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They were Thirsty. They Protested. And They Were Shot

May 24, 2020
Shahed Alavi
11 min read
Gheyzaniyeh is extremely deprived but it considered “wealthy” because of its rich underground reserves and approximately 300 oil wells
Gheyzaniyeh is extremely deprived but it considered “wealthy” because of its rich underground reserves and approximately 300 oil wells
The people of Gheyzaniyeh have struggled with a drinking water crisis for decades
The people of Gheyzaniyeh have struggled with a drinking water crisis for decades
The water distribution network is worn out and not fit for purpose, but water is allowed to go to waste through broken pipes
The water distribution network is worn out and not fit for purpose, but water is allowed to go to waste through broken pipes
Police opened fire on Gheyzaniyeh residents who held a peaceful demonstration over the lack of drinking water
Police opened fire on Gheyzaniyeh residents who held a peaceful demonstration over the lack of drinking water
In February, as a sign of protest, people of Gheyzaniyeh went to the polls carrying empty buckets and water bottles
In February, as a sign of protest, people of Gheyzaniyeh went to the polls carrying empty buckets and water bottles

It was Saturday, May 23: the anniversary of the 1982 liberation of the port city of Khorramshahr from Iraqi occupation. In Gheyzaniyeh, a rural district in Khuzestan province not far from Khorramshahr, angry, thirsty people had blocked the roads to let officials know they are in desperate need of drinking water. The protesters had gathered outside the district governor’s office of Gheyzaniyeh, 40 kilometers from Ahvaz, to let them know they could no longer take it.

Cars could not cross the blocked road and long lines of traffic soon built up on both sides. Then, less than an hour after the peaceful protests by Gheyzaniyeh’s ethnic Arab residents began, police brought the “illegal” rally to an end by opening fire.

Two people were injured in the onslaught. But while the protest was dispersed by police violence, the 50-year-old problem that triggered it still remains unsolved.


“For four months each year, we have a few hours of water a day, but for the remaining eight months we practically have no piped water and must buy water to drink,” said Zubayr, one of the protesters. “Part of the problem is the insufficient volume of water because of the small diameter of the pipes, and the other is the worn-out main pipes of water distribution system. Every day pipes break and water goes to waste. The homes at the far end of Greater Gheyzaniyeh have no running water at all and have to buy water from tankers. Homes at the front end of the village have water for an hour each week – if things are going very well, a limited number of homes get an hour of water every three days.”

No government official is held accountable for this. As such, Zubayr says, people had no means to express their dissatisfaction except by blocking the main road that passes through their village. But even this peaceful protest was brutally  suppressed.

In an interview with the official news agency IRNA, Colonel Mohsen Dalvand, commander of the Greater Ahvaz police force, claimed that police had intervened only so as to open the road to traffic – but “a number of demonstrators attacked the police by stones and sticks and injured two policemen on the head.” Police have so far provided no evidence for this claim.


“They are Lying Like Always”

The protesters were not violent people, says Zubayr. They had witnessed the “brutal behavior” of the police before and were careful not to give them any excuse to engage in violence. “I didn’t see anybody with sticks or clubs, and nobody threw stones at the police,” he says. “There were so many cars sitting there and not one was even scratched. They are lying, like they always do.”

Police, he says, ordered the protesters to unblock the road. They refused and asked to speak to a government official but not even Rasoul Saki, the district governor, would come down. “When people refused to disperse and did not permit the police to open the road,” says Zubayr, “they started beating people with batons and then shot at them. Maybe as they were beating the people they mistakenly beat and injured each other. But nobody attacked the police, nor did anybody throw stones.”


In the interview, Colonel Dalvand said the two protesters who had been “superficially” wounded were under arrest but doing well. Aside from videos from the protests that have been posted on social media, a picture of a child injured in the leg by a bullet has also surfaced online.

Gheyzaniyeh is the biggest of the three districts in Ahvaz county and is criss-crossed by main roads from Ahvaz to Mahshahr, Ramshir and Ramhormoz. More than 27,000 people live in the 81 villages in this district, which is also home to the Karun and Maroon oil and gas companies, the National Iranian Drilling Company, the petrochemical companies of Maroon and Razi and Khuzestan Steel Company. The district is extremely deprived but considered “wealthy” due to its rich underground reserves and its approximately 300 oil wells.


