By
Dr. Mansour Kashfi

In arid and semi-arid regions of the world, including some parts of Iran, groundwater is the most important source of water for domestic, agriculture and industrial use.  Increasing population and increasing resource consumption in Iran has added to the volume of waste to be disposed of.  Thoughtless and inappropriate waste disposal, in turn, commonly leads to increasing pollution.  Much of the water on and in the Iranian plateau is not strictly fresh.  Even drinking water does not meet the standards of “pure” water since it commonly contains dissolved chemicals of various kinds, especially in industrialized and populated areas with substantial air pollution.  Examination of groundwater aquifers under the majority of refineries in Iran has shown the presence of both crude oil and the refined petroleum products.  Therefore, water quality mainly in big Iranian cities must be considered when evaluating water supplies.

 A significant part of this invaluable resource has been contaminated in Iran because of ignorance, negligence and undoubtedly poor management of the responsible government agencies. 

 Sources of Groundwater Contamination

The Iranian oil industry and high usage of petroleum products by citizens in the densely populated western and northern regions of the country are major causes of groundwater and air pollution. 

 Accidental spills and unnoticed leakages from storage tanks and other refinery facilities have been major groundwater contamination incidents.  Large lenses of petroleum hydrocarbons have been identified on top of the water tables in vicinity of refineries.  This type of leakage and release, if not detected in the early stages, may lead to very expensive clean up activities.

 Leakage from underground storage tanks and associated piping constitute one of the major causes of soil and groundwater contaminations.  Gasoline, diesel, jet fuels, and many other chemical compounds such as industrial solvents are usually stored in underground tanks.  Experience has shown that more than 50 percent of these tanks or their connecting pipes leak after about 10 years of operation.  The rate of leakage from these tanks is generally small but steady.  As a result, after a few years of leakage a large volume of fluid has been released into the soil and eventually finds its way to the groundwater.  Upon reaching the water table, some of the chemicals from these fluids slowly dissolve into the groundwater and are carried away.

 Depending on the groundwater velocity and other properties of the aquifer, a large volume of water becomes contaminated to a degree that its drinking is not advisable.  Although the sources of these contaminations are generally known, locating the position of non-aqueous liquids such as fuels and solvents in complex subsurface is often a very difficult task.  As a result, even when the leaky tank is removed, contamination of groundwater from previously leaked liquids continues for many years.

Another water-quality concern is the radioactive elements that have drawn high attention in developed countries, but unfortunately the authorities in the Islamic regime have ignored this radiation hazard to the water consumer.  Uranium, which can be found in most rocks, including those serving commonly as aquifers, decays through a series of steps.  Several of the intermediate decay products pose special hazards.  Many synthetic chemicals, which are toxic even at minimal concentrations, have leaked into the water through improper waste disposal.  This has rightfully evoked great concern in various parts of Iran. 

Further, in general each aquifer has a safe yield.  Safe yield is the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the aquifer without causing unfavorable results.  Aquifers that are in the neighborhood of some underground saltwater bodies, which is common in eastern and southeastern Iran, also have a safe yield.  Naturally, over the years, some sort of balance has been developed between fresh and salt-water bodies.  This delicate balance is often disturbed when people start using the fresh water aquifer.  It is very important to limit the use of water from these aquifers to their safe yields.  If these safe-yield criteria were violated, it would lead to contamination of a large portion of aquifers by salt-water intrusion.  In arid and semi-arid areas of southeastern Iran, fresh water aquifers are sometimes located next to inferior quality water bodies with high total dissolved solids.  As a result, the quality of water will deteriorate with time and may cause disease if consumed.

This scenario could be exacerbated by industrial wastewater impoundments for permanent storage and disposal of liquid wastes.  The hazardous waste can easily infiltrate downward toward underlying groundwater.  Leakage from these impoundments has led to serious incidents of groundwater contamination.

 Tehran’s Pollution as a Case Study

Tehran, the capital of Iran, could be considered one of the largest cities in the world in terms of surface area and population (more than 14 million inhabitants).  However, it is a city with no basic sewage system and no modern treatment installations.  Presently only 10% of the city sewage is regularly collected and treated in local treatment stations, and the remaining 90% infiltrates the groundwater by way of drilled wells or directly enters the subsurface water cycle by run-offs, causing extensive pollution of the groundwater.  With intense population growth in Tehran and a concomitant increase in demand for household and drinking water, the usage of untreated and polluted groundwater is rising.  Without any doubt, this unsanitary usage of groundwater is a menace to public health.

