In a letter to Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian earlier this month, the head of the Iranian Department of Environment Isa Kalantari has informed the government that it can proceed with its plan to transfer a large volume of water from the Caspian Sea to the central Iranian plateau.
During a visit to the northern province of Semnan last December, President Hassan Rouhani announced that his cabinet had approved the Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project to help the drought-stricken region.
While acknowledging the impact of the project on the environment, Mr. Rouhani assured the residents of Semnan that the government would go ahead with the plan to help the province. According to Rouhani, the government had already completed its preliminary studies for the project.
Subsequently, some 40 environmentalist groups sent an open letter to Rouhani, warning him that the project would have dire consequences for Iranian ecology.
“As you know, the Caspian Sea does not hold enough water to supply other parts of the country,” signatories said. “Ecologists and conservationists have warned that the project would have devastating effects on the Caspian Hyrcanian Mixed Forests [covering about 55,000 square kilometers] in the three coastal provinces [of Gilan, Mazandaran, and Ardabil.] They have also said that the plan will severely impact agricultural and livestock farming.”
“We urge the government to reconsider the project, which will inflict irreparable damage to nearly half of the country. Otherwise, we will use any legal means available to us to stop the plan,” the letter warned.
The project also met stiff opposition from some Majlis (Iranian Parliament) deputies.
Ali Adyani-Rod, the deputy representing Ghaem Shahr (Shahi) in the northern province of Mazandaran, said: “The Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project is impractical and impossible to implement.”
However, despite massive opposition by people living in the coastal provinces, Majlis deputies, and environmentalists, the government has reportedly started the first phase of the project.
According to the Iran Water and Power Resources Development Company (IWPCO), which is a government agency operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Energy, the project involves the transfer of 200 million cubic meters of water from the Caspian Sea to Semnan where it is desalinated, purified and distributed to industries and farmlands throughout the province.
IWPCO plans to install two parallel pipelines along 160 kilometers of coastline, starting at Neka Power Plant in the northern province of Mazandaran and going through the Caspian Hyrcanian Mixed Forests and Khatir Kooh into Seaman.
The pipelines split near the town of Shahmirzad with one line stretching for 172 kilometers towards the cities of Damghan and Shahroud and the other running for 132 kilometers to the provincial capital Semnan.
The government of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad approved the project in 2005. IWPCO took over its implementation in 2012 at an estimated cost of $2.2 billion.
The following is Kayhan Life’s interview with Naser Karami, an environmentalist and climatologist, about the Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project.
Q: Is President Rouhani’s proposed plan for transferring water from Mazandaran to Semnan economically workable, and does it meet environmental guidelines for major construction sites?
A: No. Desalinating and transporting water is part of a product development process, meaning the expected gross revenues must be more than operating expenses. The project would not be economically sound if the production cost exceeds the financial return.
In Iran, we, unfortunately, do not calculate the cost of water used from the country’s natural resources. For instance, to determine the total worth of the water in a well, we calculate the cost of electricity and labor and equipment used in digging the ground but not the value of the water and its ecological significance.
There are two different methods of calculating the total cost of a project. One method takes into account the ecological impact, and the other does not. The first approach studies the ecological effects of removing a massive volume of water from the Caspian Sea and transporting it to another province. It also determines whether the province has the infrastructure and capacity to receive such a large amount of water. It also factors in the ecological impacts of wastewater produced through the desalination process. We must consider all these processes when calculating the cost of a cubic meter of water.
There are other costs, including transporting the water, allocating a vast amount of land for installing the pipelines, and building and operating a desalination plant. Its environmental impacts notwithstanding, the transfer and desalination costs alone make the Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project a financially unsound enterprise. Local agricultural lands and industries cannot use expensive desalinated and purified water. It is only suitable for heavy and lucrative industries that do not exist in Iran. It also makes little sense to use it as drinking water.
There are less expensive methods to meet the local needs, including conserving water used in farmlands. The project, therefore, makes absolutely no scientific and financial sense.
Q: When do you think the project starts?
