By Maryam Qarehgozlou

Is Iran’s environment chief seeing the bigger picture?

September 5, 2017

TEHRAN — Isa Kalantari, the new director of the Department of Environment, is now in charge of one of the most criticized and challenged organizations in the country.

The former agriculture minister (1989-98) seems to be fixated on water-related issues. Since his inauguration speech on August 14, Kalantari has, for several times, reiterated that water issues are the main priority for the department. 

Kalantari has put sustainable development and safeguarding the environment on the spotlight ever since. 

Animals already play an important role in maintaining the delicate balance of life on earth in their respective ecosystems. Some might ask “why bother with conservation?” We now realize that it is important to maintain the planet’s biodiversity, that it is the richness of animal and plant life, its abundance and wild habitats that keeps us all healthy. The more species disappear, the more entire eco-systems become vulnerable and would eventually fall apart as the links in the food chains become broken. These benefits, which most of us take for granted, are called “ecosystem services”.

Water rules 

“Each country has their own environmental priorities. Ours is water,” Kalantari told a press conference on Monday. “More than 70 percent of Iran’s environmental problems are affected by water.”

Further, to the journalists’ surprise, Kalantari noted that “we should not sacrifice water for protecting cheetahs, or plant species.”

“Water issues seem to have no importance in the department of environment. Currently, we withdraw more than 110 percent of our renewable resources while it should be restricted to 40 percent. We are now using some 97 billion cubic meters of our 88 billion cubic meters of renewable water resources annually, while the number should be 60 billion cubic meters, tops,” he regretted.

“No other countries, neither Middle Eastern nor North African, use more than 60 percent of their renewable water resources,” Kalantari lamented, underscoring the fact that compared to water issues livelihood of the farmers or other environmental is of secondary or marginal importance. The issue of water is what decides the country’s future, he added.

While Kalantari is making a valid point regarding water issues in the country, ignoring other aspects of the environment especially wildlife management would for sure inflict greater costs to the country in the long run.

On the face of it, there are plenty of reasons why we shouldn’t bother to save endangered species. The most obvious is the staggering cost involved. One study in 2012, published in Science Magazine, estimated that it would cost $76 billion a year to preserve threatened land animals. Saving all the endangered marine species might well cost far more. Why should we spend all that money on wildlife when we could spend it to stop people dying of starvation or disease?

Animals already play an important role in maintaining the delicate balance of life on earth in their respective ecosystems. Some might ask “why bother with conservation?” We now realize that it is important to maintain the planet’s biodiversity, that it is the richness of animal and plant life, its abundance and wild habitats that keeps us all healthy. The more species disappear, the more entire eco-systems become vulnerable and would eventually fall apart as the links in the food chains become broken. These benefits, which most of us take for granted, are called “ecosystem services”.

Some of these services are obvious. For instance, there are plants and animals that we eat. Meanwhile, photosynthetic plankton in the sea, and green plants, provide us with the oxygen we breathe.

These are quite direct, but sometimes the services provided can be more subtle. Many of our crop plants rely on insects to produce seeds, and would not survive – let alone provide us with food – without them.

In 1997, ecologist Robert Costanza and his colleagues estimated that the biosphere provides services worth around $33 trillion a year. For comparison, they noted that the entire global economy at the time produced around $18 trillion a year.

Five years later, the team took the argument a step further by asking how much we would gain by conserving biodiversity. They concluded that the benefits would outweigh the costs by a factor of 100. In other words, conserving nature is a staggeringly good investment.

By contrast, letting species decline and go extinct looks like a bad move. A 2010 study concluded that unchecked species loss would wipe 18% off global economic output by 2050.

The environment chief’s lack of knowledge is what endangering what is left of centuries-old Hircanian forest. It is a common knowledge that a planted forest rarely replicates the biodiversity and complexity of a natural forest.

No environmental knowledge 

Over the course of the conference, Kalantari said that he doesn’t have relevant expertise in environmental issues such as wildlife management on multiple occasions. “We are planning on outsourcing the work to specialists and experts in each sector,” he said. 

That Kalantari frankly acknowledges his professional incompetence in environmental issues can be interpreted in two different ways. 

On one hand, one might wonder why someone who has no expert environmental knowledge must take over an environmental organization. On the other hand, his bravery, frankness, and honesty is admirable. However another question will arise here: who he is going to outsource the job to? Some argue that the experts Kalantari is speaking of are not trustworthy to get the job.

Planted forest will replace the old-growth forest 

Commenting on dam building - what many experts believe to be the main culprit of total or partial dryness of many wetlands across the country, Kalantari said that he does not object dam construction.

“Building dams could be both good and bad, I don’t object dam construction in northern cities,” he said.

In response to the journalists’ protest saying that dam construction not only violates the water right of the wetlands and rivers but also results in large scale deforestation in precious Hircanian forest, Kalantari justified his claims by pledging to plant forests in the areas.  

“Hircanian forest used to stretch over 2.3 million hectares of land in northern Iran while they have shrunk to 1.18 million hectares in the past 25-30 years,” Kalantari said, stating, “We build dams but we also make the energy ministry to plant trees on 10 hectares of land for each one hectare of land being used for dam construction.”

“This way within five years after finishing Shafaroud dam [Gilan province] which stretches over 60 hectares we have 600 hectares of planted forest in the area,” he concluded.

But apparently the environment chief’s lack of knowledge is what endangering what is left of centuries-old Hircanian forest. It is a common knowledge that a planted forest rarely replicates the biodiversity and complexity of a natural forest.  

Because trees remove carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, tree planting can be used as a geoengineering technique to remove CO2 from the atmosphere but normally reforestation is the commercial logging industry’s answer to the large-scale destruction of old growth forests.

Water shortage is certainly the country’s undoing. After all, Kalantari’s emphasis on water shortage and measures to address it might be a good thing as water is essential for all beings on earth. He might be seeing the bigger picture.

Best case scenario  

Since the very first day of Kalantari’s appointment as environment chief many voiced their concerns over his election believing that the former agriculture minister would treat the environment as a means of development. Moreover, being in favor of controversial genetically modified food, has made his opponents more concerned than ever. 

But some other try to stay positive saying that Kalantari might be able to boost the Department of Environment’s limited budget. Budget deficiency, is a great barrier to many conservation projects in one of the most important organizations of the country.   

Besides, water shortage is certainly the country’s undoing. After all, Kalantari’s emphasis on water shortage and measures to address it might be a good thing as water is essential for all beings on earth. He might be seeing the bigger picture. 

It is sure too soon to form an opinion about the newly appointed chief. We must wait and see if Kalantari chooses what’s best for the environment or not.

MQ/MG