Khuzestan plain is one of the oldest regions on the Iranian plateau, where the Aryan nations were living since 2700 BC and one of the first civilizations of that era was formed. This province was most proud of its landscape with palm trees, agriculture, and oil related industries.
The existence of five rivers, all of which originate from the Zagros Mountains, irrigate the Khuzestan Plain, and after a few hundred kilometers flow into the Persian Gulf. This setting had made the province the most water rich in Iran.
The Karun River was the largest of these rivers and the only navigable river in Iran that ships entered from the Persian Gulf and anchored at the ports of Abadan, Khorramshahr, and Ahvaz. Once, ships ran up the Karun as far as Shushtar, including those that in the early twentieth century supplied the Anglo-Persian Oil Company or collected Iranian pilgrims beginning a journey to the holy Muslim sites in Iraq.
Now, looking at Karun from the top of Naderi bridge in Ahvaz, all you see is an almost green glow of industrial waste and sewage discharged from growing cities of Ahvaz, Mollasani, Shushtar, and Gotvand. Air and water pollution is contributing to long term changes in Horolazim and Shadegan wetlands, as well as Karun, Karkheh and Jarrahi rivers, the most critical water resources of the province, which are depleted and contain unprecedented levels of toxic waste. Khuzestan’s Water and Electricity Company, a state body operating under the energy ministry, has repeatedly announced that pesticides and pollution from sugarcane production are a major source of water contamination in various Khuzestan rivers.
The existence of this number of rivers had historically played a decisive role in the development of this region. The people of this region had been engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, and fishing since ancient times, using the fertile lands around these rivers.
Residents are mainly Arabs minority who live on farming, keeping date orchards, and livestock. They are not wealthy, especially those without a side business, which has become more and more common in recent years.
Khuzestan is experiencing a deteriorating shift in its ecosystem. Villagers attribute some of this vast change to sugarcane agribusiness. In 1962, Haft Tappeh, an area 15 km SE of ancient Susa, was turned into a 10,000 hectare sugarcane production plant. After the Iran-Iraq war in 1990s, another 70,000 hectare plant was established south of Ahvaz. Side industries also were established alongside; including fiberboards, industrial alcohol and livestock feed.
Sugarcane is a crop known for high water consumption, which often results in habitat loss and soil erosion. Sugarcane is not a native crop to the region, therefore, its environmental consequences have been catastrophic. There was already serious salt problem in the area that first sugarcane plant was established. Soil salinity was already high in areas planned for the project, as such, additional water required to drain salts out along with additional drainage costs.
Walking in the sugarcane fields today, one can notice barren patches of the field, with salt rising on the brown earth. These lands have been completely depleted, and are no longer productive.
Khuzestan province is home to two wetlands, which both are in an extreme critical state. Up to mid 1990s, the water depth in Horolazim wetland was ten meters with natural marshland grow all around it were as high as 13 meters. But hectare after hectare of the wetland was given away for IRGC oil exploration. The destruction of these environments is unquestionably linked to the worsening dust storms.
Iran’s government had insisted chocking dust storms were originated outside the country for the past decades. Finally, the Department of the Environment announced that most of the dust are originated inside Iran. A former departmental official told local media that the drying of Horolazim was one reason for the storms, with the loss of water due to oil exploration around the wetland beginning just after the war with Iraq.
These ecological changes have had monumental effects on wildlife of the marshlands. The marshland in southern Khuzestan was existential for domestic and migratory birds. Over 170 species of birds from 32 distinct families have been recorded according to the Iran’s Department of the Environment, various biologists and researchers. Toxic waste entering marshes has killed many birds.
Wetlands were also once full of fish, with villagers earning an income from fishing across Shadegan. More than 30 species of wetland fish and 40 sea fish have been recorded.
The drying out of rivers and wetlands in Khuzestan are due to massive IRGC dams construction and oil exploration in Horolazim, which has changed the region’s ecological landscape in a way war never did. Man driving out to Shadegan wetland 100 km south of Ahvaz can see changes from farmlands and date palms orchards, to barren desert, and suddenly to a marsh. Shadegan, one of the first registered international wetlands at the Ramsar Convention of February 1971, covers 300,000 hectares.
Unsustainable dams construction have been disastrous development for the wetlands in recent decades, which have left the riverbeds dry, exacerbated dust storms, water, and soil salinity. Gotvand Dam, inaugurated in 2012 supplies water to the sugarcane plants, lies on a salt bed, Gachsaran salt formation, a well known Iran’s classical environmental disaster.
A total of 170 dams were constructed on the basins of the Karkheh, Karun, Maroun, and Jarrahi rivers. Seventy of those dams were constructed on Karun. This is, while experts say none of the dams should have been constructed in the first place. Many ask why all these dams are needed? Where are the waters diverted to?
Further depleting Karun, water has been diverted to other provinces. During the Shah’s era, the first tunnel built to bring uper Karun water to Isfahan’s Zayandeh-Rud. Since then, pipes and canals have multiplied to include waterways to Qom, Yazd, Kerman and new routes to Isfahan.
After the discovery of Iran’s first oil reserves in Masjed Soleiman, Khuzestan became the richest province in Iran and the largest refinery in the Middle East was built in the city of Abadan. While Khuzestan is best known as Iran’s oil-rich province, it also lies in the fertile crescent, on some of the earth’s best water and land. More than one million hectares of its land are agricultural, and had provided the country with crucial crops during the cold seasons. But this has been changed as the rivers die out.
