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HomeArticles  Gotvand Dam: Environmental Catastrophe and Human Tragedy in Ahwaz Region 

  Gotvand Dam: Environmental Catastrophe and Human Tragedy in Ahwaz Region 


 Ahwazi agricultural lands will turn into barren, saline lands within the next ten years, with four million hectares of Ahwazi Arab farmlands at risk of destruction. Experts consider the construction of the Gotvand Dam as an environmental disgrace.

Iran’s regime has constructed numerous dams and massive networks of pipelines on the Ahwaz’s rivers, particularly in their upstream stretches, with the specific objective of diverting their waters to the Persian-majority provinces in the country’s centre. These dams have a devastating impact on the Karoon River, worsening the existing heavy pollution and creating choking sandstorms and even ‘salt storms’. One of the dams, the vast Gotvand Dam, has been associated with all these catastrophic effects. At a height of 180 m, the Upper Gotvand Dam on the Karoon River is the tallest embankment dam in Iran, with its crest measuring 760 m long.  

The Gotvand Dam, the result of three governments’ failures, is primarily an engineering fiasco, whose construction has been acknowledged as a technical disaster from the outset. The preliminary planning for the dam was completed by the government of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997). The dam’s construction began during the tenure of President Mohammad Khatami’s first term (1997-2005), and its first operational phase was commissioned in 2012 by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government (2005- 2013).

The dam is one of the giant dams built by Iran’s regime built on the Karoon River in the Ahwaz region, whose construction on a saline plateau – or a ‘salt mountain’ as it’s known locally – has spread that lethal salinity downstream through the river’s once pure freshwater course that teemed with all forms of marine life, creating a lifeless, heavily saline waterway and poisoning the groundwater in the region; less than a decade since it began operations, all the agricultural lands of Gotvand city and its surrounding grounds are regularly flooded with extremely salty water.  

The dam’s lake is the second largest artificial lake in the country, with a reservoir of 4.5 billion cubic metres. The height of this gravel dam with a clay core is 182 metres, making it the highest earthen dam in the country.

Instead of solving the concerns about the water crisis in the region, as it was supposedly intended to do, the dam has itself become a threat to communities and agriculture across the entire Ahwaz region which relied on the river’s waters for sustenance. Many experts believe that the unprofessional and disastrous engineering mistakes in the planning and construction of this dam on the Karoon River in the Ahwaz region, 380 km from the outlet of the Karoon River, 25 km north of Tester(Shushtar) city and 10 km northeast of Gotvand city in the Ahwaz region, gradually destroyed the agricultural lands in the area, turning the once fertile arable lands into barren salt flats. If action is not taken to resolve this crisis in the next ten years, these lands, considered the Ahwaz region’s agricultural breadbasket that supplies Iran with crops such as wheat, barley, and rice in the recent past, will become a lifeless saline desert.

The project took form when the Iranian government selected the Tehran-based Mahab Ghodss Consulting Engineering Company to build the Gotvand Dam. Sixty villages in Masjed Soleyman and Lali counties were forcibly depopulated and then submerged underwater to create the dam; although years have passed since the villagers were forcibly evicted from their homes, they have still not been compensated by the Iranian Water and Power Resources Company (IWPC). for the loss of their homes and lands The intensely saline nature of the river’s greatly reduced remaining waters has also had a devastating impact on the 370,000 hectares of agricultural land which the river once irrigated.

The Gotvand Dam was built during the reign of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to Mohammad Ali Bani Hashemi, director of the Water Institute of Tehran, in a recent interview, it was built near the Gachsaran salt mine against the express advice of experts, leading to massively increased water salinity and severely affecting water quality for agricultural use and drinking.

