With an area of about 200,000 square kilometres, the Ahwaz region can play a major role in ensuring food and environmental stability in the region, as well as playing an important role in global economic stability through its vast oil and gas energy reserves. The presence of about 3 million hectares of agricultural land with unique potential makes Ahwaz unique in the Middle East in terms of food and environmental stability through the presence of massive water resources and agricultural lands. The existence of water catchment areas, such as large rivers, with an annual water flow of about 26 billion cubic metres, should give Ahwaz far greater importance in the field of environmental stability in the Middle East region, specifically the Arabian Gulf and Iraq.
Environmental concerns, which have become a major issue in world politics since the 1960s, have been met with a variety of comments and statements from various experts and prominent officials worldwide. These figures have analysed the environmental situation in Iran, the region and Ahwaz specifically that affect the regional environment and large areas of Iran. In Ahwaz particularly, concerns about the current environmental crisis wracking the region caused by the drying up of water sources due to the Iranian regime’s vast river-damming and diversion programme, posing a serious threat to the ecosystems in Ahwaz itself and in the wider Arabian Gulf region and Iraq. Ahwazi environmentalists and their peers globally believe that this crisis has worsened since 2005, with Ahwaz now facing daily crises due to severe water shortages, leading to instability in Ahwaz and the entire region.
Ahwaz has a special status in terms of resources and economic capabilities, with its generous combination of water resources and rich oil and gas reserves, and a privileged geopolitical position placing it in a pivotal position for competing global powers’ influence and control throughout history. The massive complex of dams constructed or under construction by the Iranian regime in different parts of Ahwaz, which are being used to divert water from the area with devastating effects should instead be used to help develop the agricultural sectors, fisheries, energy and to restore the freshwater and drinking water supply, which also play a role in the region’s strategic importance, specifically its importance in the field of environmental and food security and stability.
Water resources have central importance in international relations and foreign policy in formulating strategies to create economic, political, and even security relations for market stability. Water resources also constrain and affect the political and economic planning for the world powers, as well as for other regional nations. While many nations play an important role in regional water resources in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, Ahwaz’ unique situation, with three large rivers as well as smaller tributaries, makes it arguably the most important region in this context in the Arab Gulf region, more especially due to the Ahwazi rivers emptying into the Gulf. With the proper management, Ahwaz could have a massively beneficial and positive impact on multiple fields in the region, including helping to achieve economic and political stability, food security and maintaining friendly neighbourly relations between all the region’s countries and even other parts of the world through its water and agricultural resources, also meaning people wouldn’t be driven to flee as refugees.
Despite all these resources, however, successive Iranian regimes have sought since the 1960s to exploit Ahwaz’ water resources for the benefit of Persian national security in Iran by marginalizing, undermining and destroying Ahwaz’ economic power, such as destroying agriculture and the environment through building dams and diverting the course of rivers. In fact, this policy increased dangerously after 2005, as these policies not only threaten Ahwaz, but also threaten the countries of the region, specifically the Arab Gulf states and Iraq.
The Ahwaz region is considered one of the most important regions in terms of the available agricultural lands in Iran, playing a decisive role in agricultural production and food security due to its favourable climate and plains of its lands. In Ahwaz, vegetables and citrus fruits can be harvested 12 months a year. Therefore, the presence of water resources and extensive orchards for agricultural development is no less important than the oil and gas wealth for the regional market’s stability. Valuable water resources, fishing ports, fishing fleets, fish and shrimp farming complexes, massive livestock complexes, suitable arable areas for growing crops, 9 large units for cultivation sugarcane with an area of about 90,000 hectares and various related industries are among the potentials and capabilities of Ahwaz that plays an important role in the development and progression of this region.
Ahwaz is mostly flat land (plain) on the coastal region, but also contains mountainous areas inland where its water resources originate; the distribution of these resources means most areas of Ahwaz, both rural and urban, have always been well supplied with water, with the region being generously endowed with rivers which feed into a rich alluvial plain and marshland. North Ahwaz (Khuzestan in Farsi) is or was the area with the greatest water supplies in Ahwaz and the whole of Iran, being home to rivers and streams, as well as marshlands, which historically made it an agricultural centre with great diversity in flora and fauna.
Some areas in Ahwaz, particularly rural areas, still possess freshwater wells, which are used to supply water to irrigate surrounding farmlands. According to Iranian statistics, there are 10,000 wells in Ahwaz, of which 1,531 are deep wells, and 1,159 semi-deep wells, located in the north and east of the region, with the other wells being a mixture.
