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Water Crisis in Iran

By: Davood Penhani
Entekhab (Morning Daily)
June 6 & 8, 2000, Vol. 2, Nos. 333 & 335

Summary: Iran is in the list of countries facing water shortage. At present, this problem has become more visible in Iran by the recent droughts witnessed in some parts of the country. However, considering the population growth rate in Iran, obviously the present lack of adequate water in our country is going to turn into a serious national crisis in the near future.

In the following discussion, Deputy Energy Minister for Water Resources Rasool Zargar gives a comprehensive account of the Islamic Republic's water problems, in which, he points to the nation's inefficient water-consumption pattern as a main cause.

According to Mr Zargar, although Iran is located in an arid and semiarid region, its per capita water consumption is proportional to, and at times even higher than, the countries with humid climates.


Q: Mr Zargar. At the moment, you are in an executive position in charge of regulate consumption of water as an item the shortage of which is very tangible; How do you evaluate this situation?

A: I think the water issue should be considered from two aspects.

First, from the aspect of being a vital resource with a shortcoming in our country which is worsening gradually -- irrespective of whether we have a dry year or not.

Well, this is a very important point to remember in management of water resources in our country. In my opinion, this limitation will soon emerge as a fundamental issue and even a security-related one in our national future debates. This is a continued headache. The more we progress the more the crisis becomes acute, while its reasons are quite obvious.

Our country is lying in an arid and semiarid part of the world. While the average rainfall in dry regions of the world is 750 mm, in Iran we have an average of 250 mm of rainfalls throughout the year. Therefore as a whole we are a country with limited water resources. However, this is only the production-related side of the problem.

Once we intend to tackle the problem through consumption-related approaches the issue would appear in a totally different manner.

The country's population growth is continuous. People are increasingly in need of more and more water either for drinking purpose, or for farming, industry or other means of their food security, or for social welfare and health matters. Therefore, while the amount of the produced water is almost usually the same, the consumption is gradually increased and the production-consumption ratio has always had a declining trend.

A useful index is proposed in the world to estimate the conditions of a country's water resources. In this index the volume of renewable waters of a country is divided by its total population at any stage and by this method they announce the approximate water reserves of that country.

For example, suppose we possess between 125 to 130 billion cubic meters of water resources in our country. If 30 years ago we had 20 million population, the 130 billion cu.m water divided by 20 million people would be equal to 6,500 cu.m per head of water a year. Now that our population has risen above 60 million people, the 130 billion has to be divided by 60 million, the result of which shows a 2,100 cu.m per head of water yearly.

It is interesting that if this amount in a country falls below 1,700 cu.m per head, it is said that the country is faced with a `water pressure'.

When we divide our 130 billion cu.m water by the amount of our population in, say, 2002-3, the said per capita figure in our country would be declined to under 1,700 cu.m a year. By 2002-3 therefore we will be counted among water tense countries which presently are 20 but by then will be 60 crisis-stricken countries.

On the other hand by 2031-32 in our country the index of renewable water resources divided by the population will sink below 1,000 cu.m per head. From that point onward, considering the classification made to list the countries that are `normal', `pressurized', `short', and `poor' as far as their access to water is concerned, we will be placed among those with water shortage.

Consequently, regardless of rainfall declines in various years and in view of our global, geographical and climatic conditions which has put us in a dry area, we have a country suffering from water inadequacy and meanwhile are moving toward a chronic water shortage. This totally differs from the question of drought. This is what in my opinion could only be called a serious crisis we are to face, while it's getting worse day by day.

Of course this is not applied to Iran only, but it is a global issue about which all the world countries are concerned. In some international meetings held recently the 21st century also has been named as the `century of water shortage' and its first and second decades called `water crisis decades'.

But that which is important is that due to limited rainfalls, our country is more abreast with this problem. In fact one can say that the problem will face us far earlier than some others and this is a crisis which our senior management and planners must take into account.

Now alongside this problem another thing is happening. Sometimes in many years we have more rainfalls than some other times. In this way we have an average of 412 billion cu.m of rainfalls a year which added to other waters entering into the country from some other sources the figure will rise to 425 billion cu.m. Of this amount only 130 billion cu.m can be exploited as renewable water.

Q: Surely such a crisis can lead to droughts and in fact the extent of such droughts would indicate the scope of the crisis; How droughts have been dealt with in our country?

