Save the Tigris

Current Reality of Iranian Water Policies: A Q&A Seminar

On 1 May 2021, Save the Tigris held an online seminar in which members of the People’s Campaign to Save the Kind Zagros of

By Ismaeel Dawood

On 1 May 2021, Save the Tigris held an online seminar in which members of the People’s Campaign to Save the Kind Zagros of Iran, a long-time supporter of our initiative, were invited to discuss with us the current reality of Iranian water policies. The seminar touched upon inter-basin water transfer projects which are common across Iran and also affect neighbouring Iraq.

Can you provide us with some context on your struggle?

Our main struggle is related to the Karoun River.i Water transfers have upset the ecosystem of the region. Authorities are looking to transfer about 2.8 billion cubic meters from Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province to other regions of Iran (Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Qom, etc.). At the moment, 1.3 billion cubic meters of water has been transferred. As a result of this policy, salinity in the region has increased. People in Khuzestan Province, particularly Khoramshar, are lacking access to potable water. The populations of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari and Khuzestan have not been allowed to criticize this water policy.

The water need of Khuzestan is about 24 billion cubic meters, of which about 1 billion cubic meters is required for households, 2 billion cubic meters for environment, 20 billion cubic meters for farming, and the remainder for industry. Water transfers are also taking place in other Iranian basins, such as the Lesser Zab and the transfer of water from the Persian Gulf to central Iran.

The environmental movement in Iran is facing its own difficulties. We receive support from local populations. Iranian society is generally receptive to environmental and sustainability concerns, but we find that the government has not been accepting of environmental reforms. There are hardly any newspapers or news agencies that report on environmental issues.

What is the Iranian government’s rationale for water transfers?

From what the government is saying, water transfers are conducted to supply potable water to regions with little drinking water. However, we believe it is mostly aimed for industries. It is important to note that Iran’s domestic water policies are impacted by its foreign policy. Sanctions have made Iran focus on domestic agricultural production and self-sufficiency. However, Iran’s water resources are not sufficient to completely support its agricultural industry. The Campaign believe the states of the Mesopotamian region need to follow more peaceful policies and expand their communication, referring to transboundary waters.

Can you give us more information about current and proposed water legislation in Iran?

A bill was proposed which would grant the Ministry of Energyii the power to design and implement Iran’s water policies without scrutiny.iii We advocated with the Ministry of Energy to refrain from adopting that bill. The Ministry of Energy informed us they are willing to have a dialogue with us. In reality, however, they are following their own policies. What’s important for us is that any legislation should refer to transboundary waters and the role of civil society. We believe border waters should be shared and managed with neighboring countries.

Are these water transfer projects implemented by domestic companies only? Or are foreign companies involved? Are environmental impact assessments available?

South Korean companies were supposed to work on some of these water transfer projects but we protested against their involvement. Currently, the government is the main implementer of the water transfer projects.iv Most of these have received an environmental license but such environmental impact assessments are not made public.

The People’s Campaign to Save the Kind Zagros is an Iranian civil society initiative leading the International Day Against Water Transfer. The campaign calls for international solidarity against water transfer projects. 

Photo: Ghadir water project in Southwestern Khuzestan Province, Iran (Source: IRNA)

i The Karoun River originates in the Zagros Mountains of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province in Iran, flows through Khuzestan, and empties in the Shatt-al-Arab.

ii The Ministry of Energy oversees the regulation and implementation of policies applicable to energy, electricity, water, and wastewater services.

iii In 2020, the Ministry of Energy intended to draft a new bill for the comprehensive water law [Law of Fair Water Distribution] which it said would be based on sustainable use and protection of resources.