Around 26 billion cubic metres of water flow annually through the region’s major rivers – the Karkhah, Karoon, Dez, Jarahi and Tammiyeh, which feed the network of marshes and lakes, with more than 3 million hectares of agricultural land in Ahwaz benefiting from this. The resources in Ahwaz account for over 40% of the total water resources claimed by Iran, and could be productively used in agriculture, electricity generation, helping in education, transportation, fishing and tourism, with investment in this sector potentially bringing in large sums of money.
As shown in the chart below, the livelihoods and economic wellbeing of a significant number of Ahwazi citizens in most, if not all, of Ahwaz’ counties depend on agriculture which in turn relies on the region’s water resources. Thus, by developing, rather than depleting the region’s water resources and improving and developing agriculture, the region could play a major role in providing food, environmental security and stability in the Arabian Gulf region.
A: Water resources and harvest in each county (northern Ahwaz or Khuzestan) in hectares
B: Water resources and harvest in each county (central Ahwaz or Bushehr) in hectares
C: Water resources and harvest in each county (Southern Ahwaz or Hormozgan) in hectares
The existence of large rivers in the Ahwaz region is the primary factor in the land’s abundance as an agricultural centre; as pointed out earlier, Ahwaz contains more than 40% of the water resources in Iran. The Karoon, one of the largest rivers in Ahwaz and Iran, with a length of 950 km, is the only river in Iran connected to the Shat al-Arab and international waters such as the Arabian Gulf; at one time, oceangoing vessels regularly plied its waters, with its waters greatly depleted by the environmental mismanagement of successive Iranian regimes in the 20th and 21st centuries. With proper management, however, at least some of this damage to the regional ecosystem could potentially be reversed.
The Karoon is connected via Muhammarah to the Shatt al-Arab, from which the Tigris and Euphrates rivers also flow from Iraq. Through the Shatt al-Arab and Karoon River, the Ahwaz region could be supplied with goods via the Gulf, with trading vessels sailing up the river as they once did previously to accelerate economic trade between the regional countries and Ahwaz. In fact, commercial goods are brought by ships and sea transport – which is the cheapest means of transportation – to the city of Ahwaz and even to the city of Tester, in order to export local goods such as agricultural products to the region’s countries through the ports of Muhammarah, Abadan and Ma’shor. Despite its current reduced flow, the size of the river means it’s still accessible to smaller oceangoing vessels and could see the same trade volume as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The Karoon river was of great importance to Britain during the reign of Sheikh Khazal (the last Ahwazi ruler before the 1925 occupation of Ahwaz by Reza Pahlavi), with the British managing to obtain the concession for freedom of navigation on the Karoon River in 1889, providing them with access to the Karoon trade route. This privilege was valuable to Britain since it had realised the crucial geopolitical importance of the river in commercial, economic and political terms.
The other smaller rivers in Ahwaz – the Dez, Karkhah, Jarahi, Tamimiyah, and others – also have a crucial role to play in developing the region’s agricultural sector and could help in massively increasing food production levels and environmental security in the region. The average annual discharge from the Karkhah River, the third largest river in Ahwaz after the Karoon and Dez, which has an area of 50,000 square kilometres, is 177 cubic metres per second, helping agricultural and environmental development in Ahwaz and some other parts of the region such as Iraq.
Springs and lakes are other sources of groundwater in Ahwaz. The main springs emerge in the foothills of the mountainous inland areas of northern and eastern Ahwaz, with their crystal clear waters used to provide drinking water for the villagers and for irrigation of agricultural lands. A 1987 survey found 197 such springs in north Ahwaz.
Mohammad Haj Rasouliha, the head of Iran Water Resources Management Company, said recently: “About 40% of Iran’s surface water resources are located in Ahwaz,” adding, “Khuzestan province, with an area of more than six million hectares, can provide more than two million fertile acres of agricultural land by using the water of the rivers and lakes.”
Ahwaz also has several lakes, such as Lake Shahyoun, one of the most beautiful lakes in Iran which is a great favourite with tourists, as well as being the source of water for the irrigation of surrounding farmland. Lake Shahyoun is fed by rivers flowing from the Zagros Mountains. In the midst of this vast lake, are small islands, which are favourite nesting sites for birds. Other lakes include Lake Tami which measures 1,500 metres long by 700 metres wide, in addition to the Dez Dam, Karkhah Dam, Karoon-3 Dam, and other small lakes that play a role in developing local agriculture in some Ahwazi areas.
