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Smog choking Iran's oil belt tests leaders hit by protests
[DUBAI] Iranian authorities are scrambling to stem a growing crisis over air pollution in the province that produces a major share of the country's oil, showing a sensitivity to people's demands not always visible before anti-government protests raged earlier this month.
A yellow smog has enveloped the southwestern Khuzestan region ever since a severe dust storm struck on Friday, shutting schools and offices and prompting criticism of the administration across local media. So far, 1,530 people have been hospitalized with breathing problems, according to state-run television.
When pressed on the public-health implications on live television, President Hassan Rouhani said he was dispatching senior officials to the area. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday approved US$100 million to "combat particles" in Khuzestan.
Authorities' quick decision-making is "a product of these protests," said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King's College London. While capping pollution can't be swift, "there are a number of PR stunts they can carry out quickly to show the population, 'We heard you and we're gonna do whatever we can to fix theses issues,'" Ms Esfandiary said.
Khuzestan has suffered from poor air quality and other environmental blights for years. But changes in the region's climate and the depletion of rivers and wetlands due to poor water management are making it unlivable. Strong winds blow dust from the surrounding dry plains into cities, compounding the impact of industry and traffic. Ahvaz, the provincial capital, has in previous years been ranked by the World Health Organization as among the most polluted cities in the world.
Residents of the province publicly backed Mr Rouhani during last year's presidential campaign, state TV anchor Reza Rashidpour told him in the live segment on the problem. "Now they're posting messages saying 'Khuzestan can't breathe.' How long should they be told to wait for change?"
The region also suffered badly during Iran's eight-year war with neighboring Iraq in the 1980s. Khuzestanis - many of whom come from Iran's Arab minority - have long complained that their sacrifices during the period haven't been matched by authorities' willingness to tackle local problems such as unemployment and the environmental hazards they face.
In one image posted on Twitter this week, a rat emerges from a hole struggling to breath. The caption: "Down below, I was choking because of the smell of oil, up here because of the dust." The demonstrations over economic hardships that erupted Dec 28 in the holy city of Mashhad, and rapidly grew into a major challenge to Iran's ruling clerics, might have resulted in a more concerted attempt to address such issues.
At least two people died in Khuzestan's Izeh town during the protests, which left 25 dead and hundreds in custody nationwide. Mr Rouhani sent the head of the Department of Environment and the agriculture minister to the region.
Authorities will inevitably be "more sensitive to what comes out of that region particularly in a post-protest environment," Esfandiary said. The government "will be hyper-aware of any issue that gains a lot of national coverage and is liable to further fuel national discontent." In his interview Monday, Mr Rouhani spoke of a project to divert water to the area and also plans to plant trees over 74,132 acres. "We can't ignore the crisis we are facing," he said. "Maybe it will take 10 to 15 years to solve this. We are already late in starting." Many Iranians would probably agree with that sentiment. "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars," tweeted one earlier this week. "Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt."