The outbreak of coronavirus and the worsening water crisis in Ahwaz has now become part of the daily struggle for survival for its long-suffering people. Ahwazis believe that the spread of the virus and the increasingly severe lack of water threaten their existence, although the regime’s various departments in Ahwaz have belatedly responded to the virus by asking the government to impose a new quarantine in order to end the virus’ spread.
Meanwhile, the lack of water in residential neighbourhoods in Ahwaz exacerbated the systemic crises facing Ahwazis as a direct result of the regime’s policy of large-scale river-damming and diversion. Omid bin Abbas, Director-General of the Khuzestan Crisis (north province of Ahwaz), announced on Tuesday, 23 February, that the water supply to the city of Ahwaz has been completely cut off, causing a severe crisis for residents during the coronavirus outbreak.” He added that “all government departments and executive bodies in the city of Ahwaz have been closed due to the lack of water and the spread of the virus.”
Bin Abbas noted that due to some major repairs underway at the Ahwaz Water Treatment Plant No. 2, the already patchy water supply has been completely cut off in some areas of the city of Ahwaz, especially in the west and part of eastern Ahwaz, the regional capital city.
Meanwhile, after announcing the closure on Tuesday (23 February) in the capital, Ahwaz, the heads of six hospitals in Ahwaz city, requested a two-week quarantine in the city to stop the spread of the virus, with the regime’s National Headquarters of Coronavirus in Ahwaz further compounding the crisis by refusing this request.
According to Ahwaz University of Medical Sciences report, 11 cities in north Ahwaz (Khuzestan) are currently facing a full emergency, in a ‘red’ state, while eight others are ‘amber’. The university in its report also added, “74% of cases have increased compared to the previous week, with the number of deaths increasing by 45% and patients by 90%.”
Dr. Farhad Abolnejadian stated on a TV programme on 23 February that “the cities of Ahwaz, Abadan, Quneitra (Dezful), Tester (Shushtar), Muhammarah (Khorramshahr), Ramez (Ramhurmuz), Falahiyah (Shadijan), Howeyzah, Karoon, Missan (Dasht Azadjan) and Ma’shour (Mashahr) are now in a code red state due to the spread of coronavirus,” adding, “This situation is very worrying for citizens.”
Speaking on Monday (21 February), the city’s governor, Jamal Alami Nissi, warned, “Ahwaz’s hospitals are full of patients suffering from the coronavirus, ICUs are full, the number of deaths has increased significantly, and the situation in Ahwaz is critical.”
Mehran Ahmadi Baloutaki, the Secretary of the Health Council of the City of Ahwaz, also raised the alarm, announcing that coronavirus in Ahwaz has spread widely in recent days, stating: “The infections in Khuzestan, specifically the city of Ahwaz, have suddenly increased, as the casualties on Tuesday increased by 100% more than on Monday.” Baloutaki reported that a one-day-old infant was among those infected with coronavirus in Ahwaz, adding: “The age of infection has decreased, and we have witnessed the infection and death of children in the city of Ahwaz.”
It is noteworthy that the water shortage crisis in Ahwaz is in a critical state due to the Iranian regime’s continuing construction of massive dams on the three rivers that once irrigated the region, whose waters are being transferred to Persian cities in central Iran. Therefore, the water crisis in Ahwaz not only has an impact on the health of citizens, but also has a catastrophic effect on the ecosystem and economy, devastating agriculture, draining the marshes that once teemed with fish and wildlife, and driving indigenous species into extinction.
While Ahwazi citizens have suffered increasingly from these crises since 2006, the problems significantly increased after 2012 when the regime massively expanded its river-damming and diversion program, ignoring citizens’ protests that this would devastate the region, and arresting protesters. The resulting increasingly severe water shortages and the lack of access to clean and potable water during the coronavirus outbreak have increased the risks to citizens’ health, with public anger nearing a boiling point at the Iranian regime’s utter callous disregard for human life and continuing theft of the indigenous people’s resources, including water.
Speaking to DUC on condition of anonymity due to a well-founded fear of regime reprisals, an Ahwazi citizen from the Kot Abdullah neighbourhood in the capital, Ahwaz, said, “Since the coronavirus began spreading in March 2020 up to the current day, citizens in Kot Abdullah have been suffering from water shortages.” He added that the lack of access to clean water prompted many residents to buy bottled water from different markets outside the neighbourhood, with the expense leaving a lot of citizens unable to adhere to the health protocols required to combat the virus, and further increasing rates of in infection in Ahwaz. He also accused the regime of deliberately encouraging the spread of coronavirus infection in Ahwaz by denying citizens access to clean water amid a chronic lack of health centres and clinics.
