Iranwire – On Tuesday, September 14, the spokesman for Khuzestan province’s emergency department confirmed that two four-year-old children, a girl and a boy, had drowned after falling into an open canal in the city of Ramhormoz.
Efforts to resuscitate the pair in hospital after they were pulled from the water in Taleghani Street were to no avail. The tragedy has also brought home the fact that these ill-maintained canals in parts of Iran pose a serious risk to children. Many other such incidents, of which Khuzestan has seen more than its fair share, have been recorded over the years.
There are no statistics available on the number of children killed every year due to municipalities’ non-compliance with safety guidelines. But with the surge in migration to cities in Iran in recent years, the problem can only get worse. Children’s safety in urban zones is an oft-neglected topic, and the accessibility (as well as maintenance) of city infrastructure is a major challenge largely overlooked by managers.
Researcher: Managers Put Roads and Legacy Builds Before Citizens’ Safety
Mohammad Karim Asayesh, a researcher and civil activist, has long been concerned by the lack of adequate child safety measures in urban areas. The shortcomings, he told IranWire, are not just borne out of a lack of funding but deprioritization.
Managers, Asayesh said, take a “highways-oriented” view of building and maintenance: urban spaces are conceived of in terms of their service to cars, roads and motorways, not the other way around. This means that issues affecting the city’s most vulnerable – physical hazards, air pollution and traffic – are at the back of the queue.
Asayesh’s particular concern is improving the safety of buildings, waterways and parks in Tehran. “These efforts have been going on since the mid-2000s,” he said. “A child-friendly city plan was proposed to draw greater attention to this issue. UNICEF also supported the idea, and great things were done to address environmental issues and expand safe play environments for children.
“But these measures were, inevitably, not enough. I still don’t consider Tehran a safe city for children, in terms of space for sports and recreation or environmental safety.
“This year, Iran’s Urban Planning and Architecture Council approved the framework and conditions for a child-friendly city. But are these plans being implemented correctly? Of course not, because for city managers, the construction of multi-storey highways and mega-tunnels generally take precedence over human-centered projects.”
The physical layout of city streets can also have an impact on criminal activity and with it, public safety. Asayesh explained that the billboard-covered pedestrian bridges over Tehran’s highways are thus dangerous places for passersby. “These places have become hotspots for rapists and thieves to target women and children.”
But for city managers, he says, money will always trump citizens’ security. “What do you think Tehran Municipality’s 2020 budget was for children? Just one billion tomans [US$37,000] – allocated not just for safety measures, but for all children’s artistic and cultural activities like theater, cinema and religious ceremonies!
“This, within an organization with revenues of more than 20,000 billion tomans in the same year. The reality is that urban safety is falling victim to propaganda, and the situation in Iranian provinces such as Khuzestan is far worse than in Tehran.”
Asayesh also pointed out that in recent years, city managers in different provinces have often ploughed cash into large-scale legacy projects to show off their capabilities, rather than invest in safe cities and social services. Even then, “when an accident occurs at an amusement park, all they do is seal that park or playground for a while until the incident is forgotten.
“What are the safety measures at Eram Amusement Park in Tehran? How many children and adolescents have to die or be injured each year for managers to install modern, completely safe equipment? Shouldn’t the incidents of the past few years – a child drowning in a puddle, another electrocuted in a park in Tehran’s District 15 – be a lesson to them?”
Returning to Khuzestan, he pointed out that in some provinces more than others, there is at least the potential for change. “In big cities like Tehran, civil activists and NGOs are constantly questioning the authorities, and more and more reports are published in the media. But in small, deprived cities like Ramhormoz, such groups either do not exist at all or are not allowed to critically reflect on problems.”
Lawyers: Bereaved Families “Should Take the Councils to Court”
Mohammad Oliaeifard, a lawyer and regular consultant for IranWire, was unequivocal: “A legal duty of municipalities is to ensure the safety of citizens in all different parts of the city. This includes road repairs, construction supervision, building parks, and installing guardrails along water canals and rivers.”
The recent death of two young children in Ramhormoz, he said, was a clear example of negligence. “According to news reports, this happened many times before, and yet there were no lifeguards or warning signs around the canal. The families ought to file criminal cases against the city administrators to put a stop to these painful events.”
The Turkey-based lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifehlou said the same. “This happened within the city. The legal responsibility lies with Ramhormoz Municipality. If the councils aren’t providing these basic safety measures, then what are they doing?”
Khuzestan’s Hazardous Man-Made Waterways
The irrigation canals and waterways of Khuzestan have been the site of repeated tragedies in the past three years. In February 2018, a three-year-old child fell into the same waterway in Ramhormoz’s Taleghani Street. His lifeless body was found one kilometer away in an agricultural field.
In February 2021, a three-year-old boy died after going out to play and falling into an open sewer in the Kut-Abdollah neighborhood south of Ahvaz. In September 2016 a 12-year-old also died in Dezful after going to swim with his friends and being swept away by an irrigation canal.
Khuzestan is Iran’s most oil-rich province, contributing more than $100bn to the Iranian economy every year in oil and gas production alone. But it is also one of the most deprived in Iran, with 16.7 percent of residents living below the absolute poverty line and socio-economic conditions well behind those of other parts of Iran.
IranWire contacted Ramhormoz Municipality and the governor for its response to Tuesday’s horrific incident. Answer came there none.