Studies

Health, Security, and Pollution: Iranian Policies Worsen the Environmental Crisis in Ahwaz

Pollution has become one of the most dangerous crises spreading in Ahwaz, as Ahwazi citizens see the environmental damage it causes actively threatening health security in their lands. The failure of the regime, or as Ahwazis believe, the authorities’ deliberate lack of intention to solve the environmental crisis, has become a severe catastrophe threatening the sustained existence of Ahwazis on their historical territory. Recently, Iranian authorities announced that the weather in eight cities in northern Ahwaz (currently referred to as Khuzestan) is unhealthy for sensitive groups. Director-General of Environmental Protection in Khuzestan Mohammad Jawad Ashrafi said: “According to the latest monitoring of air quality, the air index in the city of Ahwaz is 135, Falahiyah 118, Khafajiyeh 117, Tamimiyah (Hendijan) 112, Ma’shor (Mahshahr) 110, Susa 109, Quneitra (Dezful) 107 and Tester (Shoshtar) 106 AQI.” Ashrafi added that “the number of these indicators indicates unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups in the province.” [1]

Pregnant women, children and those of various ages suffering from illnesses are considered particularly sensitive to air pollution. Air pollution caused low birth weight and premature birth in Ahwaz. American studies show that pollution or heat waves have a significant impact on premature birth and low birth weight babies. Studies have also shown that “84% of women who live in polluted areas experience high-risk pregnancies with negative consequences”. [2]

It should be noted that fossil fuels, factories, power plants, non-standard agriculture, use of chemical fertilisers, desertification of lands through building dams, and dust are among the leading causes of air pollution in Ahwaz. Air pollution is taking breaths from Ahwazis, and according to experts, “the situation is not normal, and sometimes even measuring devices are unable to record pollution in Ahwazi counties.” 

Scientists believe that in the short term, air pollution can lead to various diseases such as asthma, allergies and increased infections. However, over time, air pollution and environmental damage lead to the spread of lung cancer and chronic bronchitis among residents, especially children and pregnant women. For example, General-Director of Environmental Protection in Bushehr Province, Farhad Golinejad, said: “Sulphur oxide is one of the most common causes of air pollution in the Asalouya district in Abu Shahr. Therefore, this situation caused the spread of liver, lung and skin diseases among citizens, especially sensitive groups such as children, pregnant women and even elderly”. [3]  

Regarding the most important air pollution centres in Bandar Abbas, Director-General of Hormuzgan Environment, Masihi Taziani, stated: “The Bandar Abbas power station (known as Tavanir) remains the most important source of air pollution in the centre of the province and the western areas adjacent to the city of Jambron (Bandar Abbas) due to the use of fuel oil.” Taziani noted: “Many environmental problems have arisen in the area as a result of the proximity of industrial lands to residential areas and the lack of sufficient green spaces to protect the health of citizens and the environment of the areas.” Taziani also pointed out that “rural areas and residents of the western part of Jambron have been suffering from high levels of air pollution for many years, as a wave of skin diseases and respiratory problems have spread in this part of the city.” [4] 

According to official statistics, the city of Ahwaz has the highest air pollution in Iran and the world (the rest of the Ahwazi cities also have a high level of pollution). The leading causes of air pollution in Ahwaz are dust and the presence of factories such as carbon, steel and oil companies near residential areas. Various organisations such as the Environmental Protection Organisation in Khuzestan have noted that Ahwaz is eight times more polluted than its natural level, so most of the flights, schools and nurseries in the city have been cancelled due to the intensity of dust and pollution. 

In 2011, according to the World Health Organisation, Ahwaz was recognised as the most polluted city in the world. The World Health Organisation also clarified that environmental pollution in the city of Ahwaz has caused the spread of diseases such as chronic bronchitis, lung infections, poor eyesight, respiratory obstruction and other illnesses among the city’s population. Environmental organisations and official reports in Iran noted that “environmental pollution in the city of Ahwaz has caused the death of a large number of animals and plants in the city, increased traffic accidents and traffic loads, as well as the closure of schools, the delay and closure of flights from Ahwaz to other cities in Iran.” [5] 

Between 2009 and 2014, it is estimated that particulate matter exceeding 10 micrograms per cubic metre caused the deaths of 3777 individuals in Ahwaz City alone during that time, 630 per year. [6]

Children and Women

The World Health Organisation has indicated, in several reports, that children who are exposed to high levels of air pollution may be more susceptible to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organisation states that about 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children) breathe polluted air every day. The organisation also estimates that in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution. [7] 

The World Health Organisation has published that pregnant women are considered vulnerable groups that are exposed to diseases due to pollution. The organisation revealed that when pregnant women are exposed to polluted air, they are more likely to have a premature birth, and have small and low birth weight babies. Air pollution also affects neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and can lead to asthma and childhood cancer.

Studies show that exposure to environmental pollutants can cause premature birth (before 37 weeks of pregnancy), low birth weight (less than 2,500 grams), or some other defects. These children often die early, and survivors are more likely to have a brain, respiratory and digestive problems prematurely in life. Air pollution in the first eight weeks of pregnancy increases the risk of heart disease and organ abnormalities in the fetus. Therefore, the results indicate that the effect of air pollutants on low birth weight and premature birth in northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan) threatens health security of the province. Iranian official reports also indicated that a large number of children suffer from deformities and diseases in Ahwaz during the ten years from 2008 to 2018 as a result of pollution.

The scientific secretary of the Ninth International Conference on Stroke in Iran said that “air pollution increases the risk of stroke by 35% among children.” In contrast, residents of northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan) breathe unhealthy and dangerous air most of the year due to the spread of pollution and the lack of a plan to end the crisis. Thus, many children in Ahwaz are subjected to stroke. [8]

Faisal Ahwazi, Director of Ahwazi Centre for Human Rights, said in an interview with DUC that “the Iranian regime does not announce death rates in Ahwaz, especially children who lose their health or lives as a result of air pollution.” Mr Ahwazi explained that “dust storms throughout Ahwaz caused thousands of Ahwazi citizens to be transferred to hospitals due to respiratory diseases, and also reduced visibility to less than 50 meters, so traffic accidents have increased dramatically, and consequently, the Iranian authorities deliberately concealed statistics on deaths in Ahwaz in order to quell the reaction of citizens or even international organisations.” 

Faisal stated that Ahwaz had witnessed heavy rains in recent years, and unlike to other places that were pleased for the rain, the rainfall in Ahwaz led to severe air pollution and poisoning large numbers of citizens. Statistics and data issued by some oil company contractors have shown that currently around 1,000 tons of toxic pollutants, including “H 2S” gas at a concentration of 250,000 PPM and Carbon dioxide gas at a concentration of 750,000 PPM circulating in the Ahwaz capital sky. He added that “inhaling humid air contains large quantities of acidic and dangerous toxic substances, and creates severe respiratory problems for citizens, as with rains in Ahwaz a while ago, more than 22 thousand people suffering from respiratory problems were sent to hospitals,” saying: “Statistics for shortness of breath in Ahwaz are confidential, and the Iranian authority has not released any medical data for the referred patients.”

Faisal emphasised that Ahwazi cities faced severe air pollution that exceeded 66 times the level of standards according to Iranian media. Hence, thousands of Ahwazis visited hospitals due to poisoning and a respiratory problem. He added that the main agenda of the Iranian regime to destroy the environment in Ahwaz is forcing Ahwazis to emigrate, saying that “Iran has continued its policy of destroying the environment since 2000, as it aims to change the demographics of all Ahwazi cities, specifically the capital, so there is a need for international pressure against Iran to stop the Iranian agenda targeting the Ahwazi ecosystem.” 

Flagrantly Ignoring its Duties Under International Environmental Law

The authors must stress that Iran is not merely ignoring its moral-ethical obligations to its citizens; it is no secret that Iran cares exceedingly little for any of its citizens, much less those whom it seeks to erase. Rather, we must point out that Iran is, inter alia, 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.” Iran has done the opposite. 

Iran is a signatory to the United Nations Convention To Combat Desertification In Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought And/Or Desertification, Particularly In Africa, article 3(a) of which states that “the Parties should ensure that decisions on the design and implementation of programmes to combat desertification and/ or mitigate the effects of drought are taken with the participation of populations and local communities and that an enabling environment is created at higher levels to facilitate action at national and local levels”. Instead of taking proper action to counteract desertification, Iran has sprayed bitumen emulsion – a dangerous petroleum product – on sand dunes, thereby further damaging an already reeling ecosystem. In fact, Iran has systemically exacerbated the desertification of Ahwazi wetlands.

