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Unprecedented environmental catastrophe could see the whole Ahwaz region evacuated

According to the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics, Ahwaz city the capital of the Ahwaz region is sitting at the top of ten most-polluted cities in the world. Air pollution poses a very real and lethal risk to Ahwazi people today. Its consequences can be measured in the numbers of pollution-related deaths, the number of school and work days lost to pollution, and additional health challenges experienced by children, the elderly, and people with cardiac or respiratory conditions.

The whole Ahwaz region’s wildlife and its once lush environment have also suffered terribly due to the chronic pollution caused by the oil industry and by the regime’s efforts to establish environmentally devastating industrial projects incompatible with the Ahwazi ecosystem. Ignoring the repeated warnings of scientists and environmentalists,  the regime’s disastrous destruction and pollution has caused catastrophic and in some cases irreversible damage to a region that was once lush and rich in all forms of wildlife, with international organisations acknowledging this  as some of the world’s worst environmental pollution.

Mohammed Darwish, an environmental scientist and member of a high-level Iranian committee for environmental research and the study of forestry, has warned that the entire Ahwaz region will be completely evacuated of its human population in the next few years due to the catastrophic environmental pollution there. Amongst the natural features of Ahwaz devastated by this unprecedented pollution are the region’s famous Al- Azim and Al- Falahiyeh marshlands, its rivers, the Karoun, Karkheh, Jarahi , and Dez; the Arabian Gulf to its southwest; and its agriculture, forestry wildlife and marine life. As well as devastating plant, animal and marine life, the pollution has led to severe health problems among the Ahwazi people, causing outbreaks of life-threatening disease, with recent research showing a long-term negative impact on population numbers.

This report details the relationship between increased levels of pollution and diseases in Ahwaz under Iranian colonialism, giving an overview of the catastrophic effects on the region’s people and the environment.

The Iranian regime’s launch of intensive and environmentally harmful projects in Ahwaz, including sugar-cane cultivation and processing, along with petrochemical plants, has caused massive damage to the environment and the people’s health. The scale of the devastation inflicted by decades of mismanagement and unchecked pollution is impossible to overstate. For one instance, the number of domesticated and wild animals and birds in the once thriving region has plummeted in the four decades since Ayatollah Khomeini first launched the industrial development program, while cancer rates and birth defects among the human population have soared to a level which would be considered unacceptable by any other nations.

The environmental impact of the industrial program has been magnified by the catastrophic damage done to the environment by the eight-year Iran–Iraq War between September 1980 and August 1988, which disproportionately affected the region and people of Ahwaz, just across the Iraq-Iran border, who became unnoticed victims of a war which they had nothing to do with.

Following the war, many areas on the border were deemed unfit for human habitation, with over one million residents of villages and towns in the border region being evacuated to Iraq provinces or to Persian area in Iranian provinces.  The trauma of this experience for many of those forced to abandon their homes and lands has never ended, with the regime still not clearing the mines or decontaminating the areas there to make the area safe to return to decades later, leaving generations of those forcibly transferred effectively in limbo.

Many of those who chose to stay in their homes and withstand the wartime horrors, meanwhile, were left suffering health problems due to chemical contamination, with landmines left over from the war still a source of concern even three decades later. The Iranian regime also failed to adequately explain the potentially devastating effects of the chemical contamination from the weapons used during the war, with the information that was provided viewed with some skepticism due to an arguably well-founded mistrust of the regime by local peoples.

Medical experts have predicted that the heightened incidence of cancer due to the shockingly high rates of environmental pollution in the area will last for years, although it’s difficult to estimate the long-term danger level. Far higher than normal cancer rates have been noted among Ahwazi children and young adolescents due to the combined effects of the industrial pollution and the contamination from wartime chemicals. Many studies have also shown far higher rates than normal of cardiovascular disease amongst Ahwazis, with the high levels of pollution once again believed to be a contributing factor. While these medical findings require long term scientific study and monitoring, they are consistent with statements by Ahwazi human rights activists about the regime’s possibly deliberate massive pollution of the area.

Iran’s environmental policy or arguably its lack of any environmental policy has led to further suffering for the Ahwazi people already marginalised and brutalised by the Iranian regime, with associated effects including loss of economic stability due to long-term health problems among a disproportionate percentage of the population, especially among the young. Psychological problems resulting from stress and anxiety add to the physical symptoms including breathing difficulties due to the heavily polluted air and water in the region,  meaning that the effects of the pollution are as cataclysmic for the Ahwazi people’s mental health as for their physical wellbeing.

This combination of problems also leads to other social problems, including substance abuse, reckless behaviour, higher than normal rates of aggression, stress and suicide. Another negative effect is reduced fertility, with disproportionately high rates of delivery complications, stillbirths and birth defects recorded among Ahwazi women. The heavily polluted cities of Bandar Mashur, Khor Mousa, Abadan and Mohammarah in particular have seen a steady increase in reported rates of physical deformities amongst newborns.

Finally, the air pollution in the region is now so serious that experts are increasingly expressing concern that the air quality may be of such a low level as to be damaging for humans, animals or even plant life. Those with existing health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and respiratory conditions, all of which have become widespread amongst Ahwazis to a disproportionate degree,  are thus at further heightened risk as a result of the severe air pollution levels.

Mostafa Hetteh

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