Gheyzaniyeh residents and activists have spoken about their struggles to access water and the harsh conditions they face, despite being in close proximity to a huge dam infrastructure. After repeatedly being ignored, they say they had no choice but to protest, a move that was met with violence from local authorities.
"People in this area are struggling with smog, fumes from oil and gas extraction, and all kinds of diseases,” Sabalan Hashemi, an environmental activist and a resident of Khuzestan province, told IranWire. "Most children in the area suffer from respiratory illnesses, and because they are less likely to enjoy green space and any educational and recreational facilities, they spend most of their time around oil and gas pipelines, which are sometimes prone to fire due to decay.”
On May 23, Gheyzaniyeh residents gathered outside the district government office, demanding that authorities listen to their grievances and ensure they had access to water. Police dispersed the protesters with violence and rubber bullets.
Ahvaz county is split into three districts: central, Ismailiyeh and Gheyzaniyeh. Gheyzaniyeh is the largest, consisting of 81 villages. Located east of the city of Ahvaz, its roads link to Ramhormoz, Behbahan, and Mahshahr counties. The majority of the district’s residents work in basic agriculture and animal husbandry.
Hashemi told IranWire that Gheyzaniyeh covers an area of 5,400-square-kilometers area and is home to between 25,000 and 30,000 people. Surrounded on all sides by land that is inhospitable for agriculture with high degrees of salinity, residents have to endure a toxic smog caused by dust storms and pollution from the area’s oil industry. There are approximately 400 oil wells in the area, 300 of which are active, producing about two million barrels of oil per day. Where the wells are not in use, worn gas and oil pipelines dot the landscape.
People living in the eastern part of Ahvaz county live in a constant state of anxiety due to the dire pollution and fears that fires could break out at any moment, made worse by thieves cutting pipes to make a profit, which renders the equipment defunct and dangerous. Locals have not forgotten an extensive fire caused by gas pipes in 2019 that prompted widespread panic.
Fahim Banukhaqan, a resident of the village of Mashruhat, said that, despite the fact that his family lived in an oil-producing area, his house had no water or gas. And yet his childhood was spent playing among the worn-out debris of oil production. "We used to walk or hang on the pipes under a scorching sun of 55 degrees,” he said. “We walked barefoot on the pipes. and it was really our only pastime.”
Banukhaqan and a group of teenagers from the village were among those who gathered outside the district office at the corner of the old road linking Ahvaz to Mahshahr on May 23. They blocked the road to all traffic, including trucks that use the transit route to bring goods to and from the port of Imam Khomeini.
He described what happened: "People were attacked by rubber bullets. The commander of Ahvaz police force claimed that only two people were superficially wounded, but many people were battered. A few threw stones at the police when they saw them attacking people. We were in front of the district office for about two hours, but the district head did not consider us worthy enough to talk to or to give an explanation to."
Fahim Banukhaqan’s family could not afford to buy a metal tanker to store their water, so they built a cement pool in the middle of the yard. They buy water from tankers and store it in the pool, paying 29,000 tomans [$1.8] to fill it. But over the last week, the mossy pool has not even had a drop of water. “My mother walks back and forth between the yard and the kitchen, bending her head in the pool. Everything here is difficult: going to the bathroom, eating, going to the toilet, and washing our clothes. How much of Gheyzaniyeh’s water goes to the rich?
We had no water for two weeks and the tankers did not come. People went to government centers, but as always, they got no response. So they gathered in front of the district office."
He added that every time the voices of the locals get too loud, one or two local officials talk to them, make promises and leave — until the tension rises and the next protest takes place. Then the same thing happens again.
Residents Urged to Use “Legal Means” to Get Water
On May 23, in the absence of the district head, Colonel Mohsen Dalvand, the commander of the Ahvaz police force, took action, doing his best to disperse people.
In an interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency, Dalvand admitted that the people were protesting because the authorities had not addressed their problems. He stressed that complaints against the lack of water supply are legal demands, but that these grievances must be addressed through legal channels.
