Iran's Dustbowl Migration

The once vibrant wetland culture of Hamun has now become a relic with scenes of abandoned boats and dried up lake beds

It seems only a few decades ago, when Iran was home to some of the Earth’s most fertile and agricultural land. Large permanent rivers flowed through and contributed sediment-rich soil to the abundant oasis that previously characterized Khuzestan, a southwestern province of Iran. Similarly, Iran’s historical southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, housed a once-vibrant agricultural community and vast wetlands known as the Hamun Wetlands, an oasis in an otherwise Mars-like landscape.

Khuzestan Province neighbor Iraq’s southern marshlands is an area historically known as the Mesopotamian Marshes. The region is often referred to as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ for being home to ancient civilizations, such as Sumer and Babylon who made sophisticated use of the dense marshland. Surrounded by a vast arid landscape, has made it a unique yet abundant biome filled with fish, migratory birds, and even big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs that once heavily prowled but have had their ranges significantly reduced due to human activity. 

Prior to the onset of desertification and 20-year drought that began after the 1950s due to Afghanistan building a dam on the Helmand River, these once thriving cradles of civilizations have become desolate wastelands resulting in the exposure of both lakebeds and the consequences of human negligence on the environment. The once vibrant wetland culture of Hamun has now become a relic with scenes of abandoned boats in dried up lake beds and skeletal remains of fish baking in the scorching sun being common sightings.

When we think about climate change, our minds often evoke replayed images that you see on commercials for climate change advocacy such as melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and island nations being swallowed up which does not cover the whole story of our changing planet.

“Desertification is a slow-moving disaster,” says Dr. Kristina Shull, a current post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. Shull specializes in the intersections of history, migration and policy and noted this process is in part a result of water mismanagement, such as the over-use of dams, as well as government corruption. “Local and regional politics are also shaped by global inequalities exacerbated by US sanctions and histories of colonialism,” she says.

Desertification, drought, dust storms, and rising temperatures in the Middle East are largely an overlooked topic, mainly due to its numerous conflicts, sectarian schisms, and ongoing proxies that achieve mainstream media attention.

Neighboring the harsh mountainous desert terrain of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran’s southeast-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan Province is one of the least developed regions of Iran taking shape in a lack of infrastructure and economic development resulting in the region having the lowest per capita income in Iran. This purposeful neglect has resulted in over 70 percent of the Baloch living below the poverty line by State Department estimates due to state-sponsored marginalization-resulting from the Baloch being a Sunni minority in a Shiite theocracy. This, coupled with having to face extreme drought has prompted resistance and anger towards the Iranian government among the local majority ethnic population — its Baloch-Sunni residents. Dry winds, similar to the wildfire igniting Santa Ana winds of California, dominate the region and are known as the “Wind of 120 Days”, and have a fearsome reputation among U.S. service members in Afghanistan who faced these winds first-hand with numerous injuries being attributed to being physically lifted up and being pegged by loose objects. However, the number of days in this storybook title is increasing as the lack of moisture fuels the intensity and recurrence of these harsh desert winds. 

A prime example of this crisis can be seen in southern Iran where thermometers consistently hit a scorching 110F (43.3C), and maximum temperatures of 131F (55C) being recorded at an alarmingly increased rate. For U.S. readers to relate, Iran is undergoing a modern-day Dust Bowl. 

Notably, climate migration within the Middle East is a growing contributor to internal displacement and deserves more attention from the mainstream media and multilateral action. Minority-inhabited territories such as Khuzestan and Balochistan, with already marginalized local tribes, are generally rich in resources and agricultural potential. Yet exploitative policies coupled with water mismanagement due to corruption are severely affecting traditional livelihoods. This mismanagement and political negligence have exacerbated the environmental crisis in addition to humanitarian impacts encompassing food insecurity, mass migration, health hazards, soil deterioration and desertification. “Those on the front lines and who are most directly affected are often of indigenous or minority communities who have been historically and economically marginalized and experiencing environmental racism as a result,” states Dr. Shull. 

