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 Water shortages, pollution increase suffering in Ahwaz, leaving people defenceless against COVID-19

A combination of increasingly severe water shortages, pollution of the remaining water supply, and a crumbling sewage infrastructure ignored by Iran’s regime for decades is leading to worsening rates of water-borne diseases in the already impoverished Ahwaz region, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to afflict the population there.  

Although personal hygiene is a crucial factor in fighting the pandemic and other diseases, the water supply is so heavily polluted that it is often undrinkable and wholly unsuitable for washing, with growing numbers of skin diseases and other infections resulting from its use.   There is a terrible irony in this since Ahwaz naturally has the most plentiful freshwater supply in Iran and much of the region, fed by three massive rivers; since the regime in Tehran launched its massive river-damming and diversion project, which has seen vast dams constructed near the rivers’ source along with a network of huge pipelines that ship millions of gallons of water daily to other regions of Iran, however, Ahwaz, once known for its agriculture and fishing, has suffered increasingly severe water shortages.

Footage published online last Sunday showed children in the Mendeli neighbourhood of the eponymous regional capital, Ahwaz city,  suffering from painful skin rashes and intestinal diseases caused by the contamination of the local water supply with raw sewage; this is the result of decades of neglect of the sewage network in the city, as across Ahwaz, which has left much of the wholly inadequate sanitation network, built half a century ago or longer, either broken, jammed, or totally non-operational. Many of the sewage channels have collapsed and are now open to the elements leaving a foul-smelling stream of human waste running past home. Local authorities have failed to take any action to repair this system – young children regularly fall into these trenches and drown.  In winter, especially, these channels overflow into the streets themselves, leaving roads swimming in fetid raw sewage.

Residents of Mendeli said that this dire situation has been afflicting the area since heavy rains three months ago in the city, with the proximity to raw sewage and its leaking into the equally unrepaired drinking water network exacerbating rates of COVID-19, as well as intestinal diseases and several cases of hepatitis A. Hundreds of people have been admitted to hospital in recent weeks as a result of drinking the local tap water.

The residents said that they have filed several complaints with the Ahwaz city water department and the municipal authorities for this district pleading for a solution to the sewage problem, but so far the authorities have not even responded to their complaints.

While this problem is certainly not limited to Ahwaz, with water shortages becoming a bone of contention globally and a possible cause of future wars, it should be emphasised that the problems in the area do not result from natural causes but from the regime’s own policies, primarily its damming and diversion of the region’s water supply to other regions of Iran.

Water pollution and the growing scarcity of potable water are among the world’s most pressing problems that may well lead to terrible wars in the future. Freshwater resources are increasingly limited across the world, and in the long term, these shortages will become the most dangerous threat to humankind and all other creatures, as well as to the environment. Water, as the most essential staple of life, plays a vital role in all creatures’ lives, with access to clean water affecting every area, including political, economic and cultural affairs.

Ahwaz is home to more than twelve rivers in all, making it one of the most water-rich regions in the Middle East. This abundance of water led, in turn, to its becoming one of the Iranian regime’s most essential and fast-growing industrial zones. This massive industrial growth within a short period brought its own problems, particularly since Iran’s leaders effectively disregarded any regulations on pollution and protection of the region’s river network, with oil refineries and industrial manufacturing facilities pumping millions of gallons of toxic run-off, industrial waste, raw sewage and pollutants into the rivers without any heed for the predictably catastrophic effects.  This affected not only the rivers themselves but the surrounding areas and groundwaters, as well as leaving much of the water supply foul-smelling, toxic and undrinkable. Ahwazis are now largely reliant on buying water from regime-backed suppliers who provide untreated brackish water that has to be filtered in order to be usable; without filtering, the untreated water regularly leads to outbreaks of disease.

