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Preconditions to Solve Iran’s Water Problems

Photo: Nikahang Kowsar

Iran is facing a severe water crisis as a result of the over-extraction of groundwater resources, poor water management, rapid population growth, and droughts. Our research shows that Iran is in a state of anthropogenic drought, referring to water scarcity caused or exacerbated by human activities. This type of drought is different from meteorological drought, or simply what we have historically considered drought, driven by a lack of precipitation. The main impact of anthropogenic drought is water bankruptcy or a crisis where residents/industries cannot access an adequate water supply. A water-bankrupt society uses more water than nature can provide, which will only continue before we see some serious cascading impacts.

How can we tell a city or country is water bankrupt? Leaving data, statistical methods, and mathematical models aside, observing the environment quickly reveals the impacts. In a water bankrupt environment, lakes shrink, wetlands disappear, and perennial rivers (streams that flow continuously) turn into ephemeral streams (rivers that do not flow for long in terms of time and/or distance). Speaking of Iran, the list is long and frightening: Urmia Lake, Zayanderud River, Hamoun Lake, Gavkhooni Marsh, Bakhtegan Lake, and many more.

The key question is that what can we do about this? Is there any sustainable solution for solving Iran’s water problems? Or, more specifically, can we restore Lake Urmia? My short answer to all the above questions is, regrettably, no! Why our lakes and wetlands are drying up has been discussed in many articles, and most, if not all, correctly highlight the human dimension of the problem, including poor water management. Additionally, the proposed solutions by most of my colleagues, such as water demand management, improving irrigation efficiency, and changing crop patterns, are often reasonable. Unfortunately, none can sustainably solve the current water problems in Iran. In this article, I will explain why restoration plans are hopeless and why there is no solution to the current water problems. The main issue, in my opinion, is that, unfortunately, some fundamental preconditions that are absolutely necessary to solve Iran’s water problem are not available. A wet season or two may temporarily increase water levels in Urmia Lake, but a permanent solution needs more than just scientific research, technical planning, and management. Here are just a few important preconditions to solve Iran’s water problems:

1) Our water problems will not be solved without a free, prosperous, competitive, non-governmental, and non-ideological economy. Water is not just a scholarly and scientific issue – politics and economics play an important role in it. For example, due to ideological laws, we cannot expand the tourism industry in Iran, and the focus of investment goes towards agriculture, which generates less income and consumes a lot of natural resources. Government and semi-public companies (or even private ones) that work with subsidized water and without competition in a closed market have no incentive to reduce consumption. We cannot solve our water problems with a crumbling economy under the shadow of ideology.

2) It is impossible to create a powerful and competitive economy with an enemy-oriented policy incompatible with the free world. The political side of our water problems is much deeper and more complicated than its scientific and local management aspects.

3) Another major problem is systemic corruption in the Islamic Republic. We cannot solve Iran’s water problems, and no lake will be restored without first addressing corruption and conflict of interest. So long as we have powerful military and government institutions financially benefiting from water projects (e.g., dams, water transfer projects) and they can get permits to build just about any project or even build massive projects without permits, the water and environmental problems will only become worse.

4) Without regulatory bodies and an independent judiciary system free from systemic corruption, we cannot expect sustainable water and environmental progress. Even in a free and prosperous economy, a lack of oversight on private companies would be disastrous for the environment and water resources. Unfortunately, the judiciary system is known to be corrupt and not independent from power.

Illustration: Afshin Sabouki

5) Lack of free and independent press. Without independent and free media, we cannot hold government officials accountable for their actions. Unsurprisingly, Iran has the greatest number of imprisoned reporters and journalists.

6) Lack of powerful non-government organizations for bringing people and local communities into the management process. The Islamic Republic has weakened the NGOs, and people have no voice in major water and environmental policy decisions. Many environmentalists who used to work in NGOs are now in jail for their activism. Those who are free have to be cautious so they don’t end up in prison either.

We cannot find even one developed country in the world that has succeeded in water and environment management but does not satisfy the above preconditions. In short, Iran's biggest obstacles to solving the water problem are its weak economy, ideological politics, systemic corruption, and lack of freedom. These are exactly what people are fighting for on the streets in the current uprising. This is the only thing that gives me hope for a future prosperous and free Iran without the current major water and environmental problems.

I emphasize that these preconditions alone are not enough to solve the current water problems, but they are necessary conditions without which no sustainable and long-term planning is possible. Once the preconditions are met, we must consider the best science, technology, and public policy to address Iran’s water problems.

________________ Amir AghaKouchak is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on natural hazards and climate extremes and crosses the boundaries between hydrology, climatology, and remote sensing. One of his main research areas is studying and understanding the interactions between different types of climatic and non-climatic hazards including compound and cascading events. He has received several honors and awards including the American Geophysical Union’s James B. Macelwane Medal, Fellow of AGU, and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Norman Medal, and Huber Research Prize. Amir is currently serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Earth’s Future – a transdisciplinary scientific journal examining the state of the planet and the science of the Anthropocene.

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