The Baloch tribes, local to Balochistan, depended on managing fisheries along the Hamun river for survival – an oasis in a barren landscape. Following drastic and swift change of the landscape due to drought, the local Baloch have had to pack up their former livelihoods and migrate elsewhere where they will likely face discrimination. Nearly one-fifth of the Sistan-Baluchistan province’s inhabitants have either had to move to neighboring provinces inland or are at-risk of being displaced immediately due to deteriorating conditions. Likewise in Khuzestan Province to the west of Sistan-Baluchistan, many agricultural livelihoods depended on producing and exporting lucrative crops such as dates, wheat, barley, and sugar cane. Today, these livelihoods are at stake with the lack of moisture in drying plains allowing dust to rise before winds carry it away creating unstable and weakened soil, which is not ideal for agriculture. The weakened soil has made it susceptible to being blown away forming into massive dust storms which encapsulates major cities such as Abadan and Ahvaz.

The environmental impact from desertification has become detrimental both to the health and livelihoods of the local populace resulting in residents emigrating en-masse to northern Iranian cities in order to escape desertification.

The wetlands of Hamun suffered major dry spells by the start of 1950s but the conditions worsened significantly in the late 1990s where Southern Iran suffered a water crisis. By 2011, Khuzestan had the third largest level of emigration — behind Tehran and East Azerbaijan Provinces. The negative environmental impact in Khuzestan is so bad that it has caused many government employees, enjoying the most stable jobs in Iran through its current economic crisis, to even submit requests to move to other cities due to the mismanagement of water and the accompanying drought making conditions unbearable. By 2018, drinkable water had become so scarce, it had to be rationed among individual Abadan residents. 

In both regions of Iran, development projects in the form of dams take some of the blame in these drastic environmental changes. Dam projects resulting in environmental catastrophe seem to be the norm in recent years, as evidenced by tragedies such as the Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil earlier this year. Per the norm, against the advice of environmental experts and cautionary preliminary studies, the Gotvand Dam was built upon the Karun River near the Gachsaran Salt Mine in Khuzestan Province in 2012, to supply sugar cane plants with hydro-electric energy and since then has increased water salinity to levels that inhibit its use in agriculture and even drinking. This has had a primarily negative impact on the marginalized Ahwazi Arabs of Iran who’s farming livelihoods have been hampered by increased salinity levels from the Gotvand Dam. 

Development projects and political corruption go hand-in-hand in producing disastrous results for the environment. The local populaces contend that the detrimental decision-making is because none of the cabinet members of Presidential administrations came from either of these regions, despite their economic and political importance due to water, farming and oil resources as well as a sizeable heavy industry base and electricity generation. Instead, ministries are dominated by relatively powerful local figures made up of both politicians and clerics, from Isfahan, Kerman, and Yazd, provinces who profit from the exploitation of these regions by operating in a mafia-like manner rife with embezzlement of state-funds and payoffs, similar to that of the political machines of the late-19th century in the United States who effectively ruled cities such as Chicago – a common theme now in authoritarian countries marked by a lack of effective internal oversight. Disenfranchised farmers stripped of their livelihoods have even disrupted official prayer ceremonies that are essentially religious distractions to showcase false piety and turn attention away from the real issues, such as the case in Isfahan in 2018 where farmers from rural areas banded together and turned their backs towards the aforementioned corrupt clerics while chanting anti-state slogans in a show of solidarity.

“Climate change contributes to social conflict and unrest we are seeing world-wide. However, governmental responses that are repressive create a feedback loop that in turn exacerbates the disparate impacts of climate change, social inequities, and so on,” states Dr. Shull

The lack of inclusivity in the policy-making process increases the marginalization of ethnic minorities such as the Ahwazi Arabs and Balochis in terms of policy impacts. While both ethnic groups have been represented by organized armed resistance from their fringes towards the Iranian government in response to state marginalization, both the Ahwazi Arab and Baloch people face a changing environment and climate as the ultimate obstacle in achieving stable livelihoods while voicing their frustrations with the state. While individuals attempt to stay in their ancestral homelands of Khuzestan and Balochistan, others feel the strain of staying in an unstable environment and migrate towards more developed urban centers in the north of Iran to achieve new livelihoods.

First Published on Eon Magazine

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