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Provinces

'Crisis' or Bankruptcy?: An Iranian City Enters Day Nine Without Water

August 26, 2022
Maryam Dehkordi
6 min read
Residents of the city of Hamedan have taken to the streets to vent their frustrations after piped water was near-totally cut off last week
Residents of the city of Hamedan have taken to the streets to vent their frustrations after piped water was near-totally cut off last week
Officials claim a pipeline that has taken 17 years to lay so far will be completed within weeks, but locals are sceptical
Officials claim a pipeline that has taken 17 years to lay so far will be completed within weeks, but locals are sceptical
A water management expert has told IranWire the situation will not improve in the long term without fundamental changes to the governance style in Iran
A water management expert has told IranWire the situation will not improve in the long term without fundamental changes to the governance style in Iran

In the afternoon of Thursday, August 25, the people of Hamedan took to the streets for the third consecutive day to protest severe water shortages in the city and surrounding area. Videos of these protests received by IranWire showed an extensive deployment of riot police in response.

The first two nights saw rallies held in front of the tomb of Avicenna. Participants called on “incompetent” officials and the provincial governor to resign, and asked other citizens to “show courage” and join them. In fewer than 40 minutes, however, police were able to break them up, and not one provincial official acknowledged they had taken place – let alone express a shred of responsibility.

For the past eight days Hamedan has been struggling with a nightmarish lack of water. All aquifers and wells connected to the city’s system are presently down, and it has been reported that Ekbatan Dam in Hamedan province will also be cut off next week.

“The reservoirs behind the dams are depleted,” one citizen and protester told IranWire. “They say the drop in the level of underground water reserves is the reason we don’t have piped water for 12 hours a day. But this didn’t all come about in a week. All these years, nobody thought to do anything about it?

“For a whole week now, in some locations the water has been completely cut off. I’m a restaurant owner and almost of us have been shut for seven days now. Dirty dishes lying around for a whole week; the stench is unbearable. When the water comes back, we’ll have to deal with complaints to the Health Department about the smell.

“We’re at our wits’ end, thirsty and desperate. No water for 12 hours a day is no joke. And when it does come back on, the pressure is low, and it’s black, like diluted mud.”

 

What Happened to Hamedan’s Water Reservoirs?

Hamid Azizi Motevazeh, a spokesman for Hamedan provinces’ Water and Sewage Company, told the  Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that a 44 percent drop in precipitation was the main reason for the depletion of Ekbatan’s water reserves.

“This much of a drop in rainfall has been unprecedented in the past 45 years,” he said, adding that Hamedan had lost about 50 percent of its groundwater sources. “Not all the water in the reservoir can be filtered and used; Hamedan has to rely on other sources.”

He also blamed consumers: “Unfortunately, some of our people have made big tanks to store water in and they constantly fill them up. When the pressure is low, some of them leave the faucet open, wasting more water. Because of all these problems, the reservoirs deplete sooner than expected. Others don’t get any water at all.”

There has been talk about “other sources” in Hamedan from the first day the water was cut off. One site floated was the Talvar Dam in neighboring Kurdistan. But Farhad Bakhtiari, CEO of the Water and Sewage Company, has since said that long-planned project is facing delays; energy minister Ali Akbar Mehrabian went on to report it was initiated a full 17 years ago.

Instead, Bakhtiari told the IRIB, the firm has leased three deep wells on the south side of Agh Hesar, a village in Hamedan, to supply the cities of Bahar and Hamedan on a temporary basis. Another well with an output of 30 liters per second is reportedly ready to be activated, along with three more north of Agh Hesar.

 

How Many Years in the Making?

A Google search (in Persian) for the phrase “a difficult and dry summer is ahead” shows that, since at least 2014, officials of the Energy Ministry and of provincial governments have warned about water crisis in various Iranian cities every single year.

One of the latest was Hashem Amini, an official of the national Water and Wastewater Company of Iran in charge of strategy. In May of this year, he said:  “This summer [of 2022] is going to be a difficult summer and we have to plan right now to prevent a water crisis and its consequences.”

Outside observers have noticed the trend. Mehdi Ketabchi, a member of Green Infrastructure Taskforce at American Development Engineers, told IranWire again that what has been happening in Iran is not a “water crisis” but the early stages of water bankruptcy.

“We generally use the term ‘crisis’ for problems that are predictable and not necessarily of long duration,” Ketabchi said. “They can generally be solved using existing management methods. But what has happened in Hamedan and, earlier, in Shahrekord, Bandar Anzali and other areas don’t fit this definition. Part of the problem is that the purification sites are old and dilapidated, and haven’t been dealt with. Another is the result of both man-made and natural cycles that have made water shortages more extreme.”

The population increase, changes to agriculture, worn-out infrastructure and other factors are all, in Ketabchi’s view, the outcomes of bad governance. “Corruption has been so bad that the infrastructure was not upgraded even after receipt of international [financial] assistance. In 2005, for instance, the World Bank provided funds for upgrading the water purification systems in Bandar Anzali and Ahvaz. Nothing was done in Bandar Anzali; what was done in Ahvaz was half-baked and incomplete, and did not solve the problem.

“What has happened today was predictable but not preventable. In cities it’s also a security issue. There are water shortages in rural and tribal areas as well, but villagers and tribesmen can at least access underground water, legally or illegally. City dwellers, however, cannot dig a well in their backyards.”

 

Is There a Solution to Hand?

Of the 24 kilometers of pipeline needed to transfer water from the Talvar Dam to Hamedan, only six kilometers have been laid over almost two decades. The energy minister bizarrely claimed the issue would now be resolved “in the coming weeks”. Meanwhile, as mentioned, other officials are talking about connecting deep wells around Hamedan to the water supply system.

Ketabchi, however, believes these are only quick fixes of the type that will in turn be inefficient and harmful in the long run: “Water issues can’t be viewed outside the context of the economy, or of foreign and domestic policies. Digging wells and transferring water might resolve the shortage in Hamedan, but it will be costly in future.

“In Iran, water has been used a tool to advance ideological goals. The country’s natural resources have been over-used and exhausted in the name of ‘independence’ and development, without any thought to environmental protection.

Studies show that a democratic system based on national interests can reduce the negative impact on natural resources and the environment, something that appears to be inaccessible under the current system. The fundamental solution is a transfer of governance from the Islamic Republic to a non-ideological, decentralized system that works for the benefit of the public, in which people participate in decision-making about water. If things continue as they are, Iran’s water bankruptcy will get even worse.”

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