of the regime’s policies, on which this report focuses, is the ‘mega-dam project,’ the construction of a massive network of dams and pipelines diverting the flow of the great rivers which once made Ahwaz a regional centre of agriculture and fishing. While the regime claims that this vast river-damming and diversion project is part of a national development programme, in reality, it uses its control of the river’s waters to flood some areas in the region and withhold water from others; in both cases this is a means of making these areas uninhabitable and displacing the local population, effectively creating and utilising natural disasters as a tool of ethnic cleansing. 

This is not a new development, with successive Iranian governments working for decades to drive Ahwazis from their ancestral lands, towns, and villages in order to claim their land and, more importantly for the rulers in Tehran, the oil and gas resources there, for itself.  In the past couple of decades, however, with the development of the river-damming and diversion programme, this policy has been massively accelerated. Many rural Ahwazi areas have been deliberately submerged under heavy flooding, wiping out crops of wheat, barley, and rice, as well as devastating local communities, destroying homes and possessions and leaving livestock with no grazing pasture or fodder.  This leaves the local people, mostly small farmers, scrabbling to survive on the brink of destitution with no means of making a living.   The regime is uninterested in the complaints of the Ahwazi people, treating Arabs as inferior interlopers despite the fact that Ahwaz has been an Ahwazi region since the beginning of recorded history.  Like other non-Persian peoples in Iran, Ahwazis have no right to legal complaint or compensation for their ruined crops and destroyed homes and livelihoods.

The only ‘favour’ done for local people by regime officials are occasional warnings issued in the hours before their lands are about to be flooded by overflow from dam reservoirs. These warnings are almost worse than doing nothing, causing panic among residents who have no means of dealing with the devastation from flooding and who are offered no sort of help or emergency aid to deal with such crises by the regime which supposedly represents them but instead uses these disasters to attempt to drive the people from their homes and lands.   The people of Ahwaz have learnt through necessity to rely only on one another; with the regime unleashing the floods then abandoning the people to their fate, it’s other Ahwazi people in unaffected areas who come to their rescue and do what little they can to provide basic services and open their own homes to those left homeless.

In the past week, Ahwazis have again been enduring these traumatic regime-assisted crises, bearing the brunt of torrential rain and heavy floods that swept across large parts of the Middle East and once again caused the regime’s dams to overflow. The leadership in Tehran reacted with its customary indifference, with local residents strongly condemning the authorities’ negligence as flooding again devastated hundreds of villages, as well as towns in northern Ahwaz.

The severely affected areas, those bordering Iraq such as Rofaye and the surrounding villages, have been declared a disaster zone as floods submerged the city and the nearby communities, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.  Local activists said that Ahwazi citizens in the eponymously named regional capital, Ahwaz, and other cities in the south of the region have been sending aid to those affected by the floods, with an estimated 100,000 people in desperate need of food and water. 

The Ahwazi rights groups said that the situation in Ahwaz is extremely worrying, pointing to the massive losses incurred in some parts of Ahwaz due to floods.  They said that the local activists are working tirelessly to help those affected by the floods, especially in the most heavily impacted villages and rural areas.

Meanwhile, an Ahwazi farmer told the Durantash centre that he does not believe the Iranian regime’s claims of innocence concerning the flooding crisis. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to a well-founded fear of regime retaliation, he said, “We believe the current problem is caused by the regime policies. These policies will leave a lot of the Ahwazis displaced and homeless after the damage caused to their rural areas.” 

He added that the regime had deliberately opened the dams’ sluice gates, causing massive damage to rural areas and agricultural lands.

Local sources said the number of local villages in Ahwaz deserted by their residents due to the flooding has risen to 40, including 11 villages in Susa (Shush)and six in Qunaitra(Dezful). The flooding has also turned the city of Rofaye into a ghost town, with residents fleeing as the floodwaters make it uninhabitable. 

The same torrential rain and flooding have also devastated the Shawur county around Susa.

Thankfully, many fellow Ahwazis have demonstrated solidarity with those affected by floods in Rofaye, villages of Khafajiyeh city, Susa and Toster (Shushter) with residents of towns across the region coming together to provide aid. Knowing that the regime will do nothing to help them, the people have also united to construct flood barriers in order to prevent the floodwaters from spilling over into other areas.  Ahwazi women have played a central role in the organisation of aid and construction efforts alongside their male counterparts.

All sectors of Ahwaz society have come together to support these efforts, with workers at the regime-run Steel Company in Ahwaz working to provide aid and to help in construction of flood barriers which have already helped to prevent flooding in Maysan area.

Local activists said that, according to some of the steelworkers, their efforts are in part a means of expressing their gratitude to their fellow Ahwazis who stood shoulder to shoulder with them and demanded their release when they were detained by the Iranian occupation regime’s intelligence services for staging industrial action over unpaid wages.

