Destruction of Water Resources in Water Bankrupt Iran:

Water is an essential element for life and comes to mankind in two different forms: groundwater and surface water. Groundwater is the most plentiful of all freshwater resources (Boswinkel, 2000). As water percolates into the ground through layers of soil, clay, and rock, some of it adheres to the topmost layers to provide water to plants. This water is called the unsaturated, or vadose, zone. Most of the pores in the vadose zone are filled with air, rather than water (sciencing, 2018).
Water continues to move down through the ground by gravity. The water eventually reaches the saturated zone, which fills all the pores. The separation between the saturated and unsaturated zone is called the water table.

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Aquifers are areas of permeable rock that hold water. Aquifers are typically made of bedrock that has many fractures and connected pores, such as limestone, sandstone, and gravel. Shale and clay layers are impermeable; therefore, they make poor aquifers. An aquifer is “recharged” through precipitation from above percolating through the layers of soil and rock. Therefore, there is significant interaction between surface water and ground water. In turn, groundwater feeds surface water through springs, and surface water can also recharge the groundwater supply (USGS, 2016).
Groundwater constitutes about 2/3 of the freshwater resources of the world. Without the consideration of the polar ice caps and glaciers, groundwater accounts for nearly all usable freshwater. Even if this consideration is limited to only the most active and accessible groundwater aquifers, then groundwater still makes up 95% of total freshwater, with lakes, swamps, reservoirs, and rivers accounting for 3.5% and soil moisture accounting for only 1.5%.
Groundwater has been extracted for domestic use (drinking and cleaning) as well as for agriculture (water for livestock and irrigation) since the earliest times. In the United States, groundwater is important in all regions. About 40% of the overall public water supplies rely on a groundwater source. In rural areas of the United States, 96% of domestic water is supplied from groundwater. Also, many of the major cities in Europe are dependent on groundwater (Goltz, 2007).

Digging a well

Digging a well to extract ground water using traditional tools.

Groundwater has a number of key advantages when compared to surface water. It is usually of higher quality, better protected from direct pollution, less subject to seasonal and perennial fluctuations, and is significantly more uniformly spread over large regions of the world than surface water. In arid and semi-arid countries, groundwater is widely used for irrigation. In some arid and semi-arid countries, such as Libya or Tunisia, groundwater is the only traditional source of fresh water for all purposes (Salih, 2006).
Surface water is the water that exists in rivers, streams, and lakes. This water is primarily used for potable water supply, recreation, irrigation, industry, livestock, transportation, and hydroelectric energy (USGS, 1998). Over 63 percent of the public water supply is withdrawn from surface water. Irrigation gets 58 percent of its water supply from surface water. Industry gets almost 98 percent of its water from surface water systems. Therefore, surface water conservation and quality are of the utmost importance (Sciencing, 2018).
Watershed organizations continuously measure the stream flow and the quality of surface water. Stream flow is monitored to warn of flooding and drought conditions. Water quality is very important, as the majority of the water used in the United States comes from surface water. It is the measure of how suitable the water is from a biological, chemical, and physical perspective. Water quality can be negatively impacted by natural and human causes: electrical conductivity, pH, temperature, phosphorus levels, dissolved oxygen levels, nitrogen levels, and bacteria are tested as a measure of water quality (USGS, 2002).
Water, which runs off into the stream, can naturally carry sediment, debris, and pathogens. Turbidity, the measure of suspended sediment in a stream, is also a measure of water quality. The more turbid the water is, the lower the water quality (Chapman, 1996).

Another view of Karaj dam

Watershed of Karaj Dam and Erosion.

Iran is a large country in the Middle East, and about 90% of its territory is extremely arid. Like its neighbors, severe droughts and population growth have intensified Iran’s water shortage problems in the past decades. Furthermore, climate change has the potential to impose additional economic and social pressure on it and all Middle Eastern countries. Thus, how future climate change will interact with socioeconomic and political conditions in the region is an important issue (Hashsemi, 2015).
Despite having a more advanced water management system than most Middle Eastern countries, similar to the other countries in the region, Iran is experiencing a serious water crisis. The government blames the current crisis on the changing climate, frequent droughts, and international sanctions, believing that water shortages are periodic. However, the dramatic water security issues of Iran are rooted in decades of disintegrated planning and managerial myopia. Iran has suffered from a symptom-based management paradigm, which mainly focuses on curing the problem’s symptoms rather than addressing the main causes (Madani, 2014).

