Ahwazi Arabs protest on the banks of the Karoun River. Source: Save Karoun
The Garden of Eden is dying. Reputed to be two of Eden's four rivers, the Karoun and Karkheh have been reduced to a trickle as an environmental disaster is unfolds in the Ahwaz region. One of the Middle East's last verdant areas is being turned into a wasteland as Iran pursues its drive to power up its economy by building a massive complex of dams and divert waters to central Iran.
Green and Pleasant Land
The Ahwaz region between the Zagros Mountains and the Iraqi border is a jewel in the arid Arabian Gulf region. It hosts extensive marshes and rivers that support a diverse range of fish, mammals and migratory birds, including many endangered species.
Wetland ecosystems are critical to humans. They provide food, fresh water, medicinal extracts and genetic materials. Indigenous Ahwazi Arab and Bakhtiari farmers, fishermen and traditionally nomadic peoples also depend on the waters and fertile plains they feed for their livelihoods.
An Ahwazi Arab fishing in the marsh. Source: Iran, Southwestern
Wetlands like this regulate climate. They re-charge the water supply. They help purify water. They help the soil to resist erosion. The great Karoun, Karkheh, Dez and Jarrahi rivers, which flow through the Ahwaz region, play a crucial role in preventing the salt water of the Arabian Gulf flowing up the Shatt al-Arab waterway. They also bring moisture and rainful to parched lands to the east.
UNEP: An Amazon-scale catastrophe
The Iranian regime has been actively engaged in dam construction plans with the most destructive impacts on the ecological balance of the region and desertification of the once green fields of the Ahwaz region. In the Karoun and Karkheh watersheds, a total of nine dams have been built or are under construction with a further 12 under study.
One of these plans is the controversial transfer of water from the region's rivers to the parched central provinces of Iran, including diversion tunnels to feed water from Karoun's tributaries to the Zayanderood river of Isfahan, which is facing its own water scarcity problems.
The downstream effects have been devastating. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned that the marshlands of southwest of Iran are facing a situation similar to the environmental catastrophes that have affected the Aral Sea and the Amazon. In a major study on the marshes of Iraq and Iran, the UNEP concluded: "The cumulative impacts of dam construction upstream and intensive drainage schemes in and around the marshlands have been devastating. In less than a decade, one of the world's largest and most significant wetland ecosystems has completely collapsed."
Evaporation of the Hawr Al-Azim marsh, which borders Iraq, is being carried out on a par with Saddam's destruction of the Iraqi marshes. The marsh has a vital in maintaining the ecological balance in the Middle East, but has been almost completely desiccated.
Food security under threat
In recent years dam construction and river diversion has exacerbated the effects of drought on agriculture. Food crop output in this bread basket of Iran, which produces many of the country's staple foods, is diminishing in favour of cash crops and cheap power generation for government industries.
The dam and water diversion projects may have had a role in the massive decline in the production of wheat, a source of food for humans and livestock. The Ahwaz region is Iran's second largest wheat-producing province. Around 62% of the province's wheat production is reliant on irrigation, utilising water from its rivers. According to reports, in 2012 wheat output halved due to water shortages, leading to spiralling prices of meat and bread throughout Iran.
At the same time, the Iranian regime has been investing on the development of the environmentally destructive and intensively farmed cash crop sugarcane plantations which have displaced 200,000 - 250,000 Arab people, according to one UN Special Rapporteur following a visit to the area.
Sand storms that now routinely plague the region are the result of a decline in humidity throughout the whole region as wetlands vanish. Ali Mohammad Shaeri, the vice president of the Iranian environment organization, claims that "500,000 hectares of marshlands of Ahwaz have dried out and this is the main cause of sand storms in the region."
As a result, Ahwaz has the world's worst air pollution. The Pollutant Standards Index of the air quality in Ahwaz region has passed 600 units. This is while according to the international standards a PSI over 300 units is critically hazardous.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ahwaz City's measure of air-born particulate matter (PM10) is 372 micrograms per cubic metre, which is a third more than the world's second-most polluted city, Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar and the only city in the world where average PM10 levels rise above 300 ug/m3.
The astonishing level of air pollution has taken its toll on the local population. Life expectancy is the lowest in Iran and residents suffer high levels of respiratory problems and cancer.
Around half the Karoun's water flow is now waste water as upstream fresh water has been funnelled to neighbouring states. This will reach 90 per cent when Iran's dam building project is completed, according to Iranian scientists.
Due to the excessive pollution of the rivers the amount of total dissolved solids in the water has greatly increased. In the border cities of Abadan and Muhammerah, it has reached four times the maximum level for potable water.
Tap water is undrinkable and not even suitable for washing clothes. In a visit to the region, the Minister of Health refused to drink local tap water and admitted "We accept that the water in Khuzestan is very dirty and impure and we have reported the issue to the Ministry of Energy."
Iranian government scientist Dr Bakhtiari Nia remarked that water- and food-born diseases are getting worse as a result of poor water quality and a lack of access to clean water and a healthy diet. Consumption of fish living in the heavily polluted rivers of Al-Ahwaz is affecting embryo growth, while contaminated drinking water is causing disorders of the central nervous system. Residents suffer high levels of blood disorders and diseases affecting the lungs, kidneys, liver and other vital organs as well as miscarriages, cancers, osteoporosis, endocrine disorders, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's Disease and learning difficulties due to the ingestion of toxic metals.
Revolution is the Solution
The UNEP notes that "unless urgent remedial action is taken, desiccation of the last remaining vestige of the Mesopotamian marshlands is likely to continue unabated. Indeed, it is likely to accelerate as a result of substantial water retention by the Karkheh Dam and plans to transfer water from its reservoir."
Ahwaz member of parliament Sayyed Sharif Hosseini warned that the environmental problems affecting the Karoun had to be dealt with through legal means or some may resort to illegal means to pursue the issue. Speaking in parliament recently, Hosseini assured the people of Ahwaz that so long as the MPs were their representatives they would not allow Karoun's water to stop. He added that the fight for the Karoun must be pursued through cultural means and through proper channels and not allow it to become a political issue.
Hosseini is finding it difficult to put a lid on frequent political protests in Ahwaz. The official government propaganda media has reacted to the crisis by accusing environmentalist critics of being US-sponsored separatists and denying the environmental problems facing Ahwaz.
Discriminatory practices mean that indigenous Arab people of Ahwaz as well as the Bakhtiari population further north towards the Zagros mountain range are deprived of the right to manage their own affairs. The crucial managing positions are assigned to non-native people coming from other provinces. These assigned officials do not consider the right of the native people of Ahwaz over the water resources of the region.
Like all problems in Iran, the solution is political. Without regime change that empowers the local indigenous Ahwazi Arab population in how economic development progresses, the government will continue to plunder and rape Al-Ahwaz while the indigenous inhabitants, wildlife and natural beauty will pay the ultimate price.
For the Ahwazi Arabs, environmentalism and self-determination go hand in hand. The future of Eden depends on it.