In Rofaye city, meanwhile, residents have staged demonstrations in protest at the regime’s negligence in addressing the flooding that has submerged the area.

One of the Ahwazi people driven out of his home near Rofaye by flooding told Dur Untash Studies Centre of an angry exchange with a local regime official.  The man said that he and a group of others who were protesting after fleeing their homes in the rural area due to the flooding had confronted the official and others, adding that he asked the regime functionary, “Look where are we supposed to go now that our villages are drowned?”

He reported that the official responded dismissively, telling him, “How would I know?  Why don’t you forget about your lands and go stay with your relatives?” 

The man responded angrily to this contemptuous dismissal, telling the regime official, “What’s your job then? Why don’t you at least provide tents for us to live in? Is this your solution to our suffering? How dare you brazenly tell us to leave and go to our relatives’ homes! Did our relatives and our [Ahwazi] people build those dams?!”  

The man said that the regime official and his colleagues failed to respond to this pointed question, perhaps realising that they shouldn’t aggravate the situation further, and quickly left.

While the regime spent hundreds of billions of riyals on building the dams whose overflow regularly submerges the surrounding lands, it has never compensated the peoples whose lands it seized to construct them on, or even paved the roads in the area which are dirt tracks that are either totally submerged or turned to muddy impassable quagmires during every flood.  

An Ahwazi activist from elsewhere in the region who travelled to the flooded areas said that the regime ’s wholly unjustified construction of the massive dams entailed large-scale forced displacement of vulnerable Ahwazi populations, with the regime offering no form of compensation or help for those driven from their homes and lands. These dispossessed people, mostly farmers and rural peasants, who number in the tens of thousands, were left destitute and forced to move to overcrowded slums and shanty towns on the perimeters of already poor Ahwazi towns in the region where they are left without any utilities and receive no services, such as education or healthcare. The regime’s systematic policy of forced displacement has led to a steady growth in such overcrowded slum areas, whose residents live from hand to mouth.  This policy, which can only be described as ethnic cleansing, leaves generations of Ahwazis without the most basic means of survival and with no means of improving their situation.

Other locals say that when the regime began building its dams in their areas, regime officials told them that the dams would mean prosperity for those in the area since they were designed for many purposes, including hydropower, flood control and irrigation of farmers’ lands.  As the people now know, those were very empty promises, with the dams instead bringing only suffering and disaster, for local people and across the Ahwaz region. Amongst other things, the dams have deprived local people of getting enough water due to diverting water to Persian provinces, prevented them for getting water for irrigation of their crops in growing season during summer, and subjected them to flooding in winter.  Ahwazis in the area say that the dams ensure that the people, crops, and livestock wither in the heat of summer, destroying their land and livelihood, and drown in the cold of winter. 

Further downstream, the mega-dam projects have dried out rivers that were once so broad that oceangoing vessels were amongst the many boats sailing there or reduced those mighty waterways to muddy trickles of water. The fishing that sustained generations of Ahwazis for millennia, especially around the massive deltas and marshlands, has now almost died out along with the fish and marine habitat.  The environmental costs, including desertification as the rivers dry up downstream, are incalculable and help exacerbate extreme weather events like choking sandstorms. The supposed benefits of the mega-dams promised by the regime have yet to materialise.   

Ahwazi activists in the region say that when people protest at the now-regular droughts in summer, the regime tells them that the dam reservoirs don’t have adequate water supplies.  In the rainy season in winter, when there’s no water shortage, the regime opens the dam sluice gates and floods extensive areas, telling the people that there’s no option since the reservoirs are full.  In both cases, the activists say, many people are forced to abandon their homes and land to survive, adding to the vast numbers of dispossessed and displaced Ahwazis already forced from their lands.  The people are fully aware that this is deliberate regime policy, a means of seizing the land to expand oil and gas prospecting and drilling operations, with many areas of Ahwaz now simply a vista of drilling rigs with the land poisoned, the air full of choking black smoke and the people are long driven away. Even in the regime’s oil and gas industry which has destroyed their land, Ahwazis are treated as non-people and forbidden any but the most menial jobs, while the regime pays bonuses to ethnically Persian Iranians to move to the region and work in the higher-ranking jobs, where they live in specially constructed, heavily guarded ethnically homogenous settlements provided with modern amenities denied to the local indigenous people, who are not allowed to live in these settlements. 

The farmers who manage to cling on to their lands are fighting a losing battle, with no water to irrigate their crops which are blighted by heavy pollution as well as drought in summer and flooding in winter. Meanwhile, the water diverted from the region is sent to ethnically central Persian provinces in Iran.    

