Financial Tribune- For the past month, hardly a day has gone by without Khuzestan Province making the news for all the wrong reasons: Cancelled flights, power outages, closed schools, and many more.
The cause of all of the province’s woes is the relentless dust and sand storms that have held the oil-rich province hostage for years, culminating in massive storms earlier this week that cut power supply in 11 cities.
“If we had spent only 1% of Khuzestan’s oil revenues on addressing environmental problems, the province wouldn’t have to deal with one crisis after another,” Mohammad Darvish, the head of Public Participation Office at the Department of Environment, wrote in an op-ed in the Persian daily Iran on Sunday.
Lamenting the country’s “poor memory”, he said cities in desert areas, such as Yazd and Sabzevar, were constantly battered by sand storms around 50 years ago, “but with meticulous planning four million hectares of reforestation took place, which helped significantly reduce the impact of these storms.
“However, not only did we stop tackling desertification, we also spread it by sacrificing Khuzestan’s water resources for the sake of increasing oil and agricultural production,” he said.
Recounting Khuzestan’s reputation as a water-rich province, Darvish said the province is home to 33% of the country’s water resources, but all of it is being used in agriculture, because Khuzestan is considered one of the main farming regions of the country.
“Yet, the province is only responsible for 11% (15 million tons) of Iran’s annual agricultural production. In other words, thanks to our primitive irrigation techniques, we’ve wasted all that water for such a small return,” he said.
Small Budget, Big Task
Darvish, an eremologist (desert expert), said time is running out to implement dust control and sand dune stabilization schemes on the 350,000 hectares of dust storm hotspots in the province.
“The water rights of wetlands must be respected and upheld, and sand stabilization plans must be implemented swiftly,” he said.
Despite the severity of the problem, however, the budget allocated for these schemes is meager.
Darvish expressed surprise that only 170 billion rials ($4.44 million) have been earmarked for these plans, whereas DOE needs around 17 trillion rials ($444 million) to solve the problem.
“If [the government] keeps allocating funds like this, it’ll take 100 years to address the issue,” he said.
The DOE official noted that the annual environmental tax paid by Abadan, which hosts the largest oil refinery in the province, is only 820 billion rials ($21.5 million), adding that by taxing industrial units, “supplying 17 trillion rials shouldn’t be a problem”.
Environment officials argue that most of the sources of dust storms, which have become more frequent and intense in recent years, are in neighboring Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, none of which can or are willing to reduce the number of hotspots. However, Darvish believes that’s just an excuse.
“If we had spent a portion of Khuzestan’s revenue from oil production for solving environmental problems, we wouldn’t have to blame the sources of dust beyond our borders,” he said.
“The province has been grappling with dust storms regularly for the past 15 years, but they’ve only become frequent and intense in the past three years, thanks to local sources created by us.”