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 Poverty & Pollution in Ahwaz: Oil-Rich Howeyzeh City’s Population Languish in Crushing Poverty

On Tuesday, 12 January, a number of residents in the Ahwazi city of Howeyzeh organised a protest march in front of the governor’s office against the regime’s policy of actively preventing Ahwazis from working in the city’s offices and companies. 

One of the citizens told DUSC: “Most of the workers in the oil and gas companies in the city are not residents of Howeyzeh County, while the people of the city are deprived of accessing job opportunities despite having certificates in education and specialisation.”

The citizen added that unemployment in the city has reached a critical situation where the vast majority of young people suffer from extreme poverty. Many of them migrated to other regions of Iran to seek a job opportunity. This compelled emigration is one of the goals of the regime’s longstanding suppression of the Ahwazi people.

This protest followed forecasts of increasing poverty and unemployment in the city of Howeyzeh in Ahwaz, already hard hit by high rates of both and by dire poverty, which have in turn led to rising anxiety among Ahwazis. Even Iranian state officials have denounced the high rates of poverty in the city and surrounding county of the same name, which should be naturally wealthy given the massive oil and gas resources there.

In a speech delivered in the state parliament on 29 December 2020, Saied Silawi, the representative for north Ahwaz region in the Supreme Council of Iranian Provinces, said, “Eighty per cent of the residents of the oil-rich city of Howeyzeh are suffering from poverty.” Silawi said that the people in the county of Howeyzeh face daily struggle simply to survive and meet their basic requirements, such as food and drink, with residents too impoverished to afford mobile phones to enable their children to complete their studies remotely during the coronavirus crisis.

Silawi continued: “The livelihood of most of the inhabitants of Howeyzeh is linked to agriculture and livestock, but the people in the county have become poor due to the loss of their agricultural lands, which the oil company forcibly purchased at a low price, when the residents were not willing to sell them.”

He asserted that the state-owned Howeyzeh Oil Company should be concerned with the residents’ welfare because the agricultural and oil economy could both play an essential role in supporting the economy of the Ahwaz region and Iran.

“Poverty and unemployment are rampant in the county,” Silawi noted in his speech, adding, “The oil company did not provide job opportunities for the county’s residents, except for employing a small number of citizens as labourers.”

Silawi stressed that the vast majority of students in Howeyzeh face a critical situation in regard to continuing their education because they cannot access smart mobile phones needed to complete their studies during the lockdown imposed due to the pandemic. The state official also emphasised that there is no proper hospital or clinic in the city, with residents usually forced to go to other cities such as the regional capital, Ahwaz city, to obtain medical treatment and medicines. 

Poverty 

Delivering a similar grim message to the Iranian Parliament on 17 December 2017, another state official, Qassim Saiedi, the parliamentary representative for Howzeyeh and Khafajiyeh, said: “The unemployment rate in Missan [Dasht Azadegan in Farsi] has exceeded 38%, with 24% of the population in Howeyzeh also suffering from unemployment. This figure in an oil-rich region is very worrying.” His aforementioned colleague, Saied Silawi, put this figure far higher, saying: “50% of the residents of Howeyzeh are unemployed, as most of the oil companies bring employees from other parts of Iran.”

In addition to these dire problems, the residents of Howeyzeh suffer from other acute difficulties that compound their suffering, such as terrible water shortages, severe pollution, a lack of modern roadways to connect rural areas to the city, the destruction of the marshes, the drying up of local rivers, and the destruction of agricultural lands.

Despite the fact that villages in Howeyzeh are within a kilometre from oil and gas fields and refineries that make billions of dollars annually for the regime, the indigenous Ahwazi people are deprived of safe drinking water, job opportunities and more.

Most of the rural roads in this county have been largely destroyed, and accidents have increased due to increasing usage by heavy oil tankers and other large vehicles for which the local roads are wholly inadequate, with these problems for the local people compounded by a total lack of adequate infrastructure. While the heavy trucks are heavy enough to navigate the roads their weight destroys further, light passenger vehicles – especially of the types available to the impoverished locals – cannot safely travel on the badly damaged roadways.

In recent months, residents of different parts of Ahwaz, including Gheyzaniyeh, Um al-Tamir, Ahwaz city, Abadan and Muhammarah, have protested over water shortages. The regime reacted with its usual brutality, leading to clashes between regime security forces and protesters whose only ‘crime’ was to demand water for survival.

Given all these critical problems, it’s unsurprising that suicides have also increased among Ahwazi citizens due to the crushing poverty, marginalisation, unemployment and despair at the worsening conditions. In June 2020, one such case was that of Omran Roshni Moghaddam, a citizen from Howeyzeh who worked as a labourer at Oil Well Number 19 in a local oil field in Oil Well, who committed suicide due to poverty. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to concerns about retaliation, a colleague of Omran’s said that Omran had hanged himself due to severe financial problems after not receiving his monthly salary for many months. “Omran’s financial situation was so bad that he did not even have the money to bring food with him to work, but the company didn’t care about his misfortune, so he decided to commit suicide.”

