The United Nations in Tehran has warned that floods will continue to play havoc in the country unless effective preparedness and preventive measures are undertaken soon. "Floods are increasing," Hossein Jafari, a UN Development Programme (UNDP) officer, told IRIN in the Iranian capital, Tehran. "They are now the number-one natural disaster in Iran today."
His comments come just two weeks after a devastating flash flood ripped through the northeastern provinces of Golestan, Khorasan and Semnan, leaving 51 people dead and hundreds homeless. Most of the victims were travelling on a bus from the northern city of Babol to the northeastern city of Mashhad.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the floods, which occurred on 12 August, directly or indirectly affected some 200,000 people. A total of 4,300 ha of agricultural land was heavily damaged, while another 8,000 ha of fallow land was also badly damaged.
OCHA noted losses of livestock and severe damage to irrigation facilities, as well as damage to 10 km of the road linking the Caspian region to northwestern part of Khorasan Province. Another 167.5 km of rural roads and 87 bridges were also damaged.
The flood came just a year after a similar torrent in the same area left 280 people dead and caused millions of dollars in damage.
According to Jafari, inappropriate land use practices, land clearance and land degradation were the primary causes of the devastation. "These areas are supposed to be covered by forests and rangeland, but they aren’t," he said pointing to a picture of the area affected. "They are ploughing agricultural lands parallel to the slopes, and by doing this, the runoff during times of heavy rainfall increases."
What is alarming is the increasing number of floods in Iran. According to UNDP in Tehran, in the 1950s there were 195 recorded floods in the country. That number rose to 233 in the 1960s, followed by 431 in the 1970s, 904 in the 1980s and 1,351 in the 1990s.
"There is definitely an upward trend," said Jafari. Of the 3,140 floods recorded in the past 50 years, 43.4 percent had occurred in the last decade alone, he asserted.
Flash flooding usually occurs when areas with diminished topsoil experience high-intensity rainfall. Such floods occur whenever high-intensity storms, particularly thunderstorms, are common during the summer months.
But while Iran is naturally a dry country - receiving only one-third of the world’s average rainfall - its climate is extremely variable, and devastating floods are a periodic occurrence. Exacerbating the problem is the impact of drought conditions over some parts of the country - particularly in the southeastern Baluchestan-Sistan Province, which is now in its fifth year of drought.
Commenting on the degradation of rangelands, a UNDP consultant, Murray Wilson emphasised the importance of the top layer of soil being kept active by roots and vegetation. "When that vegetation disappears as a result of drought or for some other reason, the sun bakes the upper surface to a firm crust. This in turn acts like a layer of cement, and the rain just washes away rather than being absorbed into the topsoil," he told IRIN.
He noted, however, that in Iran drought was quite natural and a very common phenomenon.
And while historical data reveals an increase in the number and severity of the floods over the past few years, equally troubling is the economic, social and environmental impact they are exerting, all of which can be related to increased population, denser occupancy of flood plains and catchments, and inappropriate land use practices.
According to Jafari, people should be more responsible for their lives, apply the necessary measures to protect themselves, and not just to rely on governmental efforts. "Communities should protect themselves and play a more active role," he maintained.
Indeed, flood control and mitigation is increasingly a priority policy issue requiring constant attention and realignment of resources to ensure sustainable development.
In an effort to promote just that, an international seminar on flash-flood prevention and mitigation is being planned for October in Golestan. Sponsored jointly by UNDP, the Iranian ministry of interior and the provincial authorities, international and local experts are set to discuss the root causes of flash floods in the Caspian region and assess the achievements and failures of previous efforts, as well as practices and knowledge on flood mitigation.
More importantly, however, the seminar will aim to encourage commitment to specific action on flood prevention.
"Everyone knows the root causes of floods as well as the solution. Now we need to get people committed to action," Jafari said.