Iran tries to cope with water crisis

Mohammad Ehsani’s documen­tary focuses attention on drying up of Hamoun wetlands near Afghanistan, where flow from Helmand Rud river has been reduced by depleted gla­ciers.

Dry soil at a pistachio field that farmers left behind due to the lack of water in an abandoned village near the southern Iranian city of Sirjan.


2016/10/16 Issue: 77 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



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.”


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


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