 

Ahwazis know that submitting complaints to the regime is a useless and fruitless process, with any efforts to claims compensation for their stolen lands and homes automatically disregarded. Complaints are similarly either ignored or used as an opportunity to persecute complainants. 

Some of those affected by the flooding in northern Ahwaz this year told Dur Untash Studies Centre that even while they were desperately trying to save their homes and possessions, regime officials told them abruptly to leave, making them wonder where they were expected to go.

Whilst the idea that the regime can both flood Ahwazi lands and cause massive droughts may seem contradictory, both have the same objective – to make Ahwazi areas uninhabitable from the local peoples and seize them for the regime. The mega-dams project also includes a massive network of subterranean water pipelines that divert millions of gallons of water to the central, arid areas of Iran which suffer from water shortages that also result from regime mismanagement.

According to an article written by Hossein Bouazar titled “Iranian Regime’s new techniques for forced migration of Ahwazi Citizens”, the pipeline network includes:

The Koohrang 1 tunnel to Zayandehrud River (This tunnel was constructed before the revolution in 1979), Koohrang 2 tunnel to Zayandehrud River. Koohrang 3 tunnel to Zayandehrud River, Gholab 1 tunnel, Gholab 2 tunnel, Water Transfer Plan (Vanak – Soleghan) that is providing water for Rafsanjani’s pistachio gardens, Qomroud Transfer Plan.

One of the largest water transfer projects in the Middle East, which is from the Dez river in Aligudarz, and according to experts, is the best water in the world. This project is used for providing water for drinking, agricultural and industrial purposes, that feed 10 towns and 30 villages, including Qom, Saveh, Salafchegan, Golpayegan, Khomeini, Mahallat, Nim Rud, Kamal Saleh water transfer project (Water diverted from Dez dam for Arak Industrial use).

 Beheshti Abad Transfer Plan: This project is one of the major projects for the transfer of more than one billion cubic meters’ water for the supply of agricultural and industrial water in the province of Isfahan.

Chashmeh Langhan tunnel: Water transfers by this tunnel is mainly uses for Zayandehrud river in Isfahan. Khadanghestan tunnel: Water transfers by this tunnel is mainly used for Zayandehrud river in Isfahan.

As Bouazar notes, to add insult to injury, the farmers in the areas affected by the mega-dam project and the latest flooding have even been fined by the regime for farming on their own land.

Anger is rising among the Ahwazi people at this relentless injustice: as one Ahwazi man said “They told us fighting to find a way to make a living is a crime.   The regime makes war on us in every way: when we cultivate our land in summer, they ban us from irrigating it saying there’s no water left in the dam reservoirs and leave our crops to wither and our livestock to die of heat and lack of water. When winter comes, and we cultivate our land, they open the dam gates sweeping away our homes, lands, cattle. They think we should all die or disappear so they can take our land and drill for oil.  We see nothing but oil spills and animal carcasses.” He recalled, “Before the dams, we had farming and fishing – those were our ways of life. On our land, we planted all kinds of vegetables and fruits like potatoes, wheat, rice, barley, melons. We had our date palms and watered them and managed to store enough food to survive for the whole year. Fish was always our standby when we had unexpected guests, and for fun and joy our children would swim and play in the rivers.

The regime destroyed what we had for hundreds of generations; they slowly confiscated more and more of our lands and built roads to the oil rigs and refineries, but they even refused to hire us; instead they’d bring in strangers to work there, and give us only the pollution and waste from their oil operations, killing more of our crops and animals and even the migratory birds. Now they’re flooding us and destroying all we have, all we own, the only way we have to make a living. We belong to this land, and we’re not afraid to die in its arms, but we won’t abandon it for strangers. We’ll drown, but we won’t abandon our lands.”

Dismissing the regime’s claims that the flooding is a natural event, Ahwazi rights activists on the ground in the Ahwaz region who are  anonymised to protect them from regime persecution, said: “The case of floods that have occurred repeatedly isn’t something that can be ignored easily by behaving as though this is a natural disaster, like it rained heavily so water overflowed from the full rivers and drowned the Ahwazi areas.  No – it’s not like that at all. If there weren’t dams, well, we could have accepted that, okay, there are no dams to control and regulate the volume of water. However, there are dozens of dams built on the Dez, and Karkheh rivers as well as dams on the Karoon rivers.  All these dams have been specifically designed as a weapon to be used against Ahwaz to displace the people, to empty these lands of any trace of Ahwazi inhabitants in order for the regime to take over the land.”

