Iran tries to cope with water crisis
London - In Iran to assist with a television documentary, Kaveh Madani of the Imperial College London said he had no doubt how serious the water crisis was in the country of his birth.
“People talk about crisis, but a crisis in an extreme event lasting a short period,” he said. “What we see is irreversible, including the loss of lakes that won’t be recovered easily. The Middle East is water bankrupt.
“We’ve written cheques without enough money in the account. Surface water was our chequing account and, after that, we started tapping into our savings account, which is groundwater.”
Iranians do show growing environment awareness. The I am Lake Urmia social media campaign, recently launched to raise 1 million signatures to present to the United Nations, comes with the salt lake in north-west Iran having shrunk 90% since the 1970s.
Mohammad Ehsani’s documentary Once Hamoun focused attention on the drying up of the Hamoun wetlands near Afghanistan, where the flow from Helmand Rud river has been reduced by depleted glaciers and by the diversion of water into agriculture.
Iran and its eastern neighbour, Afghanistan, have been in dispute for decades over the Helmand and tensions have also risen over Hari Rud to the north, where Afghanistan in June opened the controversial Salman Dam, partly financed by India.
South of the drying wetlands, Zabol, once famous for carpets knotted from local wool, is judged by the World Health Organisation as one of the two most polluted cities. This is due to tiny dust particles blown by the “120-day wind” that once cooled the city but now chokes it, producing lung and eye problems. The area highlights Iran’s rural depopulation due to adverse conditions, especially water shortages.
Madani said dust storms, land subsidence, desertification and threats to wildlife and plants all reflect the failure of a “hydraulic” approach, attempts to overcome water shortages by large-scale engineering such as dams and water transfers.
There is a regional history: Egypt’s High Aswan Dam, inaugurated in 1970 and Turkey’s Ataturk Dam in 1990.
Most developing countries build dams: China creates more hydropower annually than the rest of the world combined; the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a $100 billion plan for the Grand Inga Dam across the Congo, while Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam will be the world’s fourth largest when operational in 2019.
Construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, started in 2011, has unsettled relations with Sudan and Egypt, both downriver states dependent on the Nile’s flow.
Like most Middle Eastern countries, Iran is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to low rainfall — 250mm per year is around one-third the global average — and a vast amount of arid land.
But large-scale schemes, including dams, have often created as many problems as they have solved. The Gotvand Dam, in Khuzestan province, was constructed on salt beds that make water in its reservoir too salty to use.
Diverting water into Zayandeh Rud, which flows through Isfahan, to supply conurbations has encouraged further development and so increased demand.
“Yes, we can work on the supply side with dams, wells, desalination, water transfer,” said Madani. “These are all technologies that can be used at the right time and location — but unless we work on demand, we cannot resolve the problems.”
Iranian President Hassan Rohani came to power in 2013 pledging to tackle environmental problems. He appears less convinced than predecessors of the wisdom of dams and initially shelved a plan to pump desalinated water from the Caspian Sea through a 460km underground pipeline to Qom, Kashan and Isfahan.
The scheme is apparently back in planning and Rohani announced in March a $400 million allocation for part of a far more ambitious project to pump water from the Arabian Gulf to 16 drought-ridden provinces with a total of 47 million people.
The government is taking a different tack over Lake Urmia, where it has pledged $5 billion for restoration. Joint projects with the UN Environment Programme and Japan reflect an alternative approach, including changing farming methods and phasing out water-gulping crops.
During a BBC interview at the 2015 Paris climate change talks, Masoumeh Ebtekar, the Iranian vice-president with special responsibility for the environment, advocated a “total U-turn in agricultural policy”.
Such measures could include incentives for conservation, water pricing, reducing leakage, recycling waste water, improving agricultural technology and ending subsidies of inefficient farming.
But many sustainable practices have financial or political costs, said Madani, and need time. “Some of the crops we produce in Iran are more expensive than the same crop imported,” he said. “Still, people do it, because farmers need to have jobs. The root causes of many problems are outside the water sector.”
Both the 1980-88 war with Iraq and international sanctions have encouraged Iran to curb imports. “[National] self-sufficiency in wheat was a justified goal in the past,” said Madani. “We thought we had enough water but we now know this is not possible.”