In recent days, media have repeatedly used phrases like “natural disaster” and “engineered flood” to describe the most recent horrendous flooding in Ahwaz. This narrative of natural disaster is wrong, however, since it suggests that the flooding is simply the result of heavy rainfall, failing to take any account of how Iran’s regime has both directed and weaponised the flooding against the people of the region. This narrative of natural disaster, promoted by the regime, is intended to give Iran’s leaders a way to avoid responsibility for their part in the flooding and for the horrendous results. Although the second analysis of ‘engineered flooding is correct, it omits any explanation of how this came about.
The catastrophic flooding was not a result of surplus water overwhelming the Ahwaz region, whose rivers have safely directed heavy rainfall to the sea for thousands of years without dispossessing the people or drowning citizens. Indeed, the waters of Ahwaz are life-giving rather than murderous, providing countless generations of Ahwazis with drinking water, irrigation for their farmlands, fishing and verdant wildlife. All that was before the advent of the giant dam project which has caused widespread devastation and cut off most of the region’s water supply.
This year, when heavier-than-usual seasonal rainfall fell in the region, the dams built by the regime as part of a water diversion programme to send water to other non-Arab areas, were full of water. The regime ordered that the floodgates be opened, in the full knowledge that the waters would not flow along their natural channels to the Gulf as it does naturally, but would instead be redirected to Ahwazis’ lands in order to stop it from affected oil and gas production and possibly damaging oil facilities in and around the dried-up marshlands which house over 95 percent of Iran’s oil and gas rigs, pipelines and other facilities. Instead the regime built berms redirecting the floodwaters to the Ahwazi peoples’ villages, towns, cities and farmlands. Meanwhile the marshlands which once homed a vast array of wildlife have been steadily drained and in many cases, bisected by newly built road networks to enable oil and gas drilling and refineries to be built there. Nearly half of the Karoon river basin where the river once flowed into the Gulf delta is now a coastal road area where people can drive without even being aware of the horrendous flooding inland. When I was in Ahwaz two years ago, I constantly saw trucks carrying excavation and construction equipment to work on these roads and on draining the once-beautiful marshlands.
Taking this into account, therefore we can see that the flooding is an inevitable “nature uprising”, which is taking its toll not only the Ahwazi people but on the regime that has spent two decades destroying a vast area of wetlands once renowned for its animal and plant life and ravaged its ecosystem in order to maintain their political and economic interests. During this period, 93 massive dams have been built along the length of the Karoon river alone, with 120 more in the works and discussions underway on a further 100. Throughout this period, local residents, environmentalists and academics have warned of the horrendous results of this policy and have been ignored.
In recent years when the phenomenon of sandstorms blanketing the region first emerged, these protests intensified, reaching the streets, with demonstrators forming a vast human chain along the banks of the Karoon river in a peaceful demonstration against this environmentally devastating policy. The regime’s reaction was to attack and arrest the protesting activists, with many of those detained still imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of wanting to protect their lands and environment. For the regime, the oil and gas matters far more than the sandstorms and environmental chaos afflicting the people.
This time, however, the people of Ahwaz were not protesting on the riverbanks, but instead trying desperately to save their possessions from the floodwaters inundating their homes and lands. The government, which apparently suffers from a collective case of dementia, ‘forgot’ that it has destroyed the natural outlet for these floodwaters with its own hands and now has no way to stop these ‘uprising’ waters’. And how did the government choose to handle this ‘natural uprising’ from the floodwaters that sought an escape route via the river mouth? By directing the waters to the homes and farmlands of the lower classes to protect its expensive infrastructures.
If we look at this flood from this viewpoint, it certainly doesn’t seem like any sort of “natural disaster”. This flooding was both a “nature uprising” and “government engineering” but I prefer the first phrase since it foretells the future.
What will the government do to prevent such catastrophes in the future? It has only two options; it can either renovate the natural destination of the river’s waters and of the thousands of species whose habitat it previously destroyed or it can attempt to suppress these natural forces more and continue with its current policy. The first solution is expensive and implies a confession of wrongdoing. The second will mean building more dams and transferring the waters from upstream to other areas. The second option also means there would be no obligation to restore the devastated natural environment, and would also invariably result in a mafia-style system for controls of the dams and the waters.
If the regional ecosystem is not restored, if the Ahwazi marshlands are left to dry out and if the river-damming and diversion projects are not stopped, we can certainly expect further and more devastating ‘natural uprisings’ in the future as Mother Nature takes her revenge, along with even greater anger from the people.
If we do not loudly and regularly expose the key reason behind these floods, we should expect more terrible catastrophes. The people who have suffered terribly as a result of the sandstorms and who are now suffering as a result of the flooding must be made aware that the reason behind both is the same, and that these are not ‘natural’ catastrophes It is time for environmentalists and locals to talk and the government to listen. Activists who have frequently of the terrible consequences of the government’s actions and its socio-political policies for decades have been ignored, derided and labelled “security” hazards” to force them into silence; they were right all along, and it’s time they were listened to, before it’s too late.
By Aghil Daghagheleh
The article has been translated from Farsi into English by the Dur Untash Studies Centre (DUSC).