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Living on the Margins in Iran: The Rise and Fall of Khuzestan

March 2, 2020
Ali Ranjipour
12 min read
Once the epitome of progress, today Khuzestan cities symbolize every imaginable economic, social and environmental crisis. Photo of Ghaleh Chan’an village, Ahvaz municipality, by Fatemeh Rahimavian
Once the epitome of progress, today Khuzestan cities symbolize every imaginable economic, social and environmental crisis. Photo of Ghaleh Chan’an village, Ahvaz municipality, by Fatemeh Rahimavian

What is it like to live on the margins of a metropolis in Iran today? Those who do are confronted with some of the most serious crises facing the country, with social, economic, political and security repercussions. Various groups and organizations have reported on and collected data about the predicaments of margin-dwelling in Iran but, despite the significance of the subject, the reliable statistics needed for in-depth political, social and economic analyses either do not exist or have not been made public.

This is the seventh in a series of reports on living on the margins in Iran. Here we look in depth at margin-dwelling in Khuzestan, a province that not long ago was the envy of all other Iranian provinces but has today fallen into the depths of misery and debilitating crises that defy easy or fast solutions.

In this series, IranWire will aim to use available statistics and data, as incomplete as some of it might be, to arrive at an accurate picture of the phenomenon of living on the margins in Iran and the crises emerging from it.


There was a time not long ago that cities in the Middle East looked with envy at Abadan and Khorramshahr, the two prosperous ports of Khuzestan. The province was prosperous even before the oil bonanza, but the speed and velocity of its modernization in the 20th century cannot be compared with any other period.

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when anyone thought “Khuzestan,” they thought “oil”. It was oil that pulled Iran’s center of gravity southward to the province. The Abadan refinery, completed in 1912 and one of the biggest in the world, was not only a turning point for Iranian industry and economic development but it also had a significant impact on the cultural life of the country as well. The “golden generation” of Iranian intellectuals and artists in the 1960s owed a lot to those who were nurtured and grew up in Khuzestan.

Under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Abadan was one of the most progressive towns in Iran. Overflowing with cash, jobs and western advisors, Abadan felt more modern than any other Iranian city. The nostalgia for that time still remains for those who feel cheated by the revolution, as evidenced by photographs and videos posted online praising the contributions of the oil industry [in Persian].

But the fall of Khuzestan was even faster than its rise. In fact, there is an exact date when it began: September 22, 1980, as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran. Soon enough “oil” and “development,” the two keywords associated with Khuzestan, were replaced with “war” and “destruction.” The three major cities of Abadan, Khorramshahr and Ahvaz were economically and socially destroyed.

The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years and left its destructive marks all over Iran, but the breadth and the depth of the damage done to Khuzestan cannot be compared to any other part of the country. Thirty years after the war, many Iranians, even those who were born earlier, do not have memories of the war, but Khuzestan still suffers from the social and economic consequences of the conflict. Cities that had been on the forefront of development in Iran are now case studies for all kinds of social, economic and environmental ills and crises.


[Source: Google Maps]


The Story as Told in Population Numbers

The history of Iran’s censuses conducted over the last 60 years provides a good snapshot of what happened to Khuzestan. In 1956, when Lorestan was part of Khuzestan (they are now separate provinces), its population was 2.187 million. In 2016, the combined population of the two provinces was more than 6.471 million. In other words, in the 60 years between the two censuses, the population of the two provinces had grown almost threefold, whereas the population of Iran as a whole had grown fourfold.

Around the time of the revolution, Abadan was the most populous city in the province and in 1956 its population was almost twice that of Ahvaz: 226,000 versus 120,000. In the last census before the revolution, conducted in 1977, Khuzestan cities with a population of over 50,000 were as follows:

- Ahvaz: 335,000

- Abadan: 294,000

- Khorramshahr: 140,000

- Dezful: 121,000

- Bandar Shapour (now Bandar Imam): 118,000

- Masjed Soleyman: 70,000

- Behbahan: 49,000

Ten years later, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, the population chart shifted in an odd way. While in the 1980s the population of Iran as a whole grew, the situation in Khuzestan was the something else again.

In the 1986 census, the population of Khorramshahr was listed as zero and that of Abadan as only six while the population of Ahvaz had jumped to 600,000. Abadan and Khorramshahr served as examples of what war can do to cities and its propensity to make refugees of all inhabitants. Between the two censuses of 1976 and 1986, close to 350,000 people migrated out of Khuzestan, which resulted in the net loss of almost 270,000 people. 

