Frustation over pollution has bubbled for years, but recent water and power shortages have prompted demonstrations against state
Two days of demonstrations and rioting in Iran's Khuzestan province have led to politicians warning of a "national threat" as people in the restive province protested water and power shortages, according to Iranian news source and activists.
Eleven cities in Khuzestan, which has a population largely composed of ethnic Arabs and Lurs, lost power last weekend after an intense dust storm, leading to water shortages when water and wastewater treatment plants were knocked offline.
Protests against the outages, which have lasted for several days, eventually spiralled into demonstrations against wider environmental problems in the region and even against the Islamic Republic itself, raising alarm among political figures.
The demonstrators chanted "Death to tyranny", "We, the people of Ahwaz, won't accept oppression" and "Clean air is our right, Ahwaz is our city" while also calling on the governor of the province to resign.
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Abbas Papizadeh, an MP from city of Dezful, said that anger over air pollution - which he said had led to tens of thousands attending underfunded hospitals with skin and breathing problems - had been bubbling under the surface for years.
“The Khuzestan province for years has been struggling with the issue of particulates, but this issue now is becoming a national threat," he told state media.
One primary way of measuring air pollution is the number of parts per million of particles smaller than 10 micrometres (PM10) in the air. Such particles can be sucked into the lungs and cause serious illnesses.
According to WHO statistics, Beijing in China, known globally as a byword for pollution, has a PM10 rating of 121. Ahwaz, by comparison, has a PM10 rating of 372.
Jalil Mokhtar, MP for Abadan, warned that the government had to take some blame for failing to make essential upgrades to the power stations and utilities in Khuzestan.
“The government must apologise to the people of the province for insulting them, and in order to solve the recent crisis, end this crisis by holding a cabinet meeting in this province," he reportedly told the Mehr news agency.
"Why the president does not take the problems of Khuzestan . . . the phenomenon of dust, the problem of desertification, blackouts, sewage problems and unemployment . . . more seriously, and does not end the incompetence of some officials?”
According to Iran's Health Ministry, more than 80,000 people die in Iran each year as a result of environmental pollution.
“Unusual development and growth of the city, undesired placement of heavy industries, such as iron and steel plants, airport, and exploration of oil wells in a nearby city, in addition to heavy traffic … have made the city like an island of heat and pollution,” said a report published in 2002 by Chamran University in Ahwaz.
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'The death of Khuzestan'
The drying of Khuzestan's wetlands as a result of oil extraction is thought to be the primary factor behind behind the dust storms that have led to the power outages.
“Khuzestan used to have a third of the country's water resources with five major rivers," an MP for Ahwaz, Sayed Sharif Hosseini, said, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.
"Today, we are facing a disaster in terms of shortages of clean water and water for agriculture...we are seeing the death of Khuzestan.”
On Thursday, in an apparent attempt to satisfy the protesters, the chief of Iran's environmental department tweeted that the government would continuing restoring Khuzestan's wetlands.
We have taken great strides for restoration of wetlands in Khuzestan but the magnitude of challenges are great,we still have long way ahead https://t.co/cvnpvGba3t
— Massoumeh Ebtekar (@ebtekarm) February 17, 2017
A visit by the head of Iran's Department of the Environment, Masoumeh Ebtekar, to Khuzestan earlier this month, accompanied by UN Development Program resident coordinator Gary Lewis, was greeted by angry protests and the authorities responded with arrests.
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Ali Kab-Aomair, a 17-year-old ethnic Arab activist, has been held in isolation since the visit as a result of his participation in the demonstrations.
The organisation claims he was arrested for demonstrating in traditional Arabic dress, which was taken by the authorities as sympathy for a decades-old separatist movement among the province's Arab residents who want to establish their own state.
Arabs in the Khuzestan have long complained of marginalisation. Arab activists calling for devolution or independence have been beaten and arrested by Iranian authorities, according to Human Rights Watch.
Separatist groups like the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) have carried out attacks on government buildings and security services in the past.