A: The question of drought is assessed as an annual and unexpected event and is defined differently by different experts. According to meteorologists, whenever the percentage of moisture and soil is below the average, they term it as meteorological drought. Hydrologists or water experts believe that whenever the rivers and underground waters sink below a specific level, a hydraulic drought has happened. Also, agricultural experts believe that whenever the soil moisture is not enough for plant evaporation, a farming drought has happened.

We have another drought and that is when all these three droughts happen simultaneously. This kind of drought is called economic drought and it is what we are facing this year. That is to say we are presently suffering from a combination of meteorological, hydrological and farming droughts and our produced water does not correspond to our needs.

Of course alongside this drought several other factors including temperature also can aggravate the drought. For example meteorologists have anticipated that the temperature in many regions in the country will be 2 or 3 degrees above last year. This increases the need for evaporation and for water.

Another factor which aggravates the problem is that the rainfalls have lost their sequence compared with the past and have been delayed by a month. This problem further aggravates the drought. Should we review our annual rainfall statistics in the past 32 years, we will see that we have faced equal to 16 years of drought in these years, which means 50 percent of the period.

Of course this year the condition is more alarming because the amount of water shortage in the past 32 years has not been as acute as this year. But we must realize that the drought in those years and what we suffer now are different in many aspects.

Thirty-two years ago, our need for water was far lesser than today and presently our demand has risen considerably whether for population growth, for farming and industries or public welfare needs.

Also 20 years ago we might have had a hydraulic drought but at that time we did not suffer an economic drought because during the previous two decades the need for water was much less than now.

What I am trying to point out as a whole is that the drought in Iran has been showing its austere face in the last six years and the reason is higher consumption of water. In other words in the past six years due to consumption of water far beyond our resources, this drop in rainfalls or drought has been felt more acutely.

Q: Considering the current awareness of probability of drought crisis in the country, what measures have been taken to treat the issue? And, to what extent the prevention principle has been observed?

A: I should emphasize that we as the state planners, instead of thinking about the droughts, should rather be concerned about the water crisis as a continued process. In other words the droughts in Iran during the next few years will not be considered an unexpected problem, but as an expected event occurring constantly.

We need two sorts of solutions to deal with this problem, short and long-term solutions. Our short-term measures are those which should be normally taken during the time of droughts. In such steps we try for instance to allocate the needed loans to the farmers, as the agriculture sector suffers most from water shortage under these conditions.

Right now out of the 1,500 billion rials of damage caused by droughts, approximately 1,450 billion rials is related to the farming and animal husbandry branches which are known as the agriculture sector. But the agricultural loss is due to two reasons. One is that a big part of our farming depends on rainfall water which we call green water. Green water is a water which is earned without prior planning, contrary to the blue water which is accumulated behind dams and can be planned and controlled.

The main reason that we are so vulnerable to droughts and as soon as there is a drought year, a sizable portion of our gross national products is endangered, is because our farmers mostly rely on dry farming cultivation.

In countries where average annual rainfall is between 700 to 800 liters, irrigation canals system is used for their farming. However, considering our average rainfall of about 250 liter a year, a sizable portion of our agriculture still depends upon the dry farming system.

As a result, as soon as our rainfall drops below the normal level, we suffer notable damage in our farming and animal husbandry branches. In blue water (irrigated water) farming system though this damage is nearly marginal as the water used comes from a system which can be planned and controlled and make up for water shortage. 

Right now a short-term solution by the government is the purchase of lean livestock, suppling water by tankers to certain villages and some towns which suffer from water shortcoming, and or paying loans to farmers and animal breeders. (To be continued) Q: The activities you mentioned in fact are all considered as short-term and immediate solutions; What about the fundamental steps taken to address our water shortage?

A: One of the steps which could have been taken in the past 32 years as a basic long-term solution to reduce draught or its damages, is to shift from rainfall or green water to the dam reservoir or blue water and to make necessary plans to reserve waters in rainy periods for the less rainy years to in fact regulate the rainy- and dry-year consumption.

This could be done by feeding underground waters to dam reservoirs, which needed some restructuring works, or to accumulate more waters by building more dams.

By this, I don't mean that the government has failed to take the necessary steps to address the problem, however, I may say that the steps taken so far have not been sufficient to address the magnitude of the problem.

Before the victory of Islamic Revolution in Iran, about 4 percent of the state budget for construction purposes was allocated to the country's water preservation and maintenance. This amount was increased to 10 percent or 11 percent after the Revolution, specially during the First and Second 5-Year Economic Development plans which ended in March 2000.

Nevertheless, even though after the Revolution the Water Department's budget has almost been tripled, it is not enough yet and still this budget cannot fill the void.