Iran is a signatory to the United Nations Convention On Wetlands Of International Importance Especially As Waterfowl Habitat, known as the Ramsar Convention, which requires each contracting party to be informed as soon as possible “if the ecological character of any wetland in its territory and included in the List has changed, is changing or is likely to change as the result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference” and provides a duty to pass on information relating to same. The Falahiyeh International Wetlands in Ahwaz, called ‘Shadegan’ by the regime, have long been designated “Ramsar wetlands” yet the wetlands have been heavily polluted, left to wither following sandstorms, and otherwise neglected.

These are but a few examples from a lengthy list of longstanding Iranian failures to adhere to its international obligations, or outright surrender of its regional waters to rapacious Chinese fishing trawlers, who are illegally eradicating previously sustainable fish schools and literally obliterating entire seafloor ecosystems. Instead of even making a pretence of fulfilling its international environmental obligations, Iran has focused its energies on imprisoning environmental activists for their efforts to call attention to the ongoing crisis, or exacerbating it to serve its own unlawful and racist nationalist agenda.

Conclusion 

The results indicate that the effect of air pollutants on low birth weight and preterm birth is very significant. However, the Iranian authorities do not provide sanitation facilities for pregnant women in order to avoid exposure to polluted air during pregnancy. 

While Ahwazi residents are suffering from the coronavirus epidemic and a potential cholera outbreak, dust storms have exacerbated the pollution crisis. There is no doubt that pollution, low air quality in Ahwaz, and the presence of petrochemical companies in the middle or near residential areas can exacerbate the conditions of people suffering from heart and lung diseases. Hospitals in Ahwaz also suffer from a shortage of facilities and medical equipment to treat people suffering from diseases as a result of pollution and environmental damage. 

Iran claims that ‘natural’ factors caused the change in the climate of Ahwaz, but figures, statistics and official reports indicate that the construction of dams to change Ahwazi rivers towards Persian cities, draining marshes and building companies near residential areas and sometimes inside areas caused an increase in temperature and pollution in all Ahwazi areas, especially the capital and other industrial cities such as Abadan, Ma’shor, Asalouya and Jamberon. In turn, this situation has caused further pollution of drinking water, the gradual death of nature, the increase in fetal miscarriage, deformation of children at birth, and the spread of dangerous diseases among citizens. 

Therefore, sensitive groups in society, such as pregnant women and children, face massive danger due to pollution, and the Iranian regime is primarily responsible for this situation due to the lack of services and programs to reduce or end the pollution crisis. Hence, continuing this policy is not merely a breathtaking disregard for Iran’s own international commitments, but an imminent danger to a large component of Ahwazi society, namely women and children. Finally, the continuation of this policy is, in fact, intended to result in the deliberate and premeditated deaths of Ahwazi citizens, and this is a violation of international laws that require governments to provide an appropriate environment for human protection, specifically sensitive groups such as children and pregnant women. 

 

By Kamil Alboshoka & Aaron Eitan Meyer

 

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

 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

References

[1] IRIB News Agency, October 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/2Tivzau>

[2] Mehr News Agency, May 2020. Link <https://bit.ly/31EBP0N>

[3] IRNA News Agency, 2019. Link <https://bit.ly/34rgGsw>

[4] Bargh News, August 2020, Link <https://bit.ly/31ywLLp>

[5] Alodegi Ahwaz. Link <http://alodegi-hava-ahwaz.blogfa.com/>

[6] Maleki H, Sorooshian A, Goudarzi G, Nikfal A, Baneshi MM. Temporal profile of PM10 and associated health effects in one of the most polluted cities of the world (Ahvaz, Iran) between 2009 and 2014. Aeolian Res. 2016 Sep;22:135-140. doi: 10.1016/j.aeolia.2016.08.006. Epub 2016 Aug 20. PMID: 28491152; PMCID: PMC5422000.

[7]WHO, 2018. Link <https://bit.ly/2TizFiS

[8] DANA News, 2016. Link <https://bit.ly/37zIXzi

  

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