ISSN 2330-717X

Iran’s Environmental Degradation – OpEd

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Iran is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, with dwindling water resources, rapid deforestation, desertification, overgrazing of rangelands, and pollution that chokes its cities. This problem, if left unchecked, threatens not only Iran, but also the stability of the region and the world. Iran’s environmental status these days include air pollution, pesticide pollution, soil depletion and erosion, water scarcity and pollution, natural resource loss, lack of appropriate waste management, lead poisoning, and desertification. Environmental policy regulations and how to implement is described under the previous regime and the clerical regime, however, no implementation of those regulations exist. 

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Iran is challenged with many interrelated political, social and natural crisis including environmental degradation, unemployment, poverty, and population growth. Sustainability is being undermined in every aspects of environmental issues at the cost of future generations. 

Iran with a population of over 80 million, the country is having difficulty in maintaining its current infrastructure, housing, food, and educational facilities. Population growth leads to increased demand for infrastructure and resources. The regime additionally is faced with extreme uprisings of various sectors of the society demanding Iran’s  “Freedom and Water”. 

The effects of climate change in Iran have already caused internal political unrest and, if unaddressed, threaten further to inhibit the country’s economic, social health, and destabilize an already turbulent region. Toxic air, lack of water, and desertification of agricultural lands have the potential to prompt massive movements of populations fleeing to find more sustainable homes and livelihoods

Today, Iran with abundant oil reserves, natural gas, copper, lead, and  other raw material may be permanently dependent on food imports. Here, exchanging natural resources for food and technology has time and resource limits. Iran has signed many international environmental agreements and has enacted detailed environmental policies and regulations, but actual management and enforcement is lacking.

The air quality in metropolitan Tehran and some other major cities across Iran has gradually become unbreathable for past decades,  and in recent years, the pollution index reaching dangerously high levels for elders and others with respiratory illnesses.

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The Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures levels of air contamination, has seen an alarming upturn in the capital of Iran in recent weeks, crossing the threshold of 200 or more, deemed “heavily polluted.”

There are various pollutants in Iran’s air. The most commonly measured are: particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and ozone (O3).

Particulate matter (PM) is defined as fine inhalable particles that are suspended in the air, regardless of the size of the particle. The two most common size fractions of PM measures are PM10 and PM2.5. PM10, also referred to as “coarse PM,” particles of 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller; PM2.5, also referred to as “fine PM” are a subset of those particles, namely those that are 2.5 micrometer in diameter or smaller. Sources of PM10 include crushing or gridding operations, dust stirred up by vehicle, and roads. PM2.5, on the other hand, originates from all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, and some industrial processes. PM2.5 poses the most severe health impacts out of all measurable particle sizes, because the fine particles can get deep into the alveolar region of the lungs and even into the bloodstream. 

A thick layer of smog enveloping the city remains trapped for winter months due to the phenomenon called “temperature inversion,” which degradation of natural ecosystems, long spell of droughts, and climate change makes it only worse.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had in 2018 categorized Tehran as ‘most polluted cities in the world,’ while the World Bank in its 2018 report said the city accounts for 4,000 of the 12,000 deaths due to air pollution in Iran annually. These fatalities are due to cancer, heart disease, lung disease and strokes. However, the data is disputed and some has given 30,000 deaths or even more.

The situation has become even worse this year, according to government officials and environmentalists, with the AQI reaching a record high not only in Tehran but also in other major cities such as Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Zabol, and Mashhad.

There are no accurate figures available to show the impact of polluted air, but experts say deaths due to ailments caused by air pollution are likely to be higher this year than previous years.

Iran with an approximately of 85 million population, some 28 million people live in severe water stressed areas, mostly in the central and southern regions of the country. At the same time, according to reports 30 provinces of 31 are experiencing water stress. Water scarcity is hitting all segments of society, from urban households to rural farming communities.

In the eyes of Iranians, water resources have always been a precious asset, whether from a religious, personal, or historical perspective. Iran’s civilization has been formed and expanded around rivers or outlets of Qanats over past millennia, with most cities originating from an agriculturally based system, which was completely dependent on riverine irrigation and Qanats. As Iran is a country with predominantly arid and semiarid climate, water has always been a top priority for its people who have a long tradition of sustainable water management. Qanats or underground water canals have historically been efficient in conserving water, dams and water saving structures has also been attracted the attention of earlier Iranians as is attested by the remains of numerous water structures built from about 240 AD. 

