Gov’t Picking Up the Slack

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Ebtekar outlines measures implemented to tackle environmental issues ignored by the previous government
Gov’t Picking Up the Slack
Gov’t Picking Up the Slack
In Iran, the hotspots of dust storms amount to 2.8 million hectares

The Department of Environment is open to the idea of importing water from the likes of Azerbaijan and Tajikistan as long as the plans are environmentally viable.

This was stated by DOE chief, Massoumeh Ebtekar, in a wide-ranging interview with Financial Tribune in which she criticized past governments for not giving the environment the attention it needed, leaving the current administration to pick up the slack.

Iran’s long-running struggle with drought and water shortage has prompted senior officials, including Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian, to warm up to the idea of importing water to meet the growing water demand in the country. However, most environment officials and experts have voiced their opposition, arguing that the move will not solve Iran’s water woes and only delay the inevitable: a full blown water crisis.

“I think that water transfer from anywhere, regardless of boundaries, requires an EIA (environmental impact assessment),” she said. “If the plan is approved, there is no problem.”

Ebtekar stressed that transfer of water “can only be an option, if we correct our consumption patterns and farming policies”.

Historical inscriptions dating back to the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) suggest that “drought is an issue that Iranian have been living with for millennia”, and ancient Iranians devised technology such as the qanats—a gently sloping underground tunnel to channel water—and irrigation methods compatible with the “population and climate we had at the time”.

However, irrigation techniques have failed to keep up with the growing population and climate change, which has only served to exacerbate the water shortage in Iran that is located in one of the world’s most water-stressed regions.

“We see a trend of increasing average temperatures across Iran, ranging from 1.5°C to 3°C,” Ebtekar said, noting that “unsustainable water policies and mismanagement” only piled on the misery and made a bad situation worse.

Taking a swipe at the Energy Ministry’s inclination to build dams, she said there “is a race to build dams”, which could have been avoided had a bill she prepared during her first stint as DOE chief (1997-2005) been passed.

The reason her department’s effort fell flat, she said, was because there was a lack of people with expertise in EIA at the time and pressure from “various sectors that felt EIA was unnecessary”.

“There was a cat-and-mouse chase for a while, but then we came to a period when the environment was totally taken out of the list of priorities,” she said, a reference to the previous two governments (2005-13).

In those eight years, “99% of projects that came into the process were adopted” because there was no EIA.

Ebtekar declared that environmental impact assessment is now mandatory for every project and enforced diligently, adding that the DOE has rejected 15 dam projects in the past three years.

In cooperation with the energy and agriculture ministries, the department is working toward upgrading irrigation systems, identifying and sealing illegal water wells and encouraging farmers to grow appropriate and water-efficient crops.

“There is no reason to plant rice in Isfahan, for example,” she said.

  Climate Change Compliance

Iran is one of the 180 signatories to the Paris Agreement, which was signed last December in the French capital to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases and limit the planet’s warming to under 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, by 2100.

The government has pledged to cut its emission by 4% by 2030 relative to the business-as usual-scenario, while it claims to be able to reduce its emissions by 12% with sufficient international aid.

However, Ebtekar stressed that unless “the sanctions are lifted totally, and not just on paper”, Iran will not be able to meet its goals.

Economic sanctions against Iran were lifted in January after Tehran’s compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal with the six major world powers was confirmed, but the government accuses the US of failing to allay international investors’ fears of entering the Iranian market.

Nonetheless, steps have been taken to curb emissions, she added.

Ebtekar said the government adopted the “low carbon economy bill” last year, which obliges every sector to do its part to reduce its contribution to the rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“Every sector—like the petroleum, industry and mines—has its own strategy,” she said.

The DOE chief noted that the Energy Ministry is pursuing an important plan to enhance energy efficiency in residential buildings and industrial units.

“We’re also moving ahead with plans to invest in renewable, especially solar power,” she said, adding that provinces in Iran’s Central Plateau are investing in solar energy and “foreign investors from countries like Italy, Finland and Norway have expressed interest in financing these projects”.



  Air Quality Improving

Air pollution, which has become a fixture of Iran’s major cities every winter in the past few years, is a thorny subject that fueled a public war-of-words between the DOE and Tehran Municipality last winter, when three consecutive weeks of smog forced the closure of schools for seven days.

However, Ebtekar is of the opinion that this winter things will be visibly better.

“We’re looking forward to a cleaner winter this year,” she said.

Pointing to the government’s measures to reduce air pollution in major cities, Ebtekar, who doubles as a vice president, said by expanding the pollution monitoring network and installing more sensors, the DOE has been able to get more accurate readings of pollutant concentrations and plan accordingly.