The dam’s construction on salt beds makes the water in the reservoir too saline for consumption or for use in agriculture: the planning phase failed to detect the very obvious point that the geological nature of the dam site chosen would not allow the storage of water suitable for irrigation. Nevertheless, the Iran Water and Power Resources Company, which led construction work on the dam, claims that the Gotvand dam’s construction was approved by the country’s Department of Environment. The DOE, meanwhile, charges the company with failing to disclose the presence of salt beds in its project proposal and subsequent environmental assessment, with each passing the buck to the other in an attempt to evade responsibility for the resulting ecological catastrophe. The solution, according to the Aftab news website, is to release the water in the dam’s reservoir into salt evaporation ponds, which are shallow artificial ponds designed to extract salt from brine, though there has been no apparent move by the relevant agencies to start work on doing so.

The dam project was completed in 2012 with the objective of providing electricity and water for the sugarcane plantations created for the regime’s equally environmentally devastating sugar industry project. According to regime officials, by 2013, approximately seven million tons of salt had accumulated in the dam’s reservoir. Although preliminary studies conducted as recently as 2004 had clearly shown that the dam would cause environmental devastation, these were ignored by regime authorities and the dam was approved.

An engineering disaster

The main proclaimed goals behind this dam’s construction were to one day increase the electricity potential of the country, create a large source of water for various uses such as providing drinking water, irrigating agricultural lands, expanding the fishing industry, creating water control for the downstream river, and preventing the occurrence of floods; another supposed objective behind the dam’s construction was to create jobs for the local Ahwazi Arab people, but in reality, the dam has simply further destroyed their lands, made their water undrinkable, ruined their source of living from fishing and farming. The dam, which was supposed to bring life and prosperity to the Ahwazi Arab people, became a huge salt lake, a poisonous gift to the Ahwaz people, turning all their previously fertile farmlands into barren salt flats. 

The original plan for the Gotvand dam located it 15 kilometres to the north of its present site, far higher in the mountains. Even before the 1979 revolution, the area where the dam is now located was determined to be unsuitable for any such uses in studies conducted by American researchers. Nonetheless, the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Energy decided to relocate the dam since it could store far less water in its original location – 2.2 billion cubic metres of freshwater – compared to the 4.7 billion cubic metres of saltwater it contains in its current location.

While the Iranian regime has always attempted to downplay the devastation inflicted on the local environment and water resources in Ahwaz by its policies as mismanagement or “engineering mistakes”, it has never made any effort to improve this management or reverse these ‘mistakes’. Instead, it allows or even encourages them to continue and worsen as a means of making the environment so toxic that the Ahwazi Arab people have no option but to flee their beloved farmlands and fishing villages in rural areas.

 For the regime, the heartbreak of the Ahwazi people is simply an additional way to force them out and seize their lands, with the escalating air pollution, desertification, water shortages and water salination all simple ways to make the areas unliveable, creating a cruel and insidious pressure on Ahwazis to abandon their lands. 

This unofficial but very calculated strategy of environmental vandalism as a tool of ethnic cleansing means the regime can feign innocence, pointing out that there’s no formal evidence that the environmentally-driven migration of rural Ahwazis to towns and cities is caused by anything but unfortunate mismanagement and “errors”.

Following the dam’s construction, the ‘experts’ in this field attempted to build clay berms in front of the salt domes to prevent salt from entering the water, apparently unaware, despite their expertise, that any clay structure would dissolve in the water, and that the salts entering the freshwater would make it highly saline and unusable. The main reason for this saline buildup is that the water inside the dam remains stagnant, and as time passes, the salt has more opportunities to dissolve in the water and amass in large quantities, which would not occur if it were flowing. 

In an interview with a reporter from the state ILNA news agency, Seyyed Mohsen Mousavi, the senior representative for all the city councils in the Ahwaz region,  explained the problems with the Gotwand dam: “From the very beginning of the construction of this dam, experts who knew about the destructive condition of the dam protested, but no one paid attention. These people [the experts] were aware of the existence of the salt mountain in this area and were aware of the negative environmental effects it would produce, but sadly, their objections were ignored, and the dam was built and water released into it.”