Fahim Banukhaqan says he wants to ask Colonel Dalvand a few questions about the legal options open to residents. "We have been living with promises for five years. We do not have water to drink. Girls drop out of school because there are no girls' schools in the area, and we do not even have a local gas station, so people have to drive miles to buy gas cylinders. So what does the commander mean by 'legal route'?"
Environmental activist Sabalan Hashemi also referred to the police commander’s statements and to the ongoing situation for the people of Gheyzaniyeh. As long as Dalvand has been reporting to the governor he has been able to secure tankers for the area, which could only ever be a temporary solution. “Thank you, but is this the right solution? How long will the water in the people's tanks last?"
Hashemi added that, despite all the problems in Gheyzaniyeh and the wider area of Khuzestan province, there are still plans to continue transferring water out of the province. "Officials tell the people of Gheyzaniyeh that they are not in the Karun catchment area and that they cannot be allocated any drinking water. But we are only half an hour away from the Karun River. Some villagers fill containers from a water tap in the middle of the village for their homes.”
Why is Water Being Transferred and Diverted to Other Provinces?
If Khuzestan is suffering a real water shortage, Hashemi and other environmental activists want to know, why are there plans to redirect four hundred million cubic meters of water away from Gheyzaniyeh? Why do they take water away from thirsty people with not one but three Koohrang River water diversion projects to other provinces, including Isfahan, and the Central Plateau?
Hashemi also raised the water shortage in the Dehdez area of Izeh county, which is located between the Karun-3 and Karun-4 dams, among the largest water reservoirs in the country. And yet he says the people are forced to get their water from wells and do not benefit from their proximity to the dams.
Yousef Farhadi-Babadi, an environmental activist and member of the Voice of Water environmental campaign, posted on Twitter about the police response to protests in Gheyzaniyeh: "On the anniversary of the freedom of Khoramshahr [from Iraqi occupation during the Iran-Iraq war], Khuzestan police shoot at protesters in Gheyzaniyeh. The thirsty people of Khuzestan and Chaharmahal Bakhtiari live besides the Karun River, while with billions of tomans of investment, the water is being transferred from Karun to the Central Plateau.”
A man going by the name Sabieh who lives near the Marun Six gas-producing region explains that if people can afford it, they buy a metal tanker for water. Otherwise, like Fahim Banukhaqan’s family, many people store water in open cement pools in the middle of their yards. Because the pools are uncovered, they become filled with insects and algae, causing local children to regularly suffer from gastrointestinal and infectious diseases.
Twenty-three kilometers of pipeline must be laid to supply water to Gheyzaniyeh. As the governor of Khuzestan has pointed out, 12 kilometers of the pipeline has been laid in the past, suggesting that building would resume soon. But the project has been halted in response to rising currency prices due to sanctions and government ineffeciency.
Activist Sabalan Hashemi is not optimistic about the project moving on."They said the same thing 10 years ago, but refused to answer the question that if they could send Karun water to other provinces for agricultural use, why can’t they allocate it to the people of Khuzestan?"
In addition to the immense hardship caused by water shortages, Hashemi says the area suffers from other types of deprivation."People find it difficult to travel between the villages, and although big companies like the National Drilling Company, Maroon Petrochemical, the Water and Sewerage Company, and the Directorate of Roads and Urban Development are in the area for oil, the roads are not paved.”
Residents from the district of Mashruhat also have to pay tolls every time they travel from the village to the freeway connecting them to Ahvaz, Mahshahr, and other cities.
Hashemi said At one time it was agreed that the National Development Fund would allocate a budget to supply water from Sheiban station in Ahvaz to Safira village, and that the Rural Water and Sewerage Company would implement the plan. But these promises also never materialized. The National Oil Company is also required to supply water pipes to take water between the villages of Safira and Nozeh village, but this agreement also remained on paper and was never put into practice.
IranWire has used aliases to protect the identity of those interviewed