The unique agricultural potential and capabilities of the Ahwaz region, located on the eastern coast of the Arabian Gulf, which runs from the Shatt al-Arab in the north to the Strait of Hormuz (Bab al-Salam) in the south, mean that the area, which includes about 3 million hectares of agricultural land could play a crucial role in ensuring food stability and security in the region.
Despite the increasing urbanisation in Ahwaz, such as the migration of its residents of its rural areas and small towns to the regional capital of Ahwaz and other cities like Ma’shour, Quneitra (Dezful), Abu Shaher, Jamberon (Bandar Abbas), around 1.2 million Ahwazis still depend on agriculture for their livelihood. This underlines the vital role of agriculture as a major economic sector for many Ahwazis citizens and the essential role which it plays in economic growth, poverty alleviation, and employment development. These factors and the region’s unique assets such as a diverse range of water resources and a wealth of arable land mean that, with responsible land management, Ahwaz could be central to the development of sustainable agriculture in the region. Unfortunately, however, no sustainable agriculture projects have yet materialised due to the various environmentally devastating policies imposed by Iran’s regime in its bid to marginalise the Ahwazi economy.
Ahwaz still has a decisive and essential role in agricultural production and food security throughout Iran. At present, Ahwaz ranks first in Iran in terms of the production of various agricultural and horticultural products. According to Iranian official statistics, more than 40% of sugar and about 18% of wheat in Iran are produced in north Ahwaz province (Khuzestan).
Despite being one of the most important economic sectors in Ahwaz, agriculture has consistently faced significant challenges due to Iran’s deliberate neglectful policies and mismanagement. As these challenges have increased, the very existence of the once-thriving local agricultural sector, along with food security, and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Ahwazi families in this field are severely threatened. The Iranian regime’s policy of supporting political agriculture instead of sustainable and dynamic agriculture, through building dams and rerouting rivers, draining fertile land, and otherwise helping to cause widespread desertification and accelerate climate change, has increased the challenges facing the agricultural sector in the Ahwaz region.
Since 1979, the Iranian regime has used every possible method to undermine the Ahwazi economy, including agriculture, due to its central role in protecting the stability of many Ahwazi families. To this end, the regime uses ‘political agriculture’ to destroy the Ahwazi farming sector, seizing vast areas of land used for centuries to grow sustainable crops such as wheat, vegetables and fruit to use for politically motivated farming projects such as its loss-making state sugarcane-growing and refining industry, which has wreaked havoc on vast areas of Ahwaz, destroying the fertility of the lands and soil, pumping chemicals used in the refining process back into the area’s rivers, and robbing thousands of Ahwazi farmers of their livelihood. The lack of necessary investment, low crop productivity, and quantitative and qualitative decrease in subsurface resources (especially water and soil), along with the climatic risks, fragmentation and theft of agricultural land, in addition to related challenges, have had a devastating effect on the agricultural sector in Ahwaz.
There is no doubt that political agriculture, such as the regime’s sugarcane project, has had a destructive impact on Ahwazi farmers’ ability to farm crops such as wheat and rice, with sugarcane cultivation adversely affecting the water and soil quality. The Iranian regime, already diverting vast amounts of water through its river-damming and diversion projects, is also using much of the remaining freshwater supply for sugarcane projects, with Ahwazi farmers left with little or no freshwater for irrigation due to a lack of agricultural water quotas and the slow process of settling agricultural lands. All of these factors have made the regime’s sugarcane cultivation project one of the most critical challenges facing Ahwazi farmers in recent decades, with many Ahwazi and Iranian experts in the field of agricultural economics warning that the activities of the state-run sugarcane development companies will cause many serious, long-term problems for Ahwazi agriculture.
Sugarcane projects also have serious consequences for the environment, such as pollution via the chemicals used in the refining process, as mentioned above, and the intensive use of freshwater, with these consequences having a dire long-term impact on local agriculture. In addition, the burning of the sugarcane stubble following the harvesting process releases very thick, acrid, toxic smoke that spreads across a radius of several kilometres, causing air pollution and respiratory problems for citizens of neighbouring towns or villages, as well as polluting the remaining river waters used for irrigation. Another environmental problem is the intensive use of water for irrigation of the sugarcane fields, which has led to increasing salinity of the remaining water supply, causing further problems for agriculture and further reducing the already scarce freshwater supply available for drinking and household use in Ahwaz. Despite numerous complaints about these issues from Ahwazis, officials have made no effort to resolve these problems.
Water resources have central importance in formulating strategies to create economic, political, and security relations for societal and market stability. Water resources also constrain and affect the political and economic plans of the global powers. While many countries play an important role in controlling the regional water resources of the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, Ahwaz’ unique situation, with three large rivers as well as marshes and lakes, makes it arguably the most important area in this context in the Gulf region. With proper management, Ahwaz could significantly benefit and positively impact multiple fields in the region, including helping to achieve economic and political stability and food security through its water and agricultural resources. Without it, Iran’s regime will continue to monopolise water resources and to weaponise them across the region, causing further misery and instability.