A: The project can start soon after completing all relevant paperwork, selecting a contractor, and planning its various phases. I am not entirely sure, but it would seem that IWPCO has already started working in certain parts of the Hyrcanian Mixed Forests. Work will most likely pick up pace after Isa Kalantari’s letter to the energy minister.
Q: Will the project reduce the water shortage in Iran?
A: There is no surplus water in any of the country’s reservoirs. Unlike Amazon, which has massive reservoirs, Iran has a limited water supply. Iranians consume twice the average global daily water usage. Ideally, the country’s population should be around 60 million instead of the current 83 million.
Our agriculture industry has had to be self-sufficient for the past 40 years. However, Iran cannot produce enough agricultural products for its domestic consumption, let alone trying to develop it into a viable industry. There is no surplus water in the country, so it makes no sense to transport it from one region to another.
The project to transfer water will cause poverty instead of reducing it. It will worsen the conditions for the population of one province by slightly improving the lives of people in another region.
The country has also built nearly twice as many dams it needs and can maintain. Dams in Iran can store 76 billion cubic meters of water but have only 40 billion cubic meters in their reservoirs. The focus has shifted to transporting water, given there is no need for building any more dams.
Contractors who built the dams in Iran are now transporting water. These projects do not meet any of the country’s vital needs, but only create jobs for contractors.
Q: What is the current water situation in Semnan Province?
A: Some 90 percent of Semnan Province is in the Kahak desert. The southward Mashhad-Tehran highway goes through the vastest arid terrain in the country. However, the northbound part of the same road goes through mountainous regions in Semnan and the northern province of Alborz, which has one of the highest average annual rainfall in Iran.
Some 95 percent of the population of Semnan lives in its northern regions, which is only 5 percent of the entire area of the province. To determine whether Semnan has enough water, we must look at where most of its inhabitants live. Semnan’s population density (population divided by total water volume) puts it among the top 10 provinces with the most significant water reservoirs in the country. So, Semnan’s water shortage stems from mismanagement.
Q: Why do you think Mr. Rouhani proposed this project?
A: The project shows a lack of a coherent development plan, an inept executive branch, and systematic corruption in management. Former President Mohammad Khatami tried to implement a similar project in the central province of Yazd with disastrous results. The province did not have the infrastructure to support the project. The late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s water project in the southeastern province of Kerman also failed.
Two consecutive presidents have tried to transfer water to Semnan. The province neither needs the water, nor does it have the infrastructure to sustain any development projects. Influential contractors play a crucial role in persuading the government to approve these projects.
Most of these companies operate under the auspices of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Mahab Ghodss Engineering Consulting Company is one of the major contractors in Iran, with the IRGC and Astan Qods Razavi (manages the Imam Reza Shrine) as its shareholders.
Q: What role does the Iranian Department of Environment play in all of this? Mr. Kalantari is very critical of the current situation but has supported the Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project!
A: Mr. Kalantari has, frequently, warned about the environmental crisis and increasing aridity in Iran. However, he has given his seal of approval to this project, which will only perpetuate the current ecological crisis. Iran is not suffering from drought but aridity. A drought happens when a period of low rainfall leads to a shortage of water. A prolonged period of dry weather ultimately ends with rainfall.
Iran, however, is suffering from increasing and chronic aridness, caused partly by a 20 percent drop in the average annual rainfall in the country and also by human activities, including irresponsible agriculture, which uses large amounts of water from lakes, rivers, and groundwater to irrigate crops. We only need 40 percent of the country’s renewable water resources, but we use 90 percent of it.
Iran’s entire population lives in 10 percent of the country’s land area. Dam projects have diverted 90 percent of the country’s water resources to those populated areas; as a result, most of the country’s landmass has become arid. The Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project shows we have learned nothing in the past 40 years.
Mr. Kalantari has always said that he cared about environmental issues in Iran, but he has acted like everyone else. The Iranian Department of Environment does not live up to its values and standards. The organization is the former hunting and fishing department, which always had limited authority. It does not even exercise its power.
The Iranian Department of Environment could have withheld its approval of the Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project, pending thorough research and environmental risk assessment. However, those who support the project have immense power, and Mr. Kalantari must toe the line if he wishes to remain in his post.
[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]