The Karoon River, which was once renowned as the widest and deepest river in Ahwaz, is now a sad shadow of its former magnificence, with its waters, greatly reduced by the dams built upriver by the regime, polluted by urban, industrial, agricultural and hospital waste and raw sewage, even as most of its usable freshwater has been diverted to ethnically Persian areas. Despite this, this river is still the only source of drinking water to most of the towns and villages located in this region.

For more than ten years, local people have complained of water shortages, adding that when water is available, it’s mostly foul-tasting, acrid and saline in summer, and discoloured, muddy and foul-smelling in winter. MPs have repeatedly raised the subject of the water scarcity in parliament, and it has been covered in the media, but it’s still unclear how long the inhabitants of this area must wait for healthy water; again, it should be noted that Ahwaz is a region renowned for its great water and energy resources. The state of the water supply and of the water and sewage network and infrastructure in Ahwaz is unfit for use, with most of the dilapidated network routinely breaking down and desperately needing repair and unable to cope with the population increase since it was built decades ago. These problems have led not only to shortages of drinking water but of epidemics of previously eradicated diseases like Hepatitis A, Shigellosis, Salmonellosis and Typhoid, transmitted via organisms in the polluted and untreated water supply. On one occasion alone, in 2018, more than 180 residents of a village in the region were poisoned by drinking contaminated water.

Rather than helping the affected citizens, the regime responds to complaints by denying any problem, even resorting to withholding the official statistics on levels of water pollution as though this might make the problem itself disappear; this is the same head-in-the-sand approach it adopts to other grave environmental problems in the region such as air pollution. 

During the past year alone, water contamination in some of the regional cities led to hundreds of cases of Hepatitis A being registered. 

The drinking water pipeline and the sewage pipelines run parallel to each other, with the drinking water pipeline regularly suffering from leakage, as explained earlier, due to fractures along its length, which leads to contamination of drinking water by the sewage system. The sewage system contains human faeces and is highly polluted by various types of waste, and if the chlorine content of the drinking water is reduced, the toxic bacteria and pollution caused by sewage leakage causes infection among people drinking the water. It should mention that even the domestic water purifiers are not reliable in Ahwaz anymore because these systems only eliminate water hardness, not bacteria. To achieve that goal, chlorine is added to the water in urban refineries. Water and sewage system companies in Ahwaz use higher quantities of chlorine to disinfect the water because of the fact that pollutants enter the water supply, especially on the Karoon River. There are many objections to this method of [disinfecting] drinking water by chlorination in Ahwaz today, and concerns remain strong about the chlorine content of the drinking water.

The Karoon River, at the heart of Ahwaz city, has historically played a key role in the city’s existence, feeding the agricultural, industrial and domestic economy in the surrounding area; it’s now a shadow of its former glory, with heavy industry playing a role in accelerating and escalating pollution of this river.

The water shortages and increasing salinity of the Karoon have led to the closure of more than 200 fish farms in the area around Muhammarah city near the Gulf delta downstream from the capital, with the river’s significantly reduced water flow causing the advance of tidal floodwaters, leading to toxic levels of salinity in the fish ponds, killing thousands of fish there.

Meanwhile, the massive use of river water by the sugarcane farms and refineries launched in the region by the regime, and these facilities’ pumping of untreated toxic chemicals used in the sugar-refining process back into the river have added to the already high pollution levels, making the water unfit for consumption, according to the Managing Director of the Cooperative Union of Aquaculture in Muhammarah.

