Iranian regime authorities are acknowledging exceptionally high levels of illness and death due to extreme atmospheric pollution among residents of the Ahwaz region of south and southwest Iran due to the choking atmospheric pollution that blankets the region. This comes days after it was confirmed that Ahwaz currently suffers the third worst levels of air quality globally, with the port city of Ma’shour, a hub for the petrochemical industry in Ahwaz, having the highest pollution levels in Iran, with an Air Quality Index (AQI) level of 177, putting it in the red danger zone in terms of air quality, alongside the regional capital, Ahwaz, which has an AQI of 153.
Interviewed by the state-run Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), Farkhunde Shafii, an atmospheric pollution specialist based at the Khuzestan Health Center in the regional capital, Ahwaz City, revealed that in 2021 alone, “the Ahwaz region witnessed the deaths of eight children under the age of five from acute respiratory infection, 78 deaths from chronic pulmonary obstruction, 65 deaths from lung cancer, 2,063 deaths from heart disease,” with air pollution cited as a primary factor in all these cases. Without urgent action to reduce the pollution, the situation will only get worse, Shafii warned.
While climate change is a factor in the severe and worsening air pollution afflicting Ahwaz, the leading causes are entirely manmade and attributable to the Iranian regime’s policies and indifference to environmental concerns. Firstly, the Ahwaz region is home to the Iranian oil, gas and petrochemical industry, housing over 95 per cent of Iran’s oil and gas resources and reserves; both the Iranian state firms and the foreign oil and gas companies which the regime allows to operate in the country in return for massive payments effectively work with no environmental regulation or limits.
Adding further insult to injury, the regime in Tehran prohibits the indigenous Ahwazi Arab people from working in or gaining any other profits from the oil and gas industry on their land, with most of the region’s people, already denied the most fundamental rights due to their Arab ethnicity, living in absolute poverty.
The oil and gas wells, pipelines and related facilities that cover much of Ahwaz operate with little or no control on levels of atmospheric pollution, meaning acrid black smoke belches from uncontrolled gas flares, while large quantities of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds, and toxic particulate matter are pumped into the atmosphere on a 24-7 basis from multiple wells.
The choking air pollution is accompanied by equally toxic water pollution, with large quantities of oil and gas seeping into the groundwater around the wells and petrochemical plants and into nearby rivers and marshlands. This toxic leakage is worsened in turn by the regime’s construction of a vast network of upstream dams and pipelines on the region’s rivers which divert most of the water supply that once made Ahwaz a farming and fishing heartland and a verdant breadbasket for much of the surrounding region to other regions of Iran.
While the regime’s oil and gas industry is the major regional polluter, the state sugarcane industry comes a close second; this has seen massive tracts of land seized by the regime and turned over to sugarcane growing, along with refineries, both massively loss-making and both adding to the water shortages and heavy atmospheric pollution already plaguing the region.
In addition to intensifying the water pollution downstream, adding to the air pollution and leaving insufficient river water to wash away the oil, gas and sugarcane industries’ pollutants in the remaining water supply, the regime’s damming and diversion of the region’s rivers has also caused worsening, large-scale desertification, forcing much of the remaining rural Ahwazi Arab population to abandon their ancestral lands to move to poverty-stricken ghettoes around the regional cities or to other areas or Iran. Ahwazis who remain in Ahwaz face a battle for survival; as if contending with the regime’s racism and oppression weren’t enough, the people also contend with a water supply that’s often brackish, foul-smelling and unsuitable for animal, let alone human, consumption, air that’s often unbreathable, even in winter when acid rain adds to the region’s woes, and severe shortages of basic infrastructure such as sewage services.
While Persian Iranians are encouraged to move to the region with offers of excellent jobs denied to Ahwazis and well-appointed homes with gardens in purpose-built settlements far from the wells, factories and refineries, provided with all amenities, including first class water, sewage and other services, along with schools, shopping centres and cinemas, the indigenous Ahwazi Arab population – who are forbidden from living in these communities – continue to be marginalised and brutalised.