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The Case of Iran's Lost Dams

Esagh Jahangiri, vice president of Iran visits a dam near Tehran, Sep20, 2014

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has invested a large amount of money into the construction of dams. In addition to power generation, dams were considered an important tool for water management during times of hardship. However, in recent years, dams have been at the crux of one of the country’s most serious environmental crises.

While conducting research on water mismanagement, Small Media -- a London-based organization supporting civil society and human rights in the Middle East -- discovered that the data for hundreds of Iranian dams is missing.

Based on some estimates, Iran has invested more into dams than any other field save for petrochemical projects. During the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), a major dam was inaugurated every 45 days, which earned him the title of “Construction Commander.”

Dam building in Iran from 1979-2013 - Iran Open Data
Dam building in Iran from 1979-2013 - Iran Open Data

Iran has built 600 dams over the past three decades, with an average of 20 a year. Its aggressive dam-building policy made the country the world’s third-biggest dam builder after China and Japan.

But Iran has faced a severe drought in recent years, and the dams add to the environmental damage caused by the drought.

When President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, he called for a halt to the dam projects. Environmental experts maintain that in order to see some concrete, positive effects on the environment, 500 Iranian dams should be decommissioned.

However, evaluating the current status of dams is a difficult task given the lack of transparency.

Small Media looked at an online database of Iran's Energy Ministry only to discover the data regarding the majority of dams is missing. Among more than 1,000 dams, only about 100 had complete information, Small Media wrote in a report. For the rest, it is unclear who is in charge or the start and end dates. The dates in particular are crucial for estimating whether dams are cost-effective.

Small Media could not determine whether the data gap was related to mismanagement or corruption. However, the fact that a conglomerate called Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Company (KAA), controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, has been the major stakeholder in the lucrative dam building business could be a reason for the lack of transparency.

Iranian economists say that IRGC is one of the biggest economic players in Iran, often using its political and intelligence resources to secure lucrative contracts, that no one can question later. KAA is the most visible IRGC economic player, but the Revolutionary Guards directly and indirectly control a vast array of other companies.

After his reelection, President Hassan Rouhani lambasted IRGC's dominant role in Iran's economy and called it a "government with guns".

KAA was on the United Nations’ sanctions list for supporting Iran’s nuclear program. Following the nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, the European Union will lift sanctions against the company in eight years, while the United States will keep KAA and its subsidiaries on a blacklist.

“Without having access to the complete data, it is hard to hold governmental and local institutions accountable for the potential destructive economic, social, and environmental costs of dam building for the country,” Small Media wrote.

Dam projects launched each year- Iran Open Data
Dam projects launched each year- Iran Open Data