In the winter, for well over three decades a dramatic fall in the amount of rain or snow has been observed. In the summer, the much longer periods of heatwaves and scorching sun have made the need for water worse.
The answer of the authorities has been building dams for supplying the urban networks and the growing of water-thirsty cultivars.
The dams have had disastrous consequences for downstream regions, accelerating soil erosion and salinity. The problem has been well known since the mid-1990s, but has been kept under wraps by the government and also the lack of interest from townspeople.
All the same, the building of the dams in large numbers is still a sacred mission in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Eye-catching progress is applauded when a new dam is inaugurated.
However, there is a red line to respect for anyone active in the sector as to the functionality and the size of the dam.
Either they are impressive projects including facilities to produce electricity, or they are simple reservoir/tank dams for collecting the natural water resources.
Building Dams: Monumental Fiascos
Half a dozen dams are very large-scale civil engineering enterprises used to produce electricity as well as serve as water reservoirs. They may impact regions twice as large as Belgium, affecting the fragile ecosystem of the arid and semi-arid areas.
The total absence of scientific studies of the ecological impact of these dams is astounding. If, in Tehran, a powerful politician of the Islamist regime and his clique back the project of building a new dam, nothing can stop it. The usefulness of the project resumes in stating that the projected dam is the heaven-sent solution to all the regional problems. The project is then accepted with a round of applause and his vision, imagination and drive admired. This is the modus vivendi of the Iranian theocracy.
For the massive projects, the vertiginous budgets involving foreign investments and expertise are needed. Thus, they are exclusively in the hands of the big boys of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Pasdaran; the government’s role resumes in nodding its approval. The provincial government on which the dam is projected would be kept out of the process. The juicy contracts and the years of hard work kept in the shadows by men with mean, scheming little minds cannot be shared with the local dullards.
Only a couple of contractors and companies, held by the Pasdaran, the IRGC, are the players in the building of monumental dams. One of them is Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarter (قرارگاه سازندگی خاتم الانبیاء (ص)), involved in building the Bakhtiari Dam for example.
The ecological fiascos following these projects are in the public domain. The Upper Gotvand Dam is by far a textbook case in which the Islamic Revolutionary ideology wrapped the greed of juicy contracts.
They modified the initial plans from the 1970s based on the geological studies and declared them as the work of Satanic American contractors aimed at causing harm to the Iranian people. As the future showed, this was an unfounded claim by a paranoiac clique adept at conspiracy theories.
The new dam, about 15km away from the site in the initial plans of the 1970s, was built on salt veins. Slowly, salt dissolved into the reservoir. Now the dam’s water is said to be five times saltier than the Persian Gulf’s seawater. The farmers and cultivators were supposed to use it for their activities.
They did. Presently, the arable lands have become salty, ruined, and unsuitable for growing anything in them. The irreversible desertification is underway. Following the unrest and the street protests in Khuzestan Province, Hassan Rouhani and his ministers talked about grandiose projects to help the dear and honourable population and to remedy the situation.
Unsurprisingly, as it turned out, nothing has changed since…
In Iranian infrastructure jargon, smaller-size dams in scope are called “reservoir-dams – سد مخزنی”; large pools for collecting water, providing for the nearby networks and arable lands.
Considering the relatively pitiful budgets and the small areas to cater for, the planning and realisation are left to the local authorities, the local dullards, as they are called off the record by the VIPs in Tehran.
In the provinces, building a reservoir or two makes the local governor a shining star in the local politics and, if he is lucky, a favourite to the cleric representing the Supreme Guide in the region.
The reservoir-dams are supposed to supply the urban networks and farmlands with modern technologies using smart flow-meters, as the regional authorities like to claim. Considering the unnecessary Byzantine water pricing and regulations, not to mention the air cumulated in the pipes during the water cuts, and accounted for in the bills as supplied water, one wonders how smart the flow-meters are as to distinguish between the pressure released from the air in the pipe and the water.
However, drought and the piecemeal planning of dams have dried the natural supply of potable water of many villages, the access to a source of fresh water or sanitation has been barred, and the making of a living out of farming is now an impossible task.
In their tens of thousands, small farmers have turned their backs on their homes to inflate the urban areas in the hope of finding jobs.
Searching through hundreds of news items and blog posts makes a documented tour of Iran, reflecting the hope and despair of the local people, the failures, the censorship and the propaganda of the central government at a dear cost to the population.
The documented search tells only the stories of the fiascos in a sector that needs scientific evaluation and pragmatism. There is no room for the blindness and litany of the theological maxims, if the water supply is to be managed properly.
Kermanshah: Hundred Dams
In the case of western regions, Kermanshah and Kurdistan, to name only two provinces in the west of Iran, reservoir-dams have drained the water from natural springs (سراب), streams and rivers, thus further drying areas downriver.
The arid environments of the high plateaux of the Zagros are delicate. If the natural water resources are callously redirected, as is the case today, the valleys cannot be inhabited any more. To make matters worse, the reservoir-dams have high evaporation ratios. Some are not even full by the end of March-April and a few puddles are left on their bed by early July, as soon as the heatwaves and the scorching sun season start.
In each province, how many reservoir-dams are projected, how many are actually built and how many are still in service? How much is the overall damage to the ecosystem?
We do not know.
Frequently, the promise of building a dam is announced in the media. However, many projects are to be only on paper; others are inaugurated many years behind schedule. Only painstaking work of list making and field fact-checking can answer these questions.
As for the reading of scientific reports on each and every reservoir-dam and their impact on the ecosystem… we can wait for it till doomsday.
For now, all we have, by reading between the lines, is the bad feeling of something’s very wrong. As if water depletion were spreading fast like leprous sores in the valleys and the high plateaux, pressing the rural people to move to the towns, leaving behind deserted lands.
In searching the reservoir-dams, we collected a large number of pictures and written narratives from many locations in the country. The water shortage and dried dams were closely related to the litter accumulating where fresh water used to quench the thirst of humans, fauna, and flora.
Many pictures published for the reservoir-dams were taken during the inauguration ceremonies. In these, four details attracted our attention:
- the local clergy and military representing the Pasdaran (IRGC) have the priority in the ceremonies;
- there is no presence of women. For one dam we knew of, a woman, a member of the contractor’s team, said: I was not invited.
- the artificial lakes of the dams are seldom photographed. A correspondent referring to a precise dam in Songhor (Kermanshah Province) wrote: The reservoir was empty, not enough water to fill it.
- many published writings on the reservoirs’ dryness had a generic picture of a cracked dry land; it could have been anywhere. The reason given for the generic picture? The reluctance of the photographers; the picture wouldn’t be nice and beautiful (قشنگ).
The leprous sores are not pleasant to see and unbearable to live with, but there is an urgent need to document them, and if the will is there, to find a cure; or at least, prevent them from spreading.
References: Click to link.