In a flurry of reports Thursday, July 1, local media and environmentalists in Khuzestan once again raised the alarm about the water crisis threatening the province. The last month has seen the drying-up of the Karkheh and Zohreh riverbeds in western Khuzestan, as well as the Hur al-Azim wetlands and tributaries. A lack of water has put various aquatic species and birds, livestock and especially the buffaloes that bathed in lagoon to escape the summer heat, at serious risk.

This is the second drought to have occurred in Khuzestan in two years. Dust storms engulfed the province during a second wave of coronavirus infections last summer. The water shortages prompted riots, sit-ins and blockades in Ghizanieh, a district of the provincial capital of Ahvaz, which ended up lasting for months on end. Those people’s simple demand – access to safe drinking water – was not met and many of them were shot and arrested.

IranWire spoke to residents in the village of Mansoureh, near the Zohreh River, and to Mehdi Hashemi, an ecosystems data analyst, to get an idea of what is at stake this summer.

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In recent days, residents of Khuzestan province have been sharing images online that verge on the apocalyptic. Mass deaths of fish in the Shatt-Ali River in Hoveyzeh. Birds attacking water tankers near the Karkeh River out of thirst. Stray buffaloes sitting bewildered in the mud, in a place that used to be their bath.

Then there are the streams of hapless people, wandering the villages of Bostan and Dasht-e Azadegan at sunset with empty plastic containers in hand, looking for water. The drying-up of the rivers in west Khuzestan and the Hur al-Azim wetland, one of Iran’s biggest habitats for a variety of fish and aquatic animals as well as birds, is now posing a serious danger to human and animal life alike.

Many residents of the villages in west Khuzestan are involved in livestock farming. The drying-up of the Karkheh River has left their cattle without water. Instead, they are now using the municipal sewers.

Sajad, a resident of Mansoureh village 40 km from the city of Shadegan, where the Zohreh river used to flow, told IranWire: "The village has had no fresh drinking water for more than two weeks. Would you believe, it got to the point where we collected water from the air conditioner tank to drink? No matter how we protested – we went to the governor's office, we wrote letters, we sent the village elders – it was useless. Our animals are disappearing. Our lands and agricultural products have been decimated."

But he adds that these issues have been germinating for a long time: "The lack of water and the constant shortages put so much pressure on us that most of the residents have built tanks or concrete basins in their houses to collect water.

“But that was when the river was still flooding its banks. In the rainy season, and whenever the dam opens into the river, we would divert water from the river into the reservoirs for days like these; it wasn’t hygienic but it solved part of the problem. We don’t have recourse to the same now. Our voices are not going anywhere."

In fact, Sajad says, the water shortages in summer 2021 are so severe most farmers now regret having planted any crops at all. Many of his village’s permanent residents are trying to sell their livestock. "We had more than 100 buffaloes,” he said. “We sold them because they were dying of thirst and heat in front of our eyes.

“You can't live without water. People here are suffering from digestive and skin problems. Several have been electrocuted and killed by the pumps installed in the river to draw the water to the tanks. It sounds unbelievable that this happened in a village surrounded by 208 active oil wells. I wish there was no oil.”

Environment Official Rubbishes Claims of Disaster

The Zohreh River, once wide, deep and green, has now almost entirely dried up in some areas. Just a trickle of clouded, stagnant water remains. Every 20 to 30 days the Behbahan Dam is briefly opened in a bid to quench the parched riverbed.

The Karkheh River is in no better shape, and part of the Hur al-Azim wetland is so badly damaged it may never recover. On Friday, July 2, after shocking images of piles of dead fish in Hur al-Azim were posted online, Mohammad Javad Ashrafi, the director-general of Khuzestan’s Department of Environment, simply said: "The drying-up of wetlands as part of their life cycle is normal in all parts of the world, and is acceptable.”

