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Iran's water bankruptcy risk: not all to blame for climate change

This summer, while in different parts of the world there were records of temperature, fires and other extreme events, in Iran at least eight protesters died in different protests that demanded water. The mobilizations took place mainly in Khuzestan, in the south-west of the country, from mid-July to the first weeks of August. Baptized by some media opposed to the Islamic system as “the rising of the thirsty”, these protests spread to different cities and were violently contested by the security forces, at the same time that movement restrictions were tightened with the excuse of the pandemic. The population that took to the streets claimed their quota of water, which denounced that it had been sent irregularly to the central desert of Iran to supply industries and agriculture.

In a semi-arid or arid country in a 90% of its surface, with an average rainfall of 250 millimeters per year (well less than half the average in Spain), the increase in temperatures due to climate change in this part of the world is tragic. As Mohammad Reza Peyrovan, professor at the Soil and Water Research Institute, points out, “a third of the country is at risk of becoming desert.” However, the case of water in Iran also shows the risk of blaming global warming for all ills, as it can hide other important clues. This is how Kaveh Madani, a researcher at Yale University and former vice president of the Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of Iran, thinks that the mismanagement of this resource is leading the country to a situation of “water bankruptcy”. For this environmental expert, Iran is not only using more water than is naturally renewed annually, but also wasting its underground reserves.

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Most of the population of the Iranian highlands is concentrated in the interior areas, far from the coasts, historically using deserts and high mountain ranges as a natural defense against invasions. In the last 50 years and especially after the war against Iraq (1980 – 1988), an industry based mainly on petrochemicals, iron and steel industries and, recently, nuclear facilities, has also developed in the interior, with some considerable water needs. The transfer of this resource to these drier regions of the center of the country, together with heat waves with temperatures of more than 50 degrees, the increase in evaporation from reservoirs and the increase in salinity of rivers such as the Karun – the largest in Iran – is behind the crisis that sparked the protests in Khuzestan, endangering the survival of crops in this region.

In an economy such as the Iranian one that is so dependent on hydrocarbons and their petrochemical derivatives, the agricultural sector represents only the 10% of GDP and generates jobs only for 17% of the active population. However, the revolutionary ideology has always sought food autarky and the constant sanctions have intensified its importance. So much so that, as Seyed Ali Seyedzadeh, representative of the Iranian Water and Wastewater Company, points out, “the country’s agricultural sector consumes the 90% of the water, when it should be 30% ”.

“A third of the country is at risk of becoming desert,” says Mohammad Reza Peyrovan, professor at the Institute for Soil and Water Research

The head of the country’s National Drought and Water Management Center, Ahad Vazifeh, is clear: “According to the meteorological statistics of the last 50 years the temperature of Iran has risen 0.4 per decade, well above the global average ”. Global warming is already changing the world we know, but here in the Middle East, rising temperatures endanger the delicate balance that makes life possible in territories that are already starting in extreme conditions. The complicated panorama that opens up in this part of the world with climate change should force us to take extreme precautions with the use of water. However, for more than three decades, governments of different political tendencies have unanimously chosen to develop megaprojects to transfer water from hydrographic basins to urban and industrial agglomerations in central Iran, ignoring the warnings of media experts. environment and ignoring the protests of the inhabitants of the southwest of the country.

Large fires

In recent years more than 14. 000 hectares of Iranian forests have been burned annually and environmentalists warn that the figures for 2021 will be much worse. There is no data to show what percentage is due to human intervention, but heat waves and their prolongation have intensified this problem. Most of these fires take place in the oak forests of the Zagros Mountains where there are the sources of the largest rivers in Iran that irrigate the fertile plains of Khuzestan. And this is where the infrastructures built to bring water to the interior of the country, such as the Langan or Kuhrang tunnels, from which a new branch is being built right now, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2021.

Meanwhile, in the Khuzestan region that cries out for water, rice has become one of the most profitable crops for many years. The government has never authorized it, but neither has it taken serious measures to prevent it, and it has been gaining weight in the agricultural economy of the Iranian south-west. With the lack of resources to irrigate, this year many families have lost one of their greatest sources of income.

Sugar cane is another controversial crop in the region, since it requires large amounts of water and also causes a lot of pollution. For a few years it has ceased to be profitable, the large sugarcane agro-industrial complexes that have been in business for more than half a century are already unable to pay the wages of the workers, who have carried out many protest demonstrations. For Reza Hajikarim, a member of the board of directors of the Barfabriz company, “by growing rice and sugar cane in Khuzestan we have overexploited water resources and caused today’s water crisis.”

Al Unlike rice or sugar cane, the palm groves of Khuzestan have more than 4 in the region. 000 years, but the fall in river flow and the increase in salinity due to the advance of sea water, specifically in the Persian Gulf, are also taking their toll on this agricultural symbol. Not only has date production been reduced, but close to 70% of the palm groves of Abadán, one of the most important areas for this product is about to dry out. This plant is so important in Iranian culture that in Persian it is called “nafar”, which means “person.”

Livestock has also been affected by water problems. One of the sources of income for the peasants in Khuzestan is the herding of the water buffalo. This bovine needs to submerge in shallow water to protect itself from the heat. Over the last few months, about 140 buffaloes of the 12. 000 existing heads due to high temperatures and drought. In fact, during the July protests, videos of buffalo trapped in mud puddles went viral, as a sign of the agonizing ecological situation in the region.

The authorities are not knowing how face this water crisis. If they change the cropping pattern, they fear that unemployment will increase. And, if they continue with the old models, the situation will end up collapsing and the wave of environmental migration to large cities will intensify, increasing the problems of water and electricity supply.

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