The Big River: So Close and Yet So Far Away

Gheyzaniyeh is also relatively close to Karun river: one of the biggest rivers in Iran and the only navigable one in the country. But for years now, the villagers and farmers of this district have been deprived of adequate drinking water and have only the barest health facilities. For years they have been promised action on the water crisis, but nothing has been done.

In May 2019, district governor Rasoul Saki said that of the 81 villages in Gheyzaniyeh, 24 receive their water supply from the Sheyban distribution system and have almost no problems, but 35 others are supplied by Ramhormoz and are facing shortages because of “the fall in the water pressure and ruptures in the main pipeline”. Nine of the villages, he said, are not connected to any water delivery system at all. No information was provided about the remaining 13.

Zubayr says many promises have been made in recent years, but none have been kept. “Until 1991 none of these villages had running water,” he says. “The only water they got was from tankers – or they would fill up their buckets and pots from oil companies’ pipes.”

On January 14, 2017, a group of provincial officials alongside Khuzestan’s governor Gholamreza Shariati promised that Gheyzaniyeh’s water crisis would be solved within three months. At the same gathering, Esmail Arzani, the governor of Ahvaz, pointed out that problems with drinking water in the area went back 30 years.

According to Zubayr, the visit by a throng of officials gave the people of Gheyzaniyeh hope that this time, decisive action would be taken. But, Zubayr says, “As of now, only 25 kilometers of pipe to bring water from Sheyban to Gheyzaniyeh has been laid down. After that nothing has been done and the project has been in limbo for the past few years.”

During the same visit in 2017, Darvish Ali Karimi, the CEO of Khuzestan’s Rural Water and Sewage Company, said that because of the worn-out pipes in the 55km pipelines between Sheyban to Gheyzaniyeh, all the pipes and three pumping stations needed to be replaced.

Zubayr says hardly a day goes by without an old pipe leaking or breaking. “This pipeline has broken for the nth time in the past few days, and purified water continues to go to waste. You can see these cracks in the pipeline between Gheyzaniyeh and Ahvaz.”

Six months later, the CEO of Khuzestan’s Rural Water and Sewage Company repeated his promise to solve Gheyzaniyeh’s drinking water problem once and for all after 50 years. But this time, he specified that it would be done within a year and a half. On April 19, 2018, however, the newspaper Shahrvand reported that nothing whatsoever had been done. As its reporter Nayereh Khademi wrote: “not one brick has been laid on top of another brick.”


The Never-Ending “Two or Three Months”

On May 26, 2019, Rasoul Saki conceded that the project had stalled for three years and claimed that within four months it would be completed. A month later, the CEO of Khuzestan’s Rural Water and Sewage Company repeated the same promise.

When neither was fulfilled, Khuzestan’s governor Gholamreza Shariati entered the fray on October 16, 2019. He blamed the long delay on the rise in foreign currency exchange rates and the failures of the executive branch, promising the that the crisis would be resolved within “two or three months.”

On October 26, 2019, the National Iranian South Oil Company, which owns many facilities in Gheyzaniyeh and is directly responsible for the pollution and destruction of its agricultural land, claimed it had earmarked 12 billion tomans (USD $2.8 million) to contribute to the drinking water and had already paid more than five billion tomans (over $1.1 million) to Khuzestan’s Rural Water and Sewage Company. Until the project was completed, the company declared, it would provide the district with six water tankers to ease the drinking water crisis.

Zubayr says he has no idea what has become of the six tankers promised to his district. Locals have to pay extortionate amounts to buy drinking water from the tankers. “We must wait in line and if our turn ever arrives, we must pay up to 100 thousand tomans [$24] to buy water.”

On January 7, 2020, the National Iranian South Oil Company repeated exactly the same claim about the tankers on its website. But this time it quoted Shariati as saying that the project had already been completed and would go operational by February.

