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Khuzestan Relief Efforts are Under Attack — But is the Criticism Justified?

July 21, 2021
Golnaz Mahdavi
8 min read
Charity initiatives have been on the rise as the water crisis in Khuzestan continues
Charity initiatives have been on the rise as the water crisis in Khuzestan continues
Narges Kalbasi, CEO of the non-governmental charity Yaran-e Eshgh, has more than a million followers on Instagram and has been raising money to bring water to the people of Khuzestan
Narges Kalbasi, CEO of the non-governmental charity Yaran-e Eshgh, has more than a million followers on Instagram and has been raising money to bring water to the people of Khuzestan
Many Iranians have criticized fundraising efforts for Khuzestan on Twitter, some of them dismissing such efforts as useless
Many Iranians have criticized fundraising efforts for Khuzestan on Twitter, some of them dismissing such efforts as useless
Iranians have posted on Twitter that the charity initiatives can only have a very temporary impact, and that long-term solutions are needed
Iranians have posted on Twitter that the charity initiatives can only have a very temporary impact, and that long-term solutions are needed

In the wake of the water disaster in Khuzestan, local humanitarian efforts are on the rise. Calls on social media to bring drinking water to the people of the province, and water for agriculture purposes and livestock, have multiplied by the day.

And yet, many of these charitable efforts are not welcome, and have faced huge criticism from activists, journalists and locals. One of those raising funds is Narges Kalbasi, who runs the Yaran-e Eshgh charity and has more than a million followers on Instagram. While she has had ample praise, she has also been one of the targets of abuse.

So why is Khuzestan and those who advocate for its people and environment turning their backs on much-needed help? What can be wrong with initiatives that try to alleviate hardship?

Critics point to a double crisis: Since the water shortage in Khuzestan reached crisis levels earlier this month, people have made their frustrations known: protests are now in their seventh day. Local sources report that the crackdown on protesters has been severe in several cities across the province. On the night of July 20, at least three people were killed.

A Crisis With Deep Roots

Hashtags driving donations and discussions about the crisis and the protests are everywhere on Twitter. Many people have described efforts to bring water in to Khuzestan as useless, or even stupid. They point to previous disasters and emergencies, including floods and earthquakes, where charitable donations have simply not made it to the people on the frontline, the people who need it most.

"Dear Khuzestani citizens, there has been no earthquake; the problem comes from elsewhere,” a surgeon called Hamid Ahmadi posted on Twitter.

Others agreed. Khuzestan’s problem is nothing to do with drinking water or lack of it, they said. For many years, the people of this province have had to buy mineral water or water purifiers to make sure they had safe — or even any — drinking water. The recent crisis, however, is now affecting their livelihoods: there is no water for agricultural lands, or for buffalo and cattle. The wetlands that once dotted the province have dried up.

"Buffalos cannot tolerate extreme heat and direct sunlight,” wrote Adagio on Twitter.  “By immersing in river water, they can lower their body temperature and stay alive. Now the rivers are dry, and the buffalos are dying. It is ridiculous that people like Narges Kalbasi want to solve the problem with a bottle of mineral water!"

Ali Hossein Ghazizadeh, a well-known political analyst in exile, also commented: "The person who started the mineral water campaign for Khuzestan is either a fool who has not been to Khuzestan in his life or is playing a role to make Agha [the Leader] happy.”

Ethnic Divisiveness and Attempts to Silence

Behrouz Buchani, a Kurdish writer currently teaching at the University of New South Wales in Australia, added: "Sending mineral water to people who used to live along the country’s largest rivers is nothing but confirmation of internal colonialism.”

Others accused these charities of deliberately attempting to divert public opinion from what is really happening in Khuzestan. Mahsa Amrabadi, a writer and journalist based in Iran, tweeted: "I think it is very simplistic to think that no one knows the futility and stupidity of sending mineral water to Khuzestan! The call to buy and send mineral water may benefit a few but will not really help the people."

Still, there were some who defended the efforts, including Narges Karbaschi, whose previous tweets indicate that she supports Iran’s reformist politicians: ”Why is it that every time a campaign is launched to help someone, instead of gaining empathy and unity, we are ridiculed?! Some people may also have financial problems and find it difficult to buy drinking water. Even if you choose not to send water, there is no reason to waste the efforts of others!"

Aghil Daghagheleh, a social activist and sociology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the United States, says the efforts of Narges Kalbasi’s charity and other charities stem from helplessness. "Many of our actions are shaped by the fact that we can do nothing," Daghagheleh told IranWire. "It's about helplessness. If people even knew how much a water a buffalo needs to survive, they would not even get involved in the debate. In this environment, it is helplessness that drives people on to do what they can. But the fact is this type of aid will not solve the problem, neither in the short or in the long run; the problems run deeper.

