Sustainability of Social Values or Social Aspects of Sustainability?

Atiyeh Ardakanian and Sarah Bell, Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London (London, UK): Sustainability of social values or social aspects of sustainability?

This paper will investigate the relationship between social sustainability and regional politics, in regards to transboundary basins between countries. Regional countries with transboundary basins normally share common social values, which are threatened in the presence of economic development (namely construction of dams) and in the absence of valid treaties. Recognising the existing social values prior to development can positively affect the sustainability of future developments. This approach might prove to be more effective than searching for an economic and social equilibrium when developments are completed. This paper will begin with an overview of the environmental, political and social crises that have risen in downstream urban areas as a consequence of development in upstream basins. It will highlight the limits of sustainable development when not observed from a regional standpoint and in the absence of a collective inquiry into the shared social values of the effected countries. For this purpose, it will use the current severe air pollution crisis in the city of Awhaz, Iran, which is a result of years of environmental degradation in the region, as its case study. Moreover, it will investigate how people are adapting to this multidimensional problem and ways in which they can increase their resilience towards it. Building on the lessons learnt from this case study, the paper will investigate possible alternative solutions that can sustain development in the region and prevent further conflicts over shared waters.

An overview of the problem:

In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused on global progress in poverty health, education, equality and the environment come to an end. Among the outcomes of the Rio+20 was an agreement to launch a process for developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that would pursue the MDG goals to a fuller extent and be more suited to the current socio-political, economic and environmental issues. Today these SDG goals promote sustainable use of ecosystems and water resources, sustainable consumption and production patterns and safe, resilient and sustainable cities. However, it is evident that the boundaries of many natural resources including water and ecosystems go beyond cities and countries and this places the pursuit of sustainability at a regional level. There are some examples of “sustainable development” projects that have had adverse effects beyond their proposed boundaries. This raises the importance of the need for a paradigm shift that views sustainable development in the context of a region and not solely a country. In this perspective, the causes for political, economic and social issues concerning sustainability should also be searched for in a broader context, such as the region.

As mentioned earlier, sustainability proposes to find an equilibrium between three main principles -social, economic and environmental- accomplishing prosperity in the three dimensions at the same time. However, in practice, this balance is not always achieved.

One of these examples is the current air pollution crisis faced by the Ahwazi residents in Iran. Ahwaz is one the strategic southern cities of Iran, with the largest onshore oil fields. According to WHO, this city has the highest measured level of airborne particles in the world and the dangerously high concentration of these particles has paralysed the daily life of citizens, leading to closures of schools, businesses, banks and an unprecedented rise in the number of patients in hospitals with respiratory problems. According to some studies, a major cause in the presence of these particles is the dried lakes and wetlands in neighbouring Iraq and the south west of Syria. Although the current conflicts in these countries may have an impact on the destruction of their water infrastructure and environment, in some studies this environmental degradation is also linked to the great South-East Anatolian Development Project (GAP) in Turkey. This ambitious project aims to irrigate 1.8 million acres of land and provide over 27 thousand GW electric power to its southern areas. This project seeks to raise the income level and living standards of its rural areas and therefore achieve social sustainability at the national level. For this purpose Turkey aims to complete 22 dams in the upstream basins of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in which over 86% and 98% of the livelihoods of downstream Syrian and Iraqi people are relied on respectively. It should be noted that the current problem in Ahwaz is not entirely caused by the development project in Turkey and is also a result of, as many Iranian officials have reported, ineffective water resource management in Iran.