Iran is being invaded. Not by the Huns or the Tatars, or by any modern-day army. This time, the invasion is from an army of dust particles. Over the last month or more, the winds that frequently blow huge amounts of dust particles from southern Iraq across the border into Iran’s western provinces have picked up, posing ever-greater risks to public health. At times, the storms have been so bad that dust particles have blown as far at Tehran, some 500 kilometers away. The dust pollution has brought daily life to a standstill in a number of cities and towns, forcing businesses, schools and airports to shut.

Hardest hit is the province of Khuzestan in southwestern Iran, and the cities of Ilam province, 500 kilometers to the west. The region, still scarred by the Iran-Iraq war, is the site of nothing less than an environmental disaster. Dust storms have been a feature of the area for decades, a reality of everyday life. But when a particularly powerful string of storms began this January, it was a stark reminder that, in some cases, there is little that can be done to combat the forces of nature, even if local officials had the finest technological equipment to hand.

Pollution levels across Khuzestan have been between 30 and 60 times higher than the standard level, which is at least 35 times higher than what is healthy for residents. Some reports claim there were 900 hospital emergency cases, though this has yet to be confirmed.

Everyone is talking about it, sharing tips for how to deal with the storms and their impact. People stay home, wear a range of different masks when they venture out and regularly keep in touch with one another to remain informed about various health issues that have become aggravated under the current circumstances. The minister of health and head of Ahwaz Jondi Shapur Medical University has visited Ahwaz to inspect the emergency response efforts there. Still, the magnitude of the event is beyond anything anyone could have imagined or been prepared for as individuals or communities. The officials’ visits demonstrate their sympathy but it has done nothing to alleviate the effects of living in a cloud of lingering, polluted dust.

The government response to the crisis can, at best, be described as quixotic. Disconnected from reality, official steps to affront the disaster have been inadequate at every turn.

The authorities’ decision to close local schools is perhaps the only effective measure to have been put in place so far, though this of course has an impact on children, their parents and educators. In Ahwaz, the province capital, schools were shut down for a total of seven days over a period of two weeks. Flights in and out of Ahwaz International Airport were canceled. The local government distributed fresh milk and masks to residents, though it failed to respond adequately to residents in Iham, where electricity, gas and water supplies were cut off for up to three days. Despite the significant environmental damage done, few local authorities have addressed the cost of recent events — in terms of health, the environment, and the economy.

And one thing is certain: Khuzestan and the surrounding areas have taken a big economic hit. But government statistics on the financial impact of the storms are hard to come by, and officials have remained largely quiet on the matter.

It is obvious that, when the economic life of a city is interrupted for several days, the volume of fiscal transactions decline and businesses cannot generate revenue. In Iran’s western cities, workers were forced to take sick leave. 

The head of Iran’s Environment Protection Organization, Massoumed Ebtekar, has promised a solution to the havoc caused in Iran’s western cities. But she has failed to reveal which resources are needed, and how they will be secured. The national government has not allocated any funds to deal with the issue in its budget for the forthcoming year or towards preventing further damage. The local government in Khuzestan does not have the means to address the issue on its own. If anything, the incident has reminded the residents of the oil-rich province that the central government receives oil revenue without giving them much in return.

The environmental damage and pollution will continue to cost Iran’s economy. In 2002, the World Bank estimated that pollution costs Iran’s economy the equivalent of eight per cent of its GDP, a regional record in the Middle East. In 2005, the estimated cost of air pollution alone equaled 1.6 per cent of the country’s GDP. The increase in both the frequency and the intensity of dust storms only adds to these costs. In provinces struggling with increasing unemployment, including Ahwaz, the economic loss is even more evident and debilitating than it would be in more prosperous parts of the country. Many in Ahwaz discuss the possibilities of displacing entire neighborhoods, relocating them further from the border with Iraq.

Iranian officials, including environmental official Ebtekar, have emphasized that it will take decades to recover from the environmental damage caused, which has been the result of a combination of factors: the powerful dust storms blowing in from Iraq and the depleted wetlands of west and southwest Khuzestan — brought on by bad land management and a failure to recognize the crucial role these ecosystems play in the overall environmental health of the region. And, to the shock of environmental experts and western Iranian citizens alike, despite their close political ties, Iran and Iraq have no joint plan of action in place to revive the wetlands before they dry up completely. Officials are right: it will take years to see any significant change, but, at all costs, work must start now.

Governmental in-fighting is also a hindrance to action. Parliamentarians spend their time arguing, outlining the reasons for the dust storms and pollution, but also blaming the current administration for its lack of action rather than coming up with an effective plan or measures. Most of them can agree on just one thing: the environmental catastrophe taking place is yet another tool to discredit the political establishment.

The lack of real debate on this, and similar issues, has shielded all levels of government, including present and previous administrations, from the reality before them. But it is the residents of Khuzestan and the wider region who are the real victims of this, and they are paying the price. For them, survival is their primary concern, even as the government turns a blind eye. They know, better than anyone else that something must be done soon. Otherwise, cities, lived in for centuries, will soon become inhabitable.

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