“Trying to help the people of Khuzestan like this is fundamentally wrong. Because what happens now in Khuzestan is about all of our futures. So if we are going to do something, we must have a national perspective. The way the water basins have been managed means that sooner or later everyone will be affected. We need a serious overhaul, and will need more than one or two people to oversee it. We need a legitimate government that can restore natural water sources by ceasing and relocating certain projects, such as Isfahan Sugar and Steel, which consume large amounts of water."

Water is an issue for everyone, Daghagheleh says, and the whole country should come together to demand the government take the issue seriously. "Stakeholders must also come to terms with the closure of industries and projects in order to form a consensus and make this difficult and painful process possible.”

IranWire also spoke to Ahvazi Arab poet and activist Yousef al-Sorkhi, who lives in the region. He, like others, sees a danger in raising funds to bring water to Khuzestan, describing it as divisive and even potentially a threat to people’s safety and security. The campaigns split the protests in Khuzestan, a largely Arab Iranian province, from the larger issue of ethnic and racial oppression in Ahvaz and other cities in the province with large Arab populations.

"The perspective of there being a water shortage and calls for bottles of water or water supplies to be sent in as a solution — a fix that will raise the water levels of the Karkheh River by five centimeters or barely make a puddle in Hur al-Azim, and which is always accompanied by photos, videos, and broadcasts on multiple networks —  is in fact an effort to silence people.

"Consciously or unconsciously, this view reduces the issue to being one about water. In the November protests, some people, including nationalists and centrists, said the protests were about an increase in the price of gasoline and called for people to buy gasoline and send it to people in different cities. As for the protests in Mashhad, which were against the rise in price of eggs, no one went to buy eggs. Some people are trying to present these protests, which are also against racial oppression and exploitation of the Arabs of Khuzestan province,  as just about a water shortage.

"Charitable actions will not force the dams open, nor will the environmental problem of Khuzestan province be solved. I can only say that this is a local, simplistic and stupid solution to buy some time for the government — and to help them send people back home and away from the protests."

Aghil Daghagheleh agrees. The water shortage crisis may have been what people went to the streets to protest about, but the trouble is about so much more in Khuzestan province.

"I strongly disagree with the charitable solution," the Rutgers University professor told IranWire. “Suppose thousands of water tankers are actually sent in and the problem is solved in two or three weeks. This is a desperate move. Charitable action works when a temporary situation arises, such as an earthquake, where direct problems can be solved. But in our current situation, people who push for charity reveal themselves as being unable to understand the depth of the tragedy. This does not label the intention as benevolent or malevolent, it is just simply not of use. Again, I have to emphasize that doing anything other than making a plan to get out of this situation is a waste of time. The beginning of the plan should be clear. In the short term, the government should provide water and give the people of Khuzestan and its environment their fair share. In the long term, high-consumption projects such as sugarcane and Isfahan steel should be terminated."

When Criticism Turns Cruel

Looking at Narges Kalbasi's Twitter feed, one can see how much criticism she has had, and some of the comments are abusive. Aghil Daghagheleh puts this down to a crisis in Iranian society, and the continued isolation many communities have to live in, including many people in Khuzestan.

"We live in a state of paralysis — that is, we do not have a clear solution to the problems we endure,” he told IranWire. "This deadlock causes people to attack people when they come up with an idea.

"This is what has happened to everything in recent months," he said, adding that many Iranians have become suspicious, especially about social media. "As soon as someone offers a solution, others quickly become suspicious and attack that person. They are easy to provoke, easy to anger. We’re unable to resolve the situation, and that makes us respond in anger and attack one another.

“This is the result of the system, and its dire inefficiency, whether it’s about changing one’s area of study at college or taking the dog for a walk. Everything is at a standstill, locked. People's lives are locked up and they can only in react through a dense amalgam of anger, resentment, suspicion, and mistrust."

Related coverage:

Measuring Discontent in Iran's Khuzestan Province

Iranians Rally in Support on Fifth Night of Khuzestan Water Protests

Two Killed in Crackdowns on Khuzestan Water Protests

Dispatch from Khuzestan: Thirsty Protestors Violently Dispersed

Furious Crowds Protest Water Crisis in Khuzestan

Decades of Bribery and Mismanagement Lead to Khuzestan’s Protests

The Water Crisis in Iran's Khuzestan Province

Desertification in Iran: A Ticking Time Bomb?

Iran's Water Crisis: In 20 Years Drought Could Make Some Iranian Cities Uninhabitable

Iranian and US Researchers Collaborate on Lake Urmia Restoration Study

Water Tariffs to Increase in Iran Ahead of Summer Shortages

250 Iranian Cities Face Summer Water Shortages

Iran Parliament Research: Worst Water Disaster in Two Years

“We Are Thirsty, Not Saboteurs”

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