The citizen pointed out that other Iran areas, predominantly Persian, have a good supply of clean water and are provided with adequate health centres, medicines, and study facilities via online teaching to allow citizens to self-isolate and children to continue studying. For citizens in Kot Abdullah and in Ahwaz generally, however, there is no clean drinking water with the only water available being heavily polluted, with the lack of health centres adding to this crisis, while most parents, especially in impoverished neighbourhoods like Kot Abdullah lack the money to provide laptops or even mobile phones to allow their children to study online during the crisis, leaving Ahwazi children further behind. Fears are growing over the coronavirus, with overcrowding and inability to self-isolate or follow the usual quarantine procedures exacerbating its spread. The citizen added that Ahwazis now urgently need solutions, such as increased access to clean water and the establishment of clinics and health centres to treat those suffering from the lethal disease and reduce the number of new infections.
Many have warned that the aforementioned combination of factors will lead to the death of more people, including children. Referring to the request from the heads of six large hospitals in Khuzestan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives of north Ahwaz (Khuzestan) said: “As the chairman of Ahwazi MPs, I ask President Hassan Rouhani to agree to a lockdown for a period of two weeks with the aim of stopping the spread of the virus,” with the head of the East Ahwaz Health Centre, Amarallah Mardani, stating: “The number of people visiting the testing centres in Ahwaz increased 10 times compared to the past two weeks.”
Meanwhile, those Ahwazis who protest against the Iranian regime’s policy of depriving them of drinking water during the pandemic face brutal repression by the security forces, which is the regime’s standard response to any demonstration or complaint about injustice. For one example, regime forces opened fire on residents of the Gheyzaniyeh rural area in May last year for staging a demonstration in protest against the intolerable conditions, forcibly dispersing them. The long-suffering residents had endured the regime’s denial of adequate supplies of clean drinking water for years, but the worsening water scarcity in the previous months, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic drove them to take to the streets demanding the right to water; these cries for a fundamental right were met with the customary brutality by the regime, emboldened by the knowledge that the international community will do nothing to punish its inhumanity.
A citizen from the rural area told DUC, “The protest was held on Sunday 24 May 2020 due to increasing water scarcity, which has been steadily worsening for three decades and is now reaching a critical point where water is either increasingly unavailable or is often so polluted that it’s unfit for human consumption or even for livestock and other animals.” The citizen added that the continuation of this crisis during the coronavirus outbreak is endangering citizens’ health and lives, with skin and respiratory diseases spreading along with the virus. He said that the Iranian police met the protesters with a violent crackdown, injuring a number of people and detaining many others.
A local resident in the capital, Ahwaz, who gave his name as Nasser, told DUC, “More than half a million residents of Kot Abdullah, Malashiyeh and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods in the city of Ahwaz have been suffering from a drinking water crisis for more than 15 years, although the Karon River’s only a few meters away from them. This crisis has grown to the degree that it’s now threatening citizens’ lives because the period of the pandemic requires citizens to observe health protocols, but adhering to these protocols means citizens need to obtain the essentials of life such as drinking water, a functioning economy, and the ability of Ahwazi citizens to support students in continuing their studies.” Nasser said the entire population of Ahwaz is now suffering from the water crisis, as today citizens are only trying to protect their families from the spread of diseases, including the coronavirus, that threatens the people’s lives.
To conclude, the Ahwazi people are suffering from a nightmarish perfect storm of crises, with the coronavirus and water crisis exacerbated by pollution and worsening sandstorms (themselves caused largely by the desertification resulting from the regime’s river-damming and diversion). The pollution, low air quality and the spread of the coronavirus in Ahwaz also aggravate the medical condition of people suffering from heart and lung diseases, with hospitals at breaking point due to the lack of funding, medicines or facilities needed to treat people suffering from the coronavirus crisis and all the other. Indeed, as the coronavirus crisis spreads in Ahwaz, it is increasingly evident that those with least in the impoverished areas, who already suffer from the most limited access to essentials like water, will suffer the worst, most catastrophic effects.
By Kamil Alboshoka & Rahim Hamid
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.