Back in early 2017, Shariati had claimed that the replacement of the water pipeline from Sheyban station to the village of Safireh was being carried out using money from Iran’s National Development Fund, and that the National Iranian South Oil Company had been ordered to buy the necessary water pipes so that the pipeline between Safireh and the village of Nezeheh could be laid in three months. It remains unclear why a contract that was meant to be implemented in early 2017 was signed three years later in early 2020.

In any case, Zubayr says that this promise was not fulfilled either. By March 2020, the project had not progressed beyond the first phase. “Close to 25 kilometers of pipe was laid from Sheyban to Safireh but the work stopped there,” he says. “The project lay dormant and still is dormant as we speak. They have not even pushed a shovel into the ground.”


It is the People’s Fault

On May 1, Shariati claimed the project to supply water to Gheyzaniyeh “has been going well, even though progress has been much slower than we promised.” He blamed the inflation and the “people of some of the villages”, who, he claimed, had prevented the Rural Water and Sewage Company from laying pipes. He promised that drinking water would reach Gheyzaniyeh within 45 days: meaning June 16 or sooner.

“It is not difficult to fact-check this first claim,” Zubayr says. “Tell us where the project for supplying water stands, because it has been dormant for a long time. Secondly, he forgets that in October 2018 he said they had already purchased the pipes. Where does this excuse about inflation come from?”

Besides the injuries suffered by at least two people and drawing public attention to the severe shortage of drinking water in an area with the capacity of producing two million barrels of oil per day, the protests had another consequence: once again, government officials have come forward with the same, endlessly repeated promises.

Sadegh Haghighipour, the president of Khuzestan’s Rural Water and Sewage Company, told IRNA just hours after the protest was dispersed that 80 percent of the water supply problems in Gheyzaniyeh would be resolved within two or three weeks. He added that the necessary pipes had already been ordered and the request to connect the pipeline had been sent to Tehran.

A few minutes later in the same interview, Haghighipour forgot he had claimed that the pipes had been ordered from the factory and said that “the project to supply this area with water needs six kilometers of pipe and, fortunately, the governor of Khuzestan has promised to acquire it.”

In an interview with IRNA, Gheyzaniyeh’s district governor, who had refused to meet protesters, also claimed that his district’s water problem would be solved within a month. This time he told reporters that “Gheyzaniyeh has 85 villages” – not 81 – and while five get their water from the Ahvaz network the other 80 were facing shortages, but that their problems would be resolved shortly when the 43 billion toman [$10 million] water pipeline project from Sheyban to Gheyzaniyeh went live.

After the protests were put down, Colonel Dalvand told IRNA that people had a right to protest against water shortages but “the way they did it was illegal.” He added that by order of the governor of Ahvaz, tankers were already carrying water to Gheyzaniyeh.

According to Zubayr, Colonel Dalvand has never issued a permit for a protest rally. “They said the water problem would be solved in February but nothing happened and that is why people of Gheyzaniyeh went to the polls [on February 21 this years] with empty buckets and water bottle so that the officials would acknowledge their protest. But nobody listened.”


Shooting People with Their Own Rifles

Gheyzaniyeh is perched amid on a sea of oil and riches. But the government sending its oil to Venezuela has not spared the money in 40 years for a basic 50 kilometers of pipe to supply its people with water. “For decades they have held hostage our lives, our land, our safety and our future but they have no money to bring us water,” Zubayr says. “You wouldn’t know it, but even the rifle they used to shoot at us was a confiscated one. Last week they took this rifle from a resident of the village of Owdeh. A policeman whose salary comes from the oil under our feet shoots at us with our own rifle, on our own land, because we are protesting against thirst. This is our fate, in a nutshell.”


Related Coverage:

Living on the Margins in Iran: The Rise and Fall of Khuzestan, 2 March 2020

Gotvand Dam: An Environmental Disaster, 16 July 2018

“We Are Thirsty, Not Saboteurs”, 2 July 2018

Police Open Fire on Thirsty Crowds, 1 July 2018

Forced to Migrate for a Glass of Drinking Water, 29 June 2018

Iran's Provincial Water Wars, 7 November 2013



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