As finishing touches are put on Iran’s latest major dam project, environmentalists and archaeologists warn it could spell the end for an area in the country’s southwest fed by the waning waters of the Zohreh River.
The Chamshir Dam, the country’s latest major hydropower project, is scheduled to come online in March. But as the clock ticks down, critics are desperate to stop the project, warning it will turn farmland into a salty wasteland and flood newly discovered archaeological sites.
The Zohreh River, which will fill the dam’s reservoir, is no longer what it was in the 1960s, when authorities first planned to harness its power to generate electricity and boost irrigation in impoverished Khuzestan province and other areas in the southwest of Iran.
In recent years, seasonal droughts have reduced the river’s brackish water to a trickle at times on its way to the Persian Gulf, threatening flood-dependent flora and fauna and contributing to water shortages that have sparked angry protests in Khuzestan.
The massive dam and adjacent hydroelectric dam, funded by a $244 million high-yield loan from China, was built on the western fringes of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province and will cut off the natural flow of the already stressed Zohreh River downstream from Khuzestan, to fill his reservoir.
The dam’s operator has said the reservoir will hold 2.3 billion cubic meters of water and generate 482 megawatts of hydroelectric power per year, while authorities have sold it to quench farmers’ thirst for reliable water supplies to boost agricultural production .
But residents of the region, which lies on an extensive bed of gypsum and salt known as the Gachsaran Formation, don’t have to look far to see the destruction wrought by the government’s earlier failure to face scarce water supplies big promises to manage.
The Gotvand Dam, built in the 1990s and just 250 kilometers northwest of the Chamshir project, was adjacent to a large salt dome. Despite warnings, the project moved ahead, eventually leaving authorities with a reservoir filled with brine.
And in 2021, angry protesters who took to the streets of Khuzestan and neighboring Isfahan Province pointed to the Chadegan Dam, 250 kilometers north of the Chamshir Dam, and other major projects dating back to the 1970s as the root cause of their water problems.
WATCH: Water shortages in Iran’s Isfahan province prompted mass protests and a brutal government response in November 2021. Farmers in the province say the situation has still not improved and accuse officials of gross mismanagement.
flood of criticism
Nomads have roamed the area around the Chamshir project since the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian imperial dynasty before the Muslim conquest in the mid-seventh century.
More than 140 ancient sites from the Sasanian and Islamic periods lie in the basin that will become the reservoir, 124 of them newly discovered. But with precious little time to excavate the sites, archaeologists fear important parts of the country’s history will drown soon and that the modern nomads will be expelled.
For their part, environmentalists have firmly opposed the project, saying that the reservoir will be placed on capped oil wells in addition to salt deposits. They have called for it to be stopped immediately until further impact assessments can be carried out.
The dam’s operators downplayed the criticism, emphasizing the importance of pooling precious water supplies. They have also argued that concerns about the high salinity are unfounded as salt deposits are buried hundreds of meters below the surface.
Mahmud Muharniya, the manager of the dam, said in a press conference in December that “there is no evidence of the presence of salt on the surface” and that comparisons to other controversial projects are misleading. Muharniya also said the reservoir will be filled with water from the winter flood season, which he says will reduce the Zohreh River’s salinity and provide higher-quality water.
Study in open opposition
But those arguments have done little to allay critics’ concerns, as evidenced by videos, petitions and open letters from researchers and environmental agencies.
Hossein Akhani, a prominent botanist who has been studying Iran’s salt-soaked landscapes for decades, revealed on Instagram back in 2021 that the high salinity had already taken its toll on the plant life near the new dam project.
“Their dam was so salty that it was uncovered after only two days of visits,” Akhani wrote in comments on a video he posted showing dead and damaged trees. “One can continue to trick ignorant officials with false claims, but the truth does not hide.”
More recently, university professors and environmental experts have pushed back with one petition signed by more than 23,000 people declaring the Chamshir Dam a “danger” due to faults in the reservoir bed and the existence of 11 oil wells in and around the reservoir. The petitioners, including Akhani, also said that stopping the flow of winter floodwaters would disrupt the natural process of desalination and soil fertilization and create a dust bowl.
Other academics have listed other negatives, including disruption to nomadic lifestyle, reliance on Chinese investment, loss of trust in government, and the persistence of a flawed “American” idea of progress that began with major development projects decades before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In an interview with the Tehraner in late December Payam-e Ma newspaper, Mehdi Hajikazem, the Chamshir Dam’s civil affairs manager, dismissed the concerns. Hajikazem said that research related to the project is “open to all” and that academics who took office accepted offers to study it, confident that the dam posed no threat.
“It’s not my responsibility to decide if I quit [the project],” Hajikazem said, accusing critics of simply being against building dams under any conditions. “But as a patriotic Iranian, I say that this dam is really necessary.”