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Iran Needs Smarter Leaders to Govern the Environment

In 1988 when I was a college freshman, my father, Sayyed Ahang Kowsar, who was the country's leading scientist on floodwater spreading for artificial recharge, handed me photocopies of a report about the emerging water problems in the Middle East. One of the countries mentioned in the report was Iran. Later that year, he briefed the prime minister and his cabinet members about what awaited Iran in a climate that was gradually warming up. Part of that briefing was based on the alarming report. Unfortunately, the ministers and the future governments had other ideas. They wanted people to see the water they were collecting behind dams. That beautiful blue would garner votes and support for local and national leaders and give more self confidence to the people. Though his research and scientific achievements were validated by numerous prestigious awards, powerful individuals in the government tried to restrict his activities instead of assisting him in saving many parts of the country from land subsidence and land degradation.

As a journalist and a geology grad student who ran a magazine about rainwater catchment systems for a while, I tried to raise awareness and show the public what the ministry of energy was doing by building numerous dams with no regard for the environment and local communities. I was banned from a radio show in 1998 where I had talked about a couple of dams that were going to turn into evaporation pans in the future and were built in the wrong locations, and were deemed to fail in the future.

In 2001, I started writing op-eds about the ministry of energy's wrong policies that would harm Iranʼs water resources and cause a water deficit in the future. After publishing my second piece, I got a call from President Khatamiʼs office. The president summoned me to tell him what I exactly meant by criticizing his administrationʼs water policies. Though I had met Khatami several times before as a cartoonist and talked about certain cartoons and editorial cartooning in general, it was the first time we were going to talk about a non-cartooning issue. I asked my father to join me and be there as a resourceful scientist who could back me up. My father was too polite to challenge the charismatic politician who had been reelected three days before this meeting. When I explained that Iranʼs groundwater resources were going to be in trouble due to a lack of aquifer management and pouring most of the funds into building mega structures regardless of social and environmental consequences, he responded by stating that he was not worried at all and said that Iran would have enough rain. The dams and diversions would save arid zones from dehydration. I was amazed by his naivete. Khatami grew up in the Yazd province, an arid region that flourished because of smart groundwater management with Qanats that supplied water for people living in the desert. Still, climate change and water mismanagement significantly diminished the regionʼs water supply. I told him that as an individual coming from Ardakan, a town in the Yazd province reliant on Qanats, he should know the value of groundwater and the advantages of storing more water in the aquifers of the central Iranian plateau for future generations. I tried to warn him about ignoring the shrinking groundwater resources, but I felt that under the influence of his minister of energy, also from Yazd, he would not budge, and I was wasting my time.

Weeks after that meeting, my editors started censoring me and stopped publishing anything related to dams and water issues from me. I resigned and tried other "reformist" outlets, but it seemed that the so-called “moderates” had no tolerance for a critique of their water policies. Throughout my years in exile, I have spoken to many water managers, interviewed politicians and administrators, and pushed many of them for answers. I've produced over 400 episodes of a weekly show on water issues and written many op-eds, raising awareness and creating room for discussion about the impact of poor water governance on the environment and the lives of Iranians.

Speaking with a number of high-ranking government officials and their advisers, I have noticed that most of them enjoy the top-down decision-making process without any interference from individuals advocating for social and environmental justice. They mostly stick to the most expensive solutions and make alliances with powerful local leaders and the ones running for office to support major projects such as building dams or inter-basin water transfer schemes. Many Iranian officials know they do not have a long-term shelf life and try to get the most out of their time in power. Low-cost but effective plans do not interest them, and they prefer multimillion-dollar projects that garner big commission money. But there is a bigger problem with political leaders who see themselves as alternatives to the current administrators. They also know the populistic value of major projects that could satisfy the public and show that they care. Having met with several advisory groups of anti-regime politicians, I have noticed that they also admire mega-projects. Some would love to dig a "great" channel from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Some have thought of desalinating seawater from the Gulf of Oman to create big lakes in the central Iranian plateau and fill the Lut desert with fresh water, hoping to change the climate of the region. We seem to be dealing with individuals who want to "Make Iran Great Again!" Asking about the environmental impact assessments of their concepts, I noticed that some had minimal knowledge of the geology, ecology, and geomorphology of regions and watersheds in Iran. Still, they believed their innovative plans were the answers and solutions to existing problems. I noticed that asking too many questions would gradually turn them into my enemies. What does a prosperous Iran need?

My father used to say that "the rulers of a fragile land should be ecologists or at least seek their advice." After years of monitoring the situation in Iran and talking to hundreds of observers and experts, I believe that the public needs to be informed of its rights and responsibilities. Without more participation of educated individuals, future generations will become the victims of bad decisions made in the past that could also be made in the near future. Iranian leaders must fully understand environmental justice and sustainable development and should be held accountable for their decisions and actions. The public must also take responsibility. We, the people, need to debate the projects imposed by the leaders, discuss their outcomes, and examine the impacts on the economy and the environment. We must enact laws and get all the needed guarantees that laws and regulations will be fully applied. We should ask the hard environmental questions from candidates running for office – at any level - to see who is and is not qualified to serve. We also need the press to be vigilant, become the independent watchdog and monitor of power that it deserves to be, and warn the public about bad environmental management. The media should educate the people, but journalists should first learn about Iranʼs delicate environment. Knowledgeable journos should be able to hold politicians accountable and better examine their promises.

We also need the press to be vigilant, become the independent watchdog and monitor of power that it deserves to be, and warn the public about bad environmental management. The media should educate the people, but journalists should first learn about Iranʼs delicate environment. We must raise the value and status of environmental sectors to encourage our brightest high school graduates would do their best to be accepted in college to study hydrology, hydrogeology, environmental management, agriculture, irrigation, and so forth. The Iranian youth is the hope for protecting Iranʼs natural resources. Sayyed Ahang Kowsar: "The rulers of a fragile land should be ecologists or at least seek their advice." ________________________________________ Nikahang Kowsar, is an award-winning Iranian-Canadian journalist and analyst residing in the U.S. He produces a weekly show on water shortage in Iran that is aired by, Iran-e Farda, Channel 1 and Mihan TV. Kowsar also works as an analyst and commentator on water and environmental issues for Iran International TV in London, BBC Persian, Radio Farda and VOA Persian.


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