Only revolt grows in Iran’s deserts

From the May-June 2018 issue of News & Letters

Beginning in March, people in more than 11 cities in Iran joined street demonstrations, braving dust storms and clashing with security forces. Hundreds were arrested and many injured. Banks from which many workers and farmers were forced to borrow were among the main targets. Banks have confiscated what was left of people’s livelihood from those unable to repay loans, taking their tractors, land and even homes. As one angry demonstrator said: “This is Khuzestan’s dignity uprising.” These protests are ongoing.

On April 17, 2018, demonstrators from the Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari province protest the diversion of water from the Kouhrang Dam to Yazd Province. Photo: Iranian Protests Live Information 2018.

Iran’s planned ecological self-destruction—deforestation, desertification, and transformation of wetlands into dry wasteland—has brought poverty, displacement and mass unemployment to local populations.

Iran ranks among the top five countries in the world in deforestation, and 70% of groundwater has been depleted. Lake Urumiah, once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, has shrunk by more than 60%, resulting in salt storms raining down on adjacent lands and creating misery for local farmers.

Human conditions are reaching such an unbearable point that one cannot even note the large-scale extinction of so many species unique to Iran’s ecosystem. Where once pelicans roamed, we now find their carcasses.

Wasteful irrigation, centralized planning and construction of endless dams to divert water toward large industrial and agricultural projects—all under the control of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—have left behind dust and sand storms, leading to respiratory diseases, cancer and even starvation.

FARMERS’ UPRISING IN ISFAHAN

The once powerful and life-sustaining Zayanderood River, running deep and wide through the heart of the ancient city of Isfahan, has nearly dried up, bringing devastation and hardship. Nearly 400,000 small farmers now depend on how much water the government releases into the river from a reservoir. The ever-diminishing water availability has led to 50,000 people abandoning their lands. Mass migration to cities in search of jobs that do not exist has swelled the ranks of the unemployed.

Destitute farmers and the unemployed have taken to the streets for months. They have blocked roads with tractors, disrupted water pipelines that are used to steal their water rights, assembled in front of various ministries and demonstrated in the streets with their families. Recently they packed Friday prayers, and while turning their backs to the pulpit chanted, “Our backs to the enemy, our faces toward the nation!”

In the beginning of April the farmers reached a new level of consciousness. They were no longer content with the slogan “Leave Syria, do something for us.” They were now chanting “The enemy is at home, not in America”! They thereby crossed a “red line” which unleashed the wrath of the powers that be. They were attacked by the security forces and regime ideologues as “seditionists” and “enemies of the state.” Undeterred, they are saying: “This is the coming of the farmers’ uprising.”

FROM ISFAHAN TO KHUZESTAN

Oil-rich Khuzestan, bordering Iraq, has a mostly Arab population. It has historically been one of Iran’s most fertile provinces, providing the entire country with vital crops during the winter. Karun and Karkheh, the two major rivers flowing down from Zagros Mountains into the Persian Gulf, were until recently the largest rivers in Iran, creating some of earth’s most verdant wetlands. Now, however, all that the eye can see is tiny streams of water trickling down—a contaminated river full of pesticides, toxic industrial waste and sewage.

Fourteen dams have been built to divert water to large-scale water-hungry sugar cane factories. Forcing farmers off their lands without adequate compensation, and designating land for oil extraction, has not only depleted the river but also devastated the locals. As one farmer said: “The changes caused by the death of the wetlands have created destruction in a way that the eight-year Iran-Iraq war never did, turning farmlands and orchards into barren deserts.” 

The byproduct of this willful desertification has been the now frequent sand and dust storms that turn the sky dark, sending residents to hospitals with severe respiratory problems.

Widespread poverty and high unemployment among the indigenous population who supposedly do not have the skills to work at oil and gas facilities, and ethnic discrimination against Arab residents, generated massive protests that have rocked the entire region in the past few months. As one protester said: “We are facing the death of Khuzestan.”

—Raha

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