Population surge threatens water supply in Iran

April 1, 2003
Rapid population growth, industrial expansion and urban migration are threatening Iran's water resources. Dr. Mohammad Taghi Sheykhi of Al-Zahra University in Tehran proposes water management initiatives to solve water shortages.

By Dr. Mohammad Taghi Sheykhi

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Iran's soaring population growth further threatens its water resources, already low in much of the country from insufficient rainfall and its desert environment. Some 60% of Iran's population is below the age of 25, and continues to increase. Water shortages are expected to remain a key resource problem in Iran, similar to other regions in the Middle East, and cause regional instability if policy-makers do not develop long-term water management strategies, particularly for irrigation projects.

Social and demographic changes, such as changes in living standards, expectations, consumption habits, rural to urban migration, are creating pressures on available water supplies that must be addressed to meet the needs of the growing nation. Practical steps can be taken to reach equilibrium between population and water resources.

The average flow of rivers and aquifers generated from precipitation is limited in all countries, but not population. The population in Iran doubled from 33.7 million in 1976 to 66.1 million in 2001. Unquestionably, this growth is creating problems. Water availability is considered a severe constraint on socio-economic development and environmental protection when annual internal renewable water resources decrease to 1,000 m3 per capita. Iran's per capita water resources availability decreased to 2,025 m3 in 1990, and is estimated to continue this fall to 816 m3 in 2025, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Water shortages and pollution affect the country at an almost national level. Devastating droughts are causing vast numbers of rural dwellers to move to urban areas. Consequently, water supplies must be increased through the development and conservation of water resources, and this development cannot be isolated from environmental protection.

Currently, 35% of the total population are suffering from drought and water shortages in northeastern, eastern, southeastern, south and central Iran. The lack of storage dams prevents the practical use of rainfall. Floods occur often.

Tehran city officials began rationing water in 2001 due to water shortages, and this policy may extend to other cities. The government should begin to encourage wastewater recycling, especially in larger cities, to augment water supplies for irrigation.

Untreated industrial wastewater and domestic sewage generated in many Iranian cities, are polluting rivers, streams and groundwater. Particularly, the contamination of groundwater from the inadequate handling of domestic sewage is quite common in smaller cities and towns.

Industrial waste treatment has become an urgent issue in Iran as many new and unlicensed industries have started operating. Untreated industrial wastes carrying grease, oil, explosives, highly odorous substances, are being disposed on land, which pollutes groundwater and surface water. Iranian industries, such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, soap, sugar and distilleries, textiles, still mills, fertilisers, are contributing to this pollution.

Several additional sources of pollution are contaminating water supplies. Cracked pipes and leaky joints in underground distribution systems allow contaminants in surrounding substances to enter the water supply system.

The discharge of oily wastes from ships and tankers using oil as fuel often, but not always, leads to beach pollution. In addition, water travelling through lands contaminated by chemicals, non-chemicals, bacterias, silt, etc. or passing through peaty lands possessing brown colour, spreads the contamination to new regions.

Solving these problems requires action. Environmental and water education should be available to men and women in colleges and universities, in addition to planners, decision- and policy makers.

Recycling and reclamation, two new concepts in Iran, should be strongly promoted to increase available water supplies, and break the population-water paradox. Dams must be constructed to increase water storage capacity and prevent water shortages. Irrigation systems, water management and water distribution networks should be improved, and effective pricing must be implemented to control water consumption.

The government, religious organisations, schools and mass media could play a positive role by educating the public to use water wisely, recycle and not to waste water resources. Industry, however, can play a double role - as a leader in effective water management to help solve the water crisis, and the principal economic force to create sustainable growth.

Author's note
Dr. Mohammad Taghi Sheykhi is an associate professor of sociology at the Al-Zahra University in Tehran, Iran. For more information, contact the author at Email: [email protected]