For several days now thousands of Khuzestan residents have taken to the streets en masse in major cities to protest over the province’s water crisis. In some areas, the demonstrations have turned violent.
Amir Sabripour, acting governor of Shadegan, said one person had been killed in his city – shot at, he claimed, by rioters. Local sources also report that at least two children have been injured in the tumult.
What is going on in Khuzestan? This report by IranWire’s citizen journalist examines the situation on the ground in the parched province.
“Either we have no water, or we have no electricity. Sometimes there’s just a couple of hours between the two. It’s like when someone is dying and people say ‘Well, he’s dying anyhow, so let it be.’
“All the time, I’m worried about when the electricity or the water will be cut off again. When the power is out, the gas air conditioner stops working, and there’s no water for the water-cooled air conditioner. The temperature is over 50 degrees. You can hear the cows moaning.”
So says Jalileh, a resident of the protest-racked Khuzestani town of Mollasani, who speaks with a pleasant Arabic accent. The mother-of-seven lives in a house on Mollasani’s main street and has observed the demonstrations below.
Protesters, she said, blocked the road between the provincial capital of Ahvaz and Shushtar, a major city in Khuzestan, but the police then violently intervened to disperse them. “First they were shooting into the air,” she says, “but when people refused to leave they attacked them with batons and arrested a number of them. I know at least three of the detainees.”
Drought has engulfed every corner of Khuzestan and the unrest is not limited to a particular city or county. Jalileh’s sister lives in the Jihad neighborhood of Hamidiyeh, a city close to Ahvaz, where people have also reportedly been attacked by security forces.
“My sister told me that the people were just chanting, or dancing while waving sticks,” Jalileh says. “They were shouting ‘We’re thirsty! We’re thirsty!’. But the security forces scattered them by shooting in the air, lobbing teargas and by hitting them with their batons or the sticks people had been carrying to dance with. They also arrested a couple of those in front and took them away.”
No Water and No Electricity to Deal with Heat
Jalileh also reports that the principal roads into the cities of Shushtar, Susangerd and Dasht-e Azadegan have been blocked - either by protesters or by the police, on the pretext of coronavirus restrictions.
“Some highway police stations outside these cities have been stopping the cars,” Jalileh says, “telling them that they’re not allowed to enter or leave, and if they do, they’ll have to pay a fine of a million tomans [around $250]. But many people shrugged it off. ‘So, fine us,’ they said. ‘We have nothing to lose.’
“It’s over 50 degrees here. But the weather forecasters shave off at least a few degrees [in public announcements] to calm people down. People in Mollasani use water-cooled air conditioners because electricity is expensive, and gas-powered air conditioners are costly, but now there is no water, and we can’t cope with the heat.
“Then there’s unemployment. Most of the protesters in Mollasani and Hamidiyeh are of the younger generation: young people who have no jobs, and have lost hope.”
The Hawizeh Marshes, which straddle the border between Iran and Iraq, are a vast ecosystem in their own right. The Iranian part is known as Hur al-Azim. It was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007 but in recent years, mismanagement and drought have shrunk and polluted this source of prosperity for all those who live on its fringes.
Protesters who live in Rafi township and other areas close to Hur al-Azim have been heard crying out: “Where is our Hawizeh?”, “They have impoverished us in name of religion”, and “Don’t plunder us”.
Angry demonstrators blocking the highway between Andimeshk and Ahvaz, the main road between Tehran and the Khuzestani capital, stopped trucks from delivering goods for several hours. Other roads blocked during the past two days include those from the Seyed Abbas shrine to Ahvaz, Mahshahr to the port of Bandar Imam Khomeini, Shadegan to Ahvaz, Shushtar to Ahvaz, Ahvaz to Shush and Abdol Khan to Ahvaz.
Cows Dying of Thirst
Hamed, an environmental activist, says his father lives near Salman Farsi township on the edge of Hawizeh, who formerly kept six milk cows behind his house. Feeding each one these cows used to cost his father close to 100,000 tomans ($25) a day. When two of the cows recently died due to malnourishment and a lack of water, he decided to join the protests.
“Many of those at the demonstrations were farmers and cattle owners,” Hamed says. “Each cow is worth a few million tomans and it is the entire livelihood of its owner. The death of one cow can mean the destruction of a family.”
