How Iran’s Regime Uses Floods and Drought as Tools of Ethnic Cleansing
by Rahim Hamid, Dur Untash Studies Centre
In most countries prone to regular severe weather events such as heavy flooding, governments take precautionary measures in vulnerable regions to at least minimize the probable damage and protect citizens’ lives and property.
Unfortunately, however, some governments not only exploit such disasters but deliberately manufacture and intensify them as a strategic weapon against parts of the population that threaten the leaders’ economic exploitation of their resources. These governments spare no effort to engineer or exacerbate the effects of such disasters, effectively weaponizing climate change against the people.
Iran’s theocratic regime is one such government, pursuing policies that effectively amount to ethnocide against the Ahwazi Arab population. Ahwazis have the misfortune to live in an oil-rich region, from which Iran extracts 95% of the oil and gas resources that it lays claim to. This massive oil wealth, which was the primary reason for Iran’s forcible annexation of Ahwaz in the early 20th century, has been a far greater curse than a blessing to the Ahwazi people, most of whom now subsist in nearly medieval conditions of poverty. The international community, meanwhile, seems indifferent to their plight.
One of the regime’s policies is the construction of a massive network of dams and pipelines diverting the flow of the great rivers which once made Ahwaz a regional center of agriculture and fishing. While the regime claims that this vast river-damming and diversion project is part of a national development program, in reality, it uses its control of the rivers to flood some areas in the region and withhold water from others; in both cases this is a means of making these areas uninhabitable and displacing the local population.
This is not a new development, with successive Iranian governments working for decades to drive Ahwazis from their ancestral lands. In the past couple of decades, however, with the development of the river-damming and diversion program, this policy has been massively accelerated. Many rural Ahwazi areas have been deliberately submerged, wiping out crops of wheat, barley, and rice, as well as devastating local communities, destroying homes and property, and leaving livestock with no grazing pasture or fodder. This leaves the local people, mostly small farmers, scrabbling to survive on the brink of destitution. Like other non-Persian peoples in Iran, Ahwazis have little access to legal redress.
Warnings have been issued mere hours before lands are to be flooded. The people of Ahwaz have learnt through necessity to rely only on one another; with the regime unleashing the floods then abandoning the people to their fate, it’s other Ahwazi people in unaffected areas who come forward to offer assistance and open their own homes to those left homeless.
In the past weeks, Ahwazis have again been enduring such regime-facilitated crises, bearing the brunt of torrential rain and heavy floods that swept across large parts of the Middle East and once again caused the dams to overflow. The leadership in Tehran reacted with its customary indifference, with local residents strongly condemning the authorities’ negligence as hundreds of villages were devastated in northern Ahwaz.
Thousands of people have fled their homes in the severely affected areas, especially those bordering Iraq such as Rofaye and the surrounding villages. Ahwazi citizens in the eponymously named regional capital, Ahwaz, and other cities in the south of the region, have been sending aid to those affected by the floods, with an estimated 100,000 people in desperate need of food and water.
The Ahwazi rights groups said that the situation in Ahwaz is extremely worrying, pointing to the massive losses incurred in some parts of Ahwaz due to floods. They said that the local activists are working tirelessly to help those affected by the floods, especially in the most heavily impacted villages and rural areas.
An Ahwazi farmer told the Dur Untash Centre that he does not believe the Iranian regime’s claims of innocence concerning the flooding. Speaking on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation, he said, “We believe the current problem is caused by the regime policies. These policies will leave a lot of the Ahwazis displaced and homeless after the damage caused to their rural areas.”
He charged that the regime had deliberately opened the dams’ sluice gates, causing massive damage to agricultural lands.
Local sources said the number of local villages in Ahwaz deserted by their residents due to the flooding has risen to 40, including 11 villages in Susa (Shush) county and six in Qunaitra (Dezful). The flooding has also turned the city of Rofaye into a ghost town. Flooding has also devastated parts of Shawur county around Susa.
When the regime began building its dams in their areas, locals were told that the dams would mean prosperity for those in the area since they were designed for such purposes as hydropower, irrigation and (most ironically) flood control. While the regime spent hundreds of billions of riyals on building the dams whose overflow now regularly submerges the surrounding lands, it has never compensated the peoples whose lands it seized to construct them on, or even paved the roads in the area, which turn to impassable quagmires during every flood.
Further downstream, the mega-dam projects have dried out rivers that were once so broad that oceangoing vessels were amongst the many boats sailing them. These mighty waterways are now reduced to muddy trickles of water. The fishing that sustained generations of Ahwazis, especially around the massive deltas and marshlands, has now almost died out along with the fish and marine habitat. The environmental costs, including desertification as the rivers dry up downstream, help exacerbate extreme weather events such as choking sandstorms. The supposed benefits of the mega-dams promised by the regime have yet to materialize.
The farmers who manage to cling on to their lands are fighting a losing battle, with no water to irrigate their crops, in the face of drought in summer and flooding in winter. Meanwhile, the water diverted from the region is sent to ethnically central Persian provinces in Iran.
The water diversion network includes:
The Koohrang 1 tunnel on the Zayandehrud River, actually constructed before the revolution in 1979; the new Koohrang 2 and 3 tunnels, the Chashmeh-Langhan tunnel, and the Gholab 1 and tunnels, the Vanak-Soleghan Water Transfer Plan, the Beheshti-Abad Transfer Plan and the Qomroud Transfer Plan. The prominent Rafsanjani family’s pistachio farms in Kerman Province have benefited from these diversions. Water diverted by the Dez Dam is used by heavy industry in Arak, capital of Markazi Province.
Anger is rising among the Ahwazi people at this relentless injustice. As one Ahwazi farmer told the Dur Untash Centre: “The regime destroyed what we had for hundreds of generations; they slowly confiscated more and more of our lands and built roads to the oil rigs and refineries, but they even refused to hire us; instead they’d bring in strangers to work there, and give us only the pollution and waste from their oil operations, killing more of our crops and animals and even the migratory birds. Now they’re flooding us and destroying all we have, all we own, the only way we have to make a living. We belong to this land, and we’re not afraid to die in its arms, but we won’t abandon it for strangers. We’ll drown, but we won’t abandon our lands.”
Ahwazi environmentalists say that in the 1940s and 1950s, before the dams were built, natural floods used to happen rarely, due to particularly torrential rains. They note that with the establishment of the first dams in the 1970s, Iranian authorities often ordered dam management personnel to open the floodgates periodically to pressure Ahwazis in rural areas to leave their lands. At the time, the regime hoped that sugar cane companies would move in to take control of abandoned riverbank lands—a policy which its successor regime changed only slightly, pursuing the same ethnic cleansing policy and massively expanding the mega-dam project.
Ahwazi farmers recall that officials responded to their complaints about the deliberate flooding of their lands by stating, “Your ancestors made a mistake in building their villages along the rivers.”
Interviewed by Dur Untash Studies Centre, 67-year-old Abdullah Kaabi, a resident of one of the flood-stricken areas, raised his hands to the sky in a despairing appeal to God. “What should I say? We’ve lost hope,” he said. “We don’t trust this regime – its officials never feel any sense of humanity or responsibility to compensate us for these heavy losses they’ve brought upon us. Now we are faced with landlessness, homelessness, joblessness, and forced displacement. Where do we have left to go now? We have no place left!”
After decades of devastation and loss resulting from successive Iranian regimes’ environmentally ruinous exploitation of their once lush and fertile lands, many see Tehran’s primary objective as to ethnically cleanse Ahwazis from their homeland in order to lay claim to its resources.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate.
This story and photo first appeared Feb. 5 on the website of the Dur Untash Studies Center.
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