Buckets in hand searching water

Buckets in hand looking for drinking water.

The current water crisis in Iran is so alarming that some of Iranian top officials had no choice than to address its seriousness. However, in a presentation of this issue to the general public, they always use a reverse logic. They are extremely reluctant to mention the absolute country’s dogma. They believe that crises result from some specific reasons, which are rooted in population growth and mismanagement, said the deputy energy minister for water resources planning (Tehran Times, 2017). The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a termed reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s, now head of the country’s Environment Agency. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will be uninhabited in 20 years’ time, if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crises, Israel or the U.S. (Counter Punch, 2018).

Buckets in hand looking for water

Searching for drinking water. Courtesy of PMOI.

More than 3000 years ago, the inhabitants of this dry, mountainous region of Iran had a sustainable system of water management and perfected a system for conducting snowmelt through underground channels to which its discharge “is fixed by nature”. It is called Qanat. Its origin (Mother Well) begins in the mountains and carries water downwards to the arable plains by gravity, to farms, country gardens, and towns (Foltz, 2002). The conduits, which are usually 50 to 80 centimeters wide and 90 centimeters to 1.5 meters high, varying between several hundred meters to more than 100 kilometers in length. In Iran alone, there are some 22,000 of them, comprising more than 273,500 kilometers of underground channels. 73.5% of Qanats were located in the eastern half of the country, which is most arid or semi-arid parts of country; whereas the western part was mostly dependent on rivers and rainfall (Lahsaeizadeh, 1993).

Scheme of a Qanat

Scheme of a Qanat system.

The Qanat irrigation system rests on indigenous knowledge and experimental hydrology. It was widely used for several reasons. First, unlike other traditional irrigation devices, such as the counterpoised sweep (a hand driven device for raising water out of shallow pits), Qanat requires no power source other than gravity to maintain a flow of water. Second, water can be moved over substantial distances through these subterranean channels with minimal evaporation losses and little danger of pollution. Finally, the flow of water in a Qanat is proportionate to the available supply in the aquifer. If properly maintained, these irrigation canals could provide a reliable supply of water for centuries (Haeri, 2006).
Qanat reflected collective and cooperative work. In areas where Qanats are constructed, there are employment opportunities for the local community. In other words, the most vital point of the Qanat existence is to recognize and understand that Qanat systems are closely linked to the local community and its ability to plan and manage their own water resources, especially for agriculture. It has been claimed that before the land reform of 1962, the life of about 70% of Iranian villages was totally or partly dependent on the Qanat system (Lahsaeizadeh, 1993).
Because individual peasants possessed neither the capital nor the manpower that was needed for construction and maintenance of the Qanat system, independent production was at a disadvantage compared to other systems of production, such as the multi-family collective or the Buneh in Iran. The management system was such that the water was distributed according to the rules of the community. As a result, water security and water access supports the foundations of the local community (Haeri, 2006).
These cooperative units of production were developed in Iranian villages in response to the challenges posed by a harsh natural environment and the environmental constraints arising from the scarcity of production factors, especially water. The Buneh evolved as a complex social organization for agricultural production with distinct cultivation and water rights and semi-structured farm management (Haeri, 2006).
To meet growing water demands, governments and other investors in the Middle East have abandoned traditional, sustainable (but less productive) water supply systems in favor of modern, less sustainable (but more productive) hydraulic systems. Modern dams were constructed to trap surface water in river valleys (Marren et al, 2014). Dams have many advantages for a community, but they also have large impacts on the environment and populations living close to the dams, which can be disastrous. Modern pumping technologies, which provide access to previously unknown or inaccessible groundwater reservoirs, are coming into widespread use, where surface water is not available (Sciencing, 2018).
Rivers carry not only water, but also sediment. While most sediment moves suspended in the water column by turbulence (mud, silt, and sand), larger particles can move along the bed by rolling, sliding, and bouncing (the “bedload”, consisting of sand and gravel). By impounding water, dams reduce the deposition of sediment, interrupting the natural continuity of sediment transport. Sedimentation is a major concern for water storage systems world-wide. It is a particularly acute problem above dams, which can accumulate vast amounts of sediment depending on the size of the reservoir and sediment yield of the upstream catchment. Dams typically trap 100% of bedload and a percentage of suspended load that depends on the ratio of the reservoir storage capacity to the river’s mean annual flow. As they fill with sediment, the functions of the reservoir are compromised, and eventually storage capacity can be entirely lost (Kondolf and Farahani, 2018).
The increasing accumulation sediments behind dams place them out of commission. This issue will increasingly become a threat for older dams in Iran, especially, for dams that feed Tehran’s water.


