On the evening of Thursday, July 15, 2021, the streets of Hamidiyeh, Ahvaz, Bostan, Dasht-e Azadegan, Malasani, Khorramshahr, Susangard, and Shush, all in Khuzestan province, were packed with protesters. Thirsty and angry over water shortages and frequent power outages, people took to the streets, despite temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius. Not only have their day-to-day lives been unbearable in the current crisis, their livelihoods are in jeopardy, as livestock suffer dehydration and their have wetlands dried up.
Photographs and videos taken during the Khuzestan protests show security forces and the military trying to prevent the gatherings, and many of them fired bullets or used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
What is happening in Khuzestan?
Khuzestan province was once one of the most water-rich provinces of Iran. But today, the bodies of dead cattle can be seen across the land, the victims of severe water shortages and dried-up swampy wetlands. Videos of Khuzestanis — most of them from Iran’s Arab minority population — trapped in dried-up wetlands with their buffaloes have been shared widely on social media. Hur al-Azim is one of those hardest hit, and though this footage has prompted campaigns to help, buffalo herds continue to die.
The water shortage crisis in Khuzestan has created many problems, from poverty and marginalization to forced migration and dangerous environmental crises including devastating dust storms and drought.
According to government information, including that provided by the governor of Khuzestan, if the Hur al-Azim wetland dries up, the people of this province will suffer severe poverty and their health will be at serious risk.
"A number of Khuzestan residents protested today in front of the Khuzestan governor's office,” Mehr News Agency reported on Saturday, July 10. “Most of them were from the cities of the Azadegan and Hoveyzeh plains, whose agriculture and livestock suffered the most losses in recent days due to water shortages. During the peaceful protest, people chanted, calling on the authorities to find a way out of this complicated situation."
Prior to this, Ahvazi Arabs protested in various parts of the province, and a group of Arab sheikhs demonstrated outside the Ahvaz Water Organization against the lack of water rights for Ahvazi Arab farmers and ranchers. This initial protest increased in scope day by day, and reached its peak on the evening of Thursday, July 15.
Mohammad Nabi Mousavifard, the Supreme Leader’s representative for Khuzestan, met with the sheikhs and told them that they should express any concerns they had during Friday prayers. "It is not appropriate to make demands through a protest rally in front of the governor's office," he added.
Like other government officials, Mousavifard said the drought was to blame for the crisis in Khuzestan, indicating that he rejected accusations of government mismanagement."We must all help to overcome this crisis," he said.
But despite officials’ efforts to calm people by gaining the support and sympathy of the Arab religious leaders, the protests against the mismanagement and centralization of water resources continued, and the Arab sheikhs themselves were at the forefront of the protests, as video clips published on social media show.
Water Rights Stolen from the People
Aghil Daghagheleh, a social activist and professor of sociology at Rogers University in New Brunswick, Canada, posted an image on Instagram of Khuzestan as it once was. His caption includes a quotation from former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who visited Khuzestan in 1981. "At noon we reached the vast and flat and barren plains of Khuzestan. Abundant water now wasted is a source of regret."
Daghagheleh added to the caption: "What caught Hashemi Rafsanjani's eye was the abundance of water that he thinks is wasted and the land that he sees as barren. He came from a desert region and considered himself and his people more deserving of this water."
Daghagheleh's statements are reiterated by Yousef Al-Sorkhi, an Ahvazi Arab activist living in exile in Netherlands: "The story started exactly at the time of Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency and the construction of dams and efforts to transfer water from Khuzestan province to central parts of Iran.
"That government, known in the dominant discourse as the ‘construction government’, reduced and reduced the water rights of the areas near Karkheh by building and exploiting the Karkheh Dam; these areas gradually went bankrupt and people were forced to move to the margins of Ahvaz.
"The drought in recent years, especially this year, and the rising temperatures have made the situation worse and affected all sections of society. This has meant the protests against the water crisis in Khuzestan are more widespread than other protests."
Protest Against Forced Migration
"Two weeks ago, one of the sheikhs of the region went to the regional water organization to protest against the lack of water rights and said, ‘We will not abondon this land,’” al-Sorkhi said. "This was the beginning of a movement that was no longer just a protest against the lack of water rights. He said that with the government's deliberate environmental policies, they caused a flood so that we would leave our lands. By building a dam, they dried up our land so that we had to leave — but this will not happen."
Al-Sorkhi points to a video posted on social media in early July showing a middle-aged Arab religious leader sitting on the ground in protest at the Ahvaz Water Organization. I refuse to leave my land, the man says in Arabic.
"People in Hamidiyeh are chanting 'no to forced migration,’” A-Sorkhi says. “We are against policies that force us to emigrate. This shows that the people's protest is in fact against the government's policy of letting the region dry up and deporting Arabs.
"This is an indigenous protest and is directly linked to indigenous and ethnic issues.”
“They Looted in the Name of Religion”
The activist tells IranWire that recent protests in Hamidiyeh, Ahvaz, Bostan, Susangerd, Shoush and Khorramshahr bear resemblance to recent protests in Iraq, in Baghdad in October 2020 and the Tishreen Revolution in 2019.
"The recent protests of the Arab people in different cities of Khuzestan are similar to the protests in Iraq in two ways," he said. "The first is that they are peaceful, and the second is that some of the chants are similar.
"People in the streets are chanting, 'peace, peace.' There has also been a consensus among Arab activists that the protests should remain peaceful so that the government cannot exploit the situation as before. The peaceful aspect makes these protests different from the violent protests of November 2019.
“Chants such as ‘we were looted by religion,’ more than everything else, show that these protests are indigenous and ethnic, and that the protesters want an end to the exploitation of territorial resources."
The recent protest movements In Iraq he mentions began initially as anti-corruption protests, and protests against poor public services in southern Iraqi cities, highlighting the crisis of the last 16 years. The demonstrations soon spread to other major Iraqi cities. The protesters also demanded that Iran stop interfering in Iraqi matters and for their country’s politicians to break their ties with the Islamic Republic. 'Free Baghdad, Iran must go,” rang one popular chant.
As Al-Sorkhi says the Iranian officials have been trying to woo the Arab tribal leaders of Khuzestan since the very inception of the Islamic Republic.
"In all these years, the Islamic Republic has controlled the sheikhs with promises and has tried to urge them to support it. Up to now some sheikhs have been recruited by the government and given concessions so they can help provide security for the government, but this is not the case anymore. But the recent protests show that this policy of bribery has failed. With the water crisis, the cycle seems to be broken. Today sheikhs are at the forefront of the protests, and this is a great blow to the Islamic Republic."