In Ahwaz, buffaloes and people face a wretched slow extinction

Despite the Iranian regime’s efforts to impose a media blackout, awareness is steadily increasing of the horrendous and rapidly worsening water crisis in the region of Ahwaz.  To observers without knowledge of the situation, it may seem that this escalating catastrophe is a natural disaster resulting from climate change.

Those familiar with the regime’s policies, however, know that successive governments have instituted a massive program of dam-building and river diversion in the region to redirect the water from its once-bounteous rivers to other, non-Ahwazi areas of Iran with full knowledge of the inevitable result in Ahwaz – desertification forcing mass migration of the Ahwazi people to other areas of Iran or to other nations simply to survive.

The indigenous, persecuted Ahwazi people see this dam and river program, not as the result of incompetence but as part of a deliberate, long-term and callous policy of ethnic cleansing intended to change the demographic balance in the region, which is home to over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran. The aim is to force out most of the Ahwazis and end their claim to sovereignty or ownership of their resources. In the process, natural habitats, wildlife, crops and farm animals are suffering badly.

The regime’s long history of anti-Arab racism, which treats the indigenous Ahwazis as second-class citizens, denying them the most fundamental rights, makes it very clear to the Ahwazi people that this program is not coincidental or the result of a foolish lack of planning but part of a deliberate, long-term and monstrously callous policy of ethnic cleansing intended to change the demographic balance in the region, which is home to over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, in order to  force the indigenous   Ahwazis out and end any claim to sovereignty or ownership of their resources.   This is further demonstrated by the regime’s construction of ethnically homogenous ‘Persian-only’ settlements for workers in the oil and gas fields, who are brought to Ahwaz by financial incentives, jobs denied to Ahwazis and offers of housing in these sealed-off communities which are provided with amenities denied to many of the indigenous people these include such basic features as clean running water, electricity and specially built road networks.  Ahwazis are allowed only the most menial jobs in the oil and gas industry and forbidden from living in these settlements.  Many have pointed out that for all the regime’s high-flown rhetoric about supporting Palestinian liberation its own anti-Arab racism and de facto apartheid system is no different to Israel’s abuses of Palestinians.

The people of Ahwaz, whose horrendous suffering at the hands of Iran’s regime should shock the world, have given up on the idea of ever receiving solidarity or support from Western humanitarians, knowing that the international community which abandoned them long ago will do nothing to stand up for Ahwazis.

Repeated calls on international humanitarian bodies to speak out against the regime’s endemic anti-Arab racism and persecution which blights every area of Ahwazis’ lives have met with silence and indifference, while the Western ‘left’s” solidarity with the oppressed apparently doesn’t extend to those oppressed by regimes that pontificate emptily about anti-imperialism and resistance.

There’s been a similar silence from environmental organisations in response to appeals for help to stop the ecological catastrophe caused by a combination of massive pollution from the oil and gas wells and refineries across the region which holds over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran, and accelerating rates of desertification resulting from the damming and diversion of the once-bounteous rivers to other non-Ahwazi areas, which have turned much of Ahwaz into a barren wasteland.

An Arab farmer from the rural area of Howeyzeh said despairingly, “We’ve been abandoned here. We had six million palm trees in this region – now five million have died due to the high salinity levels of the water. Our environment’s polluted, our animals are dying. Is this the justice that the Islamic Republic promised for us? So many locals here have been poisoned by drinking the contaminated water, with many, including children and elderly people, having severe dysentery. We don’t even have an emergency health clinic to go to for treatment – we have to travel hundreds of kilometres to get to the hospitals in Ahwaz.”

He sighed deeply. “Our ‘unforgivable sin’ is that we were born Arab, which is why we’re subjected to all this misery and suffering. When we look around at our conditions, our burnt lands and our devastated environment we can imagine Hell. We see and breath only dust here. The regime massacred and buried all of us, human and animals alike. Where are those humanitarians and environmental activists who fight for the environment to help stop our slow death?”

According to Iranian news agencies, the deterioration of the quality of the brackish, foul-smelling drinking water provided to Ahwazis has resulted in poisoning dozens of Arab residents in the cities of Rofaye and Howeyzeh.  Meanwhile, the shortage of water for agricultural use has resulted in farmers being driven to the brink of destitution, with crops withering due to the salinity and toxicity of the remaining polluted water supply, which is heavily polluted not only by the dumping of untreated sewage directly into the waterways but by the oil and gas refineries releasing toxic chemicals into them.  This is further magnified by the regime turning much of the region over to a ruinously expensive sugarcane growing program, which costs far more money than it makes, with refineries built on the riverbanks using the rivers’ remaining waters in the water-intensive refining process before dumping the residue polluted with chemicals used in the refinery process back into the water.  The region’s once-renowned marine life is largely wiped out, with the fish and birds that thronged the rivers and wetlands at the Gulf estuary either wholly disappeared or rapidly vanishing.

