In 2011, the World Health Organization declared that Ahwaz City, the capital of the Khuzestan governorate, was the most polluted city in the world, with high asthma levels among children and teenagers due to industrial waste and emissions. Industrial pollution has damaged the natural environment, and marshland biodiversity is so seriously threatened that migratory birds have left the area. The Bandar Iman petrochemical complex is a major pollutant, and has created environmental devastation and low fish stocks, directly impacting the livelihoods of the Ahwazis.
Despite or more likely because of their region’s strategic importance – most of Iran’s oil wells are there – many Ahwazi Arabs have been forced to migrate. The Iranian government has pursued a policy of encouraging ethnic Persians to move in from other provinces. The confiscation of Ahwazi land has been so widespread that it has amounted to a government policy of dispossession.
The creation of the Arvan Free Zone in 2005 involved the mass expulsion of Ahwazis and the destruction of their villages. Iranian authorities have also followed a policy of ethnic segregation in Khuzestan, by constructing walls that separate Ahwazis from non-Arab districts and neighbourhoods. In urban areas, many Ahwazis live in shanty towns which lack plumbing, sewerage and safe drinking water.
In recent years, the Iranian government’s decision to divert the Karoun River in Khuzestan to other drier regions has had further serious implications on the livelihood of Ahwazis. In May 2011, the director of the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization claimed that the diversion of waters from the Karoon and Karkhe rivers from Arab lands to ethnically Persian provinces of Isfahan, Yazd and Kerman represented a further erosion of Ahwazi farmers’ economic security. The river is essential for agriculture and fishing, and is the largest source of income for them. The disruption of water sources will lead to a lack of safe drinking water, diseased fish and a decline in fish stock. River diversion erodes farmer’s economic security.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has repeatedly warned the Iranian government of the disastrous environmental impact of diverting the Karoun River, but the Iranian government has rejected concerns. The governors of Khuzestan, Chahar Mahaal va Bakhtiari and Lorestan provinces have also reportedly expressed their opposition to the diversion project. The project was due to start in 2011, but as a result of the protests the project was postponed.