IranSource April 17, 2017

The Rise and Fall of Iran’s Khuzestan: A Calamity of International Significance

By Shirin Hakim and Kaveh Madani

Khuzestan, the Iranian province whose oil once illuminated European streets, is now recurrently left in darkness.

For much of human history, this region was a beacon of innovation, giving birth to fundamental developments in society including the first cities known to man and what was once the world’s largest oil refinery. Commonly referred to as “the birthplace of the nation,” Khuzestan was where Aryan tribes first settled to later join local Elamites in laying the foundations for what became the Persian Empire.

However, present-day Khuzestan is far from this historic magnificence. Instead, it is filled with disappearing bodies of water, a warming climate, war damage and a deteriorating terrain. This winter, dust storms combined with heavy rain resulted in a rare phenomenon in which airborne dust and sand particles formed an insulating layer around wires, disrupting the provincial power grid.Consecutive power outages and subsequent water shortages followed as treatment plants went offline, leaving locals in complete havoc.

Khuzestan’s days of glory are now frequently replaced by unpredictable environmental devastation. Dust originating from drying plains and waterbeds combines with industrial pollution to create hazardous conditions for those who inhale it. Dust and sand particles originating beyond Iran’s borders are also carried onto Iranian land by heavy winds, making matters more complicated.

Khuzestan’s underfunded hospitals are struggling to serve the masses of patients suffering from respiratory and skin diseases resulting from this dangerously polluted air. The capital, Ahwaz, was dubbed the world’s most polluted city in 2013 by the World Health Organization. The Hour-al-Azim of Khuzestan, a Mesopotamian marshland known to some as the biblical Garden of Eden or Fertile Crescent, is now barren and laden with harmful waste. The iconic Karun river, which was the only inland waterway in the nation capable of large-scale navigation and was used in the 1900s by the British to transport products to and from Iran, is increasingly parched.

While Khuzestan’s contributions to society have benefited almost every corner of the world, its unforeseen degeneration has quickly demoted this once fruitful terrain to a forgotten land. The region’s decline is a pioneering lesson to the world of how man and nature can collectively exhaust the most influential of histories. Most importantly, it calls into question what responsibility the international community holds in addressing environmental calamities that originate from actions extending beyond the confines of man-made borders.

Khuzestan’s generous combination of water resources, rich reservoirs of oil and gas, and prime geopolitical positioning have placed the province under the scrutiny of world powers throughout history. If you travel to the region today, it is not difficult to find the numerous imprints foreigners have left on this once eminent land. One example is Khuzestan’s Gundishapur, founded in 271 BCE as the world’s first teaching hospital in recorded history. It would grow to become the most important medical center of the ancient world complete with a world-renowned university attracting students from as far as Greece, Egypt, India, and Rome.

In addition to medical advancements, a combination of ingenuity and accessibility to water provided the ancient Persians with a perfect canvas to contrive novel water systems that would forever transform civilization. Described by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of creative genius,” the Shushtar Hydraulic System in Khuzestan is a complex irrigation system dating back to the time of the Achaemenid king Darius the Great in the 5th century BCE. It was an advanced distribution system of man-made canals channeling water to homes, other edifices and watermills in the city of Shushtar. 

While Khuzestan has contributed to noteworthy medical and hydrological advancements, these are often overshadowed by the British discovery of oil in 1908 in the province’s city of Masjed Soleyman. Soon after, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which later became British Petroleum), was established and Iranian oil would sell to a world market, powering European towns and cities. Britain occupied the province during World War II, when it was a crucial pathway to oil and provided a route to transfer resources to sustain Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany.

The Americans and British who influenced this region in the 1900s instilled ideas of development. This manifested in the adoption of Western technologies such as dams, and introduced new economic activities that were not well-suited for the land, such as farming sugarcane and tobacco which persists today. Sugarcane, in particular, gained popularity following the US embargo on Cuban sugar and President Truman’s Point Four Program of the 1950s. Nevertheless, this crop is not a native plant in this area and requires large amounts of water in a region that is increasingly water scarce.

A break in relations with the West after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 was followed by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, largely driven by his interest in dominating this oil-abundant region. Located along the Iraqi border with Iran, Khuzestan suffered the heaviest damage amongst Iranian provinces during the eight-year war, resulting in demolished refineries, obliterated native plants such as date palm nakhlestan trees, and the death and evacuation of many residents. 

Efforts to rehabilitate the local economy and infrastructure in the 1990s following the war with Iraq have been limited, due in part to Khuzestan’s deteriorating environment. Managerial neglect and myopic oversight caused more environmental degradation, as cheaper short-term solutions were prioritized over long-term but more costly options. Additionally, the government has exhibited a long-standing preference for allocating funds and natural resources to socio-economic hubs such as Tehran, the nation’s capital.

Water diversion to other Iranian cities, a practice that has its roots in the Shah’s era, continues today as an impractical short-term fix to Iran’s water woes. Locals view this practice as the primary reason behind Khuzestan’s declining water levels. However, the matter is far more complicated and is exacerbated by compounding factors including a rise in dams that have manipulated the natural flow of water and recurrent droughts in the region.

Khuzestan’s story serves as a global example of how excessive development can backfire, war can destroy the environment and short-term economic motives cloud the foresight needed to preserve coupled human-natural systems. Improvements in wetland and water management by the Iranian government and transboundary cooperation between Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are key to improve the situation.

Notwithstanding, perhaps the most important lesson is that environmental degradation is a calamity that transcends borders. Khuzestan’s decline holds grave ramifications for the global community, as it will provoke further dust storms and wide-ranging environmental strife. In order to effectively address such multifaceted problems, we should shift our perspective towards the realization that environmental issues do not obey the confines of man-made borders and apply this understanding to seek pragmatic solutions.

Shirin Hakim is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College London, working on environmental issues in Iran. On Twitter: @ShirinHakim.

Kaveh Madani is a reader in systems analysis and policy at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College London, working on environmental management and policy in Iran. On Twitter: @KavehMadani.