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Prayers of a nation.

Water, more than any other commodity, will be the catalyst for wars in the next millennium, predict many scientists. Kamin Mohammadi reports from Iran, a country experiencing increased water stress due to global warming

PEOPLE STREAM INTO Esfahan's Emam Square, men on one side, and women, veiled and dressed in black, on the other. Loudspeakers transmit the rise and fall of Arabic chanting. In one corner on a small stage stands a mullah, microphone in hand, singing the verses that make the people bend and straighten in rhythm. Nearby, the bazaar is unusually lifeless. The courtyards of the two splendid mosques flanking the square are empty and the doors to the Ali Qapu Palace shut. It is Friday prayers on a scorching day and today, as they have done every week for months, the people of Iran are raising their hands to Allah in a prayer for rain.

Their prayers are answered, when in the middle of the summer heat, after months of drought, the precious rains finally begin to fall. The people give thanks and the rejoicing begins. But it will take a lot more than a few days' downpour to solve Iran's present water shortage.

According to Jeff Jenkins of the Meteorological Office's climate research department, Iran is not alone in suffering such droughts. "The whole area of the Middle East is experiencing increased water stress caused by global warming." The changing patterns of the world's weather -- no longer only a potential disaster forewarned by eco-activists, but now a growing reality -- have also affected Iran's Middle Eastern neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. Temperatures have been higher than usual and rainfall less. Along with the fickle rainfall figures, there is increased demand on water resources from growing populations, as well as more water lost to evaporation in the hotter temperatures. Water is certainly increasing in value as a commodity, and the prediction that future wars will be fought over water rights may yet be fulfilled.

Nearly a quarter of Iran's sweeping expanse of land is covered by desert. It is a harsh landscape, broken by two major mountain ranges: the Elburz in the lush north of the country and the Zagros range in the west. Cities and towns flourish in the skirts of the mountains and on the coast of the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf to the south. Other settlements brave the desert wastes, rising out of the scrub as a testament to humankind's eternal optimism and its resultant ingenuity.

Iran relies for its water on the winter rains and snow. The melting ice on the high mountain peaks run through ghanat's -- the manmade underground channels that bring the water to the cities. Also mountain springs are diverted to provide irrigation for crops and underground reservoirs, and hydroelectric dams such as at Karaj near Tehran support the population through the hot dry summers. But last winter, too, was hot and dry. The substantial snowfalls that thrill Iranian children were missing and the country's overall rainfall was down almost 40 per cent on the previous year.

The results are already being felt. The dry winter was followed by an unusually hot spring, where, in Tehran, temperatures in May reached 40 [degrees] C. Every day, Iranian television broadcasts bulletins detailing the problems of different regions. The reduction in volume of surface water in the country, at the start of June, put extra pressure on reservoirs already depleted by years of consumption that has outstripped supply.

Less than half of Iran is considered cultivable, though agriculture employs nearly 30 per cent of the workforce. Farmers rely on a mixture of modern and traditional methods of irrigation, using ghanats, dams, the diversion of rivers and, in the more remote parts of the country, deep and often ancient wells. The government is, however, planning to use more land for agriculture, and has a commitment to irrigate several million hectares over the next 20 years. There is talk of increasing exploitation of the country's water resources from 30 to 55 per cent, but when one dry winter can set the country back so seriously, one has to wonder about the practicality of the government's plans and how quickly they can be implemented.

A visit in May to the normally verdant and mountainous Kordestan province highlighted the problems: the mountain peaks, usually glistening white all year round, were strangely bare, with not a trace of snow left on them. Springs and streams were reduced to a thin flow and rivers that ran deep all year round were a depressing trickle. The wild flowers of the season had already died in the searing heat and the countryside lay parched. Farmers told me that with their wheat harvests sure to fail, they were already selling their livestock to make up the shortfall in income -- a short-sighted solution as livestock is a precious commodity in the lean winter months.

In the northern province of Gilan, normally one of Iran's wettest places, Mohades Negaresh, the head of the region's department of agriculture, claims that over 11,000 of the 230,000 hectares of the region's paddy fields have been affected by lack of rain. Some 1,617 hectares have been left fallow and the overall harvest was very low. Similarly, the area's wheat harvest was a mere two-thirds of the previous year.

Kordestan and Gilan are not alone. Dr Abdulghasem Hassanpour, the deputy head of research and development in Far's agriculture department, reported that the normally fecund province had already lost 550 billion rials (about 190 million [pounds sterling]) from damage to crops and fruit produce. Nomads move between pastures in this southern-central part of the country, supplying dairy produce and handicrafts for the surrounding villages and communities. This year, the dry weather forced them to migrate three months earlier than normal, with the villages suffering as a result.

The western province of Lorestan is a mountainous and mythical land. Its tribes lay claim to descent from the Medes and the region still supports a large population of nomads. Here, some 400 billion rials (approximately 138 million [pounds sterling]) have been lost and over 50,000 farmers are languishing with no income. It is the same story in other provinces, the fertile northern and western regions being the hardest hit. In Kordestan, for example, where most of the fields are not irrigated and are dependent on the rivers, the damage to produce is estimated at up to 70 per cent. Hasty plans are under way to install pumps to push the unwilling water on to lands it normally flows over. Meanwhile, at least two towns are about to be fitted with emergency water tanks for the first time.

