Iran: Invest in Water. Invest in the Future

Published on by in Business

I vividly remember my summer visits to Tehran as a child. Outside visiting my grandparents, these seasonal pilgrimages were highlighted by spending countless hours roaming the tiny crooks and alleyways of a vast, colorful and spirited city. On any given day, I would journey across the city with my cousins only to make frequent pit stops at the closest confectionery stores for a few cake Yazdis, which were then washed down with a small bottle of fresh milk from the baghali ( corner stores) right next to it.

They were joyful times. And across the many expeditions I embarked, thirst was never an issue. There were more water coolers than automobiles for Tehran's dehydrating dwellers. And it was all free, sponsored by mosques, shop owners and individuals.

The water coolers still remain. The water on the other hand remains a challenge going forward.

Iran is going through a worrying transition, one from a nation with physical and economic water scarcity to a full blown water crisis. This due to several factors: inefficient planning, global warming, lack of investments and technology in water management and improper consumer use.

Granted water scarcity and shortages are not exclusive to Iran. It is a global phenomenon. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population may face water shortages. And even though global population has increased by three times throughout the course of the past century, water consumption has increased six fold. The more concerning variable is that only 3% of the world's water is fresh water, which is what we drink, bathe in and use for agricultural and industrial purposes.

Currently an estimated 3.8 trillion cubic meters of water is withdrawn for human use each year. To put things in perspective that is the equivalent of filling up 1.5 billion Olympic sized pools.

Water use goes beyond our morning cup of coffee and shower. It is used for everything.

Below are some figures on the use of water from the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the houses we live in.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of water, withdrawing nearly 70% of the world's supply. Industry is the next main culprit at around 20% of total water consumption. These segment are growing quickly as developing countries industrialize at a rapid pace. Domestic use only accounts for 10% of water withdrawal.

The least efficient means of water consumption is agriculture however. Up to 80% of final delivered water is estimated to be lost before reaching crops versus 50% of industrial and municipal water delivered, which primarily is lost due to leakages before final delivery.

This level keeps rising with the growing global population. It is a simple formula, the more people there are, the more they need to drink and eat. If the current demographic trends continue, it is estimated that by 2050 the demand for water in food production could potentially reach 10 to 13 trillion cubic meters annually.

As Iran aims to grow and expand, the water crisis is what needs to be answered today. Unlike oil, there is no substitute for water and the demand for water remains price inelastic.

Just as concerning are the floods and droughts stemming from global warming which have negatively impacted our water sources and reserves. Many of the ecosystems built around water resources have been affected in various parts of Iran. Some of the unfortunate ones are; the desiccation of Lake Orumiyeh, the largest salt water lake in the Middle East which is classified as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO; the Zayanderud River in Isfahan, which was hit with a severe drought in 1999 and although manageable never recovered.

We, as consumers are also not using water economically. According to statistics by the Ministry of Energy, Iranians consume 105 gallons per person. So on average, a family of four would use roughly 420 gallons. That is roughly more than an American family household's consumption. This is an alarming statistic. The US is one of ten nations that hold 60% of fresh water reserves. There is room for negligence and bad practices on their part; or rather they can afford to go through a learning curve. For Iranians, that is not the case.

I have also witnessed the lack of social responsibility towards the preservation of water. Several years back, a relative of mine acquired a piece of land in Rey, the 20th municipal district in the outskirts of Tehran. He had struck a proverbial gold mine. He discovered a never ending supply of ground water that was gushing out from his new plot of land. I had been programmed to think as this was the norm. And perhaps it was, but now in retrospect, I think about it and realize how irresponsible it is to have such a valuable commodity pour down the drain.

These malpractices remain. It is because of such reasons that back in September 2014 over 3,000 large consumers of water in Tehran had their supplies cut for seven hours. Levels have reached at such critical levels that one of the main water sources for Tehran, the Lar dam holds only 30 million cubic meters of reserves when it has a 960 million cubic meter capacity.

President Rouhani and other selected officials have been vocal about the challenges ahead for Iranians. More importantly, many are charging forward with solutions; both within the private and public sector. For one, it was announced that Iran's private sector has committed to invest $320 million in water and waste water projects.

The German Ambassador to Tehran, Michael Sternberg held a meeting with Iran's Deputy Energy Minister Rahim Meidani and both countries are willing to cooperate on drought management, water consumption methods in agriculture as well as using water more efficiently in industries.

An MoU was also signed between Iran and Akyaplan, a Norwegian company which has been commissioned to study the ecological and environmental side effects of transferring water from the Caspian Sea to Lake Orumiyeh in order to revive the lake.

The right steps are being taken. It is crucial to see the private sector get involved. The conventional framework where public and private sectors share separate interests in this scenario is very far from the truth.

This crisis imposes opportunities to private enterprises but also a reward that goes beyond monetary gains; the sustainability for tomorrow.

There is still plenty of room for growth - whether it is raising general public awareness and educating the masses on efficient water use; or engaging public private partnerships in various industry vectors; developing and investing in R&D; improving irrigation and agricultural practices; appropriately pricing water, which is a sensitive matter as the public has been accustomed to relatively low prices for decades; developing and enacting robust policies and regulations centered on governance and partnerships; decreasing water footprints in silos that consume water inefficiently; building an international framework to work with institutional groups such as UNESCO, WWF, UN and other nations.

The bottom line is the situation is critical. And investment needs far exceed the current level of spending on clean water infrastructure and technology.

Iran as a nation has been blessed with plenty of natural resources. Water however is one which remains scarce. The onus is on the government as well as the people to find innovative solutions to a problem that should not be taken lightly.

There is irony in the world we live in. Planet earth, in many ways is a mirror reflection of our own physiological composition. The planet is roughly covered with 70% water. So is the human body.

We take care of ourselves. Now we have to demonstrate the same commitment to our country and our planet.