Iran Faces Environmental Crisis

By: Barbara Slavin for Al-Monitor Posted on August 16

Motorists travel on a highway in Tehran as the city is covered in dust

TEHRAN, Iran — As temperatures soared above 105 degrees Fahrenheit during one of the hottest summers here in recent memory, no snow was visible atop the mountains ringing Tehran and no water flowed down the narrow channels along main streets (known as jubes in Farsi) that a year ago were still full of fresh mountain runoff. A furry brown haze obscured the skyline, irritating eyes and tickling throats.

About This Article

Summary :

Global warming and a deteriorating environment are a large if not larger threat than sanctions to the well-being of Iran’s 75 million people.

Author: Barbara Slavin
Posted on: August 16 2013

Categories : Originals  Iran  

While most press attention has focused on the inauguration of a new Iranian president, the nuclear crisis and the impact of Western economic sanctions, global warming and a deteriorating environment loom as large if not larger as a threat to the well-being of Iran’s 75 million people.

“Here in Iran, we are situated in a low-precipitation belt of the planet,” Gary Lewis, the UN resident coordinator in Iran, told Al-Monitor. “One primary concern must therefore be water. We are at risk of a perfect storm: water scarcity, land degradation and climate change all feeding into each other.”

Water resources are dwindling as Iran’s three major lakes dry up, the majority of the country’s other lakes are also in the process of disappearing and becoming contaminated with wastes and chemicals, neighboring countries build dams that divert shared rivers away from Iran and underground aquifers are depleted.

Lake Orumieh in northwestern Iran has been “despoiled to the point of destruction,” wrote Eskander Firouz, a legendary Iranian environmentalist, in his 2005 book The Complete Fauna of Iran. Lake Hamoun in the southeast, “once the greatest expanse of fresh water in Iran, is now totally dry,” according to Firouz, while a third once-giant lake — Bakhtegan near the southern city of Shiraz, the third-largest lake in Iran, dried up completely almost a decade ago.

Lewis told Al-Monitor that expanding agriculture to feed Iran’s growing population has led to “unsustainable harvesting of aquifers.” There are currently about 650,000 wells in Iran that provide more than half the water consumed in the country, he said.

Despite the looming shortages, Iranians do not use water efficiently.

Domestic use of water resources in Iran is about 70% more than the global average, said Lewis. In Tehran, shopkeepers can be seen hosing off the sidewalks in front of their stores instead of sweeping up the dirt; during last week’s heat wave, municipal workers also liberally watered public gardens with hoses rather than using more scientific means of irrigation.

Lewis said official statistics show that there is only 30% water-use efficiency in agriculture, a sector which accounts for over 90% of water use in Iran. Deforestation and desertification are also major problems contributing to land degradation, he said.

“We need to price the resources we are consuming fairly — including water,” Lewis said. “And we need to build climate-change resilience at the community level over and above what we do to change attitudes at the national and sectoral levels.”

While there are dozens of national parks, wildlife refuges and protected areas in Iran, biodiversity is decreasing and more needs to be done to bolster guards assigned to prevent poaching, experts say. Firouz told Al-Monitor that Iran’s wildlife has declined by 85%, that rangelands are being degraded and destroyed and that the best of Iran’s forests have disappeared and have often been replaced by orange trees and unsustainable agriculture.

Air pollution is another major problem. Since the 1979 revolution, Tehran’s population nearly tripled from about 4.5 million to more than 12 million people, who sometimes all seem to be jamming the roads at the same time.

Relatively cheap gasoline — still less than $1 a gallon after subsidy reforms — the poor quality of locally made gas (which Iran must refine because of sanctions that block imports) and the preponderance of cars with substandard emissions controls are major contributors to pollution in the Iranian capital. The lack of a more extensive and reliable public-transportation system is also a major factor. The Tehran municipality has invested more in roads, tunnels and flyovers that benefit private automobile owners than in buses, subways and trams that could relieve congestion and pollution.

The pollution has serious health consequences. In the winter, when the air is at its dirtiest because of inversion which traps pollutants under a layer of cold air on windless days, the Tehran municipality often closes offices and schools and those Iranians who do venture out wear face masks.

Over the past several years, Iran has also been suffering from increasingly severe dust and sandstorms. These are especially impacting western provinces bordering Iraq, from where the storms mainly originate. According to Lewis, “The sandstorms have been caused by the abandonment of vast swathes of agricultural land during the past 10 years as well as the drying out of wetlands and rivers. Where they are hitting Iran hardest is in agriculture, infrastructure, the environment and public health.”