Destruction of palm trees

Farmers in Ahwaz fear that the date-palm plantations whose sweet produce was famed across the region are facing extinction after the Iranian regime dammed and diverted the once-bounteous rivers used for generations to irrigate their lands, with the waters that sustained the trees now sent to other, ethnically Persian areas of Iran while the palm trees wilt and die.

The farmers’ pleas to the regime to provide alternative water sources have fallen on deaf ears, with desertification accelerating as the rivers are reduced to a salty trickle, leaving the farmers without water for their farmlands or even for their own survival and that of their livestock.

Although palm trees are capable of surviving in harsh desert heat, they need water, with the lack of any fresh water and the salinity of the remaining water supply meaning those in Ahwaz are dying off. In a document about the current crisis, the Deputy Rural Cooperative Organisation of Ahwaz explained that ‘the inflow volume of Karoon River water has been severely reduced. As a result of the low water level in the river, we’ve witnessed a surge of salty water from the sea [the Arabian Gulf] into the Karoon River, which increased the salinity level of the water in this river.’

The regime’s construction of the Gotvand Dam whose bed is built on a salt flat has also contributed to the dangerously increased salinity of the Karoon River. The dam has been widely condemned as a “salinity factory”, an “exhibition of environmental lessons”, an “environmental disaster”, and “the great national mistake”, has increased the river’s salinity level by 25 percent, making the water toxic to marine life and undrinkable for other species, as well as being useless for irrigating crops.

Suffering of buffaloes

In the villages of Gwamat and Alizaghir, the buffaloes are dying. The River Maleh, a stream that sustained generations of residents, their crops and livestock for centuries has dried up, leaving the local Arab people with barely any water for themselves, let alone their livestock.  What remains of the creek, which ran through and between the two villages in the Ahwaz region is now a muddy, undrinkable trickle or a dusty, sun-baked river bed.

Residents of the already impoverished villages in Shawur county near the city of Susa are living through a personal and ecological catastrophe, with fish and marine life dying along with their crops and the buffaloes, their sole source of food and income.  “Since the drying-up of the Maleh River, our bison have become weaker and sicker,” said Khalaf Ghezi, a farmer from Gwamat. “They’re dying slowly.”

The drying-up of the Maleh and other rivers across Ahwaz is not a natural catastrophe or caused by climate change, although rising temperatures are worsening the existing problems; instead, this is the inevitable and predicted result of the Iranian regime’s policy of damming and diverting the rivers in the once-verdant Ahwaz region to other non-Arab areas of Iran. As ever, repeated warnings by local people, activists and environmentalists of the catastrophe which this would unleash were ignored, and now the people of Ahwaz, along with the livestock, wildlife and ecosystem, are paying the terrible price.

Khalaf Ghezi veers between despair and anger at the regime’s callous indifference: “Why don’t the authorities listen to our voices? Our buffaloes are dying because of the river drying up. We don’t have jobs. Our only source of income is our livestock. If these animals are starved, we will starve too.”

Thousands across the region have protested and petitioned the regime over the increasingly horrendous situation, all to no avail.   Shawur county area, which had three large rivers – the Shawur, Karkheh and Dez, was once an agricultural centre growing multiple crops, as well as having abundant marine life and fishing.  Now, without urgent action by the government and international organisations to stop the regime’s devastating river-damming and diversion program, the two provincial centres of Shawur and Alwan and 120 villages scattered across the province face mass depopulation as residents are forced to flee due to being left without even the staples of life essential for survival.

The few skeletal water buffaloes still remaining are all that remains of the herds that were the lifeblood of generations of Ahwazi farmers along the region’s riverbanks for thousands of years. These were the animals which provided nourishment and income, pulling the traditional ploughs, providing milk and meat, were part of the fabric of Ahwaz, as well as being valuable assets that could be a source of income.  By their nature, more especially in the searing heat in Ahwaz, where summer temperatures routinely rise to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, water buffaloes need to spend several hours a day in water to keep cool and remain healthy; the heavily saline, muddy, sewage-polluted trickle which is all that remains of the region’s rivers is unfit for consumption, more likely to cause illness than quench thirst in animals and for providing any relief from the scorching heat.  Without vegetation for grazing or water essential for their and their owners’ survival, the fate of both is bleak, with crops withering and once-fertile agricultural land quickly turning to parched desert due to the lack of irrigation.   Many rural Ahwazis have already been forced to abandon their heritage and sell their remaining buffaloes at a dirt-cheap price simply to survive, with the animals often being transported to neighbouring countries, including Iraq.

