For the last two weeks, a single word has dominated headlines in Iran: “Khuzestan”. Nightly street protests in this deprived province, prompted by the water crisis and inflamed by brutal state violence, have since spilled over into other Iranian cities. Rallies have now been held from Tehran to Isfahan to Lorestan, with participants chanting slogans against the Islamic Republic and the leadership of Ali Khamenei.
Khuzestan might be in the news now because of clashes on the streets. But for years it has also been mentioned in the context of poverty and underdevelopment, still scarred by the effects of a war that concluded more than 30 years ago. A recent official survey found most people in Khuzestan are dissatisfied with post-war reconstruction – to the point that they say life was better in 1980.
During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, at least 16 cities and 435 villages in the border province of Khuzestan were badly damaged, even devastated. The cities of Khorramshahr, Susangard, Bostan and Hoveyzeh were even occupied by Saddam’s forces.
Statistics show that during the eight-year conflict, some 60 percent of physical structures in the city of Abadan were left damaged. This rose to 73 percent in Dasht-e Azadeghan, 88 percent in Khorramshahr, and 100 percent in the city of Hoveyzeh.
During the war itself and in the immediate aftermath, the Iranian government put three types of reconstruction in Khuzestan on the agenda. The approaches were opaquely categorized as "historical," "reinventing" and "logical”. The cities of Susangerd and Abadan were selected for “historical” reconstruction while Hoveyzeh was the target of “reinvention”. This did not sit well with residents of the latter city, and led to protests.
The first phase of rebuilding urban areas began as early as mid-1982. Work began in a scattered manner without specialist oversight. During the second phase, from 1982 to 1988, and the third up until 1989, there was a heavier focus on clearing debris and removing signs of damage. But efforts to rebuild Khuzestan were still ongoing in 1997, when the IRGC-dominated Reconstruction Headquarters was dismantled and its workload handed over to a follow-up entity. This in turn was dissolved in 2007.
That year marked the formal end to the Iranian government’s drive to restore Khuzestan. But the project was far from over. Left among the ruins, to this day the population Khuzestan regularly scores highly on the Iran-wide annual misery index as well as most widely-recognized indicators of deprivation. There has been no state investment in the province since then that does not relate to the expansion of the petrochemical industry.
Vast Majority of Khuzestanis Say Life was Better Pre-War
The latest issue of Iranian quarterly Housing and Rural Environment, affiliated with the Natural Disaster Research Institute, included a study entitled Survey of Satisfaction with Post-War Reconstruction. It found that some 84 percent of residents old enough to remember the pre-war years said their financial situation was better before 1980 than in all the decades since the war came to an end.
Another 78 percent of eligible respondents said the state of their farms and livestock was better before the war. This, researchers concluded, was "indicative of the inattention of reconstruction planners to the first and foremost reconstruction priorities in the eyes of the people."
A total of 95 percent of the Khuzestan residents surveyed said the amount of grant funding from the government for reconstruction had been sub-par, while 98 percent of people said the size of the bank loans offered was insufficient.
The study also found that residents who remained in the wetlands area, close to the border with Iraq, had experienced the most significant deterioration to their livelihoods and overall quality of life. On the whole, the authors concluded, “reconstruction has not only not improved people's livelihoods, but has seen pre-war living conditions diminish."
The effects of this neglect are growing starker by the day. Last year Khuzestan recorded the fifth-highest unemployment rate of Iran’s 31 provinces, and the third-lowest literacy rate. The province has a shortage of 14,000 teachers, hospitals just 154 beds per 100,000 population, and some 6,000 hectares of land in the province are officially classed as “dilapidated”. On top of all this, the province also experienced 36.4 percent inflation last year.
No small wonder that today Khuzestan residents are taking to the streets to protest the lack of water: an urgent issue that state investment in sustainable infrastructure, and development in the province in general, could have helped to mitigate.