Comprehensive Environmental Report: DoE Chief Ebtekar

World Environment Day (WED) is observed every year on June 5 to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth.

To mark such an important event, Iranian environmental officials named the week, which started on June 4, the National Week of Environment. Tehran Times conducted an interview with the chief of the Department of Environment, Masoumeh Ebtekar.

What follows is an outline of the department’s accomplishments, both at the national and international levels, over the past three years.

As echoed by different officials and environmentalists worldwide, environmental problems are not exclusive to one region or nation. Since we all share the same Earth, such problems can affect us all.

To get to grips with these problems, environment officials call for cooperation between different bodies in the country.

Ebtekar believes that the environment is a cross-sector issue, which includes promoting environmental standards among different branches of the government as well as in the private sector and NGOs.

“We have to deal with the issue from that perspective, taking the need for coordinating and bringing together different organizations and government sectors into consideration,” she said. “In that regard, we have to make use of the opportunities that we have in the cabinet. We provide regular reports on the state of the environment in cabinet sessions.”

Ebtekar added, “When I travel to the provinces, I have meetings with all these different sectors together, as well as setting up a cross-sector committee for each subject, bringing together all the different sectors involved.”

“We have a national committee for sustainable development, where again all these different ministries are members of that committee. They have certain targets and goals which they have to meet and indicators by which we can follow up the proper implementation of those targeted plans in each different ministry.”

Referring to the issue of air pollution, which involved 16 different sectors, she said, “For example, the Ministry of Petroleum is responsible for enhancing and improving the quality of fuel provided in the country, and the Ministry of Industry is responsible for the automotive industry and enhancing its standards, as well as the Ministry of Health, which is responsible in terms of oversight.”

She further explained that her department is responsible for monitoring air quality through holding sessions throughout the country, in addition to the cross-sector committee for air pollution both at the national level and then at the local/municipal level.

Every megacity has its own plan and committee and a cross-sector practice to make sure that this plan is properly implemented, and that the targets are achieved and that all necessary regulatory bodies are also involved in the whole process, she noted.

Ministries given scorecards on environmental performance 

Mentioning the importance of cooperation between the ministries in tackling environmental challenges in Iran, the DoE chief described an innovative scheme by which each ministry is presented with a scorecard.

“Last year, we invited all different ministers to provide their report cards on what they’ve done for the environment in terms of their legal responsibilities and their activities to improve environmental management within the ministry,” she said. “So they provided their reports and we compiled all those reports in the form of scorecards, which are available for the public on the Department of Environment’s portal.”

“This way, we can bring together all these different sectors and ensure that they are playing their role and taking their responsibility seriously,” she stated, stressing, “Those performing better than others will be acknowledged this week on the occasion of the World Environment Day, June 5, and will be rewarded with the National Environment Award.”

International seminar on environmental law seems likely 

“One of the important events last year was the outlining of the general policies of the environment by the Supreme Leader. These policies were applied not only to the executive branch but also to the legislature and judiciary,” she said.

“One of the joint activities that we had with the judiciary was a national seminar on environmental law, and in that seminar we spoke about the possibility of convening an international seminar on environmental law in Iran, and in the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in Kenya we actually did have a proposal and a discussion with the World Commission on Environmental Law.”

“Our proposal was presented to convene an international seminar in Tehran on environmental law and we hope that we will be able to proceed on this issue; we think it’s very important,” she highlighted.

Ebtekar suggested that “exchange of information and experiences, illegal trafficking in wildlife and illegal poaching are important issues for us, and we look forward to be able to take a regional and international approach to this issue.”

Environmental cases can be brought to environmental court 

There is a fully functional legal process for environmental legal cases, she said, adding that sometimes it’s been necessary to establish environmental courts which are specialized for the environment. The judiciary has done that in some of the provinces, but in other cases “it suffices that we have an environmental legal advisor at the court, and sometimes they refer some of the cases to experts on the environment and ask for consultations.”

Combating sand and dust storms 

“We have been working with the United Nations for more than two years on the issue of regional and international cooperation in combating dust storms,” she said. “The first step was to see whether we could revive the regional fund, because we had the idea of establishing such a fund before, but it didn’t work out because some of the regional countries didn’t go along with the idea.”

Unfortunately, she said, once again some regional countries which are hotspots for dust storms, like Saudi Arabia, didn’t go along with the idea, “So we took the idea to a higher level and I wrote several letters to Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, and Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) [asking for a solution].”

Last year, during the UN General Assembly Resolution on the issue of dust storms, Ban Ki-moon was requested to develop a report on the hotspots and the sources of dust storms, and that resolution led to the formulation of a global report on the condition of the dust storms, she explained.

After negotiations at UNEA-2, a resolution to develop local and regional cooperation and collaboration to combat the dust storms was approved and adopted in UNEA-2. It lays the groundwork for future collaboration between different countries which prioritize this issue, she added.

“We also had a technical workshop on the issue of dust storms in Kenya and we and the Minister of the Environment of Mongolia chaired the workshop together.”

Inquiring about the effectiveness of these measures, she said it depends on how much these international bodies will actually collaborate, in the form of both technical assistance and also in finding necessary coordination among these countries, as well as the necessary financial mechanisms.

