EghtesadOnline: Availability of and access to water is the responsibility of those who manage this finite resource. Period. Professor Neda Torabi Farsani goes straight to the heart of the matter in her response to Financial Tribune’s emailed questions on how to address the water crisis in Iran.
“So long as water demand is not managed efficiently, other strategies on the supply side, namely dam building and inter-basin transfers from far-flung locations will never produce the desired results,” she said.
For more than half a century policymakers in Tehran have been busy with the supply side of the precious resource and hundreds of dams were built in the hope of addressing growing demand.
It turned out that, then as now, the damming policy was not enough and the mega structures failed to serve their intended purpose. The more troubling aspect is that water officials continue to sell their dam theories for which there are few buyers save for possibly vested interests.
A workable strategy demands efficient use of available water that involves reduction, reuse and recycling, the expert on watershed management at the Art University of Isfahan told the newspaper.
This calls for a paradigm shift from conventional supply management to demand management -- an approach conspicuous by its absence.
“Future economic and social development will be a function of our ability to understand and manage water demand to achieve consumption levels consistent with sustainable use of this finite resource.”
The geomorphology and hydrology expert insists that to alleviate pressure on freshwater supplies, a combination of measures, technology, laws and policies are crucial to motivate the people to regulate consumption.
It does not matter how full the dams or underground reserves are or should be. The chronic water challenges are here to stay and worsen unless demand is readjusted and redefined with policies that help regulate, control and influence consumption patterns that so far have been prohibitive.
As freshwater supplies dwindle at alarming speed conservation and efficient use of quantity and quality become imperative more than before, Torabi said.
Water demand can be managed through a number of ways, the most widespread being nonfinancial (awareness and technology), financial (incentivization and pricing), and mandatory (stringent regulations).
Practices that can be employed to reduce water use in major sectors (agriculture, industries and households), include hi-tech solutions, drip irrigation, soil-moisture sensors, laser-assisted field leveling, evapotranspiration-driven irrigation schedules.
Moreover, there are nifty gadgets like pressure-reducing valves, shower-flow restrictors and ultra-low flush toilets that can help homes to curb consumption. Industries are unlikely to curtail water consumption unless they treat and reuse wastewater.
Iran's annual water consumption tops 100 billion cubic meters and independent experts and conservationists have warned that this level at best is unaffordable.
According to data from the Energy Ministry, the average Iranian uses 250 liters of water per day, while per capita water consumption in metropolises such as Tehran exceeds 300 liters. Daily water consumption in the capital, home to more than 12 million people, is reaching 3.6 million cubic meters.
As the world entered the 21st century, the World Water Council said in a report: There is a water crisis today. But the crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy our needs. It is a crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people - and the environment - suffer badly."
Needless to say, there are other effective measures to alleviate the water crisis some of which are mass media campaigns, timely detection of seepage and repairs, establishing regional water markets, penalties for waste and excessive use and privatization.
A distinctive feature of water demand in the country of 83 million people is the inexorable rise in the past three decades with further growth forecast. In late 1970 the population was near 33 million.
The main demand influencing factors obviously are high population growth and migration together with changes in lifestyle, demographics and the possible effects of climate change compounded by disorganized urbanization.
Meeting swelling demand from existing resources is an uphill struggle, particularly in water stressed regions of which there are far too many in Iran and the region.
There are typically two potential responses: either "supply-side" (meeting demand with new resources) or "demand-side" (managing consumptive demand to postpone or avoid the need to develop new resources).
There is growing pressure from academia, prominent environmentalists and independent economic experts to minimize the impact of new supply projects (reservoirs or inter-basin transfers). The message is unmistakable: emphasis must move toward efficiently managing demand by optimal utilization of water that is available.
Iran’s central plateau, encompassing the provinces of Yazd, Isfahan, Kerman and Fars, is reaching a point where the quantity of fresh water renewable resources cannot meet demand and is impeding economic development.
Under the circumstances the government said it was forced to divert water from the Persian Gulf in the south to the dry and draught-hit central regions -- a highly controversial move Dr. Torabi censured as unwanted and unhelpful.
“Tampering with ecosystems in and of itself is harmful. Eventually it results in the death of that system.” Other regions in Iran too are rapidly approaching critical situations and face huge water problems that only get worse as time passes.
Experts like Torabi share the view that an informed understanding, analysis and efficient management of water demand are critical for meeting the needs of the rising population and achieve decent growth without degrading the natural environment and ecosystems that sustain water resources.
The bottom line is that water demand management is a new frontier on the way to achieving a long-term balance between available supply and its use for human development.