Tehran's dwindling water supplies

Published in MEED, 16 July 2015 Iran is facing up to another dry year. Officials say rainfall has been 20 per cent lower than average over the past year, which is exacerbating the country’s long-standing water crisis.

It is a situation that is getting worse rather than better. More than 500 towns and cities across the Islamic Republic have been struggling to meet demand for drinking water this year, according to deputy interior minister Esmaeil Najjar. The Energy Ministry, which is in charge of the water system, said in March that 60 per cent of the reservoirs of major dams were empty, caused in part by a 16 per cent fall in the flow of water over the preceding months.

“The water shortage is worse this year than any previous year,” says Gary Lewis, UN resident coordinator in Iran. “More provinces are facing water shortages.”

These are not new problems for the country and evidence of the crisis has been building up for years. In the northwest, Lake Urmia, once the largest salt lake in the Middle East, has been drying up and is now a fraction of its former size. A similar process is happening at the Hamoun Wetlands in the southeast. In the centre of the country, the famous arches of the Khaju Bridge in Isfahan often sit over a dry Zayandeh River.

However, climate is not the main problem for Iran. It is in a dry region, but it has far greater water resources than most other countries in the Middle East. According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), average rainfall is one of the highest in the region, at 228 millimetres a year.

The bigger issue is how the country uses these resources, says Kaveh Madani, a lecturer in environmental management at Imperial College London. “There’s no strong evidence to say climate change is causing the problems,” he says. “The most important cause is a lack of proper planning. This is a decades-long problem.”

The biggest issues lie in the agricultural sector. Iran’s farmers use a disproportionate amount of water. According to the FAO, more than 92 per cent of water in Iran is used in the agricultural sector, and about two-thirds of the water is wasted, with farmers too often wedded to old and inefficient irrigation techniques.

Domestic water use is also very inefficient. Iranian households consume 70 per cent more water than the global average, says Sinead Lehane, a research analyst at Australia-headquartered consultancy Future Directions International.

Officials from the FAO are currently drawing up a plan to help the country deal with its water shortages. The organisation has also pledged to help with issues stemming from the degradation of land caused, in part, by water scarcity. It says salinisation of the soil and land degradation are costing the country $1bn a year.

There is growing recognition of the problem, both among the public and officials. In March, President Hassan Rouhani urged citizens to reduce their water consumption, saying a 10 per cent cut would help the government deal with the water shortage.

A couple of months later, in May, Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian said many of the water-related challenges affecting Iran could only be solved if the amount of irrigation water used was also cut by 10 per cent, according to remarks reported by the state-owned IRNA news agency.

But recognising the problem is only the start. The authorities also need to adopt the right policies to ensure the underlying issues are properly addressed. That is likely to prove more difficult.

“On the positive side, Iranians are now aware of the problems,” says one analyst. “But people don’t want to pay too much attention to the causes and if you don’t understand the causes then your solutions will not be the right ones. Politicians always go with the narrative that makes them less responsible. So they say the water shortages are because of climate change because there’s nothing they can do about that.”

There is no lack of sensible policy suggestions that politicians could follow if they were brave enough. Experts have been advocating better use of wastewater, for example, so that it could be used to irrigate green spaces in major cities such as Tehran. Per capita water consumption in the Iranian capital has risen from 99 litres a day in 1966 to 386 litres by 2006, but per capita water production is 378 litres a day.

According to a paper written last year by three academics at the Unesco Chair in Water & Environment Management for Sustainable Cities at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, that shortfall could be partly addressed by reusing treated wastewater. The three writers, Masoud Tajrishy, Ahmad Abrishamchi and Abedeh Abdolghafoorian, point out that “water reuse and wastewater recycling are not only physically feasible but also economically attractive options”.

Madani proposes some other broad policy changes that would help. He says the government should try to slow down the rate of migration to big cities such as Tehran, which are already struggling to provide enough water to their existing populations. Farmers also need to be encouraged to plant crops that consume less water and they also need to modernise and cut their water and energy usage.

Rouhani has pledged that a total of $5.4bn of investments from the National Development Fund will be allocated to the water sector in the current Iranian year (which began on 21 March). Depending on how the money is spent, it could help to address some of the problems the country faces. However, full-scale change will require much more investment and the government’s finances are being squeezed these days, not least by years of sanctions. There are currently more than $3bn-worth of water projects planned or under way around the country, according to regional projects tracker MEED Projects, including several new irrigation schemes.

One of the biggest projects, however, has stalled. A $1bn scheme planned by Iran Water & Power Resources Development Company to construct a dam at Bakhtiyari, along with an associated 1,500MW power plant, is on hold due to financial reasons.

Dams are in some cases seen as part of the problem, though. Iran has been the strongest advocate of hydroelectric power in the region, and has about 9.5GW of installed hydroelectric capacity, according to the Abu Dhabi-headquartered International Renewable Energy Agency.

But dams are often blamed for altering the country’s natural water system, leading to lakes drying out and fish habitats being destroyed. Lehane says it is estimated there are 40 dams on the 14 rivers that empty into Lake Urmia, for example. The restriction of water flow to that lake has led to apocalyptic scenes. “When I visited the lake, I saw a dry, empty, white salt-bed. I heard the wind howling; I saw it blowing the salt all around what – up until a few years ago – had been a beautiful salt lake,” says Lewis, who was in the area in January.

Climate change modelling suggests that Iran faces an ever drier future. The population is also sure to keep growing in the short term. So unless the government starts to act with more focus and energy, the problem is bound to get worse.

At the moment, Iran has about 1,900 cubic metres a year (cm/y) of per capita water resources. That is the threshold for ‘water stress’ says Lewis, but it is expected to fall to the ‘water scarcity’ level of 1,300 cm/y by 2020.

“We need to rethink Iran’s water management approach and shift from a demand-driven management system to one that is supply-driven and where consumers work with the water that is sustainably available in the given water basin,” he adds. “We must also stop treating water as an open resource.”