Despite all these resources (about 26 billion cubic metres of water flows annually through the major rivers and waterways of Ahwaz), or possibly motivated by greed to control them, successive Iranian regimes have marginalised, undermined, and destroyed the indigenous Ahwazi people’s economic power, devastating agriculture and the environment through building dams and diverting the course of rivers. In fact, these environmentally devastating policies have seriously increased since 2005, not only threatening Ahwaz, but also the surrounding countries of the region, specifically the Arab Gulf states and Iraq.
According to the Iranian regime’s own statistics, there are currently 72 dams in Ahwaz (including Khuzestan, Bushehr and Hormuzgan). The Iranian authorities seek to build more dams to divert Ahwazi water resources to other Iranian regions. More than 40 massive dams and pipeline networks have been built so far on the Karoon, Karkheh and Jarahi rivers in Ahwaz, with 25 dams on the Karoon river, seven on Karkheh and eight on the Jarahi.
This dam-building policy has deprived thousands of Ahwazi farmers of their livelihood, with agriculture in the region suffering immense damage and losses, as the amount and quality of remaining crops continue to dwindle. The head of the Khuzestan Agricultural Trade Union Organisation has expressed alarm at the upcoming completion of the Gotvand Dam, which is likely to add to the existing problems with toxic levels of salinity in the remaining water supply. The State Water Company and Ministry of Energy are attempting to cover up this fact using their vast financial resources, forming a working group to refute the enormous evidence of the damaging impact of this latest dam; despite the government entrusting this study on the Gotvand Dam to the Water Institute of the state-run University of Tehran in the hope that it would reflect the state line, the institute’s study found that the Gotvand Dam is beset by numerous problems, with its colossal salt dome leading to devastating levels of salinity for downstream lands. With this dam being an urgent issue for the province’s agriculture, more efforts should be made by the provincial authorities to address this great challenge that has seriously affected the region’s economy.
The regime’s river-damming and diversion program, in addition to other regime projects, have left the Ahwaz region facing an environmental and water catastrophe due to the regime’s disastrous and deliberate mismanagement. For example, the globally renowned Ahwaz marshlands are facing acute water shortages as the damming of rivers leads to dried-up river beds, resulting in the widespread destruction of the marsh ecosystem that sustained a vast range of animal and marine life, as well as generations of fishermen and farmers. The drying up of the Ahwaz marshes has also led to an increase in sandstorms, and levels of atmospheric dust are about 21 times worse than previously. Meanwhile, the water shortages in Ahwaz caused by the rerouting of rivers have exacerbated the suffering and the economic crises facing citizens already struggling due to Iran’s systematic racism. These policies have wreaked environmental havoc, leading to widespread desertification in Ahwaz.
Even before the devastating man-made floods of early 2019, Ahwazis were already suffering due to the Iranian regime’s damming and rerouting of regional rivers, with the dams numbering 72 to date and many more planned afflicted by severe water shortages in summer and flooding in winter. The people are very keenly aware of the terrible irony of the regime’s policies; in the words of a common contemporary Ahwazi saying, “Iran deprives us of water in summer and floods us with water in winter.” Although the initial flooding this year was natural in origin, it was massively intensified and the effects massively worsened by the calculating orders of President Rouhani to open the floodgates on the dams upstream, supposedly to relieve the pressure on the poorly built structure. This, in coordination with the IRGC’s construction of downstream berms that diverted the floodwaters away from the rivers’ usual course running to the deltas at the Gulf, resulted in massive, terribly destructive flooding of residential areas and farmlands that left at least one million homeless. The priorities demonstrated by the regime – protecting its dams and oil and gas installations in the Gulf delta area at the expense of Ahwazis’ homes and lives – was an obvious indication of the contempt with which Ahwazis are treated. The deliberately engineered and wholly preventable mass dispossession of Ahwazis by the flooding of their homes and lands showed once again that the regime is knowingly unleashing catastrophic environmental changes on the Ahwazi people as another tool in its efforts to help drive the Arab population from their lands, insuring itself against the indigenous people’s demands for freedom and their possible threat to Tehran’s absolute control of their oil and gas resources.
