Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Photograph: Siavash Saffarianpour
Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Photograph: Siavash Saffarianpour

Gary Lewis

The United Nations Resident Coordinator in Iran spoke to The Iranist about climate change, preservation efforts to save Lake Urmia, and what might surprise you about the Islamic Republic.

THE IRANIST: You’ve worked in numerous countries before arriving in Tehran, what surprised you most about Iran?
GARY LEWIS: The first surprise that hits you when you arrive is how clean the streets in Tehran are! In fact, I have travelled to 29 out of Iran’s 31 provinces and have found this cleanliness to be almost universal—with the sad exception of the Caspian Sea area, which is bestrewn with litter, for some peculiar reason.

Another thing that you might not expect is that although most Iranians are broadly aware of the hugely rich history they possess—stretching back several thousand years—very few have actually travelled to these amazing ancient sites, even though the road infrastructure is first class and the price of fuel is relatively cheap by international standards. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. I come from the small country of Barbados in the Caribbean. And I know for certain that many people on our island have not visited many of our own historical and geographical sites.

THE IRANIST: How did Iran reach its UN Millennium Development Goals?
GARY LEWIS: According to the UN Development Programme, during the past 30 years or so, only the Republic of Korea has reduced its human development deficit faster than Iran. The country has made great strides in reducing poverty, hunger, and providing infrastructure, sanitation, health services, and education—especially for women. It has pretty much banished malaria and tuberculosis. These, plus other accomplishments, have resulted in extending the life expectancy of the average Iranian from 51 to 74 years, while effectively doubling the average timespan that the average Iranian can expect to stay in school from nine to 15 years. This is due to a specific emphasis on investing in social and human development. But in areas like protecting the environment, developing sustainable energy infrastructure, and gender equality, there is still work to do.

Lewis in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, speaking with locals badly affected by water shortage in the Hamoun Wetlands. Photograph: UN

THE IRANIST: What social issues are most pressing?
GARY LEWIS: I would say that the key social issue is youth. Iran’s youth is well-educated, knowledge-empowered and hyper-connected—and yet there is considerable youth unemployment. The challenge is to connect this huge talent pool to meaningful life choices and ideas which will build a better future for Iranians.

THE IRANIST: What is the greatest threat the Iranian nation is facing right now?
GARY LEWIS: That’s simple. A hotter, drier future. Iran’s most pressing future challenges will relate to how it manages water. On top of all the man-made problems which have been created during the past 50 years—especially through the construction of dams and poor water management through the massive over-pumping of ancient aquifers—climate change will worsen the prevailing water shortages in Iran, and those shortages will worsen as its population continues to grow. We are already witnessing social tension over the allocation of water resources in parts of the countryside.

Overall, climate change will affect different parts of the world differently. Some climate change models predict higher precipitation in some parts of the world, but here in Iran they actually predict lower rainfall overall. The really bad news is that much of this lowering of rainfall will occur in parts of the country that currently produce much of Iran’s food. In addition to this, climate change will bring higher temperatures. This will lead to more water loss by evaporation. So what will be affected is not only water availability, but also food production.

THE IRANIST: What can Iran do to mitigate and adapt to the onset of climate change?
GARY LEWIS: Many people—even in Iran—are completely unaware that Iran is the world’s ninth largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. So it must focus on future developments in clean energy policies. The Iranian government is now pressing hard for a low carbon economy. The United Nations has just started its new Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for Iran that will operate from 2017 to 2021. Low carbon economy is among our top priorities for engagement and support.

The real challenge is that Iran’s energy sector has focused its efforts primarily on meeting a hugely expanded level of demand. But as part of Iran’s commitment under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the country has pledged to reduce its GHG output by four percent. Over and above this, the Iranian government has pledged to increase this figure to 12 percent if all sanctions are removed. At the same time, in order to generate growth, Iran will need to increase its production of oil and natural gas using an aging, creaky infrastructure. The hydrocarbon industry has simply not been able to keep pace with latest GHG-reduction technology mainly due to the imposition of sanctions. So Iran is being pulled in opposite directions on energy.

How can Iran reduce its GHGs? Mitigation efforts can include increased low-carbon electrification. They can include cutting emissions from fossil fuel extraction and conversion. Iranians can increase the use of renewable energy and improve energy efficiency in transmission and distribution along the power lines. They can, perhaps most important of all, work hard to reduce energy demand.

THE IRANIST: How is the Iranian government combating air pollution?
GARY LEWIS: The effect of air pollution on the quality of life is probably the most immediate and tangible problem that anyone coming to Iran’s major cities will see and feel right away. The World Health Organization has described some of Iran’s major cities, especially those in the west of the country, as being among the most polluted in the world. During the current winter season, authorities in Tehran have been closing schools and placing restrictions on traffic because of dangerous levels of pollution in the atmosphere. Another problem is sand and dust storms. Most of these come across the border from countries to the west of Iran. In November 2016, at the Marrakech Climate Change Conference in Morocco, we drew significant attention to this problem with the help of Iran’s Vice President and head of the Environmental Protection Organization Masoumeh Ebtekar, as well as two heads of UN agencies, Helen Clark of UNDP and Erik Solheim of UN Environment. The sand and dust storms affecting Iran have grown both in number and severity over the past decade.

Lewis looking out over the barren expanse of dried-out Lake Urmia during a dust storm in 2014. Photograph: UN

THE IRANIST: Can you tell us about the preservation efforts to save Lake Urmia?
GARY LEWIS: That lake used to be one of the largest hyper-saline wetlands in the world. However, during the past two decades, aggressive farming in the basin has diverted river water from entering the lake. Because there was hardly any inflow, over 90 percent of the water disappeared. This left a huge, empty, dusty salt bed which damages the surrounding agricultural lands and harms people’s health. On top of this problem, farmers are drilling deeper into the surrounding lands to extract sweet water, which is used for drinking and agriculture. As a result, saltwater from under the lake bed is seeping outwards and downwards into the wells these farmers are drawing from. This contaminates the sweet water. When farming was expanding, Iran experienced extreme drought, so you have all the elements of a perfect storm.

Nonetheless, the United Nations was asked to help. Our response has been to work with local farmers and government to initiate an adaptation process by implementing what we call integrated participatory crop management. So far, with financial support from the Japanese government, as well as the Iranian government’s own resources at both the national and provincial levels, this technique has been successfully implemented in 90 villages. This is expected to save about one-third of the water that would otherwise been used for farming under the old practices. This saved water can flow back into the lake. In 2017, we are expanding this initiative to cover a few more villages, but even this would account for only 10 percent of the irrigated farming in the Urmia basin. So, this is only part of the solution. Massive up-scaling is now necessary to produce significant change. Only the Iranian government can operate at this large scale.

What is really needed—in Urmia and elsewhere across Iran—is for the public to make an effort to understand what is at stake. For this, we need much more discussion to raise awareness. The real breakthrough will come when discussion on the impact of climate change goes beyond a dialogue between the technocrats and policy-makers. We need to build climate-change-resilience-thinking at the community level. In the four years I have been in Iran, I have seen a marked change in this level of awareness. And for the better. But it needs to happen faster.


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