Well, the government admits that it does not possess enough funds and meanwhile it is seeking the private sector's participation. But investment in hydraulic projects is not economically feasible in a way that private investment could be attracted as well. That is to say that only 3 percent of the investment in such projects can be recovered, and this has many reasons.

Just to name some, one reason is for instance the high cost of water. Another cause to be mentioned here is the fact that the Constitution allows only the government to invest in giant projects. Meanwhile, the investors much prefer to invest in areas which can generate faster and more profits.

Our second major problem in water shortage rests on the consumption issue. I have learned that in the United States in a desert town with not a large amount of water, the people have posted a slogan which says: "We Are Living in a Desert Area, So We Must Lead a Desert Life."

In contrast, while we are living in an arid and semiarid country, we have not become accustomed to an arid and semiarid life. We consume too much water in a way that only people with abundant water resources can do.

For example, although a large part of our northeastern Province of Khorassan includes some major arid deserts, but people there practice sugar-beat cultivation which requires a lot of water.

Also in country's central Province of Isfahan which suffers from severe water shortage, the rice cultivation, with again high water level requirement, has risen by 2.5 times compared with 10 years ago.

We must encourage the cultivation of the items which need less water while on the other hand we must try to benefit from water's relative privilege in our agricultural economy.

In 1998, we supplied 52 billion cu.m of water to our agriculture sector. This amount has now been raised to 82 billion cu.m. In other words, during a period of 20 years we have increased our consumption in agriculture by 30 billion cu.m, whereas by resorting to better technology and policy we could have rationalized our water consumption.

Q: What is the real obstacle to challenge? Isn't there any difficulty as such in other sectors; and if there is, in which fields such difficulties arise?

A: We have two important factors in the agricultural sector: efficiency and productivity.

Right now the irrigation efficiency rate in our modern networks is about 30 percent (50% in world's advanced networks), while this is higher in the traditional networks.

This suggests that the irrigation efficiency in traditional methods is higher than in advanced methods. It means we are building modern canals to increase our irrigation efficiency, whereas contrary to our expectations the results would be opposite to that.

The other factor relies on the productivity or benefitting from the water's relative privilege.

For example, presently against each cubic meter of water, about 2.1 kilograms of dry agricultural products are produced in the world -- of course the conditions are to be described further. However, this amount in Iran is half a kilogram of dry agroproducts for the same amount of water.

One reason for such a low yield in our country is our arid climate. Another reason also is the lack of proper productivity and use of water in such a country which is yet arid and semiarid as well.

Despite the fact that we have a dry country we are not living in harmony with a culture a dry country calls for. Irrigation water is among world's costly waters, because production and transportation of irrigation water is too costly particularly for its quality which has to be quite good.

According to statistics published by our Water and Sewage Department, we have almost an amount of 32 percent uncalculated water that include the water wasted due to leaking in decayed city networks, the water illegally used by some consumers and that which is unaccounted for the absence of proper water supply systems and water meters.

With some more control and improvement of our network systems this amount can be reduced from the current 32 to 8 or even 9 percent. Because 25 percent loss of the 4 billion cu.m usable drinking water means 1 billion cu.m loss. This amount of water loss in drinking water section is a very precious amount for the very high cost of the potable water's production and treatment. Alongside this loss we are faced with irrational use of drinking water.

According to our present standards, every citizen may use an average of maximum 150 to 175 liters of water in every 24 hours, for drinking, washing and bathing purposes. This precisely calculated standard is reflected in the budget but in practice, in most of our cities, 1.5 to 2 times that amount is used by our people.

Now that we are encountered with draught, the officials are quite alert and are warning the people to use the water carefully and to save it to their best.

In many world cities, the average water consumption per head in every 24 hours is about 150 liters, while the statistics only in our capital city of Tehran show that despite its acute water shortage, this average is above 300 cu.m.

Therefor, we are faced with two problems: a 32 percent loss on wasted water through a 35-year-old network system and an extravagant use of drinking water by our people.

Of course we never urge our people to use less water, however, we expect their participation into a rational use of such a vital national resource.

We do not have much problems with our industries' water consumption, while we are supplying around 1 billion cu.m of water to our industries. Since our industrial sector employs some efficient technology and engineering systems, it has reduced its water consumption to a considerable amount by just recycling it for some of its further uses.

Q: Should we decide to classify our regions by the order of their water-crisis severity in the current situation of the country; In which region the shortage of water would be considered more acute and in which region it would be considered less?

