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"Destruction of Ahwaz's marshes is like the destruction of the Amazon"

A speech by Ahwazi environmental activist Haifa Assadi, at the Ahwaz human rights meeting in the UK's Houses of Parliament, 15 May 2013

The Ahwaz region faces an environmental catastrophe on a par with the destruction of the Amazon rainforests. River diversion and the draining of the marshes are turning a once fertile land into desert while industrial pollution has made Ahwaz City the most polluted place on Earth, according to the World Health Organisation. As well as destroying the unique ecology of the region, the effects have been devastating for the indigenous Ahwazi Arab population.

Over centuries, the climate and environment of Ahwaz have depended on the rivers flowing through the region. The Karoon, Karkheh, Dez and Jarrahi rivers play an important role in the conservation of the marshlands of Falahiyeh and Hawr-Alazim. The life of the Arab farmers depends on the rivers’ water. Moreover, rivers prevent the salt water of the Gulf flowing up the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

However, the Iranian regime has been actively engaged in plans with the most destructive impacts on the ecological balance of the region and desertification of the once green fields of Ahwaz. One of these plans is the transferring of water to the central provinces of Iran through diversion of the rivers. This is done regardless of the region’s minimum water requirements.

Several dams and diversion tunnels have been built for this purpose of diverting water from the Karoon river to the already dry Zayanderood river of Isfahan. A total of 69 dams have been built or are under construction.

At the same time, the Iranian regime has been investing on the development of the environmentally destructive sugarcane plantations, created on 250,000 hectares of fertile farmland confiscated from Arab farmers.

The destructive environmental impact of these projects is the salty wastewater that turns the green fields of Ahwaz further downstream into barren lands. At the same time, fresh water from the Zagros mountains is being replaced by wastewater from the western cities of the country, contributing to the environmental crisis. The date plantations that traditionally sustained the livelihoods of thousands of Arab farmers are now dying. Moreover, the saline wastewater stored in a large area around the city of Muhammara for evaporation has left hills of salt there to become a great threat to the health of the Arab people of Ahwaz.

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 Muhammara, it has reached four times the maximum level for potable water.

Another important factor in the aridification of the region is the deliberate evaporation of the Hawr Al-Azim marsh. This is being done on a par with Saddam’s destruction of the Iraqi marshes.

Hawr Al-Azim marsh has a very important role in maintaining the ecological balance in the Middle East. It has been completely destroyed and dried out due to the activities of oil companies. According to Ali Mohammad Shaeri, the vice president of the Iranian environment organization, "500 thousand hectares of marshlands of Ahwaz have dried out and this is the main cause of sand storms in the region." The sand storms are the result of a decline in humidity throughout the whole region. As a result, the Pollutant Standards Index – or PSI – 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.

The destruction of Hawr Al-Azim has forced people from more than forty villages to abandon their homes and move to city slums. In Ahwaz City alone there are more than 400,000 Arabs living in slums, suffering difficult health and social conditions.

The environmental crisis in Ahwaz has several negative effects on the health of the indigenous Arab people. In recent years, respiratory and lung diseases have become very common as a result of high air pollution, leading to many deaths. Water pollution has resulted in skyrocketing digestive and Kidney diseases.

Because of the discriminatory policies of the Iranian regime against the indigenous Arab people of Ahwaz, they 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 in the water resources of the region and the resources are expropriated to the advantage of the central provinces. The Iranian regime has no intention of stopping or even considering stopping these plans. Instead, new projects for dam construction and water diversion are being proposed and destructive industries – which do not employ local people – are contributing ever higher amounts of toxic pollution.