Water in Iran Has Crossed the Crisis Line

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This article was originally published on the Deutsche Welle website on December 20, 2018. You can read the full article (in persian) and access additional information by following this link.

In recent days, following the crisis in the water situation in Isfahan, representatives of this province resigned to receive concessions from the government. This resignation led Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Parliament, to make promises to provide budget lines for Isfahan’s water to the representatives so that they could return to Parliament.

Before the symbolic resignation of Isfahan’s representatives in the final months of the year, at the beginning of the year on April 14, Hossein Ali Mirahmadi, the secretary of the Isfahan County Agricultural House, had said that the water situation in Isfahan had crossed the crisis line.
But the resignation of Isfahan’s representatives and Ali Larijani’s problem-solving was not the end of the water crisis. With the return of Isfahan’s representatives to the Parliament floor, representatives from Khuzestan and Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari gathered at the Parliament’s presiding board and demanded attention to their protests about the water situation in their provinces. They threatened that if the government gives concessions to Isfahan province, they will also resign.

The resignation of the representatives due to the water situation in their provinces indicates the critical situation of water in Iran. A crisis that has been caused by mismanagement in the water sector in the last two decades and has faced the water situation across the country with a crisis.
The Washington Post, in a report in July of this year, referred to the water crisis in Iran and identified the cause of this crisis as water management in one decade. The report stated that “Iran is moving towards a water crisis on a large scale, and there are few solutions to solve this problem that has persisted for a decade. Iranians consume 66 gallons of water daily, which is less compared to American citizens who consume 105 gallons of water daily, but Iran and other Middle Eastern countries do not have the abundance of fresh water available in Europe and America.

Unprincipled Construction of Dams in Iran

The most significant problem with dams in Iran is the phenomenon of erosion and sediment accumulation in dam reservoirs, which reduces the lifespan of the dams and destroys national capital. Many barriers and short dams in Iran have been built with non-engineering architecture. In some dams, due to dam overflow, sediment accumulation, the use of inappropriate materials, and incorrect design of side components, these barriers and dams have been destroyed and rendered unusable.

In some cases, contradictions are observed in defining the objectives of the dam, including the Karaj Dam, which is dedicated to supplying water to Tehran, and transfers the water of the Karaj watershed to another location. Therefore, its unpleasant effects, such as a decrease in groundwater levels, a reduction in groundwater quality, and the invasion of saltwater into the downstream plain of Karaj, pose the risk of destroying the water table and turning the green area of Shahriar and Karaj into a desert.

In the northern regions of Iran, conditions similar to Sri Lanka exist, which face dam construction with various problems. These problems include the destruction of forests, damage to agricultural lands, flooding of villages, forced relocation of people, slope slippage, sediment accumulation behind dams, and water pollution.

In the dams of the southern country, due to the low altitude of the region from sea level and the relatively high amount of evaporation from the lake surface, as well as the entry of organic matter, rural sewage, chemical fertilizers, and surface flows with a high amount of electrical conductivity (EC) and high salt into the lake, there is a possibility of stratification in the dam lake. This will reduce the water quality of the lake. The Minab Dam is a prominent example of water pollution.

Dam Construction Movement After the Revolution

Dam construction has always been one of the most important engineering activities, so much so that residents of various regions, depending on geographical conditions and emerging needs, have undertaken the construction of different dams or reservoirs with various materials and specifications.

In this regard, needs such as irrigation and water supply have been raised, or in some areas, due to low river water levels or the need to change the river’s course, dam construction was carried out to raise the water level and use it for agricultural and civil needs.
Dam construction in Iran increased unprecedentedly in the years following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Seven dams with a reservoir capacity of 2,275 million cubic meters were built after the revolution until 1988.

However, despite the construction of dams, Iran has faced a water shortage crisis in recent years.
Dam construction for storage and water supply was included in the country’s development plan. Six dams with a total reservoir volume of 1,046 million cubic meters and 16 dams with a total reservoir volume of 2,090 million cubic meters were constructed. But in the third and fourth five-year periods, the dam construction movement in Iran reached its peak.

In the third five-year development plan, 35 dams with a total reservoir volume of 12,550 million cubic meters were constructed, and in the fourth five-year plan, 33 dams with a total reservoir volume of 7,529 million cubic meters were built. Between 1988 and 2008, a total of 97 dams were constructed and filled.