In the height of summer, pollution levels are also high, particularly in south Tehran, which is at a lower elevation than the wealthier north. A pharmacist in the south Tehran neighborhood of Javadieh told Al-Monitor that asthma is a growing problem, particularly among young children and that there is a shortage of inhalers — because of sanctions and government mismanagement — to treat this potentially life-threatening condition.

Iran has also been slow to embrace renewable energy, which currently provides less than 1% of energy demand.

All is not bleak, however. There is rising environmental consciousness in Iran, particularly among educated youth. A middle-aged ecologist named Mohammad Darvish writes frequently on the subject and has predicted that Iran will someday have a “green” movement that is environmental rather than ideological in nature.

Firouz, who headed Iran’s first department of the environment before the 1979 revolution, told Al-Monitor the topic is increasingly covered by the Reformist-moderate Iranian press, including Etemaad and Shargh newspapers, and that more than 1,000 young people have formed a blog on Facebook devoted to his work on biodiversity, conservation and the need for better planning that takes the environment into account.

The United Nations is also doing its part, advising Iran on reforestation, carbon sequestration and wetland-recovery programs.

“Countries of the region — including Iran — need to learn the hard lessons of the Chinese development model, which in recent decades has seen substantial wealth generated but at massive environmental cost,” Lewis told Al-Monitor. “But the real breakthrough will only come when discussion on the impact of climate change … goes beyond a discourse between the technocrats and policy-makers. The public as a whole needs to understand what is at stake. For this, we need much, much more public discussion and awareness raising.”

Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council where she focuses on Iran. On Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

Iran’s green gladiator!

Iran’s subtle, persistent voice for environmentalism

Mohammad Darvish is on an often lonesome quest to elevate Iran’s environmental IQ, even daring to oppose nuclear power. So far Iran’s leaders are tolerating it.

Mohammad Darvish, who works at a state-run botanical reserve on the outskirts of Tehran,

is on a mission to warn Iran about the environmental perils facing the nation. (December 4, 2012)

By Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times
December 4, 2012
TEHRAN — His son is named after the river born where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. His wife once complained that he loved a rare species of yellow deer more than her.

His realm runs from sprawling salt deserts to the snowcapped peaks of the Zagros Mountains, from southern marshes along the Persian Gulf to damp northern forests known as the “cloud jungle.”

Mohammad Darvish, 47, is Iran’s green gladiator, engaged in a quixotic, often lonesome quest to elevate his homeland’s environmental IQ. In a nation where security and economic concerns overshadow threats to a varied and fragile ecosystem, he even dares to oppose nuclear power, sacrosanct to Iran’s leaders.

“It is budding, but it is far from being a movement,” the indefatigable Darvish says of environmental consciousness in Iran. “But I am sure the environment will be a full-fledged movement one day, and Iran will have Green [political] parties that will send members to parliament.”

Darvish, working from a state-run botanical reserve on the western outskirts of this traffic-clogged capital, is a subtle but persistent voice, direct but non-threatening in his message as he warns about desertification, deforestation, pollution, climate change and other perils to this mostly arid land.

Unlike the country’s understandably edgy political activists, who face the constant threat of police harassment, Darvish has a carefree demeanor. Each Sunday, he spreads his message in a morning spot on state TV. He also writes a widely read environmental column in a moderate newspaper and a blog focusing on Iran’s ecology.

As in the West, much of the public discussion about Iran among its citizens focuses on the sanctions-driven economic crisis and the cataclysmic prospect of war, both related to Tehran’s nuclear development efforts.

The West and Israel allege that Iran harbors a hidden agenda to build an atomic bomb. Tehran contends that its research is for purely peaceful purposes: energy generation and the production of isotopes for cancer treatment.

Iran’s ever-vigilant information overseers have tolerated Darvish’s anti-nuclear advocacy, perhaps in part because the theme is a relatively discreet one in his work, far from a crusade. His opposition is based on ecological threats, he emphasizes, not strategic ones.

“I am not a nuclear scientist, but I believe producing nuclear energy to be used for electricity is too costly and prone to environmental hazards,” Darvish says, sitting on a bench in a wooden cabin on the reserve’s rambling grounds.

“In any natural disaster, or if Israel attacks us, then nuclear pollution is our most dangerous hazard.… Why should we increase our vulnerability by using nuclear plants for energy, while more environmentally friendly technology is available?”