Yesterday, he says, after newspapers stated that the Red Crescent Society had asked for charities’ support to help the people of Khuzestan, he felt deeply upset. “We provide the whole country with oil and riches. Why must we beg for water? They [the government] must ask themselves: what is so wrong with their management that this province, with all of its bounties, still poor?”
According to Hamed, security agents showed more lenience toward protesters on the first night. But the next night, backup units reportedly arrived in some cities and were less tolerant of the civil action, firing shots and attacking protesters with batons. The government is also widely reported to have shut off the internet in parts of Khuzestan.
At about 10am on July 16, Hamed says, the water to their neighborhood cut off. When he spoke to a friend in Ahvaz he found out that they had the same problem: “My friend lives in the neighborhood of Sayahi, on the margins of Ahvaz. They have no water and no working sewage system. Their garbage piles up outside their home for days. Most of the streets over there are not even paved. On the night of July 16, he called me and said ‘Let’s go out to the rallies. We agreed that we would go separately.”
Hamid says that he does not believe that these protests will solve people’s problems but “at least you might feel better by expressing your pain.”
Blaming Rice Farmers
On Friday, July 16, when the protests in Khuzestan first got under way, local officials held a meeting of the provincial Crisis Management Headquarters to assess the reasons for the unrest. At the meeting, authorities blamed rough (paddy) rice farmers who, they said, had been illegally drawing water from the Hur al-Azim and Karkheh rivers.
Close to 121,000 hectares of land in Khuzestan are currently under rough rice cultivation. These farms are mainly located around the cities of Ahvaz, Susangerd, Dasht-e Azadegan, Shush and Shushtar.
An environmental activist, who asked to remain anonymous due to having been imprisoned in the past, told IranWire that to blame the farmers was – by extension – to blame the state’s own fatally flawed policies. “Job opportunities in Khuzestan have become severely limited,” he said, “and most young people are unemployed, so they have gravitated towards what their parents traditionally did for a living: farming and animal husbandry. In the past, agriculture relied on rainfall, but gradually it was replaced by irrigation, especially in farms around the Hur al-Azim and Karkheh rivers.”
Is there even enough water behind the dam to supply water for agriculture? “I believe there is not,” the activist says. “Currently the volume of usable water behind the Karkheh Dam is 900 million cubic meters. This water must remain there as a reserve, to be used gradually until the rains starts in autumn. That’s is why the government releases just enough water from the dam for drinking.
“But rough rice farmers upstream of Hor al-Azim and Karkheh also use some of this scarce water. The blame must not be put on the farmers because it is a result of mismanagement and bad policy.”
A Multi-Faceted Crisis
The water crisis in Khuzestan, the activist adds, is a complex one with its roots in several different issues. “First, we have the problem of uncontrolled diversion of water from Karun River. Documents about the Behesht-Abad Project [for diverting water from Karun] are now available and people can see what has been going on behind the scenes. Secondly, Hur al-Azim and Karkheh are drying up and this problem is not going to go away.
“Then we have the problem of the second Maroon Dam being built, which is a whole story in itself. Of course, we do also have the problem of rough rice agriculture, but now the government wants to blame it all on the farmers. That way, criticism will be directed at a number of dirt-poor workers and not at the incompetent government.”
Hamed, a protester from Salman Farsi township, tells IranWire that some people have asked him on Twitter why only Arabic speakers have been taking part in the protests in recent days. “This question itself is problematic,” he says.
“People ask me: Why are they chanting only in Arabic? My answer is that most of the farmers and livestock owners in Khuzestan who live in the margins of cities are Arabs. They have been hurt much more than others. They are the ones who suffer directly from the diversion of water from the Karun, and from lucrative projects benefiting mostly the Revolutionary Guards.
“Mismanagement of the water behind the Karkheh Dam, which has dried up this river, directly affects Khuzestani farmers, most of whom are Arabs. Naturally, you cannot expect a Persian-language teacher to lead protests by penniless Arab famers. Arab farmers whose lives and livelihoods are threatened have the strongest motive for protesting. Cattle owners have a minimal ration of water per [animal’s] head, but the water has been cut off for more than three weeks now, and the cattle are dying.”
Hamed says the plight of the people of Khuzestan can no longer be swept under the carpet. In recent days, even an MP for Ahvaz admitted that most cattle in the province were dying because there was not enough water.
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Khuzestan under a pseudonym.