Palm trees are considered the main source of income for farmers of Khuzestan, Bushehr, Hormozgan, Kerman, and Fars provinces. The region was the main producer and exporter of date product in Iran, second after Egypt. However, farmers who have relied completely on these trees are now facing uncertainty and dark future as the regime refuses to provide them with the required water for their farmlands.
Although, a palm tree is capable of resisting harsh condition, yet it can be vulnerable to salty water, and hazardous dust storms, and die in short time. The Deputy Rural Cooperative Organization of Ahwaz explained that the input volume of Khuzestan various rivers water have been severely reduced. As a result of the low level of the water in the rivers, man has witnessed the surge of salty water from the sea into Karun River and other rivers, which increased the amount of salinity of the water in this river and date farms around them.
Additionally, as mentioned construction of Gotvand Dam, an IRGC created environmental disaster, where the lake’s bed is located on a mountain of salt, has contributed to increasing salinity of Karun River. This dam has been described as the salt mine, museum of environmental lesson, environmental disaster, and the big national mistake that has added an additional 25% to the salinity of Karun River.
The electrical conductivity (EC) of water is an indicator of its salinity, estimating the level of dissolved solids through the capacity of water to conduct electrical current. The EC level that sugarcane can tolerate is 1.7 mS/cm (mili Siemens per centimeter), whereas the EC level is 17 near the water sources for the sugarcane plants and above 4 mS/cm in some areas around Shadegan.
Entering salts into the marshlands have left its mark on villagers’ lives. Water buffalo must live around fresh water, and Horolazim is increasingly becoming unsuitable for them.
Those farmers who grow other crops like grain, tomatoes or okra, have noticed the effect of salinity as well. These crops that famers have harvested for decades but more and more in recent years, they grow, then, the crops die completely out due to salinity.
The Iran’s clerical regime committed crimes against Khusetanis have no limit. Of course, the regime’s violent crimes are not specific only toward Khuzestan, but they are spread all over Iran. Anything related to the life of people is subject of a brutal attack and is at the mercy of regime’s sinister schemes. The aggressive actions of ruling clerics are directed at people, places, animals, livelihoods, water and even the air.
During past 43 years of Iran’s clerical rule, there has been a rapid decrease in the number of palm trees in Khuzestan province and other date producing regions, leading to the destruction of five million out of six million palm trees in the region of Abadan. As a result of the government destructive policies, the remaining one million palm trees are left to die from thirst, causing hardships for many date farmers. Shadegan, another region that palm trees were main contributor to their economy had five million palm trees in 1989, now, there is only two million of those trees left. Again, those two million tree are awaiting their funeral.
Well, the question is why palm trees are dying? Main reason is thirst, lack of water. Another reason is rise in salinity level, which isn’t tolerable by palm trees, physiological thirst. Further, release of toxic discharge of sugarcane plants and other factories into rivers, which causes certain toxicity. Frequent toxic dust storms from dried up rivers’ beds and accumulation of dust on palm trees greenery, which prevents proper photosynthesis of palm trees, and finally pests attack.
The lack of moisture in soil allows wind to rise dust from the dried up riverbeds and plains, and carry them away as dust storms. The recent dust storms that have overtaken the cities of Ahvaz, Susangerd and Dezful are not a new phenomenon. They have been occurring on a smaller scale for years. They are connected to overlapping issues, some extending beyond Iran’s borders, which are tied together in climate change and global warming.
The dust storms are also taking the life of the date orchards, which is directly tied to the livelihood of villagers of the area and a typical part of this environment. Also, they are causing spread of a palm killing fungus, which generates large discolored patches on the palm leaves called fusarium.
Iranian environmentalists and civil engineers were deeply critical of post war water policy in Khuzestan. Now, the consequences of building so many dams are becoming evident.
Additionally, the Chinese oil companies that came in during the Ahmadinejad years have further exacerbated the water problem. Their companies had stated that, their technology won’t work in a maritime environment. Therefore, to explore oil, hectare after hectare of the plant species around Horolazim wetland were burned or bulldozed.
Today, 90% of Iran’s economy is under IRGC’s control and under direct supervision of Supreme Leader. However, since the structure of the governing system is corrupt, commanders, and officials of the IRGC are mostly individuals without real classical education and expertise, their control over the Iranian economy have destroyed Iran’s economic infrastructure. In addition to plundering Iran’s capital and wealth, they are only concerned with brutal suppression of Iranians, expanding the regime’s military, missile, and nuclear industries, and financing proxy and terrorist forces in the region. Thus, they have not paid attention to the reconstruction of any other infrastructures in the country.
Decades of mismanagement, corruption, wrong policies, terrorisms’ expenditure, and unsustainable economic plans of ruling clerics have exacerbated the internal and external factors, and worked to destroy the natural fabric of Khuzestan and whole Iran. Iran’s environmental crisis is intertwined with other socioeconomic crisis. The salvation of such crisis isn’t within the power of ruling clerics and the Iranian uprisings for “Freedom and Water” have decided to bring down this government in its entirety, which is enemy of humanity, freedom, peace, security happiness, and the welfare of people. Now, which side must free world take?
* Khalil Khani is an Environmental Specialist and a Human Rights activist. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology, Botany, and Environmental Studies from Germany and has taught at the University of Tehran and the Hesse State University in Germany. He is also a Doctor of Medical Psychology from the United States.