“Some foreign experts arrived before the water was released into the dam and announced that it would be possible to control the salt in the water by creating multi-walled glass,” Mousavi said. Furthermore, he noted, some people claimed that it would be possible to prevent the salt from leaching into the water by constructing a concrete barrier, but these suggestions were never put into action.

Seyyed Mousavi further revealed that a study was conducted at Tehran University to explore and fix the Gotvand Dam’s water problem. As a result of this research, he said, evaporating ponds were built close to the dam to remove salinity so that the salt in its waters could be controlled to some extent by diverting water into these ponds. According to experts on the subject, a second option for achieving this would be to move water to the Gulf via pipelines, while a third would be to develop a water diversion route to the Karoon River, all of which would incur significant financial costs. 

“Currently, no practical action has been taken in the area of the Gotvand Dam’s water salinity problem,” Mousavi remarked. What should happen, he said, is that a special budget should be set aside to better manage this work, and the water should be rerouted around the mountains by creating an alternative channel and be transferred to the river, or should otherwise be diverted in order to reduce the amount of water stored behind the reservoir, or somewhere else. Instead, the current reality is that the water’s prolonged contact with the salt mountain leads to high levels of water salinity, whose adverse effects are only exacerbated once it leaves the dam and flows towards cities of Ahwaz, Falahiyah, Abadan, and Muhammarah, by the heavy pollution from sugarcane plantations and refineries’ drain-off and city sewage discharged into the Karoon river, which adds to the salinity and pollution and causes this water to become saltier.

Morteza Nazarzadeh, a member of Getwand City Council, told ILNA, “This dam was built and launched during five governments,” explaining that the numerous faults by all those responsible “caused several million tons of salt to be accumulated in the water basin of the Gotvand Dam and spilt into the Karoon lake basin.” 

The councillor added, “Practically, this action has caused the destruction of much high-quality agricultural lands and of many trees and citrus fruits in the vast plains of the Ahwaz region, and these agricultural lands can no longer be used. Many of them were turned into desolate salt lands.!

The official went on, “The water salinity has become much higher in the Aghili area, which is the main area of the Gotvand Dam.” The Aghili area, located downstream of the dam, is approximately four thousand hectares in size, the councillor explained, with the Karoon catchment region, around ten times that size again, also reliant on water from this area. As a result, four million hectares of agricultural fields are at risk of destruction, with the sole effect of this dam being the devastation of once-fertile agricultural plains and further agony for the Ahwazi people.

Ahwazi Arab farmers, who had been told that the dam would make their land even more fertile, now gather only salt from the ruined farmlands. No locals believe that the Iranian regime’s officials ever had any concern for the lives of the Ahwazi people in those places affected by the dam even before its construction since, if they had seen or thought about the effects of building a reservoir next to a salt mountain, they would have relocated it or devised a remedy before the calamity. Perhaps they foresaw the disaster, many say, but they simply didn’t care.

It is always unexpected to hear a high-ranking Iranian regime official publicly admit to a major gaffe. But that is exactly what Iran’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Isa Kalantari, did on 10 July 2018 when he told students at Amir Kabir University: “You could have expected drought in any part of Iran, but Ahwaz was the last place you would have expected it.”

Kalantari was referring to the disastrous drought in the southwestern region (much of Ahwaz was renamed in Farsi as ‘Khuzestan’ by the Persian rulers following Iran’s 1925 annexation), which has sparked widespread protests in the major cities. “The issue in the Ahwaz region is water mismanagement and a failure to recognise priorities,” Kalantari added.

The senior regime official agreed with the observations made by many other regime officials and experts, who have noted that the dam is an engineering disaster. “With this one engineering error, we made Ahwaz’s water salty,” he told the students. 

This was not Kalantari’s first mention of the dam, albeit using stronger language than he did in 2015 when he noted that the studies carried out on the Gotvand Dam lacked the “necessary depth,” revealing that around 19 per cent of the basin behind the dam was heavily saline.

