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Iran government in denial over Karoon diversion project

Iran's Minister Parviz Fatah has rejected the United Nation Environment Programme's (UNEP) concerns over the environmental impact of the government's Karoun River diversion project, despite concerns that it will create an environmental disaster on the scale of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

According to local media reports, Fatah said that the government would instead step up its river diversion programme, claiming that it "will not damage any part of the country and will not reduce the quota of water of any province." He said that Khuzestan would benefit from hydroelectric power stations that form part of the river diversion project.

UNEP has officially warned the Iranian Environment Association that the southwest of Iran, which is the homeland of the Ahwazi Arabs, and south of Iraq are facing a situation similar to the environmental catastrophes that have affected the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the Amazon jungle. The region contains extensive marshes and rivers that support endangered species of fish as well as migratory birds. Ahwazi farmers and fishermen also depend on the waters for their livelihoods.

According to the UNEP, the Hor al-Azeem marsh has transformed from one of the biggest marshes in the Middle East to a barren wasteland with soil that is too salty to sustain any plants. The marsh lies at the mouth of the Karkeh River on the Iran-Iraq border and also receives water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Dam projects in Turkey and Iraq as well as river diversion projects such as Iraq's Saddam Canal have decimated the marshland, reducing it to a tenth of its original size.

Iran's current project of transferring the waters of the Karoun River to Rafsanjan, Isfahan and other desertified Iranian provinces will have major consequences for the marshland, according to environmental activists. They point to the impact of river diversion on the Aral Sea, which has seen thousands of people lose their jobs in the fishing industry, a lack of drinking water, high rates of infant mortality, still births and deformities, high cancer rates, respiratory illnesses and skin problems. Ahwazi Arabs in Khuzestan already suffer from poor health, low life expectancy, high rates of unemployment and pollution from the oil and petrochemicals industries. The diversion of the Karoun would spell disaster for their livelihoods and well-being.

In January 2006, local members of parliament threatened to resign their seats in protest at the diversion of the Karoun. They claimed that it would seriously undermine water security and the livelihoods of many farmers in the Arab-majority province. In December 2005, the MPs launched a petition to impeach Fattah over the project.

Water quality is a major problem for residents of Khuzestan. In most of the province's towns and cities, water is polluted with industrial wastes and open sewers run through the middle of the streets. In Khafjieh, in the western part of the province, the situation has become so bad that schools are failing to provide safe drinking water to children and have closed. Meanwhile, the river diversion project along with the construction of dams is already making the situation worse. The Karoon River is also an important source of water supply for farmers. The diversion project will hit the province's Arab majority hard, exacerbating endemic poverty in the region by reducing water availability.

Ahwazi Arab representatives have long been campaigning against river diversion, but the Iranian government has continued to press ahead with the scheme. At a session of the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in May-June 2005, Karim Abdian, Director of Ahwaz Education and Human Rights Foundation, drew attention to the diversion of water from Karkhe River, which passes through an entirely indigenous Ahwazi Arab area of Howizeh and Boustan, to Kuwait and the diversion of the Karoon's water to central Iranian provinces.