In recent years, despite the regime’s efforts to cover up the scale of the problem, more and more people have become aware of the water crisis and the wider, related environmental crisis in Ahwaz.  Although the Iranian regime has attempted to suggest that natural causes beyond state control such as drought are responsible for the crisis in the region, people are well aware that the primary culprit, along with industrial pollution and poor management, is the Iranian regime’s policies, such as its catastrophic and massive program of dam-construction and river-diversion, which has rerouted the rivers of Ahwaz to central parts of Iran.  This program, which the regime boasts of as part of a range of “major construction projects”, is viewed by most Ahwazis as not simply grotesquely insensitive and environmentally catastrophic for the Ahwazi population, but part of a very deliberate strategy of using the Ahwazi people’s own natural resources as tools against them. Through the regime’s rerouting the region’s rivers and making much of the region uninhabitable, many indigenous Ahwazi Arab people feel that the regime is attempting to enforce demographic change via forced displacement of Ahwazis from their ancestral lands, with many either moving to the central parts of Iran or being forced to become refugees in other countries.  This is widely seen as an effort by the regime to reduce the indigenous population in the Ahwaz region and thus avert any possibility of secession by this abused minority, while seizing their natural resources.

This effort to change the region’s demographic composition can also be seen in the regime’s construction of ethnically homogenous settlements for Persian settlers in the region, which are furnished with amenities not available to the local Ahwazi population, as well as being provided with their own separate and high-quality water and electricity supplies, sewage networks, etc. 

The grave deterioration in the quality of drinking water and the chronic shortages of water for household use and consumption have both been steadily worsening in Ahwaz for many years. Both farmers and household users in Ahwaz have regularly staged protests against the Iranian state’s dam-construction policy, with the regime’s only reaction to these demonstrations being to attack the protesters.

These discriminatory and illegal policies have had a catastrophic effect on the human population and the larger ecosystem in Ahwaz, undermining the most fundamental rights of millions of Ahwazi citizens, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and fishermen forced to abandon their ancestral lands and of the burgeoning urban populations who struggle to find water to survive. 

Even for the date farm plantations that once covered thousands of acres in Ahwaz, whose dates were renowned across the Middle East, the loss of water has been devastating, with countless trees now dying or dead.

Palm trees, in particular, have long been the main source of income for many Ahwazis, and the region has long been a leading producer and exporter of dates. However, over the past 40 years, the number of palm trees has decreased dramatically, with 3 million trees, out of an estimated six million, having been destroyed for various reasons. The remaining million trees are the subject of the regime’s current attack. While the palm tree is well known for its ability to thrive in harsh conditions, it remains vulnerable to salt water, which can cause rapid death. The Deputy Rural Cooperative Organisation of Ahwaz has explained that ‘the input volume of Karoon River water has been severely reduced. As a result of the low level of the water in the river, we have witnessed the surge of salty water from the sea into Karun River in which increased the amount of salinity of the water in this river.’

Iranian authorities are able to commit these crimes against the Ahwazi people, as well as their environment and the animals and marine life of the region without any consequences or any concern at being held accountable by the international community. The people of Ahwaz have nowhere to go to complain about these violations, with the regime which is the perpetrator and sponsor of the crimes punishing complainants rather than taking action against the offences.

The concept of human rights in Iran is theoretical, if not outright fantasy.  As Ahwazis are all too well aware, the regime’s ‘Islamic Human Rights Commission’ is simply a state body intended to give the passing appearance of concern for human rights without taking any action against offenders; indeed anyone complaining about any of the systemic human rights abuses and racism to which the Ahwazi people are subjected is more likely to face imprisonment for doing so, usually on some fabricated charge such as ‘enmity to God’, than the subject of their complaint. Therefore, it is extremely questionable whether the Iranian judicial system is even able to prosecute those officials most responsible for these abuses and for any external bodies to compel the authorities to implement their international obligations towards human rights for Ahwazi Arabs or anyone else.

As a result of all these factors, many Ahwazis have either moved to different cities in Iran or, wherever possible, emigrated to Western countries, leaving their homes behind in a quest for a decent future for themselves and their children.

Now, the advent of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has added to the woes already afflicting the region, with the people of Ahwaz once again left to suffer as a result of the regime’s cruelty and indifference. While their vast natural wealth of mineral resources and water continues to enrich the Tehran regime and irrigate crops elsewhere across Iran, the Ahwazi people’s only share in this bounteous abundance is pollution, disease and death.  

By Rahim Hamid

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

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