Mohammad Ali Banihashemi, an engineer in fluid mechanics at the University of Tehran and the head of the Steering Committee to Desalinate Gotvand Dam, called the dam a “national mistake” in November 2015, stating that, according to Tehran University studies, Gotvand Dam is responsible for 25 per cent of the pollution in the Karoon River. The university, he said, had suggested two options for remedial action. The first of these would be to divert water from the dam’s reservoir into salt evaporation ponds via 35-kilometre pipelines, while the second is to directly manage the reservoir using specialist engineering techniques.

An environmental disaster

The Gotvand-e-Olya Dam (Upper Gotvand Dam) is the Karun River’s lowest-level dam, with the river’s waters running directly through the Ahwaz region plain after passing through this dam. The Gachsaran, Mishan, Aghajari, and Bakhtiari formations are exposed in the Karoon River upstream of Gotvand-e-Olya Dam. In this area, the riverbed runs along the Gachsaran Formation for more than half of its length, with the river water in direct and permanent contact with it.

In addition to destroying palm trees and increasing the salinity of the Karoon, evidence suggests that the dam has taken a heavy toll on the Ahwazi wetlands and contributed significantly to the desertification crisis, which is gradually displacing large numbers of rural residents and pushing them to migrate to already impoverished major regional cities such as Abadan and Ahwaz, which cannot cope with such a large influx.

“In the last seven years, the amount of salt deposit in the Gotvand Dam has more than tripled,” said Mr Ghomeshi, head of the Shahid Chamran University’s School of Water Engineering in Ahwaz. “A geological survey conducted by the Mahab Ghodss Consulting Engineering Company revealed that the salt deposit accounts for 18.9 per cent of the soil in and around the dam. That equates to approximately 120 million tons of salt seeping into the reservoir. The engineers attempted to reduce salt seepage into the reservoir by installing a plastic clay blanket in the dam. The measure, however, failed during the first phase of the operation.”

Mohammadali Akhundi, a faculty member at Shahid Chamran University’s School of Water Engineering, explained further: “There is a massive salt deposit at the bottom of the Gotvand Dam’s water reservoir that, if left untreated, will cause serious problems. The province’s water crisis is not confined to Gotvand Dam. The multi-phase Ghadir project, which aims to supply water from the Dez River to the cities of Muhammarah and Abadan, also poses significant challenges to the province. We cannot abandon the dam at this time but must instead find a scientific and technical solution.”

The dam’s problem is twofold. First, it’s an engineering mistake which shouldn’t have been constructed in this region, given the high amount of salt in the region. Second, since the dam’s construction, it has opened the floodgates for environmental damage by massively increasing salinity in the Karoon River.

Another expert in this field who’s condemned the dam is Hamid Reza Khoda-Bakhshi, president of the Ahwaz Association of Water Engineers. “According to studies by Tehran University, Gotvand Dam has increased the salt in the Karoon River by 35%,” he told the newspaper Hamshahri.

These warnings are not new. An article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2015 reported on the problems caused by the regime’s dam network, stating, “Another disastrous development for the wetlands has been the dams built in recent decades, which have left the waterbeds dry and contributed to the escalation of water and earth salinity,” adding, “Gotvand Dam, which was built three years ago to supply sugarcane plants, is built on salt beds.”

The Guardian cited an engineer who’d worked on the dam, who explained, “We had done the research for the area around the Gotvand dam in the 1970s – that’s why the dam wasn’t built then; we knew it would directly affect the salt concentration of the water,” adding, “The data and research were all there, but they built it anyway.”

Such reckless decisions by the regime have, of course, had cataclysmic consequences, particularly for the environment.

According to environmental officials, the Gotvand dam caused the death of 400,000 palm trees in one area of the Ahwaz region alone in 2014 due to an exponential increase in the salinity of the Karoon River, which made the already harsh environment unbearable for palm trees. The damage has had serious implications for Iran’s agriculture and economy because the Ahwaz region produces 40% of Iran’s exported dates.