One Ahwazi farmer, who gave his name only as Jassem, told  Dur Untash Studies Centre, “I’ve got 10 buffaloes now. I have to provide forage for them; each of them needs about 150 kilograms of barley or corn or bran every month – bran or barley are 9,000 Tomans a kilo, corn’s 1200 Tomans a kilo, so that’s about 180,000 Tomans a month per buffalo. Then there’s other cost like water, maintenance, workers.  But the dairy revenue from the buffaloes is half of what we spend on them…”

Jassem broke off, wiping tears from his eyes, before continuing: “We can’t provide the basic daily needs for our families like food and clean water, let alone for these poor creatures. We love them deeply, but we’re losing them. They suffer from malnutrition, dehydration, heat exhaustion. You can see that their skin’s burned as a result of the extreme summer heat, the water salinity and the chronic dehydration.  When we take them to the remaining water in the river, it’s very saline now – that burns their skin more. So, they’re losing their skin and slowly dying. I had air conditioners in the barn to keep them cool, but those broke down. I can’t afford to buy new air conditioners to save these poor dumb animals.”

Another farmer, Farhan Kaeb Amir, echoed Jassem’s words:

“Our village is on the banks of the Karkheh River, and since this river dried up, our buffaloes are getting weaker and give less milk. We were selling the milk and providing for our family and for the buffalos but now there’s no fodder subsidies, no water; we have to provide all of it so we can’t support our family or provide for our buffalos. We’re grieving constantly – these are our livelihood and our life. When one of them dies, we all cry – it’s painful watching them die, and we’re scared for our own future.”

Farhan’s voice rose, we’re fighting to survive here ourselves – we, the people here, are hungry, let alone our livestock. Where’s God to see this injustice?  In the past, we used our dairy livestock to live, but now they’re too weak and sick and don’t give milk, so we’re forced to go into the city to buy our basic foods to live on; everything’s expensive there – this can’t continue.”

A fourth farmer, Yasser Moramezi, spoke up to agree with his colleagues: “The conditions for our buffaloes is dire – they’re suffering miscarriages because of the high temperatures.”

Across the region, the farmers’ desperation is magnified by the regime’s callous indifference to their plight, with many, if not most Ahwazis believing that this is motivated by the unadmitted but pervasive anti-Arab racism that blights every area of the people’s lives.  In the Hor Howeyzeh or Howeyzeh wetlands around Howeyzeh city that were once renowned for their natural beauty, the remaining marshes are saline and heavily polluted with oil in a spill that killed much of the remaining wildlife that the area was famed for. The massive oil spill came from a joint prospecting venture in the area between one of the oil companies owned by the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and a Chinese oil company. It was catastrophic for the wetlands, killing off countless birds and fish and leaking massive quantities of oil into the mouth of the Gulf.  Buffaloes were also terribly affected by the massive and toxic spill, with many suffering incurable skin diseases as a result of entering the polluted waters.  One local in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity,  claimed that the IRGC-owned company had worsened the oil spill by  setting fire to the marshland reeds in an at-best misguided effort to burn off the oil – the resulting massive fires panicked the buffaloes who stampeded for the water, with many sustaining agonizing burns when the flaming oil clung to their hides.  The blaze that spread across hundreds of acres of the marshlands also produced billowing clouds of thick black smoke that left a residue across the area, bringing further misery for local Arab people, wildlife and livestock alike.

Despite the magnitude of this ongoing tragedy, the Iranian regime continues to perpetrate these crimes against the Ahwazi people, their lands, the wildlife and environment with absolute impunity, with Ahwazis fully aware that any complaint will see the complainant arrested and very probably imprisoned and executed.  The regime’s ‘Islamic Human Rights Commission’ exists only to protect the human rights of the regime’s officials and to legitimise their crimes, while the judicial system is an arm of the government intended to defend it against the people.  In addition, the perpetrators are protected not only by the regime but by the international community; far from showing any willingness to help the people suffering this catalogue of horrors, the UN and international bodies have worked to support the regime inflicting them.

As a result of all these factors, many Ahwazis have moved to different cities in Iran or, where possible, emigrated to Western democratic countries; while nobody wishes to flee their beloved homeland, for Ahwazis as for dissidents in Iran, this is the only way to find the freedom and human rights they’re denied at home.

A farmer from the Hor Howayzeh area, Khaled Sawari, sounded despairing as he told Dur Untash Studies Centre: “Now they are killing our buffalos, destroying our environment completely – there’s nothing left for us, no way to live here. Even the air’s unbreathable from the oil well fires that spew out smoke and pollute our air and land.  This has become Hell – nobody hears about our suffering. All working in the oil companies are strangers, not locals – they’re from Yazd, Isfahan, Kerman [ethnically Persian areas of Iran], all the other areas of Iran, but our sons are denied employment [at the oil refineries] in any kind of job even though they have university degrees.”

The water buffaloes are just one of the species on the brink of extinction due to a combination of lack of water and massive pollution from the oil and gas fields that cover the region, which is home to over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran;  although Ahwaz was once renowned for its fishing and its abundant wildlife with the massive marshes at the mouth of the Gulf housing a vast array of birds and marine life and sustaining generations of fishermen, all that is long gone.

The massive profits from the oil and gas resources goes straight to the Iranian regime’s coffers, with the Ahwazi people attaining no benefit from their natural resources; it’s common to hear Ahwazis lament the discovery of oil and gas since both are widely seen as having brought nothing but oppression, poverty and suffering, along with the pollution from their extraction.

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