Iran: “People have lost everything” in devastating floods

Flood flashes in Iran

Iran 2019 © Olivier Aubry/MSF

Heavy rains caused severe flooding across Iran in recent weeks, leaving towns and villages underwater and destroying homes, crops, and infrastructure. Twenty-five of the country's 31 provinces have been affected, with Golestan, Lorestan, and Khuseztan hit hardest. Some 365,000 people have been displaced, many of whom are now living in precarious conditions with insufficient access to food, safe water, medical care, and other essential services. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have visited affected areas to assess the needs, and will begin distributing non-food items in Golestan and providing primary health care via mobile clinics in Lorestan in the coming days. Here, MSF Deputy Head of Mission Elham Miraghazadeh describes the situation on the ground.

“On April 8, an MSF team headed to Golestan with the aim of visiting the province’s three worst-hit cities: Gonbad-e Kavus, Aq Qala, and Gomishan. The roads we drove along were mostly hidden under the floodwaters, so it was difficult to distinguish between roads, rivers, and fields. The floods have destroyed people’s houses, livestock, and crops, as well as roads and other infrastructure.

The first place we visited was the neighborhood of Afghan Abad, in Gonbad, home to many Afghan Turkmen people. Located near the river, some of the houses have been washed away completely while others are fully or partly underwater. More than 400 families have lost all or most of their possessions. They have been evacuated from the area and are accommodated in tents or in existing camps for displaced people. Despite some distributions of essential relief items, people are in great need of assistance to meet their basic needs.

Widespread devastation

When we approached the other two cities, Aq Qala and Gomishan, the water levels were so high that the cars couldn’t go any further and we had to turn back. Since then, a second MSF team managed to reach the cities, where they found the floodwaters had retreated and people were returning to their homes. 

Another MSF team traveled to the province of Lorestan, in western Iran—a mountainous region dotted with isolated villages. Along more than 120 kilometers of the river [about 75 miles], flash floods have caused huge damage, washing away houses, roads, and bridges. Some people have lost their homes, their businesses, and their land.

The city of Pol-e Dokhtar has been particularly affected, and access to many buildings is still blocked by mud. People are living in small groups in encampments of tents. When we arrived in the city, people living in a temporary camp described the damage to us: ‘Go to the city center—it’s like it’s been hit by a nuclear bomb,’ they said. Indeed, the city center was totally devastated: all the shops were damaged and it was like a dead city.

With many bridges destroyed, lots of villages in the Pol-e-Dokhtar region are cut off from the main road. The only way to reach them with aid is by boat or helicopter.

Decimated infrastructure

We were able to reach a village that had been cut off by road thanks to a boat which crossed the river continuously, ferrying supplies and allowing people to cross from one side to another. The villagers gave us a warm welcome. We visited the health center, which they had started to clean up, but all the equipment was damaged.

Basic medical consultations were being provided under a tent in the temporary camp where people are staying. A notice pinned to a board reminded people to be wary of snake and scorpion bites—a particular risk when you’re living in a tent. It’s impossible for people to return to their houses, as they are filled with mud and water, often two-thirds of the way up the buildings.

Khuzestan province, in the southwest, is very different geographically. It is flat rather than mountainous. In Ahwaz, the province’s main city, the level of damage was not so obvious, but when we reached the cities of Dehlaviyeh, Susangerd, Shoush, and Elhaieh, we could see how disastrously the province had been affected.

The Karkheh and Dez rivers had burst their banks, leaving some villages partly or totally underwater. Some of the villages were deserted; in other villages, a few young men or families had remained to take care of the place and protect what few belongings they could salvage. Supplies can only reach them by boat or helicopter.

An uncertain future

In some places, people went to higher ground when the waters rose and are now living under trees, in temperatures that will soon reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

In one village, we met a family who were still living at home—[but] in a tent which they had put up on the roof. They had started to clean up the house, but it was not yet suitable for living in.

Despite the limited quantity of clean drinking water available, people don’t forget their hospitality. We drank tea together as they described their difficulties: drought last year and flooding this year.

In all of the provinces we visited, one of people’s major complaints was having to go so long without being able to take a shower. Tap water is cut off. Temperatures are getting high and people are finding the heat and insects difficult to cope with. Ramadan is almost here. Food is being distributed, but people prefer to receive the basic ingredients and kitchen utensils and cook for themselves.

The health care facilities we visited were often very basic. Many village health centers and medical equipment are no longer usable, medicines have been washed away, and cold chain storage ruined.  

The harvest was due in two weeks’ time, but now crops, fields, and agricultural equipment are totally gone. People have lost everything: their homes, their possessions, their jobs, their public services, and, unfortunately, their hopes.”

MSF has been providing medical consultations, screening of infectious diseases, treatment of hepatitis C, nursing care, and midwife consultations and mental health care to the most vulnerable populations in southern Tehran since 2012 and in Mashad city since 2018.