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EghtesadOnline: As access to water becomes a herculean task in countries big and small, an increasing number of regions worldwide are facing a looming crisis that has become a serious cause of concern threatening livelihoods from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Prominent research institutions say roughly half the world's projected 9.7 billion people will live in water-stressed regions by 2050, Financial Tribune reported.

The World Resources Institute has a list it calls ‘Extremely High Baseline Water Stress” in which 17 countries are named. In this ranking of the most water stressed countries Iran is in the top four after Qatar, Israel and Lebanon. 

Pretty disturbing news for water managers and urban planners living comfortably in glass houses in Tehran!

So far so bad for Iran and its 83 million population that many respected economists say have gotten into the bad habit of over-consuming everything, not the least water, electricity, gas, gasoline…One just needs to look at the trash bins to see how much food is wasted despite the long difficult times.

For the sake of brevity, this write-up will stick to the water crisis and how this natural resource is diminishing despite the efforts of those in charge to stop (and if possible reverse) this trend. 



Bad to Worse

Much time, money and energy have been spent in the halls of political and economic power about ways to alleviate water scarcity. These include, but are not limited to, changing consumption patterns, efficient irrigation, better water pricing and management, trucking water, better crop choices and desalination. None of these have produced the desired results as the water crises moves on from bad phase to another.

In the past several years there have been a lot of arguments in the Iranian capital about something unheard of: Transferring water from the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea to the thirsty regions that have seen their (rural) populations dwindling at higher speed. Entire villages are being abandoned as water resources dry up leaving the poor rural folks with one choice – to move out to survive.

Academicians, environmentalists, conservationists, economic experts and NGOs have strongly opposed the piping of sea water hundreds of kilometers away to the central plateau from the Caspian Sea in the north, or to Sistan-Baluchestan, Kerman, Yazd and Esfahan provinces from the Persian Gulf in the south.

Not surprisingly, the government’s perception is different on the grounds that it wants to get rid of this major water shortage problem sooner rather than later. An oft-motioned argument on this side of the ordeal is that if the water does not come from the sea, (then) from where should it come. 

This said, differences at the higher echelons exist. For instance, one senior energy official said last week “desalination from the two seas (Caspian and Oman seas” would hardly meet two percent of the water needs of the country.”  According to primary projections “close to one billion cubic meters of water would be transferred inside the country,” he told the state news agency IRNA. 

Regarding the multibillion-dollar projects that will take 20 years to complete, Mohammad Fazeli, head of the water resources and energy affairs of the Energy Ministry, said the desalinated water would apparently be very costly. “That means 450,000 rials ($3.5) for one cubic meter of water.” Compare that with the hugely subsidized prices Iranians pay for the water they use and waste. 

For now there are two heavy weights (for and against) to the entire story of transferring sea water to help alleviate the crisis that some have already billed as a “water catastrophe.” Which side is more convincing remains to be seen not in the distant future. 

Time is running out fast for both water managers and policymakers who have obviously failed to effectively tackle the chronic water shortages that are wiping out entire rural areas and threaten Iran’s economic development and the future of its coming generations. Those at the top know what is coming. But what they can and must do remains unclear. 

One key point on which there is a global consensus is that come what may demand for water must be lowered and efficient use be made of water technology. Even if all the best and successful solutions implemented across continents are made use of, the problem will simply not go away. 

First things first: First demand must be cut, everything else comes afterwards. 

Breakthroughs in turning seawater and sewage into something that can be used, if and when it happens, would surely be good, but not enough simply because populations and economies keep on growing. One need not be a hydrologist or social scientist to understand that means more demand for water, not less. 

Interbasin transfers started in the early 1900s in several countries including Africa, Asia and the Americas. There have also been several success stories regarding the transfers. But the bottom line is that not only are the water problems not solved, new and more problems have emerged like rising demand, degradation of the environment, climate change and conflict between neighboring countries wanting a bigger share of the scarce resource.



Economic Viability 

Ismael Kahrom, an authority on environmental and water affairs and highly respected for his no-nonsense and blunt ways, has condemned the whole enterprise of transferring water from the Caspian Sea to Semnan Province in the central plateau.

“This project absolutely has no economic justification. If implemented, it will destroy between 100 to 700 hectares of the ancient Hyrcanian Forests with history going back 3.5 million years.”

When the likes of Kahrom speak the world listens. But in Tehran that does not seem to be the case. Without the need for tired clichés, the veteran expert said,” As per plans, they want to allocate 150 million cubic meters of water to industries and 200 cubic meters for drinking purposes. The cost of producing this volume of drinking water would be several times that of Tehran. Without doubt the people cannot afford it.”

Working in Tehran since his youth, over the past decades Kahrom has often warned those in charge that not paying attention to the environment, pollution and protection of seas and oceans plus the dangers of desalination is a luxury they cannot afford. 

A former senior advisor to the Department of Environment, Kahrom’s steadfast position on the environment and water crisis have remained unchanged for almost half a century and whenever he speaks at seminars in and outside the country.



Desal Long Time Coming

It has been a long time coming for desalination—desal for short. For decades, it has been said that it would one day turn oceans of salt water into fresh and quench the world’s thirst. But progress has been slow.

Globally, more than 300 million people now get their water from desalination plants, according to the International Desalination Association.

The first large-scale desal plants were built in the 1960s, and there are now some 20,000 facilities globally that turn sea water into fresh. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with very little fresh water and cheap energy costs for the fossil fuels it uses in its desal plants, produces the most fresh water of any nation, a fifth of the world’s total.

Desal proponents acknowledge the industry must confront and solve some serious environmental issues if it is to continue to grow. Desalination requires vast amounts of energy, which in some places is currently provided by fossil fuels. Experts warn of a feedback loop where more desal is needed as the planet warms, which leads to more greenhouse gas emissions. 

In addition, there are serious concerns about the damage to marine life from the plant’s intake systems and extra-salty wastewater.

There are ecological impacts as well. It takes two gallons of sea water to make a gallon of fresh water, which means the gallon left behind is briny. It is disposed of by returning it to the ocean and—if not done properly by diffusing it over large areas—can deplete the ocean of oxygen and have negative impacts on sea life.

A study by the UN Institute for Water, Environment and Health contends that the problem of brine waste has been underestimated by 50% and that, when mixed with the chemicals meant to keep systems from fouling, the brine is toxic and causes serious pollution.


Iran Water Water Crisis access to water