Ahwaz’ wetlands play a vital rule in influencing the regional climate and economy, and providing suitable habitats for a vast range of plant life, wildlife and birds, controlling flooding, refreshing the groundwater reserves, providing recreational facilities, and research areas. The wetlands in the region, which is home to the largest number of wild bird species found in Iran, are among the most important wildlife havens and aviary habitats globally. Ahwaz currently has more than 48 wetland habitats, of which five are registered as international wetlands, as well as the Ramsar wetland group, which includes Falahiyah wetland, Al-Azim, Khor Khoran, Hillah wetland and Bamdaj wetland.
The Falahiyah wetland with an area of 5,377 square kilometres (400,000 hectares), Al-Azim with an area of 118,000 hectares, Khor Khoran with 100,000 hectares, Hillah with 42,600 hectares, Bamdaj with 8,300 hectares, Izaj wetland (Miangaran) with 2,400 hectares, all play a major role in ensuring environmental and agricultural security, with many farmers using its waters to irrigate their crops, as well as being a home to other industries such as livestock farming and fishing.
Food, Environmental Security
According to Iranian statistics, Ahwaz occupies a leading position in wheat production and the provision of agro-industrial products in Iran. Ahwaz is in first place in producing 12 agricultural crops, including wheat, canola, wheat seed, canola hybrid and wheat corn, barley, oilseeds, rice, eucalyptus, and medicinal herbs. Ahwaz also occupies first place in Iran in the field of exporting dates, accounting for more than 50% of Iranian date exports annually, and holds first place in the cultivation of flowers with 828 million branches.
The Iranian Ministry of Agriculture reported recently that northern Ahwaz (Khuzestan) supplies 11.5 million people with wheat and provides 45% (nearly 38 million) of Iran’s sugar supply, as well as providing more than 13 million people with rice. In addition to this, out of about 105 million tons of agricultural and horticultural commodities produced annually in Iran, around 21 million tons or(20%) come from the three Ahwazi provinces, while of the total 12.7 million hectares of the agricultural area in Iran, over 1.9 million hectares (16%) is in the Ahwaz region. Agricultural production in the region is expected to increase to more than 30 million tons annually. It is worth noting that Ahwaz can provide 3 million hectares of agricultural land, according to official statements.
In a recent interview, Khoda Rahm Amirizadeh, the head of the Khuzestan Jihad-e-Agriculture Organisation, said, “Ahwaz can provide many agricultural crops by 2031 through the use of modern technologies, extension training, raising scientific level for users, developing greenhouses and agricultural lands, increasing gardens in sloping areas, establishing processing and transformation industries, and attracting new investments.” Amirizadeh stated that 138 types of agricultural products and 6.2 million livestock units are produced in Khuzestan, adding that “Ahwaz ranked first in Iran in the production of aquaculture with an annual production of 130,000 tons.”
Meanwhile, Iraj Badpima, the Director of Shooshtar Agricultural Jihad, said, “it is expected that wheat cultivation in Tester will increase to 75,000 hectares.” The governor of Missan also noted that “70,000 hectares of agricultural lands in Missan will be planted with wheat within the next few years.” Ahwaz, therefore, can play a major role in the cultivation of pistachios, saffron and olives, as 20 hectares were used in Izaj for the cultivation of pistachios. 12 hectares in Izaj, 13 hectares in Masjed Suleiman and 2 hectares in Andika used to cultivate saffron. 160 hectares in Izaj are also used for the cultivation of olives.
The director of Horticulture for Jihad in Khuzestan, Halim Koti, said: “90% of flowers in Iran are produced in Khuzestan, and three types of flowers in Ahwaz are among the highest quality types of flowers in Iran, such as roses, Maryam and narcissus.” Koti added: “The area cultivated with flowers and plants in Khuzestan amounts to 754,000 hectares, of which about 350,000 are greenhouses and about 404,000 are open spaces.” The official noted: “Most of the flower exporters are from Susa, Quneitra and Salehiyah.”
According to Tasnim news agency, the central Ahwaz province (Abu Shahr) produces 1.5 million tons of agricultural and animal products annually, with Abu Shahr, through production, playing an important role in Iran’s food supply. Toj (Borazjan) county is the agricultural centre of Bushehr province, as a large number of people in this county work in the agriculture field. Toj has magnificent agricultural land, with a total land area of more than 117,000 hectares.