 Apparently, a project for the collection and treatment of the sewage for the greater Tehran has been studied and evaluated for a long time by a number of domestic and foreign consulting groups.  However, apparently, due to a lack of budget and other unspecified reasons this project has not been undertaken.  The World Bank refused to award a loan for the project considering the huge oil revenue that the country received regularly in the years before sanctions as well as the impracticality of the project in a short time and its unlimited dimensions. 

 At the present time the domestic and industrial sewage in Tehran and its suburbs is collected by way of wells.  Continued sewage disposal into the wells, along with recharging of the ground water through rainwater, have caused the gradual rising of the water table in the greater Tehran area to the point that the sewage is in direct contact with the groundwater, particularly in the southern portion of Tehran.  In this part of the city domestic sewage continuously enters into the groundwater and mixes with subsurface water.  In addition, the high level of the water table particularly reduces the layer of regolith that could act as a filter to purify the sewage.  The thin regolith thus allows polluted water, and in some instances raw waste, to enter the ground water directly.  This contaminated groundwater will proceed by way of shallow and semi-deep wells to the water distribution system.

In most places in Tehran, chemical agents such as “nitrates” as well as harmful microbes, among other pollutants, also contaminate the groundwater.  Further, when precipitation reaches the ground, it reacts with rocks, soil, and organic debris, dissolving still more chemicals, aside from any pollution generated by human activities.  It should be pointed out that about 30% of domestic drinking water for the inhabitants of Tehran is derived from these unsafe sources.  Evidently, the Islamic regime has not taken care to purify the groundwater before its distribution to the public.  Therefore, water quality in Tehran and in big Iranian cities must be considered when evaluating water supplies.  Logically, it is important that the groundwater be purified before it is distributed to the public.  Unfortunately, poor organization and management are evident in various treatment centers, where there are no facilities for reusing the treated sewage.  For example, in a number of these treatment or process centers, raw sewage is being mixed again with the treated sewage.

 The pollution of the open line running water and creeks within the greater Tehran is also alarming.  Mixing of sewage with the uncovered running water and runoffs effectively sullies the whole environment of the city, and common people, especially young children, could come into contact with these polluted waters.  Certainly, this would be a great health hazard to the people of Tehran.  Unfortunately, this scenario is already taking place, probably on a more serious scale, in other cities in Iran.

Every year the usage of groundwater for everyday households increases.  If the above-mentioned problems are left uncontrolled, then undoubtedly the advantage of groundwater for domestic usage would be diminished. 

To mitigate matters, the Islamic regime should make better use of the current water supply and take all reasonable measures to protect existing water resources.  A wealthy country like Iran, with vast natural resources including huge reserves of oil and gas, should be able to install as many treatment centers as necessary for the handling of sewage and the disposal of wastes.

 Furthermore, for more than two decades, the presence of radioactive elements present a radiation hazard to the water consumer, and many synthetic chemicals which are toxic even at minimal concentrations have leaked into the water through improper waste disposal.  This has rightfully evoked great concern in various parts of Iran, but unfortunately the authorities in the Islamic regime have been apathetic since the welfare and health of the Iranian people is of the least priority in their eyes.

Conclusion

 Improper handling of waste has contaminated a large part of valuable groundwater resources, generally close to population centers.  The problem in present-day Iran is not the shortage of funds for research and development, or the shortage of expertise and technocrats, or even the scarcity of water.  It is the corrupt authorities with the lack of responsibilities, poor management, and most of all the welfare and health of the Iranian people is of the least priority to the government.  The present Islamic government should include a serious care in Iran’s water management strategies, and for the sake of 82 million Iranian people leave the technical know-how to non-clergies.

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*Mansour Kashfi, Ph.D. is president of Kashex International Petroleum Consulting and is a college professor in Dallas, Texas.  He has over 50 years experience in petroleum exploration, primarily about Iran.  He is also the author of innumerable publications and three books about the petroleum industry and its market behavior worldwide.