Caught in the Crossfire

Caught in the CrossfireCaught in the Crossfire

Those with access to any form of media have by now become aware of the disastrous impact of dust storms. Some may have even gotten tired of hearing about it on a daily basis. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why so much attention is given to the problem: despite the scale of the issue, nothing has been done about it.

It has been nearly half a year since the worst of the dust storms battered Iran’s southwestern provinces, sending droves of people into hospitals as life almost came to a standstill. Ever since, officials of all levels from various government bodies have voiced concern over the problem, and called for a workable solution to be devised to reduce the impact.

Officials at the Department of Environment (DoE), especially DoE chief Masoumeh Ebtekar, have not shied away from pointing the finger of blame at the previous government, claiming that their mismanagement was a part of the problem. They also included the oil ministry in their accusations, blaming them for using outdated oil exploration methods in the Hoor al-Azim wetland in Khuzestan Province which led to the desiccation of the lagoon, turning it into one of the major sources of dust storms in the oil-rich province.

 Oil Ministry Obligation

Shortly after the severe dust storms in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province in February, the government issued a directive obliging the oil ministry to allow water to flow into the wetland in an effort to help revive the dried up lagoon, ILNA reported.

Following the mandate, the DoE and the Khuzestan governorate – which was tasked with ensuring the mandate was carried out – repeatedly asked the ministry to comply.

During an Earth Day event, Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh spoke about his ministry’s commitment to environmental regulations and said, “An oil extraction method was proposed to the ministry which would have led to the drying up of Hoor al-Azim, but I rejected it.”

“I believe the ministry’s projects should help the environment, not hinder it.”

In spite of the minister’s claims, the governorate of Khuzestan Province ordered the partial shutdown of the North Yaran oil field last week, citing environmentally harmful activities.

The shutdown did not sit well with the project manager Arash Bagherzadeh, who vehemently denied allegations of wrongdoing and told ILNA, “We have strictly followed environmental regulations.”

He said that extraction procedures were not affected, and the governorate had only put a stop to road construction.

 Ignoring the Law

Despite oil ministry officials adamantly claiming innocence, provincial head of DoE in Khuzestan Province Ahmad Lahijanzadeh says the governorate had every right to take legal action.

“The ministry was allowed to construct new roads, asphalt existing roads, set up camps and workshops and take soil in the wetland. Sadly, they ignored their obligations,” he said.

According to Lahijanzadeh, concerned parties spent 18 months writing to the ministry, holding meetings, and giving legal notices to respect their obligations, but to no avail.

“For a long time the ministry resisted our pleas to allow water to flow into the wetland. In the end, the government was forced to issue a directive mandating the ministry to allow water into the dried up lagoon,” he said, adding, “Instead of allowing water to reach all parts of the wetland, they diverted water flow to the margins of the lagoon,” essentially keeping the center of the wetland dry. “We were forced to take action.”

Asked what it would take to allow the resumption of activities in the oil field, Lahijanzadeh said, “Those responsible have to make up for the damages they have caused, and must give their word to uphold environmental regulations and be accountable if they ignore the law.”

“Their actions have exacerbated the dust storms in the province; therefore, this matter needs to be taken seriously.”

This endless tug-of-war between the DoE and the oil ministry has left people of Khuzestan wondering if there is a solution in sight to their predicament. While government bodies are busy with the blame game, dust particles continue to find their way into the lungs of helpless people.