Unfortunately, the man-made floods of 2016, 2017 and 2019 were used as an excuse for the Iranian regime to again punish the Ahwazi people and the local environment in a political and premeditated action intended to completely destroy the habitability of this region. The regime officials opened the number 3 and 4 valves on the Karkheh dam, using the excuse that their reservoirs were full to overflowing and would flow right into the farms and villages. More than 2,000 people were displaced. Even though the regime had the ability to channel the water towards the marshes in order to revive the environment while simultaneously avoiding destroying people’s lives, it chose to gamble with people’s lives for the sake of its oil rigs and its racist and inhumane policies and livelihood, triggering an environmental crisis simply to make oil-prospecting similar by forcing locals to flee. And in the meanwhile, they carried out the project of transferring a considerable amount of Karoon river’s water to the central region of Iran, because they are well aware that if the water reaches the marshes, oil extraction will become more expensive for the oil mafia.”
The policy of building dams in Ahwaz has also increased poverty, unemployment and instability through mass migration, the spread of diseases, the toxic pollution of the waters of the remaining rivers and marshes and the destruction of the domestic and regional ecosystem.
Draining fertile land
The fertility of agricultural land in Ahwaz historically played a significant role in the prosperity of local industries such as agriculture and livestock, with 40% of Iran’s freshwater supply found in the Ahwaz region. If the regime’s network of dams were dismantled and these waters allowed to once again flow through their natural courses, this asset could be used to invest in agriculture, electrical production, transportation, fisheries and tourism, and investment could be promoted.
Contrary to this, however, successive Iranian governments have worked hard to implement various projects aimed at weakening and undermining any projects which might benefit the indigenous Ahwazi population, including agriculture. This includes expanding the area designated for the Iranian regime’s sugarcane project in eastern Ahwaz to the west, which has led to the dredging of nearly 250 Ahwazi villages on both sides of the Karoon river in an area extending between the cities of Ahwaz, Abadan and Muhammarah.
The draining of waters used for irrigation has played a major role in destroying the fertile lands of Ahwaz. The Executive Secretary of the Falahiyeh (Shadegan in Farsi) Agricultural Syndicate, Hoshang Maqamsi, has warned against the damage already inflicted by this, saying: “The waters of the agricultural lands have extremely high salinity levels and carry types of harmful agricultural pesticides, causing the loss of aquatic animals in the Ahwazi rivers.”
Maqamsi also noted that “The salinity levels of these drained waterways is higher than that of sea water. The discharge of these waterways has led to the destruction of agriculture and all types of crops around several Ahwazi cities such as Falahiyeh and Ma’shour and it has caused irreparable damage to the environment of the region.”
Similarly, the representative of Misan county in the Iranian parliament, Qassim Sa’adi, has warned, “The fertile lands in Ahwaz are in danger of drying up due to the wrong policies of the Iranian Ministry of Energy.” He continued, “The destruction of agricultural land in Ahwaz will gradually lead to the spread of other serious crises such as unemployment and poverty in the region.” Sa’adi added that most of the residents of Misan county in Ahwaz are farmers who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, so officials who decided to transfer Ahwazi water to other regions in Iran have caused severe damage to the economic wellbeing of these citizens. Referring to the fertility of agricultural lands in Misan in the cultivation of wheat and barley, Sa’adi pointed out: “In previous years, Misan county won the first place in terms of productivity and quantity of crops in Iran, but recent water policies have a serious impact on agriculture as it turned farms into desert lands.”
Climate change in Ahwaz
There is no doubt that waterways such as the Shatt al-Arab and Karoon and wetlands such as Khor Khoran, Hor al-Azim and Hor Falahiyeh have played an essential role in maintaining environmental stability in the Gulf region. With careful management of these waterways, wetlands and lakes, Ahwaz could once again play a crucial role in this regard. In recent years, environmental concerns in Ahwaz have become a critical issue due to the Iranian regime’s malign and environmentally destructive activities. The regime’s actions are not only harmful to humans but fail to comply even the most minimal degree with international environmental protection regulations, despite the international community’s ratification of many protocols, regulations and agreements related to the environment since the 1960s as awareness increases of the very real dangers of climate change, regionally and globally.
Maintaining a sustainable environment is a vital consideration in formulating strategies for shaping economic and political policies and guiding diplomatic relations that can ensure stability in the Middle East, where water and energy resources play an essential role in creating a clean environment that protects the economy and ensures stability. Despite this basic fact, however, the escalating environmental crisis in Ahwaz resulting from the regime’s disastrous mismanagement has become a daily threat to the lives and safety of citizens in Ahwaz and other regional countries such as Iraq.
Climatic and environmental disasters such as droughts and floods, salinity and low quality of water resources, the continued destruction of natural resources and intensification of soil erosion, scarcity of potable water, the continuous process of land-use change, improper exploitation of forests and pastures, and increasing levels of degradation and desertification have all played a major role in the deterioration of the environmental situation and devastated the agricultural sector in Ahwaz, with the Iranian regime blindly continuing this approach, despite the criticisms of Ahwazi citizens, international organisations and even many of the regime’s own officials.