Again, according to the Iranian regime’s own statistics, north Ahwaz (referred to by the regime as the Persianised ‘Khuzestan’) is the region with the second-highest unemployment rate in Iran, with the Statistical Centre of Iran recently announcing that the unemployment rate in the county had reached 10.5% by summer 2020. In reality, however, the rate is higher than that, with the latest recorded rate standing at 16.2%, while the level in southern Ahwaz (Hormuzgan) is only marginally lower at 15.9%. 

This is completely antithetical to Iran’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Rights, article 23 of which specifically provides as follows:

“(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

 (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

As will be shown below, the lack of employment for local Ahwazis is part of a deliberate and concerted effort by the Iranian regime to deprive them of their rights. To that end, we turn to the stark economic portrait that disassociates immense oil revenues and even their trickle-down effects from the locals who are effectively prohibited from working in that economic sphere. Much to the contrary, the adverse environmental effects of rapacious oil extraction and general neglect on the part of the government has led to further destruction of the localised agrarian economic economy.

Economy

According to Iranian official statistics, the current population of Howzeyeh county, which is divided into two districts – Central District and Nissan District – stands at 38,886. There are two cities in the area: 

Howeyzeh and Rofaye . The county also includes four rural areas and 122 villages. While the Iranian official census indicates that the city of Howeyzeh is about 20,000 people, Ahwazi statistics confirm that the city’s population is now more than 32,000, with more than 50,000 spread across an area of urban sprawl between rural areas and cities. Despite massive natural resources such as oil, gas and fertile agricultural lands, the vast majority of the Ahwazi citizens live below the absolute poverty line. 

In another recent speech by the aforementioned parliamentarian, Qassim Saiedi, on 26 November 2020, he said: “The economic activities of the people of Howeyzeh depend on the agricultural sector.” Despite this, however, farmers in the region face unprecedented crises due to the desertification of agricultural lands and problems caused by seasonal floods, including the erosion of rivers and the gradual loss of agricultural lands of the exposed areas, especially the city of Howeyzeh and Rofaye, primarily caused by a combination of desertification and chronic pollution. 

Among the natural resources in Howeyzeh, from which the regime makes massive sums of money, is the Azadegan oil field. This oil field, located in Missan (Dasht Azadegan) county, is one of the largest oil fields in Ahwaz and all of Iran, with Ahwaz being home to around 95% of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran’s regime. This vast oil field, which measures 20 x 75 kilometres and has reserves of crude oil estimated at 34 billion barrels, was discovered in 1997 by the Exploration Department of the National Iranian Oil Company. 

The total oil production from these fields is 368,000 barrels per day. Currently, around 10,000 people are working in the Azadegan oil fields, with the vast majority of this workforce being ethnically Persian employees brought in from other areas of Iran and provided with purpose-built homes in settlements where Ahwazis are not allowed; these settlements are comfortable and provided with all the modern amenities denied to the indigenous people of the region. Local Ahwazi sources put the local Ahwazi workforce at the oil field at between 600 and 800, while regime official Ghodratollah Aghaei, the Director of Engineering and Construction and Head of the Development Plan for North Azadegan Square, announced recently that the number of people working at the North Azadegan oilfield is about 5,000 in total, announcing new appointments by claiming, “Now 800 people, including 600 local residents, have been employed in an oil field.”

While the indigenous Ahwazi people have yet to benefit from their vast natural resources, the discovery of large oil and gas reserves near Howeyzeh, such as the Yadman Square, located 22 km southwest of the city, has given the county significant economic influence, with the volume of oil available for extraction in the area estimated at 2.8 billion barrels.

One of the region’s most renowned features is the Hor Al-Azim wetlands, the largest feature of this kind in Ahwaz. The Hor is located on the borders of Ahwaz and Iraq. About a third of these wetlands are located in Ahwaz (in Howeyzeh county), while two-thirds are in Iraq. The wetlands, which are home to a vast array of marine life, birds and plants, are currently facing extinction due to the Iranian regime’s policies of draining the marshlands to enable construction of more oil facilities and military bases. The area, designated by the General Administration of Environment in Ahwaz as a wetland, measures about 118,000 hectares in total. The once verdant marshes of Hor Al-Azim which were previously home to numerous birds and marine life species, are dying off as a result of the double whammy of severe water scarcity and chronic pollution, particularly due to the environmentally catastrophic violations by the National Iranian Oil Company in this area, which have resulted in devastating widespread destruction of the local ecosystem, with more than half of these wetlands already destroyed.