From 2011 to 2016, 240,076 people migrated out of Khuzestan — the highest rate among all Iranian provinces —  and the population of the province grew by only 161,715. Over these five years, emigration reduced the population of the province by around 79,000. Also, more than 105,000 migrated within the state itself. War was over by 2011 so the emigration of more than 240,000 has to be attributed to environmental, social and urban crises and economic problems.

Population Chaos

In 2016 the population of Khuzestan was 4.71 million. Of this number, 3.555 million lived in urban areas and 1.115 in rural areas. Comparing these number to those of the 2006 census shows that within 10 years the rural population of Khuzestan was reduced by 250,000 and the urban population increased by 680,000. In other words, every year the rural areas lost 25,000 people, while the urban areas gained 68,000. The census also showed that Khuzestan’s population growth is close to half a percentage point less that the average for the whole country.

In 2016, the population of Ahvaz, those living within the city limits, reached to around 1.227 million, i.e.12 percent more than its population 10 years earlier in 2006. Compared to the population growth in other metropolitan areas including Mashhad, Tabriz, Tehran and Isfahan, this increase is insignificant. Between 2006 and 2011, Ahvaz lost around 1,000 people out of its population.

Nevertheless, compared to other cities in the province, the increase in the population of Ahvaz is exceptional. The population of Abadan in 2016, 231,000, was less than its population in 1976 and slightly more than in 1956. The population of Khorramshahr in 2016 was 37,000, about one third of its population in 1976. The population of Dezful in 2016, 264,000, was slightly more than twice its population in the last census before the revolution. And the population of Masjed Soleyman, which was 116,000 in 1976, fell to 100,000.

If these statistics show anything, it is that the province experienced not an orderly population movement but a chaotic situation brought about by war and mismanagement and various crises after the war.

Economic Oddities

As long as the Iranian economy remains dependent on oil, its heart rests in the province of Khuzestan. According to the latest report by the Statistical Center of Iran, Khuzestan produces a share of almost 16 percent of the country’s gross national product (GNP), second only after the province of Tehran. Even if oil is taken out of the equation, Khuzestan is left with six percent of GNP and comes fourth after the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan and Razavi Khorasan, where Mashhad is located.

But, despite being very high in terms of its GNP ranking, the statistics for employment in Khuzestan are worrying. According to 2017 employment statistics, the labor force participation rate — the number of working-age people who are currently employed or are seeking employment — in the province is 39.3 percent, one percent less than the national average. And the unemployment rate is 14.7 percent, 2.6 percent higher than the average national unemployment rate.

These statistics prove, once again, that in southwestern Iran nothing works as expected and that economic indices do not relate to one another as one would imagine they would.



Khuzestan is one of the most crisis-ridden centers of margin-dwelling in the whole of Iran. According to local officials, 40 percent of the urban population in the province live in decayed areas, unauthorized dwellings and shantytowns, meaning somewhere around 1.422 million people [Persian link]. But as a 2018 report by Khuzestan Urban Renewal Headquarters, part of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, shows [Persian PDF], the numbers and the statistics alone are not enough to elucidate the vast array of crises that have been the driving force behind the dramatic increase in margin-dwelling in Khuzestan. Among them are:

Land Expropriation: Over the last two decades, around 100,000 acres of land to the north and the south of Ahvaz have been appropriated for expanding sugarcane cultivation. A considerable portion of these areas used to be home to native people who were forced to migrate after their lands were expropriated. The government did not make a plan for the resettlement of these people and, as a result, this has led to problems for other urban areas.

Areas in Legal Limbo: As a result of legal disputes between municipalities and the Ministry of Energy, river banks within the boundaries of decayed urban areas do not come under the jurisdiction of any authority and therefore have been left out of development projects.

Swallowed by Artificial Lakes: The construction of numerous dams in Khuzestan have necessitated the creation of artificial lakes, which have covered portions of upriver lands and villages. The rural populations of areas including Derb Gharibiha, Bajul, Khoda Bakhshi 1, Khoda Bakhshi 2, Shapuri 1, Shapuri 2, Rakat-e Sofla and Rakat-e Olia have all been deprived of agricultural land and pastures, forcing people to migrate to big cities. Most of these migrants end up in shantytowns and decayed urban areas.

Wetlands Drying Up: Downriver, the dams have created disasters by doing the opposite of what they have done upriver. The dams have reduced the supply of water to both agricultural land and important wetlands such as the Hour al-Azim or Hawizeh marshes, a complex network of wetlands that straddle the Iran-Iraq border. Besides damaging agriculture, this severe reduction of water supply has destroyed the underpinnings of the local economy in areas such as fishing and hunting birds.

Dust Storms: In addition to the drying up of wetlands, the reduction of water supply has reduced the moisture in the area, leading to chronic dust storms that have further contributed to migration from rural areas to cities that are less prone to these storms.

