By Faranak Bakhtiari

Massive water transfer projects not to ease acute shortages but cripple ecosystems

March 10, 2019

TEHRAN – Water transfer schemes looking attractive to many of those residing in drought-stricken central Iran worried about drought, not only does not eliminate water scarcity, but inevitably involves polluting the environment along with damaging agriculture, people’s fragile source of income.

Two water transfer projects have been proposed by the government to ensure water supplies for the provinces of Semnan and Sistan-Baluchestan suffering severe water shortages, which have been controversial over the past years.

One of the projects is the water transfer from the Caspian Sea to the central province of Semnan proposed in 2012, but not proceeded at the time due to concerns raised by the department of environment, while is now back on the table and at the planning stage.

The other looked to Oman seawater quenching the thirst of the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, Hormozgan and Khorasan Razavi provinces, which have been allocated a budget of $400 million by the president in March 2016.

Although the projects are still under research, now a question remains, is the transfer of desalinized water from one geographic region to another a sustainable way to secure drinking water and provide people’s source of income?

Experts believe that these projects entailing economic and environmental burden are no solution to droughts, and demanded the water transfer projects to be dismissed due to the irreparable damages to the environment namely deforestation, wildlife habitat destruction, biodiversity degradation, improper land change use, and contaminated seawater. 

In a news piece published by Khabaronline on Sunday, Mehdi Zare, a seismic expert, said that human intervention, speeding up climate change, is one of the major threats to today’s human life and even the future. One of the threats is that transferring water to dry areas increases population burden in those areas while imposing unsustainable development where there is no suitable climate for such a concentration.

The disastrous consequences of such interventions have so far been appeared in the country, especially in provinces of Tehran and Isfahan located in arid areas, which have been demolished being accommodated a population of three to five times the size of their carrying capacity in the last 50 years, he lamented.

Additionally, development of huge industries inappropriately deployed to their climatic conditions added insult to injury, he added.

It seems that currently the same issue is being imposed on the province of Semnan by transferring water from the Caspian Sea basin, he regretted, adding that a mix of rapid population growth, disproportionate population distribution, inefficient agricultural methods, mismanagement and thirst for development are the main reasons behind water shortages.

So, we cannot hide unsustainable management behind water diversion ideas, because in the near future Semnan will face unbridled development and bear the consequences, he noted. 

He went on to regret that the average level of groundwater in Semnan province has dropped by 12 meters in the past 17 years, and depth of wells has risen from 200 to 430 meters in the last 12 years, which means that the province’s current population is not compatible with its climatic characteristics.

Meanwhile, desalinating water of Caspian Sea is a dangerous process leading to degradation of the sea environment, threatening the lives of five million people living in Gorgan, Mazandaran, and Gilan coastal cities, he highlighted.

Looking for solutions based on water transfer primarily affects the drought-ridden central provinces, then the litoral cities, he concluded. 

Some others are staunch supporter of water transfer projects as well as the DOE chief Issa Kalantari arguing that to provide the amount of water needed for drinking purposes and industries, there is no choice but to use seawater, the incredible and abundant resources, now and in the future.

While deputy environment chief Masoud Tajrishi announced that we have not yet reached a conclusion to transfer Caspian Sea water to Semnan province, and no permit has been issued for the project.

The Energy Ministry must provide the DOE with environmental assessment and detailed plans, then we will take steps toward issuing the necessary permissions, he added.

Once an efficient permanent solution, water supply schemes are now being considered as the main cause of environmental depletion haunting many parts of the country leading to dried up lakes and rivers, and poor water resources management resulting in excessive water withdrawal is also a major threat to the country’s future.

But it is still not farfetched to implement appropriate water management strategies in order to contain water scarcity before bringing the country heavy economic and environmental risks, which mainly includes changing water consumption patterns, appropriate water billing system, giving people incentive to curb their consumption, promoting agricultural technologies and irrigation systems, capturing rain or flood waters, recycling wastewater, water reuse and limiting groundwater withdrawal.

Taking steps to increase people awareness of water shortage, in addition to legislating laws in this regard, considering fines for citizens or industries taking water for granted can be among the effective solution to Iran’s issues with drought.

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