Dr. Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Secretary of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, stressing that in order to deal with the threat of water scarcity there should be a unified strategy and approach, said: Our foreign policy and foreign trade should seriously put the issue of water, water diplomacy and virtual water trade on its agenda.
He noted: We all agree on the principle that dehydration is a serious threat to the country; this threat includes not only water scarcity and thirst, but also a threat to territorial stability.
He added: If this threat is not addressed, we might face a country with vast deserts, uninhabited cities due to water shortages, sandstorms and dust storms, many deep and numerous sinkholes, each of which may devour our cities and monuments, and so on in the not-too-distant future.
The Secretary of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, emphasizing that such a danger and threat is serious and must be confronted, said: Countering this threat is a long-term endeavor and there is no immediate and magical solution to it. It has hardships and costs and one should be prepared for its costs; and, of course, most importantly, a comprehensive political will is needed.
Need for 10 years of austerity
Referring to the idea of a policy of 10 years of water austerity, Araghchi continued: This period, no matter how long it takes; must be taken into consideration, and the country must go through a period of water austerity in order to gradually return to its former position, and there must be a plan and strategy for this austerity.
We need a national water document that sets out the plan for the next 10 or 20 years and outlines austerity plans that need to be endured and policies that need to be adopted. Such program should define costs and based on such frameworks build a national will to achieve those goals.
The Secretary of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations stated that one of the policies that should be adopted within the framework of this macro strategy is the ‘virtual water’ management policy, noting: Management does not mean reducing or increasing virtual water, but all its dimensions must be considered. We must have a unified strategy and approach in which the issues of food security and independence and the amount of water consumed are predicted and seen.
Araghchi considered the relationship with international organizations important in virtual water management and continued: Our relations with countries in this regard and our interactions and prioritization of those relations and their clustering, determination of goods for export and import and consumption need a macro strategy in the field of virtual water trade.
Need to change pattern of community food consumption
Stressing that reforms and changes should be made in the consumption patterns of the society, he added: For example, in favorable climate conditions, the cultivation of each kilogram of rice takes 3400 liters of water, while for one kilogram of potatoes only 200 liters of water is needed. About 25 tons of potatoes can be harvested from one hectare of land, but 4 tons of rice can be harvested from the same area. The point that which product should be produced and which should be imported requires a strategy.
Araghchi said: Within the framework of water austerity policy, goods that need a lot of water should be imported from other countries. We must reach the virtual water trade strategy and in this context, clarify the type of production, consumption, import and export of goods.
The Secretary of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations added: Our foreign policy and foreign trade apparatus should seriously put the issue of water, water diplomacy and virtual water on their agenda and define for themselves the mission of how they can help the country in this area. In this way, given the water component, our foreign relations should be reviewed and examined that, with regard to the virtual water policy, with which countries we can have relations.
Recalling that the general culture of the community on the issue of water and ways to deal with the threat of water scarcity should be promoted, Araghchi stressed: If people are to tolerate austerity, they have to understand its reason and comply with that policy. People have also shown that they will help when their trust is gained and they will realize the necessities and will accompany when they become aware of the threats they are exposed to. We have witnessed such experience in relation to the cooperation for the observance of the health protocols related to Coronavirus outbreak.
Need to develop diplomatic relations based on water trade
In the continuation of the meeting, Dr. Fatemeh Kaarandish, Associate Professor of Zabul University, stated that the virtual water strategy should be based on ‘water footprint assessment’, citing integrated management as another important issue in the virtual water trade and said: This business is not going to replace integrated management, but is an approach that helps it and is at the heart of it; in fact, virtual water trade gives us an insight into the better integrated management.
Pointing to the importance of interaction between countries to solve their problems, Kaarandish said: If we are expected to incorporate the virtual water trade approach into our policies, we definitely need to develop our diplomatic relations so while conducting comprehensive analyzes to identify business partners, increase their number and select those with whom we can establish lasting relationships like the model of the European Union.
She further elaborated: Europe now supplies 40 percent of its water, which is a large amount, from abroad. A country like the Netherlands supplies 90% of its water needs from abroad, but it has stable relations and, like the water we are supposed to supply from Hamoon, it is not cut off, for example, when a problem arises.
The associate professor of Zabul University emphasized: In order to make optimal use of our water resources, even if we reduce our harvest, we must use the remaining water with the highest efficiency. Increasing productivity also requires development of technological capacity within the country. One of such technological capacities is to move towards land integration; retail ownership severely affects water productivity.
Kaarandish added: In a research we have conducted, we proved that water productivity in lands that have a larger area and are managed in an integrated manner is higher than that of smallholders.
Very limited opportunity to implement virtual water policy
Another speaker, Engineer Abbas Keshavarz, Research Deputy at the National Agriculture and Water Strategic Research Center, also explained the possible harms of the virtual water policy and said: This policy faces obstacles both internally and externally; while at the same time, we are sensitive to food security and for this reason we have not entered this field yet.
He cited the issue of ‘economy and livelihood’ as another important issue for the implementation of such policy and added: the issue of employment and life of the people which is related to water production and the chain that they have defined for themselves, should be considered as an important issue and creating the change in this regard will not be accepted without justification by the experts.
Keshavarz continued: The world interacted in the 1940s on political issues and in 1980s on trade issues, but despite the consensus on the importance of the issue of virtual water, so far we have not seen any action in this regard. They hold meetings on saving the planet, but they do not talk much about the virtual water trade and how to streamline it. Those who pay more attention to such issues seem to be saving water for their future; for this reason, they do not pursue implementation of virtual water policy.
The research deputy at the National Agriculture and Water Strategic Research Center said: With the implementation of the virtual water policy, the country’s imports and dependence will decrease. The level of public health will increase.
Emphasizing that the red line is the stability of the territory and if we want to have agriculture and food security, first our land must be sustainable, he added: The experience of the Aral Sea should be taken into consideration and it should be shown that human error is very costly.
Referring to the high water supply for crops such as rice, spring beets, Khuzestan sugarcane and the need to reform the fodder pattern in Iran, Keshavarz said: People should be helped to implement such policies with the government and culture should be built and relevant institutions should be established. We should help technology, scientific cooperation and capital enter the country. We should pass such austerity. We have a very limited opportunity to implement such policies, and should not waste the slightest time in this regard.
Water as an economic commodity
Also speaking at the meeting, Dr. Banafsheh Zahraei, Secretary of the National Working Group on Adaptation to Water Scarcity, said that various programs have been seen in this working group, which are mainly supervising reduction of unused water consumption in agriculture and changing cultivation patterns with an aim of increasing productivity, adding: Water should be seen as an economic commodity.
Referring to the experience of China and South Korea in using payment policies for ecosystem services, she added: In 2017, China spent 9.6 billion dollars to protect arable land that should not be cultivated to protect water and soil resources. The Chinese government has paid 280 to 400 dollars per hectare for afforestation on sloping land under a five to eight-year contract with farmers. In 15 years, the Chinese government has spent 60 billion dollars on such programs, as well as on forest protection, and has increased its forest cover from 12 percent in 2017 to 21 percent.
The secretary of the National Working Group on Adaptation to Water Scarcity noted that China has defined jobs to protect its soil and water resources, and has paid to create those jobs. Creating jobs is not just about building a factory; forest protection can be a job, and the government can pay for it.
The associate professor of the Faculty of Civil Engineering, University of Tehran, said: In China, in rivers such as Karoun in Iran, the quality and quantity of water is measured at the border of provinces, and if that province violates the standards, it should pay the equivalent to the downstream province so that financial resources will pay damages.