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Toxic pollution from Howeyzeh refinery chokes the life out of rural Ahwazi community

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After the Iranian regime’s intensive oil and gas drilling in the Howeyzeh area in the Ahwaz region poisoned and destroyed the once-fertile Hor al-Azim wetlands, the choking toxic black smoke belching from the ‘Howeyzeh petrochemical refinery’ around the clock is now causing breathing problems among the remaining local rural Ahwazi Arab community in the area. As if this were not enough, the regime provides no medical facilities or even a clinic in the Howeyzeh area to serve the local Ahwazi Arab population, already suffering from chronic water shortages despite the area’s former status as a marine reserve, with anyone who suffers injuries or falls ill needing to travel for many miles simply to receive treatment.  

The local rural Ahwazi community, left destitute and living in impoverished conditions after being forcibly driven from their lands, which were seized by the regime’s state oil company, receiving only a derisory token amount in “compensation”, are denied any but the most menial jobs at the oil and gas facilities. 

 

Interview with Local resident

One of the citizens told DIRS: “The majority of the workers in the oil and gas companies in the Howeyzeh area aren’t local residents of the area, while the local young Ahwazis from both the rural and urban areas of Howeyzeh are deprived of accessing job opportunities despite having the necessary training and specialist education.”

The citizen added that the levels of unemployment among local Ahwazis in the Howeyzeh area have resulted in horrendous deprivation, with the vast majority of the young Ahwazis there suffering from extreme poverty as a result. This has forced many to migrate to other regions of Iran to find work. This forced migration is one of the regime’s longstanding and calculated goals to force Ahwazi Arab people out of their areas. 

In a speech delivered in the state parliament on 29 December 2020, Saied Silawi, the representative for the Ahwaz region in the Supreme Council of Iranian Provinces, said, “Eighty per cent of the residents of the oil-rich city of Howeyzeh are suffering from poverty.” In the same speech, Silawi noted that the people in the area of Howeyzeh face daily struggles simply to survive and meet their basic requirements, such as food and drink, with residents too impoverished to afford mobile phones to enable their children to complete their studies remotely during the coronavirus crisis.

Silawi continued: “The livelihood of most of the inhabitants of Howeyzeh is linked to agriculture and livestock, but the people in the county have become poor due to the loss of their agricultural lands, which the oil company forcibly purchased at a low price, even though the residents were not willing to sell them.”

He insisted that the state-owned Howeyzeh Oil Company should be compelled to provide funds to go towards the residents’ welfare because the agricultural and oil economy should both play an essential role in supporting the economy of the Ahwaz region and Iran.

“Poverty and unemployment are rampant in the county,” Silawi noted in his speech, adding, “The oil company did not provide any job opportunities for the county’s residents, except for employing a small number of citizens as labourers.”

In the speech, made during the worst days of the coronavirus crisis in 2020, Silawi also stressed that the vast majority of students in Howeyzeh faced an additional crisis because of their inability to continue their education remotely after schools were shut by the quarantine lockdown imposed due to the pandemic since their families could not afford the smart mobile phones needed to access remote classes. The state official also emphasised that the lack of any proper hospital or clinic in the city means residents are forced to travel long distances to other cities such as the regional capital, Ahwaz City, to obtain medical treatment and medicines.

 

Rise of asthma infections among Ahwazis

Speaking about the impact of the pollution from the oil and gas industry on levels of asthma and breathing difficulties in the region, Abbas Fayezi, the director of the Asthma and Allergy Department at Ahwaz Jondishapur University of Medical Sciences, said that studies conducted over the past decade indicate that the rate of asthma infections in the Ahwaz region is two times higher than the national average. Speaking about the recent Iranian Asthma and Allergy Society’s 12th conference held at Ahwaz University, Fayezi said that delegates at the event had discussed reports from global medical publications on the role of air pollutants in increasing various types of cancer, heart disease and brain disorders. He added that it has been conclusively proven that air pollutants play a role in causing other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as Type 2 Diabetes, and reiterated the need for further studies to obtain more information on the health implications of air pollution. 

In addition to these dire problems, the residents of Howeyzeh suffer from other acute difficulties that compound their suffering, such as terrible water shortages, severe pollution, a lack of modern roadways to connect rural areas to the city, the destruction of the marshes, the drying up of local rivers, and the destruction of agricultural lands.

Despite the fact that the Ahwazi Arab villages in the Howeyzeh area are within a kilometre of oil and gas fields and refineries that make billions of dollars annually for the regime, the indigenous Ahwazi people are deprived of safe drinking water, job opportunities and more.

Most of the rural roads in this area have been largely destroyed, and deadly car accidents have increased due to increasing usage by heavy oil tankers and other large vehicles for which the local roads are wholly inadequate, with these problems for the local Ahwazi community compounded by a total lack of adequate infrastructure. Moreover, while the big trucks are heavy enough to navigate the roads, their weight and heavy loads further destroy the roads pavement putting at risk the lives of light passenger vehicles – especially of the types available to the impoverished locals – that cannot safely travel on the badly damaged roadways.