Similar to other dramatic socio-economic changes in the twentieth century, however, the waterscape of Iran has also been altered. Large-scale dams have been erected, rivers diverted, traditional water sharing rules abolished, wetlands dried up, and precipitation patterns changed while water demand and withdrawals have increased unsubstantially. 

The major cause has been unprecedented population growth leading to the expansion of cities, increased water hungry industries, which shouldn’t be established at those locations in the first place, devastation of simple rural lifestyles and disruption of traditional water management systems that had been in place for centuries. These changes have brought about a new lifestyle in Iran and dictated new behaviors, including higher water consumption for daily personal care and leisure. Water consumption in both urban and rural Iran is now very high compared to the global norms. Across the country, infrastructure, mega-dams, has been expanded to keep pace with these new demands, though environmental consequences have been considerably omitted.

Now, the question is why Iran is facing with water crisis? As one is looking at rainfall data patterns, there are no significant change in precipitations regime for past many years. Also, as one knows that Iran is a country historically known as the land of drought and floods and people inhibited this region has adapted to such environment, its weather patterns, and has established a significant civilization.

Iranian politicians have consistently blamed climate change, droughts, and lack of precipitations for the current water shortages. While, devastating floods of recent years have caused many loss of lives and economic damages. Even though, this is a serious problem, a 2021 study in Nature journal categorically stated that most of Iran’s groundwater depletion is “anthropogenic”. It means, that is caused or exacerbated by human activity.

However, one must know that all such environmental crisis are clerical regime made crisis, which even regime own experts are admitting total contribution of clerical government in creating such crisis as, deforestation, overgrazing of rangelands, sinkholes, land subsidence, plundering of water resources, and increased desertification. Iran’s ruling clerical regime has destroyed natural ecological balance of the country to the extent that most of these devastation are irreversible.

Nowadays, the clerical regime officials, some foreign and domestic experts trying to tie this water shortage severity to drought, climate change and global warming instead of connecting it to notorious Iran’s “Water Mafia,” which protesting farmers rightfully are calling for its abolishment. However, none are coming close to identify this “Water Mafia”.

Also, many are relating this massive water shortage to the mismanagement, corruption, and plundering of water resources. It’s somehow misleading statement. Since 1979 anti-monarchial uprising and the overthrow of monarchy, Iran’s clerical regime has cleverly managed country’s wealth, natural resources, and water resources in the name of the “deprived” but for the benefits of immensely “rich” religious foundations under the Supreme Leader’s supervision, IRGC, elite clerics, and their affiliates. So, here is the “Godfather” and its patronages.

Iran’s aquifers have been depleted due to massive over extraction of underground water resources as the number of deep wells have increased during the clerics rule. IRGC affiliated companies are relentlessly building dams, regardless of their usefulness for the nation, without any environmental considerations, and farming of water intensive crops, which are again under the control of affluent IRGC members, elite clerics or foundations under the supervision of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Farmers hit by water shortages are abandoning their villages to live in shacks and ghetto settlements on the outskirts of cities.

Additionally, in recent years, the Iran’s clerical regime has given some privileged citizens tacit or explicit permission to exploit water resources that are not easily renewable, through such means as illegal wells. Some estimates are tallying wells without permits 600,000 to 1,000,000. Dams and investment in water transfer projects have exacerbated the issue of water shortage, as the government has not created the appropriate infrastructure to ensure floods are controlled and absorbed into underground aquifers. 

The Iran’s clerical regime has no plan for collection and harvesting of flash floods as man has witnessed economic devastation, loss of lives, and massive destruction of homes and country’s infrastructures past few years. The government’s negligence, and its systematic natural resources mismanagement can clearly been seen since 1979, the inception of Islamic Republic. Since, watershed management is almost none existent, as a result significant amount of floodwater and rainwater, which could have been stored and put to use in times such as this, has been wasted.

This is the case of water scarcity in Iran, what might seem decades of mismanagement, that has turned water scarcity into a national crisis and caused several interrelated socioeconomic problems. Results indicate that the inefficient management and monitoring the water scarcity and lack of appropriate standardization and tariffs are the most important system failures of the water scarcity. But, the most important of all is the regime’s policy implications toward water management that has been applied in more than 42 years of its ruling, and brought the country to this diar situation.

Iran also has been faced with severe subsidence in most of its plains.   The rate of land subsidence in the country is increasing day by day, while the performance of the responsible bodies is not satisfactory.