The government has been distributing Euro 4-compliant gasoline in eight metropolises and there are plans to introduce Euro 5 gasoline in Tehran soon.

Furthermore, domestic automakers have to ensure their products comply with Euro 4 standards.

Some 670,000 dilapidated vehicles have been removed from the streets.

“The number of clean days so far in 2016 has increased by 77 compared with the same period in 2013,” she said.

Pointing to her first tenure as DOE chief, Ebtekar said the government started implementing measures such as eliminating lead from air and phasing out Paykan, but “the list of priorities changed for the following governments” and tackling environmental problems dropped down the list.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani has been pushing forward with the plan to promote a more widespread use of hybrids and electric vehicles, though this plan has been criticized by many officials on the grounds that the infrastructure is not in place.

To address this issue, Ebtekar said research and development plans are underway in many large car industries, while a lot of research is being done in universities.

She asserted that some of the infrastructures have been put in place, referring to the large industry producing lithium batteries—one of the essentials for electric cars and motorcycles.

“The automotive industry is planning to start a production line for electric cars. We still have a long way ahead but it seems that we are moving in the right direction,” she said.

  Dust Storms Still a Problem

Unrelenting dust and sand storms have become more frequent and intense in recent years, holding residents of western and eastern Iran hostage in their own homes for weeks every years.

Experts say a majority of the sources of these storms lie beyond Iran’s borders, in countries that are either torn apart by conflict, such as Iraq and Syria, or states with which Iran has no diplomatic relations, namely Saudi Arabia.

“The magnitude of the problem is immense,” she said. “In Iraq, we have about 8 million hectares of hotspots while in Saudi Arabia, we have about 10 million hectares.”

In Iran, the hotspots of dust storms amount to 2.8 million hectares.

While measures have been taken to reduce the internal hotspots, such as replenishing wetlands, observers say these will only help eastern provinces but will not do much for western regions, which are battered by dust storms blown over from regional countries.

“A prerequisite for sustainable development is security and they (Iraq and Syria) don’t have that, so we took the matter (of dust storms) to the United Nations bodies,” Ebtekar said.

“Last year, during the UN General Assembly we passed a strong resolution, which gave UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon the mandate to study the problem and devise a solution.”

Earlier this year, a resolution proposed by Iran to enlist the cooperation of Middle East countries to tackle dust storms in the region was approved at the second UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya.

“We’re moving ahead and I think it’s important that we’ve created this awareness (at the global level),” she said, but admitted that due to the unfavorable conditions in Syria and Iraq, addressing the problem—which “was not created overnight”—will take some time.

In the meantime, the government is taking measures to alleviate pressure on people in western Iran, especially Khuzestan Province that bears the brunt of storms.

There are now guidelines instructing officials and the general public on what to do in case of dust storms.

“We have to raise awareness and warn people of impending storms so they stay indoors and avoid contact with the dust particles,” Ebtekar said.

  Helping Rangers

Being a ranger in Iran means low wages and the lingering possibility of death at any time at the hand of poachers.

Despite this, rangers are expected to be motivated to take on a position in which defending themselves with firearms in times of danger—though permitted—has more often than not resulted in their own incarceration and time on death row.

It took 119 park rangers shot to death before the government decided to step in and defend them.

“Most legal advisors and most of those familiar with the laws in Iran believe that the laws to defend the rangers are actually quite strong,” she said.

“In 2013 (when the current government took office), one of the first issues that I was informed about was that we had eight rangers on death row, which was shocking.”

Ebtekar explained that this was not due to weak laws but because there was no one there to defend them.

“Unfortunately, the rangers weren’t given the necessary legal backing; they didn’t have lawyers and the DOE didn’t defend them properly,” she said.

After negotiating with the families of the deceased to gain their consent and holding talks with the judiciary, the department managed to free seven rangers, with only one ranger still in prison whose case is being pursued.

“Up to now, we have done the best in terms of strengthening the morale of rangers. Also, the education and training of rangers has been seriously addressed.”  

According to Ebtekar, the DOE has held expert training for about 1,700 rangers and set up a training center for offering specialized training to rangers.

She added that the rangers now have a lot of self confidence in dealing with these issues because they are well-informed and well-educated.

An international training scheme has also been launched and was implemented in Austria in which 12 rangers took part in May. Iranians will also attend the second course starting next month in Austria.

Ebtekar said DOE approved to give rangers the highest possible hardship payment and their salaries were increased by 30% last year.

The DOE is still working to improve the working conditions and increase their salaries, as it is a very demanding job that requires a great deal of dedication and courage, given the constant threat of death.