464 dams were under construction from 1979 to 1997, of which 388 were commissioned. 378 dams were under construction between 1998 and 2005, of which 168 were commissioned. But only 16 of the 337 dams under construction between 2006 and 2013 were commissioned.
The dam construction movement in Iran continued in the eleventh government, and between 2013 and 2017, a review was conducted for the construction of 40 dams, and the objectives of these dams changed, but a total of 30 dams were commissioned in the eleventh government.

The total reservoir volume of the country’s dams from 1947 to 2013 is 123,442 million cubic meters, of which 48,454 million cubic meters have been utilized. Between 2006 and 2013, the total reservoir volume was 33,275 million cubic meters, of which 454 million cubic meters were commissioned.
The water reservoir volume in 2017 was recorded at over 23 billion cubic meters, with dam water utilization at 8,590 million cubic meters. The total water reservoir volume decreased by 14%, and dam outflows decreased by 7% compared to previous years.

These statistics show the government’s commitments in the discussion of storage and water supply over the past 40 years. It shows how much governments have acted on their commitments in dam construction. In the ninth and tenth governments, considering the number of dams under construction was more than 300 cases, but only 16 dams were commissioned.

Reduction of Water in Dams

Out of a total of 100 dams that supply the main water in Iran, currently, 52 dams in the country have less than 40% of the total reservoir capacity filled with water. 28 dams in the country have 50 to 70% of the total reservoir filled with water, and 20 dams have between 40 to 50% of the reservoir volume. The volume of 25 dams is between 90 to 100% of the total reservoir, and 28 dams have between 70 to 90% water filled. Overall, 35% of the dams have less than 40% water filled. According to the latest statistics, until 2017, nearly 50% of the country’s dam reservoirs were full, but under current conditions, only 41% of the country’s dams are full, and 59% of the country’s dams are empty.

The results obtained from the annual evaporation volume from the surface of the country’s operational dam lakes show that the total annual evaporation volume is equivalent to 2.02 billion cubic meters. Considering the total volume of operational reservoirs of 5.32 billion cubic meters, about 6.2% of the dam water evaporates. Although the comparison of evaporation and the useful volume of reservoirs indicates 8.4% evaporation. In recent years, dam water has faced a significant reduction in water, and this has led to a crisis in the water situation in Iran.

Neglect of Qanats and Artificial Recharge

The Qanat is one of the most complex and ancient tools of Iranian civilization to combat water scarcity in ancient Iran. Still, about 8 billion cubic meters of groundwater are extracted across the country through Qanats. According to some researchers in Iran, there are over 30,000 active Qanat channels in the country, responsible for supplying water to the country’s arid regions.

Qanats are considered underground water sources in Iran’s arid and semi-arid regions. Two main factors affect the reduction of water yield in Qanats: one is the drop in groundwater levels, and the other is the global climate change phenomenon, whose effects in Iran have manifested as severe droughts, exacerbating the decline in water levels and the deficit in underground water reservoirs.

In recent years, due to the reckless use of groundwater, the lack of annual precipitation, and the lack of management and care for the Qanats, the water yield of many of them has decreased. The groundwater level of the aquifers is constantly fluctuating. One of the most critical factors causing fluctuations in groundwater levels, especially its constant decline, is the continuous over-extraction from the aquifer.

Decrease in Precipitation in Iran

While aridity is an index and climatic feature of dry regions, drought is a phenomenon that originates from an unexpected decrease in precipitation over a specific period in an area that is not necessarily dry.

The extent of this reduction is such that it disrupts the normal growth trend in the region and has immediate and damaging effects on agriculture, as well as long-term impacts on water resources. By examining the amount of precipitation between the years 2008 to 2014, it can be observed that the rainfall situation has decreased significantly each year. The total atmospheric precipitation from early October to late February of the water year 2016-2017 amounts to 68 millimeters. This amount of rainfall shows a 36% decrease compared to the long-term average for similar periods and a 50% decrease compared to the same period in the previous water year.

The water crisis index in Iran is considerably worse than the global average due to its location in the world’s arid and semi-arid region. On the other hand, the occurrence of intermittent and prolonged droughts and high climatic fluctuations are the main factors of water scarcity, especially in surface water resources. This puts double pressure on underground water resources and leads to desertification.

Government policies in the past two decades in the field of water and dam construction have led Iran to face a water crisis. In this context, the Islamic Republic not only has not yet made efforts to resolve this crisis but has also adopted a security approach in this area instead of utilizing expert forces. This approach has further exacerbated the situation, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive planning and sustainable solutions to address the water scarcity issue in Iran.

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