Iran: Reversing the environmental damages of sanctions

18 Jul 2016

Iran: Reversing the environmental damages of sanctions

By Kaveh Madani and Shirin Hakim

July 18, 2016

https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/404354/Iran-Reversing-the-environmental-damages-of-sanctions

 

While the lifting of sanctions in January provides great promise for Iran’s future economy, the consequential effects they have had on the natural environment have been at an unforgiving cost. The sustained environmental problems that current and future generations have inherited as a result of political strife could take generations to recover from.

While the lifting of sanctions in January provides great promise for Iran’s future economy, the consequential effects they have had on the natural environment have been at an unforgiving cost. The sustained environmental problems that current and future generations have inherited as a result of political strife could take generations to recover from.

Over the last decade, as Iran fell further into economic isolation, its viability to sustain the environment consequently deteriorated. Iran is now home to four of the ten most polluted cities in the world and is in the midst of a prolonged drought, crippling the already over-tapped native bodies of water. This vulnerability of Iran’s current environmental state is due in part to socio-economic difficulties and discord from the global community, which has limited its resources, forcing it to wage a self-sufficient scheme utilizing large amounts of its domestic resources. Iran’s thirst for accelerated development under such stifling sanctions was at the discretion of Iranian decision-makers, but sanctions placed the nation in a challenging position that was not entirely in their control. Trying to prove self-sufficiency while simultaneously maintaining an image of strength and rapid development pushed an already fragile environment to the brink of collapse.

Before the sanctions, Iran relied heavily on petroleum imports from European refineries, as the nation lacked the necessary means to refine their own petroleum domestically. In the aftermath of sanctions, Iran turned to converting petrochemical factories to refineries as a short-term solution to maintain the high demand for its domestic transportation needs, adding to the highly toxic air that fills its cities today. In 2012 alone, there were an estimated 80,000 premature deaths in the nation, relating to the poor air quality. Part of the issue is not even due to internal affairs. Dust particles from neighboring Iraq cross the western border and enter the country, making the already polluted air more harmful to inhale and further illustrates how environmental issues are not bound by international borders.

Water scarcity, a pre-existing national challenge entered a new critical phase in recent years. Large government subsidies allocated to farmers resulted in inefficient use of water in the agriculture sector, responsible for more than 90 percent of water use in the country. The agricultural sector relies on outdated technologies that hinders Iran’s ability to effectively cope with their changing landscape.

More frequent droughts together with over-abstraction of surface and ground water through a large network of hydraulic infrastructure and deep wells have taken the situation to a critical level, evidenced by drying rivers and wetlands, declining groundwater levels, land subsidence, and desertification. While sanctions turned out to be a good opportunity for the water engineers of the country to improve their dam construction skills, the many dams built in the country as a symbol of power, development and independence are now recognized by the lay public as the main cause of water crisis in the country.  

There is an unmistakable, albeit understudied, association between sanctions and environmental degradation. Economic sanctions serve to push foreign policy interests on a targeted nation by imposing restrictive and rigid measures. However, inadvertent implications of these sanctions contradict sustainable development, often worsening the quality of life for the majority of the targeted country’s population. In an increasingly interconnected world where environmental issues are recognized as matters of shared international importance, to what extent should the global community be concerned for the environmental hardships Iran faces today? Environmental issues know no boundaries-- Iran’s environmental strife extends beyond its borders and requires a united approach to salvage the obstacles this nation now faces. 

Shirin Hakim is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College London, working on environmental issues in Iran.

Kaveh Madani is a senior lecturer of environmental management at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College London.