More than a billion people globally, a fifth of the world’s population, currently have no access to healthy drinking water, with four to five million people dying annually from the diseases caused by drinking unsafe water. With global water consumption rates rising steadily as availability falls due to climate change, the UN is now predicting that water will become scarcer, and the world will face a water crisis within the next few years. The people in the Middle East, especially Ahwazi people who already suffer massive problems due to lack of water, will be the worst affected.
For Ahwazis, water shortages are not the result of climate change. The Iranian regime currently obtains two-thirds of its water supply from territories that Iran previously invaded and annexed such as the Ahwaz region; this is in direct contravention of international law, which states that water should not be diverted from its catchment basin. This water is then transferred to ethnically Persian cities, farming regions and industries. Iran’s regime has consistently ignored international law and the protests of the Ahwazis to institute a massive river-damming and diversion program, taking the water from the once-verdant Ahwaz water catchment basin. The regime began by digging tunnels secretly without any consultation of the people before constructing massixve dams and pipelines to divert Ahwazi water from the catchment basin in the mountain ranges bordering the Ahwaz region. Although the Ahwazi people frequently protested against Iran’s theft of their water, the Iranian regime disregarded them as it did international law on this issue, continuing to this day to launch projects confiscating Ahwaz’s water supply without interruption, leading to devastating human and environmental effects for the region. This theft of the Ahwazi people’s resources is not limited to water, with the regime also relying on the funds from the region’s oil and gas resources, which constitute over 95 per cent of the total claimed by Iran; despite Ahwazis’ abundant wealth in natural resources, they are amongst the most impoverished peoples in Iran or globally, with their only share from these natural riches being pollution and oppression.
Pollution in Ahwaz
The 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses states (Peter Beaumont, Water Resources Development, Vol. 16, No. 4, 475–495, 2000) states how such waters should be shared under international law; according to this convention, the Ahwazi people have the right to an equitable and feasible share of the water courses located on their land. The Iranian regime disregards these rights along with international law and basic decency, imposing severe restrictions on the local people in order to ensure that it can transfer their resources to ethnically Persian provinces, leaving Ahwazis without clean drinking water or any way to irrigate their crops. In the past 40 years, the region’s four rivers, the Karoon, Karkheh, Dez and Jarahi, have been diverted or polluted by the oil and gas drilling in the region, leading to an environmental and human catastrophe for the region which was formerly a flourishing centre of agriculture and fishing, widely known as a regional breadbasket. This shows the Iranian policy is in contravention of international law. The waters of the Ahwaz rivers should, therefore, be shared equitably among Ahwaz and Iran and not be diverted outside its catchment basin.
Dams and Displacement
According to international law, the damming and diversion of both national and trans-national rivers should be carried out according to the legislation enshrined in international treaties, especially when states or provinces upstream take more than their equitable share of water from countries or provinces downstream. Disregarding this legislation and the rights of the Ahwazi people, the Iranian regime has built large numbers of immense dams and water pipelines across Ahwaz. The construction of the dams built to date has already displaced thousands of indigenous people who live in the areas flooded and deprived thousands more downstream of the water essential for everyday life. For the Iranian regime, however, this is only the start, with a recently published report on the Iranian dams’ project showing plans to construct another 40 dams on Ahwazi rivers and headwaters, with 33 of these to be completed by 2030 if work goes according to schedule. The dams already completed have had a devastating effect on Ahwazi people, as well as the land, fauna and environment, with environmentalists and others warning that the planned dams will inflict further catastrophic damage.
Due to all these factors, Ahwazi activists request that an international Fact-Finding Mission be formed and visit Ahwaz in order to:
- Assess the international financial backing for dams in Ahwaz that have vastly reduced the quality and quantity of water for Ahwazi people, land and wildlife and led to environmental devastation, and witness the effects at first-hand.
- Assess the Iranian regime’s compliance with international law governing shared rivers, in particular regarding notification over the regime’s Dams Project on Ahwazi land.
- Members should also, examine.
- a) the secondary effects of existing and planned river-damming and diversion projects on Ahwazi people, lands and waterways and on the quantity of Ahwazi waters.
- b) the effects of the Iranian regime’s irrigation and industry on water quality in Ahwaz, and how this impacts public health and the environment.
The consequences of this policy have emerged as follows:
- A) Iranian dams have had a considerable adverse effect in massively reducing the once-sizeable network of rivers and waterways in Ahwaz, with this vastly diminished water supply already causing increased salinity in the lower reaches of the Ahwazi rivers, seriously affecting drinking water and agriculture. The full implementation of the planned Iranian dams project in Ahwaz would have major adverse consequences for millions of the indigenous Ahwazi people.
- B) Iran’s regime is signally failing to comply with international conventions on water sharing and use, in particular, the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses which applies to Ahwaz’s rivers as to other waterways internationally. For further information, please see this link: (http://internationalwaterlaw.org/documents/intldocs/watercourse_conv.html)
Ahwazi activists, therefore, consider that:
- The threat to future water supplies in Ahwaz is a very real and grave one. This means that international organisations concerned with water, human rights and the environment must convene a mission and send representatives to establish and report on the magnitude of this crisis. We, therefore, urge the international community to press Iran’s leadership to suspend any further damming or river diversion projects in order to secure the rehabilitation and sustainable development of the Ahwazi rivers.