Exhaustion of Oilfields: The oilfields around cities such as Aghajari, Haftkel and Masjed Soleyman are virtually exhausted. These once-thriving cities have been left alone to die a slow death without any help from the government. Naturally, many of the residents have been forced to migrate to the margins of other cities, especially big cities, that are still functional.

Neglected Urban Areas: A considerable portion of urban areas has been handed over to oil transportation pipes and installations. These areas are usually neglected so they provide a hospitable environment for the spread of unauthorized dwellings and shantytowns.

Oil Thrash Pollution: Environmental pollution as a result of the burning of surplus gases from extraction of oil and the release of a considerable amount of petroleum byproducts in the pits around oil wells have led to considerable environmental problems for the people who live around oil-producing areas.

The two major cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr rank second and sixth among Iranian cities in terms of the extent of decayed urban areas. The total number of Khuzestan residents who live in shantytowns and in the the margins of cities is 850,000. This is more than the total population of the five provinces of Ilam, North Khorasan, South Khorasan, Semnan and Kohkiluyeh.


Code Red

Margin-dwelling in Ahvaz and other cities in Khuzestan has reached an extremely critical point. One can say that it is even beyond the normal definition of “crisis” when close to 1.5 million of 3.5 million inhabitants of cities live in slums and on the margins, and when this is added to other crises such as dust storms, shortage of drinking water, high unemployment rates, deep-seated levels of poverty, social ills, ethnic unrest and so on.

Without much exaggeration, Khuzestan resembles a province on its deathbed. If 50 years ago anybody had predicted that Abadan, Ahvaz and other Khuzestan cities would come to this, that person’s sanity would have been called into question and they would have been ridiculed unsparingly. But, as fate would have it, in less than 40 years Khuzestan fell from the highest heights of progress to the lowest lows of misery and misfortune.


Read the full Living on the Margins in Iran series:

Living on the Margins in Iran: An Introduction

Living on the Margins in Iran: Razavi Khorasan

Living on the Margins in Iran: Mashhad and the Cities of Razavi Khorasan

Living on the Margins in Iran: East Azerbaijan

Living on the Margins in Iran: Bandar Abbas and Hormozgan Province

Living on the Margins in Iran: Chabahar and the Province of Sistan and Baluchistan

Living on the Margins in Iran: The Rise and Fall of Khuzestan


Sources in Persian:

تحولات جمعیتی شهرهای خوزستان, Humanities and Cultural Studies Research Center (PDF), 2006

گزیده نتایج سرشماری عمومی نفوس و مسکن 1395, Statistical Center of Iran (PDF), 2017

بررسی مهاجرت در استان خوزستان, Statistical Center of Iran (PDF), 2014

گزیده سرشماری عمومی نفوس ومسکن 1395 – استان خوزستان, Center for Statistics and Information, Khuzestan’s Management and Planning Organization (PDF), 2017

آمارنامه کلان شهراهواز, سال 1395، فصل دوم: جمعیت, Ahvaz Municipality (PDF), 2017

حساب‌های منطقه‌ای ۹۴-۱۳۹۰, Statistical Center of Iran (PDF), 2017

چکیده نتایج طرح آمارگیری نیروی کارسال 96, Statistical Center of Iran (PDF), 2018

گزارش دبیرخانه ستاد بازآفرینی پایدار محدوده ها و محله‌های هدف استان خوزستان, Khuzestan Department of Roads and Urban Development (PDF), May 1, 2018 


More on poverty in Iran:

Iran’s Leading Charity Failing the Poor, October 20, 2018

Families and Fishermen Lose Out as Prices Rise, October 1, 2018

Selling Body Parts to Survive, September 19, 2018

Can Iran Survive the Inflation Hike?, August 29, 2018

The Guards’ Fight Against Poverty: Where Does the Money Come From?, June 14, 2018

Relief Organization Sparks Controversy Over Large Donations Abroad, June 11, 2018

Iranians Are 15% Poorer than a Decade Ago, January 9, 2018

Please Help Stop the Sale of This Baby Girl, October 5, 2017

More than 40% of Iranian Households Live Below the Poverty Line, October 2, 2017

Child Trafficking by the Truckload, July 7, 2017

Stories From Iran's "Kidney Street", February 28, 2016

Hundreds of Thousands of Tehranis Living In Poverty, June 16, 2015

Wasted Youth: The Hidden Trash Collectors of Tehran, December 2, 2014




Living on the Margins in Iran: Mashhad and the Cities of Razavi Khorasan

March 2, 2020
Ali Ranjipour
9 min read
Living on the Margins in Iran: Mashhad and the Cities of Razavi Khorasan