By contrast, the world’s developed countries, such as Canada, the United States, and Britain, and regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, aim to develop agriculture and build complete green areas to protect the domestic and global environment. However, the Iranian regime shows as much contempt for international laws on the environment as for those on human rights, wilfully destroying all the fertile lands and water resources in Ahwaz. Iran’s climate change policy in Ahwaz is leading to a rapidly worsening self-perpetuating cycle of severe water shortages, pollution of the remaining water supplies, and drying up of fertile agricultural lands.
Meanwhile, Canada, in December 2020, announced 64 new measures and $15 billion in investments towards ensuring a healthy environment and economy, including $1.5 billion over five years for green and inclusive community buildings even though Canada has green spaces spread across the country with lakes and a vast diversity of water. Unlike Iran’s regime, however, Canada seeks to respect environmental laws more broadly in order to protect the global and domestic environment.
While Canada is already home to healthy and resilient forests that support the wellbeing of Canadians and their strong economy, the Canadian government is seeking to establish other green areas in the country as a means of improving the environment and quality of life for all its citizens, current and future. For this reason, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources announced the next step in the Government of Canada’s commitment to plant two billion trees across the country, saying: “Planting two billion trees is more than just a plan for climate action. It’s a plan for thousands of jobs.”
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia aims to plant 10 billion trees in the coming decade as part of an ambitious campaign unveiled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to reduce carbon emissions and combat pollution and land degradation. Saudi Arabia is also working with other Arab states in the Middle East to plant an additional 40 billion trees, which the prince said would be the world’s most extensive reforestation programme.
While these nations forge ahead with environmentally friendly policies, by stark contrast, the Iranian regime has transformed the once-lush, and fertile Ahwazi agricultural lands into barren salt plains, with four million hectares of Ahwazi lands are at risk of extinction despite the fertility of the land and the diversity of water resources in the Ahwaz region. According to the ILNA news agency, rather than resolving water problems in the Ahwaz region, the Gotvand Dam, one of the largest dams in Iran, has become a severe threat to regional agriculture. Many experts believe that unprofessional and engineering errors in constructing this dam caused the green areas to turn into salt marshes. If no action is taken to solve this problem within the next ten years, these lands, which in the not-too-distant past were considered the agricultural hub for Iran, will also be barren plains.
The head of the Iranian regime’s own Agricultural Jihad Organisation for Khuzestan, Kaykhosrow Changluai, warned recently: “Transferring water from the Karoon tributaries for non-drinking purposes will destroy Khuzestan agriculture,” adding, “The quality of Karoon water is not comparable to previous years,” as well as stating, “The current EC level of Karoon water is detrimental to both crops and horticultural products.”
The Iranian regime is apparently intent on continuing its hostile approach to the agricultural sphere and the natural environment in Ahwaz by draining rivers, building dams, and supporting politically motivated, environmentally ruinous and unsustainable agrarian projects such as the sugarcane project, which have led to barren agricultural lands, water pollution and desertification. Iran’s policies have had various devastating effects on the ecosystem and agriculture in Ahwaz, with its draining rivers and marshes not only devastating the ecosystem and driving numerous plant and animal species to the brink of extinction, but destroying the livelihoods of countless Ahwazis dependent on agriculture and fishing through poisoning both the lands and the remaining waterways.
The regime’s deliberate sabotage and desertification of agricultural lands in Ahwaz are among the most critical challenges facing Ahwazi agriculture. Although the Ahwaz region has sufficient agricultural lands to protect food security domestically and regionally, the Iranian regime deliberately pursues a policy of cultivating sugarcane instead of sustainable agriculture such as wheat, vegetables, and fruits, devastating much of the arable land in Ahwaz.
There is no doubt that the policy of destroying agricultural lands in Ahwaz through sugarcane cultivation, draining and diverting rivers and polluting the once-pristine waterways has had a severe impact not only on the natural environment but on the livelihoods of about 1.2 million Ahwazi citizens, with the continuation of this policy devastating the ecosystem, spreading diseases, and forcing citizens to migrate to Persian cities and Western countries. It is increasingly clear that failure to stop Iran’s policy of sabotaging the Ahwaz environment and drying up the fertile lands will harm the economy and health not only of Ahwazis but of other regional countries such as Iraq and the Arab Gulf states, with the destruction of the livelihoods of Ahwazi citizens and border cities in Iraq such as Basra and Amarah forcing citizens to migrate towards Western countries in search of job opportunities and a better life and simply for survival. All these factors indicate that the Iranian regime’s policies will harm the interests of all the world’s countries, including those in the West. This is further evidence that the best solution to this growing crisis is to prevent Iran from continuing its policy of building dams, draining rivers, sabotaging fertile lands, and withholding water supplies essential to Ahwazi agriculture.