Speaking to IRNA news agency, Ashrafi added that all the dry areas were close to the wetlands’ Reservoir Number One and the drought was to be expected due to it being on a slope, as well as the heat and associated extreme evaporation. But he did concede: “We must manage the water supply to prevent events such as the loss of fish and other animals in the lagoons."

This, of course, invited the question of whose job it was – if not his – to “manage” the water supply in Khuzestan and ensure that people and animals alike had enough water. Mehdi Hashemi, a data scientist and ecosystems data analyst, told IranWire: “The tragedy is so great, I don’t even know where to begin.

“The five rivers and tributaries of Karun, Dez, Zohreh, Karkheh and Jarahi in Khuzestan have dried up in just a few years. The Hur al-Azim wetland, which is actually the central part of the larger Hur Al-Hoveyzeh wetland, has dried up within two days. Hur Al-Hoveyzeh covers a wide area but dried up to such an extent that no-one even mentions it by name anymore.  

“Thousands of species of animals and plants have been devastated. People who lived in this region for decades, who are skilled in agriculture and animal husbandry, and have created the conditions for settlers in [neighboring province] Ilam from ancient times through to the present day, are disappearing. All of this is the result of wide-ranging and flawed policies on the part of the government of the Islamic Republic, which began with specific goals and ended up here."

Historic Inequalities Feeding Environmental Pollution in Kurdistan

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution there were just two dams on the whole of the 950km-long Karun River. Then in the mid-1980s, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government began to build new dams throughout Khuzestan. But the move came at a cost.

“These dams caused the river water to remain in the upper parts of the province,” Hashemi told IranWire, “and not enter the wider region at all. The amount of water flowing into the rivers has decreased year on year. Today, less than 10 percent of the water that enters these rivers actually enters the province."

He added: "The Karun now runs dry in the summer months. The Dez dries up after the city of Shushtar. The Karkheh ends before it reaches Hamidiyeh. This is not due to drought, or low rainfall. The Islamic Republic has built tunnels to transfer water from the sources of rivers in Khuzestan to Iran’s central plateau."

In Iran’s 20-year development plan, which lays out the ideas of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic on the country’s future trajectory, Ali Khamenei asked officials in the country's various water management organizations to "consider security and strategic goals" in its implementation of “hydropower projects; that is, the construction of dams and the like."

The sentence was, by itself, obfuscating. But elsewhere in the plan Khamenei also made it clear that among the regime’s “security and strategic goals” was a long-term reconfiguration of the population of Khuzestan.

The forced migration of Arabs living on the Iranian border began right after the war. At least 18 villages were never cleared of mines, and today, more than 2,000 villages are empty or close to uninhabited due to a combination of climate change, water scarcity, and the expansion of land-grabs by both the government and large agricultural firms. Today, the Khuzestani capital of Ahvaz plays host to the largest marginal population in the country.

According to Iranian official figures, more than 10,000 people from 63 different villages and hamlets in the Dehdez region, along the Karun River, are still officially displaced after the Karun-3 Dam flooded back in November 2003. Many have since emigrated to central Iran.

Meanwhile, Mehdi Hashemi said, drought and the destruction of plant tissue are exacerbating air and water pollution in Khuzestan, causing medical problems for residents. The former head of Shafa Hospital in Ghotvand, Khuzestan echoed these sentiments in an interview with Mehr News Agency, which asserted: “The increased cancer rate in Khuzestan can be attributed to the poor quality of drinking water, dust, the entry of hospital and municipal waste water into rivers, and the drying-up of wetlands for oil exploration.”

The mortality rate across the province has increased by 30 percent. According to the hospital chief, 90 percent of the excess cancer cases could be attributed to environmental factors, and just 10 percent to hereditary conditions.

"There is no will to solve this problem,” Mehdi Hashemi lamented. “If there was, it would be a simple enough matter to open the gates of the dams and allow water to flow into the rivers, to fill up the lagoons, and to reach every village in the Abadan border strip. All these problems could be resolved."

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