Fars Heydari, one year and four months old, lived in Goldasht neighborhood of Ahvaz, the capital of Iran’s Khuzestan province. On Friday, December 10, he became the latest victim of the city’s open sewers.
That day, he was sitting alongside his parents outside their home. While their attention was diverted, he ran out toward the open sewer and fell in. His case is one of many in Ahvaz, but government officials have yet to conclude their investigations into a single one of these cases – or if they have, families and the wider public were never informed.
On the death notice attached to the wall of Heydari’s home, two smiling pictures of a lovely child gaze out onto the street. The text opens with a verse from the Quran – "To God we belong and to God we return" – and follows with a heartbreaking and angry first-person testimony in Arabic: “O Fars! Go to your God and complain that our hearts are on fire. Tell Him that ‘In the Arab Ahvaz, children die in captivity and under occupation. The sewage swallowed me up, and others swallowed my father’s oil. Which official can now return me to the bosom of my mother?’.”
“Last Friday, Fars and his family were sitting in the doorway of their home,” a person close to the family told IranWire. “Goldasht is an underprivileged neighborhood. It has no designated spaces for play or entertainment. On weekends and holidays, the families often gather together and sit in the doorways.
“The children were playing and making a lot of noise, so we didn’t notice when Fars went over to the sewer and fell in. He was very young, and couldn’t walk very well. By the time we noticed, it was too late.”
Footage from CCTV cameras in the street later showed it took the family half an hour to notice Fars was absent. “When we found him Fars was no longer breathing. The gutters in Goldasht are more than half a meter deep. They are neither drained nor dredged. Fars was shorter than that, and suffocated in a heap of mud and sludge.”
In summer 2020 in Sayyahi, another neighborhood of Ahvaz, a one-year-old girl by the name of Sedigheh Heydari lost her life in exactly the same way as Fars. By the time her 12-year-old brother found her in the slurry of the open sewer in front of their house and pulled her out by her little hands, Sedigheh was no longer breathing, and efforts to revive her proved futile. The news of Sedigheh’s death was one of few such cases reported by Iranian state media. Her family’s life remains in tatters today.
Earlier in February 2020, Danial Navaseri (Naseri), a three-year-old from an Arab family in the deprived Kut Abdollah zone just south of Ahvaz, left home to play. He, too, fell and drowned in a gaping open sewer with a depth of more than 50cm.
Who Is Accountable?
“It is not right that Ahvaz metropolitan area and its citizens witness periodic incidents like these in the open sewers,” said Karim Hosseini, an MP for Ahvaz, in an interview with Mehr News Agency after Fars’s death. “The neighborhood of Goldasht had no sewage system so the municipality had built open gutters – and is responsible for dredging them.”
For years now, both the municipality and local ABFA (Water and Sewage Company) in Ahvaz have pointed the finger of blame at one another. In the meantime, more have died. ABFA says it is only responsible for maintaining proper sewage systems, not informal ones; the local authority counters that the ditches are there to collect surface water, not household waste, and are therefore ABFA’s problem.
The chairman of Ahvaz City Council has taken a different stance. He believes both these organizations have a role to play, and both must explain why open sewers are having to be used in the first place.
“In our neighborhood,” a resident of Goldasht tells IranWire, “as well as the open sewers, they’ve set aside a vast area to empty sewage into. There’s also a pump for this purpose. But nothing else is happening. We have complained a thousand times. They say that to empty out the sewage they have to dig a canal, then they’ll need powerful diesel generators, and all this can only be done by ABFA and the Ahvaz Drilling Company.
Pointing out that the rainy season in Khuzestan is drawing close now, they added: “Last year, when it rained, Goldasht drowned in water and sewage. For months our home and everything in it had a foul smell. We came down with a variety of pains, and skin and digestive illnesses. And right now the water is not being emptied out from this area, and the sewage is rising.”
The Judicial Quicksand
The family of Fars Heydari is still in shock. “Fars had a few other brothers and sisters,” says the source close to the family. “His mother’s tears have not yet dried; his father is so sad he can barely stand upright. They have yet to take legal action against the municipality and ABFA, but what good will that do? The issue of open sewers and, in general, water and sewage problems in Ahvaz has been on the table since Mohammad Khatami [1997-2005]. They took out an international loan and allocated a specific budget for it, but nothing has changed up until today.”
Karim Dahimi, a London-based Arab activist whose relatives live in Goldasht and Sayyahi, told IranWire the families of both Sedigheh and Danial had filed complaints against Ahvaz municipality and ABFA, but had “got nowhere”. He added: “Senior officials must give this issue priority and are duty-bound to demand that related institutions give it priority as well. But none of this will take place. And if the Arab residents protest they will be treated as they were last summer: with threats, summonses, arrests, and bullets.”