THE BLOG
07/31/2015 03:09 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

An Interview With Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator in Iran: Human Security and Environment

This post was co-authored by Sam Razi, founder and editor-in-chief of Iran News Now.

Mr. Lewis is a national of Barbados and has served with the United Nations for 25 years in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. His current post with the UN is Resident Coordinator in Iran. The following video is a Ted Talk Gary recently gave at TEDxKish in Kish, Iran followed by an interview about Iran's water crisis.

What can be done about the looming water crisis of a global drought in Iran?

Water is our biggest resource constraint in Iran. I would also argue that it is also Iran's greatest long-term risk. Like many countries in the region, and indeed across the planet, Iran has already been over-pumping its ancient aquifers. And, once those aquifers become non-usable, many parts of the country might indeed become uninhabitable as some senior figures in Government have been saying recently. If this happens, the repercussions will be devastating for Iran. But there are solutions. And these can show us the way forward for many of Iran's other water problems. So, what to do? Overall, we need to shift from a "demand-based" to a "supply-based" way of managing water. This means working within the given amount of water resources which exist within each catchment basin - and manage and consume on this basis. Many Iranian experts I have spoken to generally support this complete rethink of Iran's water management approach. But when you get down to specifics, they tend to agree on five priorities. The first is participation. This means involving all interest groups in planning resource allocations. Easier said than done. But it must be done. The second is pricing. Water needs to stop being treated as an essentially "free" resource. And because agriculture is the sector that consumes the most water, Iran needs to price its water better. But this will involve difficult political choices - one of which must involve tackling the massive subsidy on water which has been in place for so long. One type of pricing system that has been proposed by experts is two-tier pricing. Under these circumstances water would be priced differently depending on whether it is for subsistence use or for commercial use. The third is protection. Iran needs to better conserve and protect both its ground water and its surface water. Too much water is simply wasted or allowed to evaporate under the sun. I have seen this for myself countless time in places all over Iran. Equally worrying is the illegal harvesting of water. So what is needed is to better enforce the laws and policies that are already in place to protect water resources. The fourth is to improve water efficiency. Most of Iran's water is used for agriculture. But, by the government's own reckoning, two-thirds of that water is used far in excess of what is required. This is a huge loss. So Iran needs to apply better technology. It needs to recycle more water. The country's increased agricultural production should come from higher per-hectare productivity - not expanded irrigation. Lastly, Iranians themselves need to become more aware of the looming water crisis through better education on the subject. More mass awareness campaigns are needed. My own sense is that the country's leadership fully recognizes this - they understand the threat we face. Unlike in many countries in the region, they often speak out on the matter. What's now required is for the citizens as a whole to act.

Could water scarcity spark war as world leaders have already predicted?

Water wars? I don't know. But what is certainly increasing all around the world is "water stress". And even water scarcity. Whether this leads to disputes over water or - alternatively - a mature effort by nations to solve the problem, well, that's up to us. When water is no longer available, people migrate to where it exists. This happens all over the world. Migration - especially mass migration, if it happens - will cause tension in those regions. Here in Iran the numbers tell a story. According to official figures, the per-capita water resources of Iran stood at 7,000 cubic-meters-per-year in 1956. Today, the figure is less than 1,900. This is the threshold for "water stress". And, on current trends, the situation will get worse in the coming years. According to current modeling, by the year 2020, the figure will decline further, reaching the "water scarcity" threshold of 1300 cubic-meters-per-year. Water is vital for our daily lives. We cannot live for more than a few days without water. Our health is also directly dependent on water. We need water for agriculture. So does our economy and our welfare. But I think world leaders have finally recognized the gravity of problem. The subject of water - and how we manage it - is so important that one of the new "Sustainable Development Goals", which we hope will be agreed in September this year at the UN in New York, directly relates to water. This is SDG # 6: "Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all." There is a lot of momentum now on making SDG #6 become a reality. As nations have become more prosperous, they have undertaken sanitation and drinking water improvement programs. Nevertheless, the astonishing statistics regarding the number of people who still lack access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation shows that this problem remains one of our greatest humanitarian challenges. If we are to avoid water wars, we need to manage the world's water resources wisely - and equitably.