 The anonymous activists continued, “Why do they [the Iranian regime] want to seize the land? That’s obvious – so that they can have complete control of the resources and exploit them totally. That is very clear now – they’re stealing and controlling the wealth of all the Ahwazi areas. Iranian governments have always considered the existence of the Ahwazi population as an “additional unwanted element”, so they’ve always sought to eradicate or alter all the monuments, historical symbols, even the place names, of any place that represents Ahwazis, so that no one could prove that Ahwazis are the main owners and the indigenous people of the region. They’re trying to eradicate the existence of Ahwazis from their areas, especially the border areas,  and turn these lands into army garrisons, or oil companies’ property, or to bring in Lor people [nomadic ethnically Persian tribal peoples] as settlers to replace Ahwazis forever, just like they tried to do in Abadan and Muhammarah via land confiscation and establishing a ‘free trade zone’ to disconnect Ahwazi geography from its natural connection to Arab world and to strongly ghettoize Ahwazis in a smaller area without any border outlet, whether land border or sea border.”

Supporting the Ahwazi activists’ claim, a Farsi report published by padmaz  website states,  “Footage on social media shows that dozens of cities and villages located downstream of the Dez and Karkheh river dams such as Shoaybiyeh near Toster city , Shawur county and villages near the city of Susa(Shush), villages affiliated to towns  of Khafajieh, Bastin,  Rofaye, Howeyzeh, Hamidieh in northern Ahwaz have been flooded due to management personnel opening the dams,” adding, “Thousands of farmer and civilians living in  Shoaybiyeh District have subsequently abandoned their homes and fled to higher ground due to threats from the overflowing dams.”

The report continues, “Villages near the Karkheh dam have already been completely submerged beneath the floodwaters. A massive amount of crops has been destroyed across hundreds of acres of fertile land, while thousands of livestock have been killed. Some reports have also claimed at least two villagers in the region have died from this disaster.”

Ahwazi environmentalists say that in the 1940s and 1950s, before the dams were built, natural floods used to happen rarely and only due to particularly torrential rains. They noted that, with the establishment of dozens of dams in the 1970s, Iranian authorities often ordered dam management personnel to open the floodgates periodically to pressure Ahwazis in rural and urban areas to leave their lands. At the time, the regime hoped that rich state-owned sugar cane companies would then move in to take control of the abandoned riverbank land, a policy which its successor changed only slightly while pursuing the same ethnic cleansing policy and massively expanding the mega-dam project. 

At that time, regime officials responded to complaints from Arab farmers about the deliberate flooding of their lands by stating, “Your ancestors made a mistake in building their villages along the rivers.”

Interviewed by Dur Untash Studies Centre, 67-year-old Abdullah Kaabi, a resident of one of the flood-stricken areas, raised his hands to the sky in a despairing appeal to God. “What should I say? We’ve lost hope,” he said. “We don’t trust this regime – its officials never feel any sense of humanity or responsibility to compensate us for these heavy losses they’ve brought upon us. Now we are faced with landlessness, homelessness, joblessness, and forced displacement. Where do we have left to go now? We have no place left!”

As activists explained, while the occurrence of floods is a natural phenomenon, the regular flooding in recent decades is almost wholly manmade. The number of floods and the extent of their devastating power have increased dramatically since the former regime’s original construction of dams in the 1950s; this has intensified under the current regime’s massive expansion of dam-building and river diversion in its mega-dam project. Older Ahwazis point out that prior to the 1950s, in the first half of the 20th century, only one or two cases of moderate flooding were recorded in the region.  By contrast, since the construction of the Dez Dam in northern Ahwaz, the deliberate opening of the sluice gates has been the primary cause of at least two or three disastrous floods each decade.

Meanwhile, downstream from the dams at the wetlands which flow into the Gulf, what remains of much of the once-lush marshlands, which have historically played an essential role in controlling and housing large volumes of floodwaters, have been destroyed, as well as being left heavily polluted, by the Iranian regime in favor of developing oil and gas drilling, leaving them massively polluted and largely incapable of sustaining any marine life. Due to the river-diversion program element of the mega-dams’ project, the massive loss of water flowing to the area for most of the year means that much of the area is desertified. The wetlands have also now been divided up into disconnected reservoirs where fresh water cannot enter, while large areas of the marshes have been dried up to build roads leading to the hundreds of oil fields. This has led to a dramatic reduction in the capacity of the wetland to control and house floodwaters.

It is very clear to the Ahwazi people after decades of devastation and loss resulting from successive Iranian regimes’ environmentally ruinous exploitation of their once lush and fertile lands that Tehran’s primary objective is to ethnically cleanse Ahwazis from their homes and homeland in order to lay claim to its resources. The systematic barbarism and chilling indifference to human suffering used in pursuit of this policy are very clearly fueled by a profound racially supremacist contempt for the Arab Ahwazi people, which successive regimes have taken out both on the Ahwazi people and on their ancestral lands.  

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42

 

 

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