12 international MOUs signed

Under the Rouhani administration, Ebtekar also said, “We have had lots of delegations at ministerial, deputy ministerial, and director general levels, with different countries such as Japan, Korea, Norway, Poland, Austria, Italy, and Finland, and about 12 MOUs have been signed.”

“We also contributed widely to the Paris Climate Change (COP21) convention, and Iran played an instrumental role in the climate change negotiations. These contributions were brought up by President Hollande and Minister Fabius and other French officials during president Rouhani’s visit to France.”

Many international corporations have come to Iran looking for opportunities for investment in green technology, which can help the country improve the condition of the environment, she said.

“One of our achievements was setting up a functional national environment fund which was initially established during President Khatami’s term but it wasn’t performed at all but now the fund is fully functional and operating in terms of working not only for investment in the national environment sector but also international ones,” she added, stating, “The fund also performs as an accelerator for green technologies investment. We are looking forward to working with not only the government sector but also the private sector which are interested in working with Iran to promote trade and environmental conditions.”

Environmental Impact Assessments limit environmentally detrimental projects 

“We have a national Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) law as part of our five-year development plan, and we have its necessary bylaws and guidelines,” she noted, “We do have challenges and it’s very natural for some sectors pushing to develop their projects, but on the other hand, according to this law they have to abide by the EIA. At least during this government, which is described as the environment government by President Rouhani, the EIA process has been taken very seriously. We are working with different sectors to ensure that the law is properly implemented, and we are now revising the processes.”

She added, “We’ve delegated some authorities to local and provincial offices in terms of smaller projects, and with larger projects we still complete the process at the national level. Right now, we have a proposal in the cabinet which will probably be adopted in the coming weeks to revise some of those procedures and also to ensure that the results of that report are properly implemented with a committee, which has the authority to regulate and control different aspects of that project.”

Environmental NGOs are official members of local planning committees

“We have seen a very significant improvement in terms of the role that NGOs are playing in decision-making processes and, according to the directive adopted by the government, NGOs are official members of local planning committees in the provinces. This means they have the right to vote to take part in the decision-making processes pertaining to environmental decisions at the local level,” she stressed.

“I think that this new atmosphere in the current administration is more open to societies and the President supports freedom of expression. The possibility to criticize the government is now available, and we all welcome different viewpoints from society and NGOs. For that reason I think that there is an opportunity to play an influential role,” she stated, “We have seen an increase in the number of NGOs active in environmental fields in Iran, and also an increase in their activities in different fields – both in decision-making and policy formation and also in terms of social mobilization training activities and educational activities. When I travel to the provinces, I have meetings with NGOs and they talk about their issues and challenges. I think there is a constructive dialogue now with these societies on environmental issues.”

Women play a key role in environment protection 

Ebtekar also said, “We feel that women have a very important role in terms of improving the living conditions of their societies, particularly pertaining to environmental standards. They play an important role not only in educating and bringing up the future generation with a necessary awareness of environmental issues, but also in changing current lifestyles and practices.”

“One of our challenges now in Iran is the increasing threat and detrimental effects of climate change on our water resources. We are experiencing increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall in many parts of the country… Currently, the water efficiency in the agriculture sector is very low, about 30%, and women can play a very important role. In places like Lake Urmia, we have started a campaign working with local women to establish micro-credit funds which help to empower these women and train them in environmental issues and in the production of local handicrafts. This gives them a means of support, and lessens some of the pressures that they have in the agricultural sector.”

There are now 18 local, women-based funds established in 18 different villages and they are very active, she said.

“These women have a lot of ambition to move forward, and we hope to be able to spread this practice to different villages around Urmia National Park, because Urmia Lake requires a change in agricultural practices and rural women must play an important role.

“We also have another project dealing with the training and empowerment of farmers in general, and a participatory method is being used to enable them to increase the efficiency of their agriculture but also to decrease the amount of water that is being consumed in the sector,” she explained.

Environmental issues high on the agenda 

On whether environmental concerns, such as water shortages, could become a security threat, Ebtekar explained, “If we don’t address these issues properly they could eventually develop into a security issue, because water issues are always very sensitive. As we do have water shortages in Iran, we have to plan and manage water and take into consideration the economic, the health, and also security dimensions of water issues.”

Fortunately, she said, the current administration takes these issues seriously and the President sees them as national priorities. “We also have economic priorities and many other priorities in different sectors, but alongside them, President Rouhani has kept his perspective on environmental issues and has kept them high on his priority list. In certain recent years, unfortunately, you couldn’t see environmental issues as they were forgotten, and that was when many of those problems arose.”

New Parliament expected to be eco-friendly

Asked about the expectations of the Department of Environment from the new Parliament, she noted, “We’ve been working and negotiating with many of the representatives. The Parliament has a very important role in improving and enhancing current legislation on the environment.”

“Currently we have 10 bills in line waiting for adoption by the Parliament, sadly for about two years. The previous parliament didn’t have time for these bills, and unfortunately the EIA bill was not approved by parliament,” she regretted.

Soil, water, air, and animal right bills are expected to be passed by this parliament, she said.