In your TED Talk, you delve into a term you refer to as "Human Security". Could you please explain more about this concept with our readers?

Human security is something which I believe policymakers should increasingly focus on if we are to make our societies more governable, more accountable and more sustainable. As I said in the TED Talk, the idea isn't mine. Human security was actually introduced about 20 years ago and then popularized by the UN Development Program. Japan has been the leader in promoting global thinking and practice on human security. A few other countries also advocate strongly for it. But - in my opinion - human security doesn't get nearly enough of the traction it should, especially given the genuine threats we face on this planet. Threats to our very existence in the coming century. So, what is this thing that we call "human security"? The essential point about human security is that it shifts focus away from the traditional preoccupation of "national security" - which focuses on the state - and places it instead on "people" - on individuals. You and me. Sounds obvious, no? Citizens should be at the center of our security concerns. But, think about it, how often have you heard the term "security" defined in this way? So when I talk of "human security" you won't hear a lot about: weapons, or territory, or borders, or national military power. And yet, perhaps ironically, states will become stronger - strong internally at least - if they ensure the human security of their citizens by doing some of the obvious things. Like ensuring that we, as citizens, feel secure in our culture - our community - our homes. Like ensuring that there is enough food and water - that people can afford it - that it is healthy and nourishing. Like ensuring that we can live in dignity by having a meaningful job and earning a decent living. Like ensuring that our kids - especially our girl-children - can get an education and make informed choices. And like ensuring that people have free access to information and ideas. So, "human security" has many elements - all of which are concerned with how human beings live - and move - and feel "secure". But the key point I make in the TED Talk is that one of the most important elements for any state to secure is the environment in which its citizens live. We all need to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We need to be safe from the elements. We need to be able to take care of our families and sustain our livelihoods. Above all, "security" must be about making us safe from harm. That's why it's called "human" security.

Climate change is one of the most significant threats facing the world today. Because of this the impacts will be felt around the world, efforts to adapt to climate change--adaptation--will need to be global too. What steps has Iran taken in their long term approach to the global climate change regime?