Environmentalists and land experts are emphasizing the need to review the operation of wells, groundwater withdrawal, and water resources management. Some 29 provinces of 31 are currently at risk of subsidence. If this trend is not stopped, there will be regrettably great irreversible environmental degradation.

Iran’s immediate way out of its environmental crisis are to ban excess extraction of water from underground resources, a scientific review of surface water use, a critical review of IRGC water transfer system, and finally implement plans for the maintenance of land reserves.

Groundwater exploitation has dramatically been increased over the past decades leading to aquifer depletion. Iran’s government has claimed persistent droughts for water crises, which are mostly due to plundering of water resources, enormous dams construction, massive deforestation, destruction of rangelands due to overgrazing, persistent land subsidence, and desertification.

The head of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration said: 80% of the groundwater is withdrawn annually in Iran, which outpacing the global rate. In the world, water resources withdrawal is between 3 to 20%, and when it reaches 40 to 60%, which is considered problematic, and it will be a crisis when exceeding 60-80%.

Over the past decades, some of the aquifer levels dropped by 100 centimeters. In addition to digging illegal wells, improper irrigation methods are the other main causes of groundwater extraction-induced subsidence, as out of 50,000 wells pumping underground water resources in the capital, 30,000 are illegal. Out of 609 plains in Iran, more than 300 are vastly sinking and forbidden to enter.

According to a study carried out by the Transport, Housing, and Urban Development Research Center of Iran, some 18 densely populated provinces are vastly subsiding and consequently, became increasingly vulnerable to flooding and natural incidents as well as bearing huge infrastructure damage.

Provinces of Isfahan, Tehran, Kerman, Khorasan Razavi, Alborz, Fars, Yazd, Hamadan, Markazi, Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari, East Azerbaijan, Zanjan, Qom, Ardabil, Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, North Khorasan, and Kermanshah reported the highest rates of subsidence, respectively.

Tehran is the most populous city in West Asia, which is sinking into the ground at an alarming rate. The metropolis is home to some 15 million people and is a victim of dramatic subsidence. New research reveals that the region is sinking by more than 25-45 centimeters annually in some parts.

In addition to Above mentioned serious environmental issues, if one adds the catastrophic vanishing of Lake Urmia and Gotvand dam, another IRGC created environmental disaster in Khuzestan province, man can imagine extend of clerical regime generated environmental degradation for Iranian generations to come and challenges the humanity will face.

There have been protests across Iran demanding water, freedom, and to express solidarity with water deprived cities and farmers of Khuzestan, Isfahan, Bakhtiari, Baluchistan and elsewhere; also, in Tehran, Tabriz, Bojnourd, Saghez, and other big cities. People expressed their anger and dissatisfaction at the ruling class, which has responded with sending riot police, killing, blinding, injuring, arrests and attempts at shutting down social media. 

At the same time that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressed his sympathy with the demands of the protesters and promised that water would be made a top priority, his riot police is suppressing farmers demands with utmost force. The brutal killings and suppressing of famers of Khuzestan and Isfahan set the example. Him and his officials have thus far failed to improve water resources management or address climate change issues.

Attempts to calm farmers down by giving empty promises as long as surface waters are in control of IRGC and groundwater exploitation in hands of Ministry of Energy water mafia, again affiliated or controlled by IRGC, are completely hollow ones. Knowing the nature of the ruling clerics and dominated corruption at the highest levels of Iran’s government for over 42 years, such promises are bubbles. The public sector isn’t any better, which is highly related to the circle of power. Agriculture and irrigation projects are riddled with nepotism and profiteering.

Now Iranians as a whole, farmers, workers, teachers, nurses, retirees, and others are rised up to gain their clerics stolen water and freedom. They have patiently waited for more than 42 years, seen and heard all  clerical government promises and brutal violations of human rights, but didn’t see any results other than atrocities, poverty, suppression and terrorism. What makes people believe, this time is any different? The people think it’s enough and now, it’s time for a regime change and free Iran. Shouldn’t the world stand with Iranians for freedom and support their resistance to bring the region closer to peace, stabilization, and security? The world would be certainly a better place without terrorisms and brutality of clerical regime of Iran.

* Khalil Khani is an Environmental Specialist and a Human Rights activist. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology, Botany, and Environmental Studies from Germany and has taught at the University of Tehran and the Hesse State University in Germany. He is also a Doctor of Medical Psychology from the United States.

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