Darvish avoids polemics. As a public worker — he is one of several managers at the state reserve — his preferred style is to address issues, not attack officials.

“Darvish, at the end of the day, is a state employee and civil servant,” says Naser Karami, a climatologist and editor of an environmental news agency who agrees with many of Darvish’s positions.

Karami says Iranians are “being told one lie after the other” about environmental threats in a country that doesn’t get high marks for safeguarding its natural heritage.

Iran ranked 114th among 132 nations in 2012 on the so-called Environmental Performance Index, which tracks various indicators of environmental public health and ecosystem vitality. Switzerland ranked No. 1; Iraq finished last. (The United States, where the index was developed on a pair of Ivy League campuses, ranked 49th, just ahead of Argentina and behind Australia.)

The air was so polluted in Tehran this week that Iranian authorities announced Monday that schools and state-run offices would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday, essentially shutting down much of the capital.

Darvish, a native of Tehran who has a master’s degree in environmental management from Tehran University, traces his passion to childhood trips to the zoo and summers spent at his grandfather’s rural home. There he was exposed to livestock, wildlife and a sense of liberation.

“I strolled and daydreamed,” he recalls of that youthful idyll.

Iranians are not impervious to environmental concerns. The Internet and a growing eco-tourism sector have helped raise awareness. Road construction and pipeline-laying in sensitive areas stir up public emotions, as do emissions-linked urban air pollution and oil contamination.

“There is much more awareness” compared with a decade ago, says Darvish. Still, he says, environmental activism remains largely confined to elite circles. It is well off the radar screens of most Iranians, who are focused on paying bills and feeding their families.
“For me, social problems and economic concerns are the top priority,” says Ali Moueni, 20, a film and theater student interviewed in a Tehran cafe, who said he had never heard of Darvish. “Environmental issues are secondary, but they sometimes catch my eye.”

Others are more engaged.

“I think environmental issues are important and Iran is facing a sort of quandary, or two options,” says Masoud Loghman, 29, a cultural editor who follows Darvish’s writings. “One is to let urbanization continue at the expense of total destruction of the environment, or to focus on sustained growth with environmentally friendly industries and lifestyles.”
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Preservation is clearly not a priority for Iran’s rulers, desperate for economic development amid crushing Western sanctions linked to the nuclear program. But even amid widespread economic uncertainty, signs of nascent awareness are unmistakable, as are government responses.

Last year, authorities arrested dozens who rallied to save shrinking Lake Urmia, one of the world’s largest salt lakes, now ravaged by drought and the damming of feeder rivers in Iran’s northwest. Officials said the protesters were arrested for demonstrating without a permit, but some activists suspected hostility against ethnic Azeris, the predominant population in the area.

Besides his stand against nuclear energy, Darvish has also voiced opposition to a mega-project that would transport desalinated Caspian Sea water to the parched northern city of Semnan, a cherished proposal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Darvish has labeled the project a technical and natural folly. But he says he hasn’t faced any retribution.

Iran’s leadership does seem distressed about the massive dust storms that blow in with ever-increasing frequency from neighboring Iraq, usually in the spring and summer. The dust limits visibility, causes respiratory ailments and prompts residents of some border-area cities to don gauze masks.

Sometimes, the storms reach as far as Tehran, near Darvish’s snug office on the lush 360-acre state reserve, which is managed by Iran’s Research Institute of Forestry and Rangelands, Darvish’s employer.

The sanctuary, technically known as a herbarium, was established in the 1960s, during the era of Iran’s pro-Washington monarchy, in collaboration with U.S. botanists.

Here, female gardeners bicycle along dirt paths that wind through verdant microclimates and artificial forests. Native species coexist with exotic trees from Japan and elsewhere, many labeled with their scientific designations. Water cascades from a trio of waterfalls. Several man-made lakes mimic the marine landscape near the Caspian Sea, an area once home to the Caspian tiger, now extinct.

In the evenings, Darvish returns to the city and often shares vegetarian fare with his son, Arvand, 12, who was given the Persian name of a river known in Arabic as the Shatt al Arab, which forms part of the marshy southern border between Iran and Iraq. The waterway’s environs were killing fields during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Although his country is in turmoil again, the self-styled watchdog of Iran’s natural world finds a measure of peace and tranquillity in his botanic refuge.

“I walk in this haven,” Darvish says, “to feel better and refresh myself.”

Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.