- We request that such a mission should urge the international community to join with Ahwaz people in putting pressure on Iran’s regime to reach a reasonable agreement due to the regime’s intransigence over the issue of its confiscation of water.
- The people of Ahwaz living downstream from the dams and river diversion projects, who have suffered dreadful adverse consequences from Iran’s existing dams project, in the form of reduced water flow and deteriorating water quality which often makes it undrinkable even for livestock or for use in agriculture, should be adequately compensated.
Currently, one part of the planned Iranian dams project will see the construction of more than 160 river-damming and diversion projects on Ahwazi rivers and in the upstream Ahwaz catchment basin area. These upstream projects, which cover some million hectares of land, will result in significant further reductions in the already reduced river flow before reaching Ahwazi cities. This willful degradation of the already poor water quality results in a wide range of problems, impacting negatively on human health and the environment. The use of river water mixed with toxic chemicals in the regime’s sugar cane-processing refineries in the area, with this polluted water then pumped back into the rivers without any filtering or efforts to combat pollution, has already led to widespread problems in areas downstream from these refineries, contaminating water used for agricultural irrigation as well as for drinking and adversely affecting the health of local people as well as wildlife, and harming the environment. This pollution also increases the soil salinity levels, which are already high as a result of river-damming and diversion upstream, further adding to the toxic brew of environmental degradation and worsening the suffering of the Ahwazis by making the water completely unusable for human consumption or agricultural use.
The prime aim behind establishing these dams include storing water, preventing disasters, generating energy, supporting agriculture and livestock. Although Iran had built dozens of dams on the Ahwazi rivers, they turned out to be a source of threat to the Ahwazis, a source of destruction of the environment as well as floods and drought. The successive governments established these dams for aims rather than the principal aims of these dams. They use such dams to move waters away from the Ahwazi regions to the Iranian territories to feed the Persian cities and provinces. This leads the Ahwazi lands to dry up as well as hampering the economy of the Ahwazis, especially in agriculture and forcing the Ahwazis from their homes. Dams have become an essential factor in drought in summer and cause floods and torrents in winter.
Protests hit a brick wall
The Dams Campaign, established in 2000 by local Friends of the Earth campaigners and other environmentalists, has won support from other activists and many prominent Ahwazi dignitaries, as well as ordinary Ahwazis concerned for the future of their region Campaigners and ordinary citizens alike worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the devastating effects that the regime’s river diversion and damming programs would wreak, from flooding vast areas of farmland upstream and dispossessing the residents of dozens of surrounding villages to devastating historic cities such as Shoaybiyeh city in Toster(Shushter) which possesses sites of immense archaeological significance and to devastating the lives and livelihoods of people downstream, along with Ahwaz’s rich natural environment and wildlife. Despite the campaigners’ tireless work, the Iranian regime and authorities refused to consult with the Ahwazi people affected or their representatives, and rejected all requests to conduct any assessments of the environmental impact of the dams Project on Ahwazi lands.
An associated cause for well-justified concern is that the Iranian’s dams Project is not an isolated initiative, but one part of the Iranian leadership’s ambitious, unspoken project to simply eradicate or forcibly assimilate the Ahwazi people through using the destruction of their lands to annihilate their Ahwazi identity, heritage and culture, which the current regime, like its predecessor, refuses even to acknowledge. This project includes the plans for developing dozens more major water development projects like the 40 dams and massive water transfer pipelines already established in the Ahwaz catchment basin, with more than 36 dams and tunnel currently under construction and another 140 dams and pipelines under study and investigation.
Water and War
The fact that the river-damming and diversion project has resulted in further mass displacement of thousands of Ahwazi people with the regime’s usual lack of any warning or compensation and the dreadful effects of the project on millions of other Ahwazis across the region has led many in Ahwaz to believe that the ultimate aim of this project is to perpetrate ethnic cleansing by stealth, using the Ahwazi people’s water as a weapon against them.
With the ongoing dams project set to deprive many millions of hectares of Ahwaz land of water, leading to widespread desertification; there are concerns that, without any support to stop the construction of these devastating dams and pipelines, this project could lead to full-blown armed conflict over water between Iran’s regime on the one hand and the Ahwazi people on the other.
This is no hyperbolic statement or overblown concern; for Ahwazis, as for all peoples, access to the water from their rivers and waterways is very literally a life or death issue. The dams project means that the existing and potential water shortages in Ahwaz are not the result of climate change but of a wholly deliberate state policy implemented with contempt for the people and for international law; this has, understandably, already led to widespread resentment and growing public anger. The fact that these waters are being diverted very deliberately from an ethnically Arab region to wealthy landowners and industries in the regime’s favoured Persian regions is creating further hostility and resentment amongst Ahwazis already facing intolerable systematic racism and bigotry from the regime.
All of these factors make it imperative that international environmental and human rights organisations intervene to help protect the Ahwazi people and environment, not only for the sake of humanity, solidarity and environmental wellbeing but to avert potentially devastating results if no action is taken.
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.