First of all I'd say that different parts of our planet face different impacts from climate change. Many parts of the Middle East - including Iran - will receive less precipitation and higher temperatures. Both of these will also become less predictable. We'll have increasing water shortages. But people in other parts of the world will have to cope with other things - like tropical storms, flooding and sea level rise. So it varies. But you can be certain of two things. First, extreme events will become the "new normal". Second, it will be the poorest who are hardest hit. And poverty and inequality will increase. For this reason, in different parts of the world, we'll need to implement different counter-measures to both mitigate and adapt. We'll need to do both. But, increasingly, we'll need to adapt. Our underlying goals must be to stabilize population growth, build resilience, become more "low-carbon" by changing our consumption patterns and curbing our greenhouse gas emissions. On Iran, it is clear that difficult decisions lie ahead. Our biggest problems in terms of sustainable development are water, energy efficiency, desertification, and air and water pollution. Not sure about the precise order. But those are the main ones. Water is without doubt our biggest challenge. But we start with an advantage. One key element in the struggle to adapt is that any nation's leadership must first recognize the importance of environmental and natural resource management challenges. I've been in Iran for just over two years. And I would say that for the past year and a half, the entire top leadership of the country - from the Supreme Leader, President Rouhani and members of his cabinet - all have been urging action, publicly and visibly, to respond to these environmental challenges. True, the country has not yet finalized its National Adaptation Plan to address climate change challenges. But Iran is already trying to find ways to deal with the early impact of climate change - like prolonged droughts, and drying wetlands. It is also recognizing the consequences of past resource management decisions which have already caused environmental problems. But solutions - and adaptations - are already being implemented. Let's talk about Lake Urmia in northwest Iran. Many people across the planet already know about its fight for survival. The situation in a nutshell is like this. Lake Urmia used to be one of the largest hyper-saline wetlands in the world with a surface area of around 5,000 square kilometers. Within the past 20 years, aggressive farming in the basin has diverted river water from entering the lake. In addition, there were problems of evaporation and infrastructure decisions that compounded the challenges. With hardly any inflow, 90 per cent of water has disappeared leaving an empty, dusty salt bed which damages - very ironically - surrounding agricultural lands and harming people's health. As if that weren't enough, farmers are drilling deeper in the surrounding lands to extract sweet water. As a result, saltwater from under the lake bed is seeping outwards and downwards into those wells and contaminating that water too. Making it brackish and unusable. In addition, during the same period that farming was expanding, we had a pretty difficult drought. Records show an almost 20 per cent decrease in rainfall over last 20 years. This prolonged drought could be attributable to climate change - but we can't really tell at this stage. So that's where we stood. The United Nations was asked to help. What we've done is 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 Government's own resources, we've implemented this technique successfully in 41 villages. This is expected to result in "saving" one-third of the water that would - under the old practices - have been used for farming. This "saved water" can flow back into the lake. But this is only part of the solution. Our problem is one of scale. Even with additional support which the Japanese have agreed to provide, and which will take the number of villages to 70, this number still represents fewer than 10 per cent of all irrigated farming in the Urmia basin. So massive up-scaling is needed to really carry the change. Our project will establish how feasible this approach is. Then there needs to be a national effort to upscale it as the resources and other inputs needed are of such a magnitude that only the Government can carry it forward. In reality, I would conclude like this. While there is no National Adaptation Plan as yet, there are several adaptation practices underway. The problem is time and resources. The key solution, I believe, is for the government to accelerate the development of a realistic and applicable National Adaptation Plan while up-scaling current ongoing practices with the support of the private sector, international partners and the general public.

Iran is the world's ninth largest emitter of greenhouse gases ahead of the UK, France, Mexico and Brazil but very little is known about its attitude to reducing its emissions. What is the overall consensus in Iran about global warming?

Your question seems to be: do Iranians "believe" in global warming and feel compelled to act? In a nutshell, I believe the government has demonstrated that it understands the enormity of the threat. But many - including the government as well - need to do more. Businesses need to be incentivized. The public generally needs to raise their awareness and act on their new knowledge. There is a very simple fact at play here. And this is that the human security of our planet - and of the Middle East - and of Iran - will ultimately come to rely in significant measure on our ability, as humans, to do the things I spoke of before. Things like managing population growth, building resilience, being "greener" in the way we consume things and emitting fewer greenhouse gases. Like many countries which are rich in natural resources, Iran has - in the past - used a development approach which has overtaxed its non-renewable resources and under-invested in its renewable ones. Iran's energy intensity and per capita CO2 emission levels are already among the highest in the world. Years of fuel price subsidies have set the price of energy extremely low in real terms. So it's no surprise that Iran is the world's 9th largest greenhouse gas emitter. But, for all these reasons, Iran must now play a large part in reducing its own emissions. And this process has started. As you know, in the recent past, Iran made the difficult - but I believe correct - decision to cut subsidies which were especially huge in the energy sector. Through a gradual cut in subsidies across the country, energy prices have increased and households and businesses are actively looking for energy saving options. We now need to see additional steps to improve energy efficiency in residential, industrial, transport and urban systems. We've talked about adaptation. Well, this is the flip side - mitigation. Greenhouse gas mitigation. More mitigation will come when Iran increases its share of solar, wind and geothermal power in its energy mix. Iran is considering greater private sector involvement in the power sector, especially in renewable energy. This - along with encouraging investment in new technology - will take Iran in the right direction.

For more information on Mr. Gary Lewis, and the exciting, impactful projects he's working on, you may follow him on Twitter.