In the past two weeks, south-western cities of Iran – historically known as Arabistan (Khuzestan officially) – have been witnessing protests against water shortage.
People have already been suffering as a result of low water quality that has left the locals of cities such as Abadan, Muhammerah (Khorramshahr) and Bawi with little to consume.
Earlier this month the Iranian government announced that the farmers of Arabistan cannot grow rice due to the shortage of water. Other crops such as okra, which only needs watering once a week, was also included in the list of plants that Arab farmers were forbidden to cultivate this year.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been transferring water from the south-western region to central plateau of Iran for years. The impetus for the transfer scheme is most notably for the development of a single city: Isfahan.
So far, 90 dams and several tunnels have been built by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Karun to provide water for agriculture and steel industry in Isfahan.
The Karun river in Ahwaz with 950 km in length is the most affluent and only navigable river in Iran. What rubs salt in the wound is that farmers in Isfahan are currently cultivating rice while water is cut on farmers in Ahwaz.
According to the Iranian Constitution, transfer of water from one region to another for any reason other than drinking purposes is not authorized.
Instead, the transfer of Kārūn and the refusal to meet the water needs of various cities in Arabistan has caused the drought of marshlands and has destroyed livelihood of thousands of marsh Arabs. Hundreds of villages have been wiped out and villagers been forced to live in the outskirts of bigger cities such as Ahwaz.
Earlier this month, Arab farmers gathered in front of the Ministry of Water and Energy in protest against their dire situation. Human chains in front of water and sewage companies in Khoramshahr, Abadan and Bawi, as well as in front of Khuzestan governors’ and municipality offices have become routine for them.
Among the most common chants, demonstrators shout are: “this city does not have an owner, Abadan has no water” and “we do not want useless officials”.
Iranian government and experts funded by Tehran blame the issue on drought and climate change. Although climate change is unquestionably a reality, Iran’s water crisis is manmade and the result of water mismanagement for the past four decades.
Due to its fertile land and abundant water reserves, the south-west part of Iran was the agricultural pole of the country in the past and one of world’s largest exporters of dates.
However, following excessive water transfer schemes and unauthorized construction of dams – in contravention of environmental codes and international standards – the area has turned semi-arid.
Moreover, despite being the water provider of the entire country, the tap water in the cities of this region have the highest percentage of salt and the lowest quality.
Besides affecting the ethnic Arab population of Iran, the water transfer has also put the lives and livelihood of Bakhtyaris in danger. Following the construction of Koohrang tunnels 1, 2 and 3, thousands of villagers and farmers in Zagros mountains were forced to sell their lands at low fares to the government. Confronted with severe water shortage, Bakhtiari people are forced to buy or wait for the water tankers.
For years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been using water as a weapon against ethnic minorities. In addition to water the south-western region is the fourth producer of oil and gas globally, one of the poorest and most polluted underdeveloped regions in the world. Ahwaz, for example, ranked first in 2015 as the most polluted city in the world.
Besides Tehran, Isfahan has been boosted as the leading attraction by Iran to European tourists, who have been flocking to the country following the signing of the nuclear deal.
What tourists do not know, however, is how many indigenous farmers, fishermen and villagers have become homeless and jobless for Isfahan to be that green and beautiful. It doesn’t come as a surprise that European Union officials are not authorized to visit any other part of Iran.
Most of the development plans and programs to aid Iran in the sectors of garbage management and air pollution are concentrated around Isfahan, thus giving a misleading picture of the real situation in the rest of the country.
Water mismanagement is guiding the country to the point of no return and the daily protest of farmers and locals against the situation is only the beginning of the war over water. Iranian government applies discriminatory policies and has the means nor the necessary expertise to tackle the issue.
If the Iranian government and international community continue to ignore the daily pleads and protests of locals farmers, the world will witness a new wave of refugees from Iran: the climate refugees.