For millennia, Ahwazis lived around the marshlands, making a living from agriculture, fishing, and poultry and livestock farming; the environmental catastrophe unleashed by the regime’s activities mean that most have now had to abandon their homes and lands to rapidly advancing desertification and drought never seen before, exacerbated by climate change; many of the county’s residents in Howeyzeh have migrated to other areas, while most who remain to suffer chronic poverty. Due to the regime’s construction of dams on the rivers that once fed the wetlands, which feed water to massive pipelines supplying other areas of Iran, north Ahwaz is plagued with constant dust storms, further exacerbating the environmental tragedy there, in addition to causing health crises for citizens there and across the region, especially in coordination with the severe pollution from the oil and gas fields.

Iran is a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change, article three of which imposes upon signatories a duty to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Much as it has ignored its responsibilities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the regime has utterly failed even to pay lip service to its obligations regarding the climate change convention, or the United Nations Convention To Combat Desertification In Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought And/Or Desertification, Particularly In Africa, or the United Nations Convention On Wetlands Of International Importance Especially As Waterfowl Habitat, to cite two relevant examples.

Instead, Iranian state media are triumphant over a recent deal with China’s regime to massively increase oil and gas production, which generated headlines like “Iran signs $1.3 billion deal with China to double output at South Azadegan oil field”. As usual, the only thing that Ahwazis will receive from this is an increase in the already choking pollution spewed by ever-enlarging plants. The regime can be relied upon to not provide any job opportunities or ensure tolerable living conditions for Ahwazi citizens in Howeyzeh and other parts of Ahwaz.

According to a report from the Iranian oil ministry on the regime’s recent deal with Beijing, “The contract was awarded to Petro-Pars and signed with Petroleum Engineering & Development to boost production capacity to 320,000 b/d from 140,000 b/d over 30 months,”. In similar news, Iran’s regime also recently awarded a $300 million contract to develop the Yaran oil field to one of its own local contractors, Persia Oil and Gas Industry Development Co. The South Azadegan oil fields have a long history in being handed over to IOCs. 

Despite the tens of billions in profit made by the regime from Ahwazis’ natural resources, the indigenous people themselves continue to suffer from chronic poverty and unemployment, with even some Iranian regime officials making statements condemning the regime’s blatantly racist policies against its Ahwazi citizens.

Mohsen Haidari, the Ahwaz Representative in the Council of Experts of the Supreme Leader in Iran, acknowledged in Parliament that, “Ahwazis are seriously discriminated against in Ahwaz by Iranian authorities,” adding, “There is an unacceptable level of discrimination against Ahwazis. Though Ahwazis constitute the vast majority of the population in Ahwaz (compared to the Persian settlers), they hold fewer than five per cent of the local management positions. In job interviews, when interviewers check an Ahwazi applicant’s identity card and realise that the person is Ahwazi, they reject them. Young Ahwazis have started changing their names to hide their Ahwazi identity in order to get hired.”

As this grim litany of facts and figures concerning the dire living conditions of Ahwazis in Howeyzeh shows, the Iranian regime has adopted a very conscious policy of systemically impoverishing the indigenous Ahwazi people by destroying their natural environment, withholding all job opportunities and making their existence as hard as possible; all these strategies are calculatingly adopted in order to persecute and subjugate the Ahwazi people and erase the identity which Ahwazis refuse to renounce despite the regime’s efforts. These crises, including unemployment, chronic pollution, water shortages, lack of housing, hospitals, schools or educational opportunities, facilities and amenities, are not merely tragic misfortunes or the result of incompetence by authorities, but part of a calculated policy to forcibly displace the indigenous people from their native lands by making life there unbearable, thus strengthening the regime’s control over their natural resources and denying them autonomy and legitimacy as these lands’ rightful owners. 

Whilst this effort to eradicate Ahwazis’ identity and culture in Howeyzeh county, as elsewhere in Ahwaz, is not a new development, dating back to the annexation of Ahwaz, then an autonomous emirate, by the Iranian Shah in 1925, the current theocratic regime has accelerated and intensified that regime’s brutality.

The Shah’s regime also sought to change the region’s demographic composition by imposing a policy of “Persianisation” against Ahwazis through building settlements to resettle ethnic Persians there. One example of this during the Shah’s era was his regime’s construction of the settlement of ‘Yazd Now’ where he resettled colonists from Yazd in the area formerly known as the village of ‘Al-Asab’. Despite these efforts, the Shah’s plan ultimately failed.

Since the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, however, the current regime has used a strategy of creating economic and environmental crises through aforementioned strategies, including massive river damming and diversion programs, confiscation of agricultural lands and draining of rivers and marshes, along with denying Ahwazis education and employment opportunities as a means to crush the indigenous people and force them to emigrate or accept a miserable hand-to-mouth subsistence existence. This leaves the residents of Howeyzeh, despite the presence of oil and gas resources and rich agricultural lands, living in conditions of absolute, medieval poverty without basic health or educational facilities, penalised for any protest at this grotesque injustice, and nurturing pain anger and resentment with no outlet that will ultimately lead to more crises and further instability. 

 

By Kamil Alboshoka, Rahim Hamid & Aaron Eitan Meyer 

 Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.

Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. He tweets under @Aaronemeyer

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