While regime officials regularly assert that positive steps will be taken to remedy the locals’ dire living conditions and to repair the environmental devastation caused by the oil and gas facilities in the area, these promises have so far proved only to be empty words. 

 

Hor Al-Azim wetlands on the verge of destruction 

One of the region’s most renowned features is the Hor Al-Azim wetlands, the largest nature reserve of this kind in Ahwaz, which is located on the borders of Ahwaz and Iraq. About a third of these wetlands are located in Ahwaz (in the Howeyzeh area), while two-thirds are in Iraq. Unfortunately, the wetlands, which are home to a vast array of marine life, birds and plants, currently face extinction due to the Iranian regime’s policies of draining the marshlands to enable construction of more oil and gas facilities and military bases. The area, designated by the General Administration of Environment in Ahwaz as a wetland, measures about 118,000 hectares in total. The once verdant marshes of Hor Al-Azim which were previously home to numerous birds and marine life species, are dying off as a result of the double blow of severe water scarcity and chronic pollution, mainly due to the environmentally catastrophic violations by the National Iranian Oil Company in this area, which have resulted in devastating widespread destruction of the local ecosystem, with more than half of these wetlands already destroyed.

The head of the General Administration of Environmental Protection in Ahwaz, Adel Mola, has warned against the worsening environmental catastrophe in the Hor al-Azim wetlands caused by the pollution from the oil and gas refineries and associated shortages of clean or potable water, emphasising that situation of the unique and irreplaceable ecosystem there is increasingly precarious. 

Mola warned that the severe reduction in the level of the Karkheh River, the primary water source of the wetland, due to reduced rainflow, has cut the amount of water flowing into the Hor al-Azim area by 50 per cent. The Iranian regime official failed to mention, however, that the regime has built a vast network of massive dams and pipeline systems upriver, rerouting and transferring much of the water to other areas of Iran. Nor did he allude to the massive pollution from the ongoing and expanding oil exploration and the existing oil and gas platforms and refineries in the Hor al-Azim area, which have devastated the local environment that was previously home to hundreds of species of animals, birds and fish, and provided a source of living to the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs for centuries. 

In addition to threatening other wildlife, the oil companies’ polluting activities also pose a great danger to the habitat and lives of the camels local to the Ahwaz region, with the director of Howeyzeh’s agricultural organisation, Mr Mowali Zadeh, revealing that the lives of 4,000 of the camels in the area around the Howeyzeh city are gravely at risk due to the pollution and soil contamination caused by the oil companies activities.

 

Howeyzeh Area’s Population Languish in Crushing Poverty

In this below video report, the local Ahwazi Arabs talk about their situation and the oil companies’ despoilment of the wetlands, wrecking not only their source of living through fishing and farming, but a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem.  

The first elderly man says, “The Hor al-Azim wetland area, which is one of the most extensive wetlands in the Middle East, is on the verge of destruction, and almost all the native birds, fish and reeds have disappeared. Once the wetland was fertile – every Ahwazi Arab household had 100, 200, or 300 buffaloes; some households even had more than this number. Sadly, these precious domestic cattle were destroyed.”

The second, younger citizen said, “The oil company has dried out 250,000 kilometers of the wetlands, which we value and cherish far more than oil.”

The third interviewee, another elderly man, says, “In fact, the oil company officials destroyed the wetlands to expand the oil drilling activities around them.”

A fourth interviewee, a young man, says, “The rural Ahwazis’ historic way of life, of earning a livelihood, has given way to the worst conditions of destitution, with the only source of livelihood, which relied on wetlands, being ruined, forcing most of the population to leave their villages forever from here. The water level in the wetlands is now very low, and in vast parts of the wetlands, there is no longer even any water, and the wetlands have turned into a desert. 

The fifth interviewee, another elderly citizen, said, “Even though we have oil companies in our area, our local people are denied employment there; 99 per cent of the workforce, even the labour force, are immigrant workers who come from outside the Ahwaz region; they are from Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, while only one per cent of menial jobs are left for locals. Our highly educated young people who are denied any jobs there, they hold various advanced qualifications in various fields of expertise, from Bachelor’s to Master’s degrees. So, all this deprivation, the non-existence of any of the essential services required for living, all these constant acts of discrimination that affect us profoundly on a daily basis – is there any reason for all that except because we’re Arab? So why are Arabs treated with such horrible discrimination?” 

He continued: “The worst loss, damage and devastation is inflicted upon our Ahwazi people and our whole Ahwaz region; our region is ranked first in terms of numbers of unemployed, with massive unemployment levels among our Arab people, and our region is the worst regarding the exodus of its people and emigration to other places. Our region is the most polluted region, and yet our region has the most oil and gas wealth.” 

The sixth and final interviewee in the recording notes: “There are countless areas in the Ahwaz region whose Arab people have a miserable life, trapped in wretched living conditions.”  

This glaring disparity between the vast wealth in mineral resources plundered from Ahwaz by successive Iranian regimes and the medieval poverty and pollution from the oil and gas operations that blight the lives of successive generations of the Ahwazi peoples leads many Ahwazis to note that all they’ve received from the oil and gas in their land is poverty, pollution and illness. 

 

 

BY Rahim Hamid 

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

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