Water turbidity. Courtesy of PMOI.

One of the most striking examples of this shift in water technologies has been the case of Qanat. These ancient, gravity-flow water supply systems, which have provided dependable, renewable supplies of water to Middle Eastern towns and villages for millennia, are being rapidly replaced by a more productive but less sustainable water technology, known as deep wells. On the Iranian plateau, an important heartland of qanat-watered settlement, this change in water technology has drained aquifers, altering the distribution of towns and villages, and is transforming the lifeforms of Iranian villagers (Jomehpour, 2009; Nasiri and Mofakheri, 2015).
By contrast, deep wells have several putative advantages over Qanat. First, deep wells are not limited by slope or soil conditions and can be located at sites convenient to transportation networks, populations centers, and markets. Second, they draw water from deep in the aquifer where seasonal variations in flow do not occur. Third, because deep wells can be turned on or off at will, they are, theoretically, conducive to water conservation (English, 1998).

Water harvesting from a well, using cows

Harvesting water from a well using ox.

But deep wells also have disadvantages. The construction, maintenance, and fuel costs (for motorized pumps) of deep wells are high. Moreover, deep wells cannot be built using local materials and local labor. By far the major disadvantage (and advantage) of deep wells, however, involves their success in meeting the growing need for water in the Middle East. Deep wells can draw water from permanent aquifers on demand without regard to rates of recharge. The technology, therefore, enables people to exploit their water resources in an unsustainable fashion. The ability of deep wells, and motorized pumps, to withdraw water in excess of an aquifer’s recharge rate makes this modern technology very attractive in the short term. As a result, however, water is fast becoming a non-renewable resource in areas where deep wells are used (English, 1998).
Qanats are renewable water supply systems that have sustained agricultural settlements on the Iranian plateau for millennia. By their very nature, qanats have encouraged sustainable water use. Their major limitations are that they are expensive to build and produce relatively small amounts of water. As a result, few qanat are being built today. Instead, qanats are being replaced by deep wells, which produce more water to meet the current demand and support more intensive patterns of land use (Rahnemaei et al, 2013).
These deep wells mine water from fossil aquifers at rates well beyond replacement levels. Most are drilled in basin areas where water tables are close to the surface. As aquifers are drained, the qanat of alluvial fan settlements that share the same aquifer dry up. When the water table lowers, settlements eventually disappear. The communal patterns of social adaptation that bound together the livelihood of Iranian villagers for centuries disappear as well. In fact, evidence suggests that deep wells have made many small farmers dependent on well owners, have significantly failed to increase agricultural production, and bode poorly for the long-term survival of many long-established settlements (FSOTW, 2016).

Wells statistics

A government released statistics about number of deep wells in Iran. There are more than one million wells with permit. Now, how many have been dug without permit, no one knows, which this activity has been resulted in putting many Qanats out of commission. Courtesy of PMOI.

Rainfall volume all over the country of Iran is 413 billion cubic meters, evaporation is 283 billion cubic meters, renewable water resources are 130 billion cubic meter, accessible surface waters 92 billion cubic meters, and aquifers’ feeding is 38 billion cubic meters. The annual evaporation loss is high, ranging from about 700 mm to over 4,000 mm, amounting to 16 times the annual average rainfall of 250 mm (Moameni, 2000).
Iran is one of the driest countries of the world with an average annual precipitation of 250 mm, less than 1/3 of the world average. This precipitation is under conditions in which 179 mm of rainfall is directly evaporated. In other words, 71% of the precipitation is lost due to evaporation (Tabari and Aghajanloo, 2013).
Iran’s current water stress is partly a product of hydrology and climate. But perhaps most of all, stems from decades of compounding political mismanagement that is likely to make it very difficult to alleviate the emerging crisis before it wreaks lasting damage upon the country.

