In Iran, parched lands hollowed by water pumping now sinking

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Iranian authorities say they have measured up to 22 centimeters (8.6 inches) of annual subsidence near the capital, while the normal range would be only as high as 3 centimeters (1.1 inches) per year. (AP)
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Fissures appear along roads, while massive holes open up in the countryside. (AP)
Updated 24 January 2019

In Iran, parched lands hollowed by water pumping now sinking

  • Stressed by a 30-year drought and hollowed by excessive water pumping, the parched landscape around Iran's capital has begun to sink dramatically
  • Tehran has rapidly grown over the last 100 years to a sprawling city of 13 million people in its metropolitan area

TEHRAN: Fissures appear along roads while massive holes open up in the countryside, their gaping maws a visible sign from the air of something Iranian authorities now openly acknowledge: the area around Tehran is literally sinking.
Stressed by a 30-year drought and hollowed by excessive water pumping, the parched landscape around Iran's capital has begun to sink dramatically. Seen by satellite and on foot around the city, officials warn that what they call land subsidence poses a grave danger to a country where protests over water scarcity already have seen violence.
"Land subsidence is a destructive phenomenon," said Siavash Arabi, a measurement expert at Iran's cartography department. "Its impact may not be immediately felt like an earthquake, but as you can see, it can gradually cause destructive changes over time."
He said he can identify "destruction of farmland, the cracks of the earth's surface, damage to civilian areas in cities, wastewater lines, cracks in roads and damages to water and natural gas pipes."
Tehran, which sits 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above sea level against the Alborz Mountains on a plateau, has rapidly grown over the last 100 years to a sprawling city of 13 million people in its metropolitan area.
All those people have put incredible pressure on water resources on a semi-arid plateau in a country that saw only 171 millimeters (6.7 inches) of rain last year. Over-reliance on ground aquifers has seen increasingly salty water pumped from below ground.
"Surface soil contains water and air. When you pump water from under the ground surface, you cause some empty space to be formed in the soil," Arabi told The Associated Press. "Gradually, the pressure from above causes the soil particles to stick together and this leads to sinking of the ground and formation of cracks."
Rain and snow to recharge the underground aquifers have been in short supply. Over the past decade, Iran has seen the most prolonged and severe drought in more than 30 years, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. An estimated 97 percent of the country has faced some level of drought, Iran's Meteorological Organization says.
That has caused the sinkholes and fissures now seen around Tehran.
Iranian authorities say they have measured up to 22 centimeters (8.6 inches) of annual subsidence near the capital, while the normal range would be only as high as 3 centimeters (1.1 inches) per year.
Even higher numbers have been measured in other parts of the country. Some sinkholes formed in western Iran are as deep as 60 meters (196 feet).
Those figures are close to those found in a study by scientists at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam previously discussed by the journal Nature and accepted by the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Using satellite images between 2003 and 2017, the scientists estimate the western Tehran plain is sinking by 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) a year.
Either way, the numbers are alarming to experts.
"In European countries, even 4 millimeters (0.15 inches) of yearly subsidence is considered a crisis," Iranian environmental activist Mohammad Darvish said.
The sinking can be seen in Tehran's southern Yaftabad neighborhood, which sits close to farmland and water wells on the edge of the city. Cracks run down walls and below windows, and waterpipes have ruptured. Residents fear poorly built buildings may collapse.
The sinking also threatens vital infrastructure, like Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. German scientists estimate that land under the airport is sinking by 5 centimeters (1.9 inches) a year.
Tehran's oil refinery, a key highway, automobile manufacturing plants and railroads also all sit on sinking ground, said Ali Beitollahi, a Ministry of Roads and Transportation official. Some 2 million people live in the area, he said.
Masoud Shafiee, head of Iran's cartography department, also acknowledged the danger.
"Rates (for subsidence) are very high and in many instances it's happening in densely populated areas," Shafiee told the AP. "It's happening near sensitive infrastructures like airports, which we consider a top priority."
Geopolitics play a role in Iran's water crisis. Since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has sought to become self-sufficient across industries to thwart international sanctions. That has included agriculture and food production.
The problem, however, comes in inefficient water use on farms, which represents over 90 percent of the country's water usage, experts say.
Already, the drought and water crisis has fed into the sporadic unrest Iran has faced over the last year. In July, protests around Khorramshahr, some 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tehran, saw violence as residents of the predominantly Arab city near the border with Iraq complained of salty, muddy water coming out of their taps amid the yearslong drought.
The unrest there only compounds the wider unease felt across Iran as it faces an economic crisis sparked by President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long has opposed Iran's theocratic government, even released an online video in June offering his country's water technology in a jab at Iran's leaders.
"The Iranian regime shouts: 'Death to Israel,'" Netanyahu said. "In response, Israel shouts: 'Life to the Iranian people.'"
Iranian officials shrugged off the offer. But solutions to the water crisis will be difficult to find.
The crisis "stems from decades of sanctions and compounding political mismanagement that is likely to make it very difficult to alleviate the emerging crisis before it wreaks lasting damage upon the country," wrote Gabriel Collins, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.
Iranian authorities have begun to crack down on illegal water wells. They also are exploring using desalinization plants along the Persian Gulf as well, though they require tremendous energy. Farming practices also need to change as well, experts say.
"We need to shift our development model so that it relies less on water and soil," Darvish, the activist, said. "If we don't act quickly to stop the subsidence, it can spread to other areas."


Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

Updated 18 August 2019

Family backs Tlaib’s decision not to visit Israel

  • Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel

RAMALLAH: Relatives of a US congresswoman say they support her decision to decline Israel’s offer allowing her to visit them in the West Bank because the “right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions.”

Rashida Tlaib said she would not see her family, even after Israel lifted a ban on her entry, because the government had imposed restrictions on her trip.

“We totally understand her position and support her in her efforts. The right to travel should be provided to all without any conditions,” her uncle Bassam Tlaib told Arab News.

He was speaking from the family home in Beit Ur Al-Fuka, which is 3 km from the West Bank city of Ramallah, and was flanked by his elderly mother.

He said his niece had visited them many times in the past, but there had never been any conditions attached to her travel.

“She said we will meet when she can come without conditions,” Tlaib said. “One idea has been floated of flying the grandmother to the US or finding a way to have the two meetings in a third country. You know my mother is nearing 90 and it is not easy for her to travel but we are checking out all options.”

Tlaib, a Democrat, has criticized Israel’s policy toward Palestinians and had planned to make an official visit to the country.

Israel said a humanitarian travel request by Tlaib would be considered as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel, local media reported.

But the congresswoman, who is Palestinian-American, lashed out on social media.

“I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,” she tweeted, using the word sity to refer to her grandmother. “Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in — fighting against racism, oppression & injustice.”

The NGO hosting and organizing the trip, Miftah, has been criticized by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Hanan Ashrawi, the NGO’s founder, said her staff had organized other congressional trips. “This was the third trip we have organized, and we try to do our work professionally and seriously,” Ashrawi told Arab News. “Our very mission is to promote global dialogue and democracy.”

Ashrawi said the attacks on Miftah were unwarranted.  “Miftah has been targeted with the expressed goal of trying to discredit us even though our record is clear. We believe that they are trying to keep organizing congressional delegations within the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) monopoly, while we are trying to provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about Palestinian life under occupation and to understand the Palestinian narrative by providing opportunities for delegations to see and engage with Palestinians of all walks of life.” 

Ashrawi said Miftah had been “vetted” by the US Congress’ ethics committee. “We might not be able to bring hundreds of congress people like AIPAC, but we can bring a few and have them see, hear and interact with Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump had called on Israel not to allow Tlaib and fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar into Israel as admitting the two “would show great weakness.”

He tweeted that the pair “hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace.”