A: Based on the state water master plan which is to be officially published in a month or so, we have evaluated the water potentials, needs and transformation facilities in the country's various regions for the years until 2021. In that we have specified which regions are self-sufficient, which ones suffer form water shortage, which are faced with water crisis and which ones suffer from acute water crisis.

The report of these classifications are being completed and we hope to announce that in not more than a month. Of course this has nothing to do with the problem of draught, because we exactly know which provinces are suffering from acute draught and which ones suffer from normal draught. But as for the present generation the question of shortage of water is a long-term and general problem, we have rather emphasized on that.

Q: How much damage has draught inflicted to the country to date?

A: Of the 40 unexpected disasters that have happened in the world, Iran has experienced 31 kinds of them. In other words our country is one of the 10 disaster prone world countries in which the rate of natural disaster occurrence is too high.

Statistics published by the Unexpected Events Headquarters indicate that each year in the past decade we have suffered approximately 1 trillion rials damages. Of this figure nearly 70 percent is related to draught and flooding.

Of course draughts and floods are interrelated. This year too the above headquarters announced that we have so far suffered 1.5 trillion rials in damages from draughts and floods.

As mentioned earlier, about 1.45 trillion rials in damage was inflicted on our farming and animal husbandry branches and the rest is related to other sectors.

As a whole nine provinces which have suffered the most damages are located in the eastern regions of the country.

This year's draught is not merely limited to our country. It covers an immense area starting from China and spreading to India, Pakistan, a large part of Afghanistan and the eastern parts of Iran.

The draught showed its symptoms from December 1999. However, as mentioned before, a large part of the damage in the agricultural sector is related to dry farming and the irrigated farms have suffered very little loss.

Because to a great extent, we can control the amount of damage in one or two years by exploiting our underground waters and dam reservoir waters.

Q: Considering that the underground waters should be used with such a care that they would secure the country's future needs; To what extent the present amount of resources can meet our country's current and future needs?

A: At the moment, 55 percent of our needs are met through the underground water consumption. However, it should be noted that there are two kinds of underground water reservoirs: Static resources which are to be saved for the future needs, and dynamic ones which can be used each year and which are renewable.

In other words the dynamic resources are used through wells, springs and qanats and are replenished either by nature or through artificial means.

Of the country's 612 plains, at the moment, about 150 plains are classified as restricted zones under critical conditions, in which, the amount of extracted water is beyond that which they receive. Each year the level of water in these plains declines and in some places even fall by 1.5 meters a year.

Currently, under normal circumstances and not during the draught years, we have calculatingly been using 5 billion cu.m of our underground waters over the permitted limit. Such further extraction, whether illegally or by old permits, occurs in our restricted areas.

On the other hand, we have the capacity of increasing our underground resources by 5 billion cu.m in our nonrestricted regions. This means that we have 5 billion cu.m of over limit water use in restricted zones and meanwhile have to the same amount an exploitative water capacity in nonrestricted areas. Therefore what should be done in our water management system at best is to adjust the negative balance of the restricted zones by a practicable replacement of the exploitative alternatives of the nonrestricted regions.

In any country the underground water resources are considered a temporary reserve for the draught years. In other words, these resources are to be used to make for one or two years in draught periods, provided that they would be replenished later.

Contrary to that, during the recent two years that we have been faced with draught, we have over exploited an average of 6 billion cu.m water a year from our reserves which means 12 billion cu.m extra use of our underground water in only two years.

Of course this is not an alarming situation yet, provided that next year the used water sources can be filled through either natural or artificial means. Thus bearing in mind the above said difficulties, we currently do not have much opportunities to improve our underground water resources while we are exploiting them temporarily to meet our needs during these draught years.

Q: What danger will threaten our country if draught continues to increase year by year?

A: Using underground water resources as mentioned is a temporary solution to our water shortage problems, and should we continually extract such waters our reservoirs will be destroyed.

It is not only the question of excessive extraction which is alarming. The fact is that in certain regions when we extract beyond permissible level, the salty or polluted water flows in the reservoirs as a substitute to the used water, then the remaining good quality waters will become unusable too.

Therefore, regarding underground water issues what concern us is not only the shortage of water itself but the water quality issue in the Persian Gulf coastline, the desert areas and as a whole where there are salty waters.

In conclusion, should the draught continue for several years and we overstep extraction of underground waters specified for the draught years' temporary uses, we will not only lose part of our resources from the aspect of quantity but will have to tolerate the quality loss of our polluted resources, the purifying of which may never be possible either.