Iran: the uprising of the thirsty

PAYAM SOLHTALAB writes on the ever-deepening water crisis in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province and reveals its root

Protesters march with a banner reading ‘Without water, without jobs, without health. Khuzestan is not Iran’s stepchild!’

OVER recent days, an already tense situation in Iran’s south-western Khuzestan province, the centre of the country’s oil industry, has deteriorated further with growing protests by locals over breakdowns in critical infrastructure – principally severe water shortages – amid the heat of another sweltering summer and warnings that the country faces its most severe drought in half a century.

Protests have been directed against the nationwide water and power shortages which have acutely affected central and southern Iran, and Khuzestan in particular, and the insufferable conditions people there are having to endure in stifling heat – often in excess of 50°C — including a lack of access to clean water and the dangerously unsanitary situation arising as a result, as well as increasingly frequent power blackouts.

According to widespread reports from on the ground in Khuzestan, at least three young men have been killed by regime security forces at protests there within the last week. Scores of protesters have been wounded and are receiving treatment.

On the evening of Thursday July 15, protests erupted following an acute shortage that left a vast swathe of the parched province’s population without water for several hours. 

Significant numbers rallied in the streets where chants of “I am thirsty!” were clearly audible. The protesters were forcibly and violently dispersed by the security forces.

The next day saw people again taking to the streets. Ahvaz, Kut-e Abdollah, Abadan, Bostan, Susangerd, Shadegan, Hamidiyeh, Canaan, Khorramshahr, Malasani, and Mahshahr were the scenes of well-attended demonstrations and sit-ins with people protesting outside local government offices, blocking main roads, and holding their lines when faced by the well-armed State Security Force (SSF) deployed to meet them. 

The people came out despite the relentlessly fierce gaze of the sun overhead and the significant risk of a response at least equally so from the authorities. The regime, acutely conscious of the antipathy that already exists towards it in this sensitive and volatile province, resorted to their brutal default. A young protester, Mostafa Naimavi, was reportedly shot dead in Shadegan.

When protests continued into a third day, the regime again responded with deadly force in at least two further locations in Khuzestan, killing Ali Mazraeh in Ahvaz and Qasem Khaziri in Kut-e Abdollah.

Despite the increasingly violent response of the regime to what are wholly legitimate grievances and the consequent rapid escalation of the situation, the protests have not abated in the days since.

Critical water shortages and electricity outages have become a common and depressing feature of life in southern Iran over recent summers, though the situation is becoming ever worse – a crisis that can be traced to increasing pollution, man-made climate change and fundamental ineptitude and mismanagement on a local level by the authorities. 

When endemic corruption and the brutal repression meted out under the Islamic Republic are factored into this equation, then one is close to reaching a basic understanding of the tinderbox that is the current situation in Khuzestan.

Over several years, the Islamic Republic authorities have interfered with natural watercourses and sources drawn upon for the intricate systems of irrigation that have been in place in the province since time immemorial — in complete disregard of expert technical advice and with catastrophic consequences for the local environment. 

An ill-conceived dam project has led to the draining of the Hur al-Azim wetlands on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq, which has devastated the local communities whose livelihoods and very existences depend on their relationship with this land. 

Local people complain that not only has government mismanagement led to crop failure and the destruction of agriculture, but also the disastrous depletion of livestock through extreme drought, exacerbating the plight of the rural poor in the province.

The hyper construction of dams along the main rivers and watercourses in Khuzestan has been ill-thought-out and they represent major blunders not only in engineering but agricultural and environmental foresight and policy-making under the Islamic Republic. 

One notable example was the construction upon salt beds of the Gotvand Dam, which opened in 2012 to supply the sugarcane industry in the province. The dam has led to the massive accrual of salt deposits in the reservoir — estimated to be at least 10.5 million tons and growing by 2017 — and has caused a 12 per cent increase in the salinity of the Karun River, critically affecting an estimated 370,000 hectares of agricultural land. 

To add insult to injury, engineers had researched the Gotvand Dam area in the mid-1970s and deemed such a project unfeasible owing to the effects that it would have on the salt concentration of the water. Essentially, the data and research was all there, and yet the authorities continued regardless.

Another major blunder has been the construction of a series of tunnels, collectively known as the Kouhrang Tunnels, which draw water away from the river of the same name — a major tributary of the Karun River — towards Esfahan’s drying Zayandeh River. 

There have been numerous other tunnels constructed over the years, which similarly divert the Karun’s water along new routes towards Esfahan, Yazd, Kerman, and Qom without any overarching long-term vision or scheme to these designs.

Concerned at the potential for these protests to grow in an area where there is already considerable ill-feeling towards the government – Khuzestan being the location of the majority of Iran’s disenfranchised Arabic-speaking minority – as well as to further inflame tensions elsewhere in the country, the authorities have made various desperate attempts to play down the scale of the crisis and ensuing protests.

However, recently, even the state-run media has acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. On Sunday July 4, Aftab News stated: “Of Iran’s population of 85 million, about 28 million live in areas with water shortages and are under pressure in this regard, mainly in the central and southern regions of the country. 

“Water shortages have affected all sections of society, from urban households to agricultural and rural communities.” 

On the same day, the Arman Daily wrote: “The struggle of buffaloes in the sewage of the city on what were once the shores of the wetland has only one message: an environmental catastrophe is happening in silence.”

And, while the Iranian constitution ostensibly allows for the holding of peaceful protests and marches, the regime’s response has been uniformly brutal with the wanton and indiscriminate use of live fire to disperse the crowds and numerous videos circulating on social media showing armed regime militiamen on motorcycles bearing down upon fleeing protesters. 

This has only added to the legitimate and very real grievances of the beleaguered people of Khuzestan, and contributed to the further destabilisation of the security situation there.

All this at a time that the theocratic regime reels from its now manifest ever-growing crisis of legitimacy nationally, and as it prepares to inaugurate the “president-elect,” Ebrahim Raisi — a figure who achieved the lowest mandate in the history of the Islamic Republic despite the regime pulling out all the stops to rig the election’s outcome in his favour.

The Committee for Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (Codir) has unequivocally condemned the brutal response by the Islamic Republic authorities to the legitimate human grievances and demands articulated by the people of Khuzestan over a crisis the theocratic regime has itself engendered. 

Decades of failed policies, mismanagement, corruption and a default resort to brutal violence by the Islamic Republic has led to the unbearable current situation in Khuzestan. It stands as the legacy of the long-time championing of ignorance by a government that has neglected its most basic of duties and responsibilities.

We bear witness once more, in horror, to a system whose responses to the cries and suffering of its people is more brutal repression; more bullets, more disappearances, more arbitrary arrests and imprisonment and more torture.

The UN and international community should expressly condemn the response of the Islamic Republic so as to make absolutely clear to the regime that it does not enjoy impunity in the exercise of excessive and unlawful state force.

Meanwhile, Iranians are desperately calling for water and electricity and are being answered with gunfire and state security thugs on motorcycles.

Payam Solhtalab is a researcher focusing on social and economic developments in Iran and the Middle East. He is also on the editorial board of Iran Today, Codir’s magazine

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