A scientifically proven disaster 

According to a scientific research paper on the dam by ScienceDirect in 2019, its construction has “resulted in an environmental disaster: the accumulation of 66.5 million metric tonnes of dissolved salt in the reservoir and a dramatic increase in the salinity of the reservoir water up to 200 g/L. This paper aims to identify and assess the primary sources of reservoir water salinisation by integrating multiple data: (a) geological and geomorphological evidence; (b) continuous vertical records of electrical conductivity at 11 stations along the reservoir; (c) total dissolved solids and major ion concentrations of 108 water samples at 58 sampling stations; and (d) 18O, 2H, and 37Cl in 35 water samples from the reservoir.

“The main cause of salinisation in the Gotvand Reservoir is halite dissolution, according to geological and geomorphological evidence, hydrogeochemical data, and isotopic signature,” the paper continues, adding, “The results show that salt dissolution in the Gachsaran Formation (particularly at Anbar Ridge), which was underestimated during the project’s study phase, has provided approximately 86% of the dissolved salt accumulated in the reservoir over a 2-year period since the reservoir’s impoundment in 2011.

“Electrical conductivity (EC) and total dissolved solids (TDS) were determined from water samples collected at 58 stations spread across the Gotvand Reservoir in the field and in the laboratory, respectively. Table 2 summarises the EC values obtained from bottom and surface samples. The reservoir’s electrical conductivity (EC) ranges from 0.51 to 134.2 mS/cm. The salinity of the water at the reservoir’s bottom is significantly higher than that of the shallow water, indicating stratification.”

The impact of all this on the Ahwazi people and environment has been devastating. In recent years, the destruction of Ahwazi farmland, left infertile by the salination of the river waters used for irrigation and thus unable to sustain crops, has impoverished hundreds of farmers and whole Ahwazi Arab rural communities, leaving them with no way to make a living, with many thousands left destitute and forced to migrate to towns and cities in the region for survival. Once lively villages now lie abandoned, with the palm tree plantations that surrounded them dying or dead due to the saline water that’s leached into the groundwater. The towns and cities to which these formerly self-sufficient people have been forced to flee, meanwhile, are blighted by poverty, lacking housing or essential services, with the rural incomers forced to live in horrendous conditions in overcrowded slums. As all the evidence above shows, the Gotwand Dam is a disaster from every perspective, blighting the lives of the human population and destroying the environment. 

Its construction, let alone its operation, should never have been allowed in the first place; however, the regime, as always, ignored all the warnings and went ahead regardless, unleashing further environmental catastrophe and many more problems for the long-suffering Ahwazi Arab people of the already deprived and poverty-stricken Ahwaz region.

The Iranian regime has always sought to downplay its disastrous damage to the Ahwazi Arab areas’ environment and its water resources as mismanagement or engineering mistakes. However, the regime has never attempted to reverse this ongoing environmental catastrophe but has allowed – and even encouraged – it to worsen, using it as a weapon to displace the Ahwazi Arab people from their lands. The end goal, as illegal under international law as is the means itself, is to take over the land and then develop it for regime-friendly projects, including further Persian colonisation. Partly to serve its strategy and partly in retaliation, as long as Ahwazi Arabs cling to their lands, the regime never fixed any of the serious ecological crises, such as water pollution and the dangerous salinity of dammed waters like those near the Gotvand dam. Instead, the regime persists in waiting and observing how long the Ahwazi Arab people can resist this human and environmental tragedy before leaving their lands rather than perishing. It’s slow but persistent pressure on the Ahwazis to abandon their lands in order not to be held accountable for this intentional and unlawful displacement of Ahwazis to claim the Ahwazis left their lands due to merely negligent mismanagement of water and environments.



BY Rahim Hamid 

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42




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