Kaveh Madani: It can be tragic if timely action not taken to address water shortage in Iran

December 21, 2015

TEHRAN — Water shortage in Iran is a very serious issue and unfortunately the public and many officials have not woken up to it yet.

In an attempt to dig deeper into the matter of water shortage in Iran the Tehran Times has conducted an exclusive interview with Kaveh Madani, the senior lecturer in Environmental Management and the director of alumni at the Center for Environmental Policy of London’s Imperial College.

Madani, who is one of the four recipients of the Outstanding Young Scientists award for 2016, says by exhausting most of its “water supplies” Iran has “shot” itself in the “foot”.

Below is the text of the interview:

Q. How serious is the water shortage in Iran?

A. Very serious. We are simply water bankrupt. Our water demand and use is way more than our renewable water supply. So, we can’t afford it! To satisfy our unreasonable water demand we have exhausted most of our water saving or the non-renewable fossil water supplies we had. This is not sustainable. We have shot ourselves in the foot. We need to substantially and urgently reduce our water use if we do not want more environmental and socio-economic damages.

Q. Some experts say that the impending drought ultimately turns Iran into a deserted land. What is your prediction?

A. No one can predict the future easily and I am not an exception. But it is easy to project a tragic future of an arid area in which non-renewable water is used aggressively. Once you are out of water, you get dry. It does not require rocket science to understand that.

Q. How the old farming system can be reformed? Do we still have time to take some practical measures or should we just drop the case and shut down the production of certain crops?

A. It’s always late but never too late to fix and improve. Part of the agricultural sector’s reform involves getting rid of some of the low value water-intensive crops. Our agricultural sector is economically inefficient and economics has never had any serious role when making decisions about water and agriculture. This is mainly due to our oil-based economy. We have never had strong plans for the agricultural sector and have been gambling with it for the most part.

We should get rid of the populist policies and heavy subsidies that not only have decreased the efficiency of the agricultural sector, but also have negatively affected the livelihood of those relying on this sector for their living; those who we wanted to protect through supportive policies.

The agricultural sector should be industrialized and economically improved. Empowering farmers is essential to solving the current water problems of the country. Strong farmers can innovate, make better decisions, form cooperatives, run and control markets, and increase water use efficiency.

Q. Some environmental activists are strongly against dam construction as it causes loss of jungles or changes the ecosystem. What is your opinion?

A. You don’t have to be an environmental activist to understand the negative impacts of dams on the environment. All technologies and manmade products have pros and cons. Dams have positive aspects too and can be helpful in arid areas. So, dams are not human enemies necessarily. Humans are the ones who can use dams, like any other technology, in the wrong way. Once you overuse dams, design them wrong, or put them in wrong places they can be destructive.

We are, indeed, suffering from the “hydraulic mission” syndrome. This was the case in the West during their development era as well. During this era, humans think that they can control and dominate the nature by structural and technologic measures that help extracting, storing and moving water. It takes time and lots of environmental damages before they realize that we should live and interact with the nature rather than controlling it.

It is sad to see that we do not learn from the mistakes of the West and instead we insist on repeating them in the developing world. The situation will get worse and worse as long as we do not end our hydraulic mission, even if we stop building dams and replace them with water transfer and desalination projects. This is wrong but happening right now. We have not changed our philosophy of water management. Instead, we are switching from one technologic solution, which we have overused and are tired of, to other ones that we do not know well yet. Just because we do not know them because of not using them extensively in the past does not make them harm-free or better than dam building. They can be destructive too, if used improperly.

Q. What sort of measures does Iran need to take to address the perils of climate change?

A. Like any other country we have to develop both mitigation and adaptation measures. Climate change mitigation requires global cooperation. All countries should share the burden. But the process is complex. Countries are in different stages of development and have different notions of a fair global mitigation plan. That is why we cannot reach a solid global action plan to solve this problem.

So, it is rational and strategic to develop adaptation measures, which can prepare us for a climate change-affected future. No matter if we are the cause of global warming or its victims, we know that the future is not like the past. Most projections say that Iran will get drier and warmer. This means that we will have even less water. Less water also means less food and less hydropower. This can be tragic if timely actions are not taken to ensure that we will remain food-, energy-, and water-secure.

Q. Many lakes and lagoons in Iran are either dead or will be soon. As an expert regarding the current situation do you think that a restoration program would ever be feasible?

A. It depends on what sort of feasibility you have in mind. In many cases, restoration is still physically possible, even if expensive. The problem though is that the socio-political cost of implementing restoration efforts is far more than its economic costs. It is not easy for a politician to cut the users’ water access for the sake of the environment. This is true anywhere in the world. Political costs of such actions decrease when extreme events and disasters are in place. Take Lake Urmia or California’s drought as examples. In both cases, politicians have tried to implement some reforms that would have been politically prohibitive if Urmia Lake were not almost dry and California were not experiencing an unprecedented drought in its recent history.

People who select politicians would be the first ones who become unhappy if strict environmental measures are implemented. We need to respect the fact that at the end of the day humans are selfish and care more about their current and short-term gains than the future status of the planet and the next generations. It takes a lot of time and a lot of disasters till this mentality changes. I’m afraid we are not there yet!

Q. Land subsidence in Iran is believed to be the last phase before desertification. How long does it take before it happens and how serious could that be?

A. I am not sure if your question is factual and backed by science. In general, desertification is a process and I am not sure if we can break it into distinct phases. But, yes, land subsidence is a bad alarm. It simply means that we have overused our groundwater; the fossil groundwater that has taken centuries and millennia to develop has been used by us in the matter of few decades. We cannot restore groundwater easily. So we are out of water and no water means no food, no energy and no life. People might need to relocate when that happens and that is frustrating.

Q. According to reports, on July 31 Bandar Mahshahr experienced the heat index of 74 Celsius. Moreover, the shallow and warm waters of the Persian Gulf, where cyclones have never been recorded, might generate the storms in future as a side-effect of global warming, according to the study in the journal Nature Climate Change. Does it indicate that global warming has had far worse effects on the Middle East than other parts of the world?

A. We do not know for sure if the record heat index in Mahshahr was necessarily the product of climate change. At this point in time and history, we are attributing most unprecedented climatic and hydrologic events to climate change, but the level of uncertainty is high. The study you are referring to is just one of the many studies projecting climate change effects under specific scenarios and assumptions. We should not forget that the level of uncertainty with climate change projections is still very high. So we cannot still fully trust our models and the required knowledge is not in place yet. Most of our modelling studies have a lot of simplistic assumptions about the future and that is why our results vary from one study and one model to another study and model. So we should take these findings with a grain of salt. But these studies are valuable in telling us that the future will not be like today and we should get prepared.

We cannot say that the effects on Middle East are worse than the effects on other places. The nature of problems created by climate change varies from a location to another. Middle East is expected to become drier and hotter. This means that the region might struggle with securing enough water, food and energy. Also, in coastal regions in Middle East, sea level rise can be problematic. We have other places in the world where sea level rise can cause more damages. Some other places would experience serious flooding issues. And some other dry areas can experience famine and major human disasters that are not expected to occur in Middle East.

Most of us will suffer from climate change effects irrespective of where on earth we live. Those of us residing in areas with better economies are luckier as we might be less vulnerable to climate change due to the fact that economic resiliency is correlated with human security to a good extent.

Photo by: Amir Sadeghi