Head of the Agricultural Jihad Organisation in Hormozgan, Ali Bagherzadeh, also said: “This province has a strategic role in the prosperity of production and the economy of Iran through the presence of five important agricultural axes during the year and the production of all types of agricultural and horticultural products outside the season.” He emphasized, “The province has the ability to increase crops if a good programme for agricultural development is implemented.” Furthermore, about 8,000 hectares of vegetable, 18,000 hectares of legumes and more than 34,000 hectares of wheat are grown in other parts of southern Ahwaz (Ahwaz counties located in the south of Fars province).
Ahwaz region also enjoys the presence of a vast diversity of plants due to its unique geographical features and climatic diversity, as well as its position nestled between the Arabian Gulf and Zagros mountains, being home to more than 570 local species of plants, of which 180 species (31%) are used for medicinal purposes.
Concerning the environmental issues, Ahwaz has one of the most vital ecosystems in the region whose protection is crucial not only to Ahwaz’ environment but to neighbouring nations due to the presence of wetlands that form a vital link between the lands and waterways. These wetlands are considered the cradle of the world’s biodiversity, being a home to some unique species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates not found anywhere else.
As elsewhere, these wetlands provide critical strategic ecosystems which offer many beneficial services to humans, marine life and wildlife that no other ecosystem can provide. Some of these valuable services or functions include maintaining and improving water quality, providing habitats for fish and wildlife, storing flood water and maintaining water flow and absorbing pollutants in order to protect the environment. For one example of their crucial environmental importance, coastal wetlands, like the Khor Khoran wetlands, play a vital role in reducing regional and global warming.
Despite the abundance of water in Ahwaz and its vast agricultural lands, Ahwaz region faces an environmental and water crisis due to the Iranian regime’s catastrophic and often deliberately malign mismanagement. For example, the Ahwazi marshes are facing water shortages due to a lack of water supplies and violations by the National Iranian Oil Companies, which have resulted in the widespread destruction of the marsh ecosystem. The drying up of the marshes in Ahwaz has also led to an increase in sandstorms and led to Ahwaz facing heavy choking pollution and a dust-filled atmosphere about 21 times worse than previously.
One of the current prevailing crises facing the people of Ahwaz is that most of the water resources in the region are used for agriculture due to Iran’s regime’s weakness in providing industrial agriculture with advanced irrigation technology, which could reduce waste. Many Ahwazi farmers are also suffering additional shortages due to much of Ahwaz’s water being transported to Iranian provinces such as Isfahan through dams.
Meanwhile, the water shortages in Ahwaz have exacerbated the economic crises facing citizens already struggling due to Iran’s systematic policies of building dams and diverting rivers to Persian cities. Sandstorms have recently become a standard feature of the environmental conditions in all Ahwaz regions, with this phenomenon helping exacerbate the high rates of diseases in the region.
These policies have created environmental chaos, which has led to widespread desertification and a massive decrease in the available arable areas in the region, which has always been centred on agriculture and whose peoples have depended on livestock farming, fishing and growing food crops throughout history. These policies have also wreaked havoc on the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the Arabian Gulf environment, with the resulting pollution threatening all the countries of the region.
The Ahwaz region has vital strategic importance due to its abundant natural wealth in water resources and potential to be restored as an agricultural heartland. The region’s sensitive geographical location, access to open water, and proximity to the Arab Gulf states and Iraq all give Ahwaz massive geopolitical value both regionally and globally, as well as making the protection of its environment a critical issue on every level. All these factors mean that Ahwaz and its waterways can play an important role in providing environmental stability and security. For example, the al-Azim wetland, Karkhah, and Karoon rivers can protect the environment of the Shatt al-Arab. The Tamimiyah, Jarahi, Karoon river, Falahiyah wetland, and Khor Khoran also have a crucial role to play in protecting the Arabian Gulf environment.
Ahwaz can also play an effective role in various other fields, bolstering its economic capabilities by using its massive agricultural potential to benefit the region. Through using that potential, Ahwaz could play a major role in ensuring food security in all of the Arab Gulf region due to its vast agricultural lands. Therefore, in the future, Ahwaz can play an evolutionary role in environmental and food security in the Gulf region by protecting Ahwazi waters and ending Iran’s environmentally ruinous policies of draining Ahwazi rivers and devastating its agricultural lands.
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.