Zayandeh rood dry bed

Dry bed of Zayandehrud in Isfahan.

The water crisis is so serious that clerical regime of Iran became desperate to blame neighboring countries for this self-made problem. If they had the means and Iranians would support the clerics, then the clerics would start another war on water with some Iran’s neighbors. While Iranian officials blame neighboring countries for Iran’s environmental problems, corruption and mismanagement within the Iranian government are equally to blame. Moreover, while the Iranian regime spends billions of dollars annually on defense, military programs, and the export of terrorism, as well as in foreign wars, it largely ignores serious environmental problems that directly affect the lives of the Iranian people on a daily basis.
Iran’s growing water shortage and other environmental challenges have recently reached crisis point. Water scarcity and air pollution have not only triggered sociopolitical and security problems inside the country but have also caused tension between Iran and its neighbors (MEI, 2018).
While Iran’s environmental challenges have reached crisis level, the country’s judicial and security authorities have stepped up a crackdown on the very experts and activists who are leading efforts to address the country’s growing water scarcity and environmental problems, adversely affecting tens of millions of Iranians on a daily basis. In recent months, intelligence operatives of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have arrested scores of water management and environmental experts and activists on spurious charges. The IRGC, in collusion with the country’s repressive Judiciary, accuses those arrested of working for foreign intelligence agencies; but in reality, the IRGC targets these individuals because it considers them a threat to environmentally destructive construction projects. Reports in the Iranian media reveal that many water management experts have been arrested after questioning unscientific IRGC-built dam projects, which have exacerbated water scarcity and land degradation in different parts of the country. The most prominent one is the destruction of lake Urmia and construction of Gotwand Dam in Khusitan.

Urumia Lake

Dying of Urumia Lake.

The IRGC’s growing economic role has been the main culprit of Iran’s environmental and water problems. The IRGC has built hundreds of dams over the past three decades, changing the natural direction of the water flow, and favoring the elites at the expense of ordinary Iranians. When experts try to alleviate the problems and question IRGC’s disastrous policies, they often end up in jail (MEI, 2018).

Statistics of constructed dams

Number of dams built around Urumia Lake or proposed to be constructed by IRGC. Courtesy of PMOI.

One of the reasons for this crisis is the power given to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). wThrough the companies it owns, the IRGC was given control over major engineering projects all over Iran. The effect of this was devastating.
These companies began recklessly damming major rivers, changing the historical water flows of Iran. This was done to give water preferences to powerful landowners and favored ethnic communities, while also transferring billions from the public treasury to the IRGC leaders’ accounts. In all, since the 1979 revolution, more than 600 dam projects have been completed in a country with a high evaporation rate contrasted with the 13 dams built in Iran prior to the shah’s fall.

A view of water level in Karaj dam reservoir

Unfilled réservoir of Karaj Dam.

As the IRGC grew richer and more powerful, this same military force that today exerts influence in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, silenced farmers and environmentalists who protested river diversions by labeling them counter-revolutionaries, a crime punishable by harsh imprisonment. With its hands on the levers of power and its leaders’ pockets being filled from government accounts for these projects, no one has been able to stop these ventures.
The results of the IRGC’s foray into dam building aggravated farmers, who were encouraged to use water, but had no restrictions placed on them to maintain sustainability (The Tower, 2017).
The Islamic Republic has literally killed a large number of aquifers and alluvial plains and blocked the rivers that fed these aquifers through its compulsive dam-building (The Tower, 2017).


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About Khalil Khani (16 Articles)
Khalil Khani PhD 2011-Now: Human Rights Activist 1974-Now: Various Research and Publications in Sustainable Natural Resources and others 1986-2011: Chief Engineer in Aerospace Industry in USA 2003: Health Psychology Graduate Studies at Arizona State University, USA 1985: Graduate Studies, Doctorate in Botany, University of Goettingen, Germany 1980-1985: Research and Teaching assistant in Botany, University of Goettingen, Germany 1973-1980: Research and Teaching Soil Conservation, Erosion Control, Rangelands and Watershed Management, Tehran University, Iran 1976: Master of Science in Forestry Tehran University, Iran 1975: Bachelor of Science In Forestry Tehran University, Iran
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