Water Shortage Protests in Khuzestan Province Spill Over to Tehran
The Ahwazi Community in Ottawa, Canada, gather on Parliament Hill to bring attention to the plight of their brethren in Iran. July 24, 2021. Image: Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock
The Iranian province of Khuzestan, home to the Arab Ahwazi minority, has long been a hotbed for anti-government demonstrations. Such protests peaked this week when citizens took to the streets in response to water shortages that are reportedly leaving provincial populations without enough water for drinking, leading to the death of thousands of livestock animals, birds and fish. Many blame the draining of the Karkheh River, which has led to the drying up of the Hawizeh marshes. After several demonstrators were shot dead, protests spilled over into the streets of Tehran on July 26. Iran’s heavy-handed response to these protests might prove counterproductive if it ends up unifying under-represented minorities across the country who share similar concerns.
Many blame the draining of the Karkheh River, which has led to the drying up of the Hawizeh marshes.
Although Iranian state media has downplayed the crackdown against protestors, Amnesty International has released a statement calling for the immediate cessation of violence and has urged the international community to support the rights of demonstrators. They state that “ending impunity is vital for preventing further bloodshed” and call for the Iranian government to bring about real justice. The protests have gained international traction, and demonstrators in Canadian cities like Ottawa and Calgary have gathered to show their support and demand change.
Some observers believe that the water shortages are a result of an intentional policy meant to further displace and disempower the Ahwazi people who, according to Atlantic Council scholar Dr. Brenda Shaffer, “bear the brunt of health and environmental damage from Iran’s oil production... but receive little economic benefit from this industry.” However, it must be noted that while the water shortages have certainly served as a spark for demonstrations, discontent on a range of issues has been simmering in the region for years.
Ramin Jabbarli, writing for nationalinterest.org, argues that for the Ahwazi, a “root cause of the problem is systemic racism against the Arab ethnic minority in Iran of approximately 5 million people.”
US sanctions, re-imposed following former US President Donald Trump’s unilateral abrogation of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, have caused an ongoing economic crisis in Iran. Economic deprivation, unemployment and problems with the electrical supply affect the whole country to some degree. However, effects seem disproportionately harsh in border provinces that are primarily populated with ethnic minorities. Ramin Jabbarli, writing for nationalinterest.org, argues that for the Ahwazi, a “root cause of the problem is systemic racism against the Arab ethnic minority in Iran of approximately 5 million people.” He cites the lack of mother tongue education (only Persian language is used in schools and government), centralization, and economic and cultural discrimination as products of policy-driven racism. Silence, it seems, is not an option for the Ahwazis who dream of cultural and religious expression, but who this week feel they are fighting to survive.
In 2013 thousands of Ahwazis formed a 5km human chain on the banks of the Karun River in Ahvaz City to protest the river’s diversion. They were met at that time with violence and arrest. This year the response has been similar. However, the situation is still unfolding. There is hope that, with the spread of demonstrations to the streets of the Iranian capital, the Iranian authorities will find a more nuanced approach to solving the immediate problems of water management – and to start addressing deeper socio-structural ones. Meanwhile, a great start would be the resumption of the Iranian Nuclear Deal and the end of international sanctions, whose crippling effect on the country cannot be underestimated.