Iran's Pollution Worries Come by Air and Water

The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing a growing domestic problem: pollution. The air quality in Tehran was recently called a "collective suicide" by an Iranian environmental official. But air pollution is just one of Iran's environmental woes. In its northern region, the Caspian Sea — the world's largest lake — is so contaminated that delicate ecological areas are at risk. Nazanin Rafsanjani reported on the Caspian Sea region as the NPR-Bucksbaum Fellow, part of the International Reporting Project.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Aside from Iraq and the domestic political concerns, Dan Schorr just mentioned the Iranian government is facing a pollution problem. In the north of the country, the Caspian Sea is contaminated, putting delicate ecological areas at risk.

Reporter Nazanin Rafsanjani spent some time on the Caspian, as the NPR-Bucksbaum Fellow, that's part of the International Reporting Project. She has this story.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Imagine vacuuming your living room carpet, when something, a piece of change accidentally got sucked up to the hose. There's an awful noise. You have to turn it off and fish out the clogging debris. Now imagine the same thing, but a giant vacuum, and not your living room carpet, but the Caspian Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATING)

RAFSANJANI: That's the sound of Iadin Rajavi(ph), cleaning the clogged vacuum on a ship meant for drudging the bottom of the Caspian. The ship is supposed to be picking up fine sediment. But because people have dumped so much garbage here, the vacuum gets clogged with plastic containers, blankets, garbage bags, clothing.

IADIN RAJAVI: (Through translator) Sometimes it's nearly impossible. Once an anchor was stuck in here, a small anchor from a fishing boat. We need to use a saw to get it out.

RAFSANJANI: Rajavi and the crew are dredging to protect the port of Anzali. It's one of the busiest and largest ports on the Caspian. Cargo ships pile in and out all day. And this dredging is necessary so they don't get stuck. But here's the amazing part of what's happening here. Rajavi spends a lot of time doing this very dirty work. And once the work is over, and all of the garbage is on deck, the ship it carries it further out into the Caspian and dumps it there.

RAJAVI: (Through translator) There's nothing else we can do. We dump the garbage into the sea. It's always been this way, and it's still is way today.

RAFSANJANI: Environmentalists here think its time to change that. The severity of Iran's problems is getting harder to ignore. Here in the north, household refuse dumped into the water as the most visible environmental problem facing the Caspian. But it's not the only one. There is the raw sewage that flows into the sea from Anzali, a city with a fast growing population of more than a 100,000. Pesticides run into the water from nearby farms.

And then, there are the problems that Iran says are out of its control, like oil drilling in the northern part of the Caspian, which has a potential of leaking crude into the sea. All of this has been a problem for fishermen here in Anzali, fisherman like Moftar Tunder(ph). Tunder is 71 years old, and he's been fishing in the Caspian all his life. It's early evening, and he's rowing a small boat through a place he holds dear, the Anzali Lagoon. The Lagoon is critical to the fishing industry here.

One environmental official, using an Iranian phrase that perhaps doesn't translates too well, calls the Lagoon the uterus of the Caspian. That's because many fish lay their eggs here. Tunder explains that he used to feed his family of nine children from the fish he caught here, but not anymore.

MOFTAR TUNDER: This water is so dirty now that although fish still lay their eggs here, their eggs usually die. Someone has to think of something for the sea. If they try to find a solution, there's a chance they can save this place. And we might be able to benefit from that.

RAFSANJANI: The people tasked with finding a solution, work in Iran's Department of the Environment. While they are aware of the problems of the Caspian, their efforts are relatively new, and their working budget is small. So the environmental department here in Northern Iran is targeting the only thing it can - people's attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF IRANIAN CHILDREN'S DVD)

Unidentified Girl #1: (Singing foreign language)

RAFSANJANI: On this children's DVD, a dough-eyed, little girl wearing a brightly colored headscarf sings about factories that are polluting the air and water near her home. Said Fadgepor(ph) is an environmental official whose office commissioned the DVD. He says the best way to teach adults about environmental problems is to start with their kids.

SAID FADGEPOR: (Through translator) We have a program, a youth ranger program where kids come and take classes. They learn about the environment and then they teach other kids. We want to teach them about the importance of the environment at a young age because their influence on their families is greater than ours could ever be.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTOON)

Unidentified Girl #2: (Speaking foreign language)

RAFSANJANI: In a cartoon on a DVD, a happy red fish, soon passed raw sewerage. Its smile, abruptly fades, and it goes belly up. In another scene, the little girl asks why her grandfather is coughing so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARTOON)

Unidentified Girl #3: (Speaking foreign language)

RAFSANJANI: In addition to the children's DVD, the environmental department is planning events like Earth Day, or Clean Air Day, to try to enhance public awareness of the country's environmental problems. That's the first step officials here say. But the next step is what's necessary and more difficult: getting people to alter not just their attitude but their behavior when it comes to taking care of the environment.

For NPR News, I'm Nazanin Rafsanjani.

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