Interview: Sattar Mahmoudi

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Interview: Sattar Mahmoudi

The Diplomat speaks with Iran’s deputy minister of Energy, about the country’s attempts to overcome a serious water crisis.

Interview: Sattar Mahmoudi
Credit: Tehran via suronin /

The first week of June was a busy one for Singapore, which hosted both the biannual International Week and the World Cities Summit. At a breakfast for water policy leaders, The Diplomat’s Joseph Hammond sat down with Iran’s Deputy Minister of Energy Sattar Mahmoudi. Trained as an engineer Mahmoud is Iran’s senior water policy expert, Iran’s head of delegation at the conference, and a professional engineer by profession.

Iran is in the midst of a serious drought this year, why is the country so prone to this phenomenon?

When you study the geography of Iran you can see that 85 percent of Iran’s territory is arid, semi arid or hyper arid. The final 15 percent of territory gets sufficient water where often the most significant water management challenge is actually flooding. Yet the population of Iran is not distributed evenly across our country. Instead, 60-65 percent of the population lives in the dryer part of the country and we have over 500 cities and thousands of communities which must be supplied with water. Some of these areas get far less than 200 mm per year of rain. In these desert areas it’s a logistical challenge to maintain water supply. From an economic perspective less than 2 percent of the water is used by industry and more than 92 percent of the water in Iran is used in agriculture.

This year has been particularly difficult for Iran in terms of water.

Yes, that is true in some parts of the country. But its important to point out were not talking about  the entire country. For example, the northern parts of the country there has been sufficient rain, but the drought has really been in the central regions and we have seen rainfalls on average between 100 mm and 150 mm. Certain regions such Isfahan and Kerman have had particularly rough years. Semnan is another region in particular which has had less than expected rainfall. We are implementing conservation efforts and talking to stakeholders and getting them to talk to each other about water conservation efforts. We might have some issues in the short term with the logistics of drinking water. But the real concern is that there will not be enough water for the agricultural sector.

In the short term, what are some of the policy solutions the government is using to solve this crisis?

All countries like Iran which subsidize water usage face the same problem. Subsidized water distorts the market and over time it’s difficult to maintain prices with subsidies unless the government wants to commit other financial resources to the problem. Subsidies lead to overuse as well. In the long term our strategy is reduce the water subsidies in Iran. Our policy has been to increase the price of water 20-25 percent each year and after four or five years we will be operating at cost for drinking water. Currently the price is 40 to 50 percent below cost so in the next five years drinking water and industry water subsidies will be effectively removed.

You mentioned that more than 90 percent of water in Iran is used by the agricultural sector. Are there any plans to remove water subsidies for agriculture?

No, not at this time. Especially given the current situation for farmers. The ministry and the government of Iran have no plans to raise the price of water, but we are aware that economics suggest we should increase it in the near future when the agriculture sector begins to improve. We will enact a gradual policy like we are doing with municipal water resources.

But I think it is very important that we help make all stakeholders realize the importance of conservation. Everyone has a responsibility to reduce their water usage. To achieve this we need to educate people at all levels to save water, from primary school to university. This is really the most important change and it’s a cultural one. By coming to conferences such as this one in Singapore we can see what people have achieved around the world through conservation.

Recently, Issa Kalantari, who served as minister of agricultural under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, called water scarcity a bigger threat to Iran’s security than any external factor including Israel. Do you agree with that statement?

Yes, his comment was correct, but it needs to be placed in the correct context. Again water scarcity is not critical in all regions of Iran nor is Iran alone in seeing water as an issue of national importance. Water is a unique issue because it involves not just [the environment]. It has a security as well as societal and economic aspects. Unlike other environmental issues there can be a rapid actual effect on water is a very important issue for all countries in the Middle East.

How do you see water affecting the politics of the Middle East?

Water is [vital] not just for Iran but for many countries around the globe. With water there is also a security aspect as well and political, economic and policy aspects. Of course in the Middle East the majority of the countries there lack water security. Really only six countries have good water security in the region. The rest either get their water from international rivers or desalinate it from sea water which is also shared (between countries). So for these countries water is a serious issue and involves consultation and negotiations. Though I want to also make clear that water security can also be an international issue for countries which aren’t arid. Singapore relies partly on water from Malaysia and this water management issue has to be dealt with through consultation and negotiation, which is the best way to solve these issues.

Iran has only limited desalinization programs, yet this is an important part of the water supply across the Gulf in states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran has at its disposal 11 percent of global oil reserves and 15 percent of the world’s gas reserves to make desalinization economically viable. Do you see that as an important part of water security in the future?

We have some desalination projects on some of our islands and coastal cities, but in the future we of course hope to expand. However, our studies show with existing technology desalination is only commercially viable in Iran for the consumers and perhaps for industry, though most light and heavy industry isn’t found along our coastline. Many coastal cities in Iran already have sufficient water and we pump this water in some cases hundreds of kilometers to dryer parts of the country.

Media reports suggest Iran maybe developing a project to pipe water from the Caspian Sea to drought effected regions like the rapidly shrinking Lake Urmia. What is the status of this megaproject?

We recently finished our studies of this proposed project. This project has had to be downsized for economic reasons. Originally we planned to important Caspian Sea water to the Simnan Province but, our studies have shown its not cost effective for agriculture so we have reduced the project one third and we are now focusing solely on a drinking water project.

Why was it important for Iran to attend this conference?

This conference covered complex subjects engineering and technical systems but it also was a cultural exchange. We had a chance to have a discussion with other countries facing similar issues. We had some sessions on innovation of water and as you know knowledge is global its not just in one place. We can share our knowledge and them with us. I myself learned a lot and explained my experiences. Singapore’s desalination program and water management is innovative. Again knowledge related to water management is dispersed it’s not concentrated in one country

What does Iran offer to other countries and participants at this conference?

For the last 30 years we have been developing our water resources and we have built reservoirs and dams. We have also made important strides in power generation. Iran already ranks 14th in the world in terms of power generation and first in the Middle East and we export electricity to many of our neighbors. We also have been building innovate dams and hydroelectric projects. Iranian companies also have expertise in all aspect of water management from wastewater treatment plants to pumping stations.

Obviously we have focused most of our business opportunities on Eastern countries such as South Korea and Malaysia, but we have been involved in water projects in Oman and we have had good relations and discussions on water issues with neighbors like Qatar and Turkey. Iranian knowledge and businesses have been involved in public utilities projects in 40 countries. In the future we see increasing opportunities for Iranian companies to play a role in water, energy and hydropower projects in many countries. Either in a commercial role or in a consultative role.