In sharp contrast to Kordestan's dryness is the city of Yazd and its surrounding province. Set at the junction of two deserts in the inhospitable centre of the country, the city is, surprisingly, experiencing no problems at all. In fact, in what seemed to be a defiant gesture, the desert around Yazd was thickly dotted with scrub and thorny desert plants in the early summer. Locals reported the wettest winter they could remember, borne out by statistics confirming that at 115 millimetres, the winter's rainfall was twice the yearly average. This apparent climatic reversal almost seems to pay tribute to the desert town that can probably take the credit for inventing the ghanat, over 2,000 years ago.

Of an estimated 50,000 ghanats in Iran, the area around Yazd boasts more than 2,500 of them. Some of their routes can be traced, scarring the desert surface, for up to 40 kilometres. They connect to underground springs fed by the snows of the few mountains to the south, such as Mount Sir which at over 4,000 metres is covered by snow all year round. Building a ghanat is a highly-skilled and dangerous endeavour, involving digging a well to an underground water source, sometimes more than 100 metres deep. However, this point must still be higher than the point of collection and the tunnel must have a low gradient to enable water flow. Regular narrow wells punctuate the tunnel for ventilation.

Yazd itself springs up from the desert like a dream of walled gardens, mud ramparts and turquoise domes. It is one of the oldest towns in the world, dating back to at least Sassanian times (224-637AD). Its name is thought to derive from yazdesh, which means `to feast and to worship' in the ancient Persian of the time. Under Arab rule it was an important town on the Silk Route, exporting silk, carpets and textiles throughout the world. It flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was twice spared destruction by the armies of Genghis Khan and the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, who razed other Iranian towns to the ground.

Today, Yazd has the best-preserved old quarter of any Iranian city. Splendidly-tiled mosques tower over the clay-coloured town, while sprawling old caravanserai now harbour garages and carpet workshops. Everywhere, the architecture bears witness to the town's ingenuity with wind and water. The ancient fathers of Yazd employed many techniques to harness the power of the elements. The delicate balance between heat and coolness, sun and shade is expressed everywhere through its architecture. Hexagonal skylights in the bazaars invite the light without admitting the heat. Softly arched roofs crowning the walls of narrow alleyways and linking the houses in the old quarter, enable the locals to do their chores unmolested by the burning sun. Everywhere the town horizon is enlivened by roof top towers that look, to the uninitiated, like chimneys.

In fact, these badgirs (literally, wind catchers) have the opposite function to chimneys. They are built with their long ventilation shafts positioned to catch any hint of a passing breeze to channel down into the house. The interlinking rooms of old houses were not only designed to give the women of the house their own sheltered quarters away from prying eyes, but also to circulate the air that fluted down the badgirs. The sun-dried mud bricks that were used to build the houses retained their coolness in the summer and their warmth in the bitter winters. The air was channelled all the way down to the elaborate function rooms built in the basement where the family would mostly live in the stiflingly hot summers.

Blowing in the wind

More importantly, the badgirs were vital for the storing water. Yazd has several large ab ambars or water storage tanks crowned by four or six wind towers. Into these domed structures water would flow from the ghanats, aerated by the wind from the towers that would circulate above the water and keep it from stagnating. There was a dual purpose here: the water would, in turn, cool down the air which could then be channelled into houses, or at least the houses of those wealthy enough to have their own water cellars. Such was the success of these stores that ice, made in the winter, could be stored in heavily insulated ice houses. The gardens of Yazd, walled in and coloured with the fruits of pomegranate; and squat fig trees lining deep blue rectangular pools bear witness to the functionality of Yazd's system of water storage. Old villages in the area are similarly instructive in the ways of the ancient Iranians. Often constructed near the long line of a ghanat, a series of finer tunnels would branch off, bringing water to different points in the village, constructed with the bath house and the houses of the wealthy occupying the topmost point of the gradient while the public laundry pools and water for livestock would nestle at the bottom. The large pools of the rich inhabitants would supply water for domestic consumption to the poorer neighbours nearby, thus ensuring water distribution along a system of social priority that would take every member of the settlement into account.

As Dr Ghamsar of Esfahan University, and a founding member of the fledgling Greenpeace movement in Iran points out, the problems facing the Iranian government are more diverse than the simple need for comprehensive irrigation plans. "Iran's population has exploded in the last 20 years," he, says. Despite the mass exodus of the upper and educated classes during the Islamic Revolution and the bloody war with Iraq, the population of Iran has steadily climbed from around 20 million to over 60 million. "You must remember that this also signals a move away from traditional living," continues Ghamsar, "With people pouring into Tehran and other major cities from the provinces in search of work, the impact on the environment is, at present, incalculable." Along with living in hastily-built apartment blocks comes the usual expectations of modern life: encroaching heat is defeated by a flick of the air conditioning switch and water is expected to flow out of a tap.

The wind towers and water cellars of the past are neglected, although their efficiency and safety is assured. Village life goes on as well as it can with the departure of the village youth. Air conditioning boxes sit at the feet of redundant badgirs on the roofs of the old houses. The media and environmentalist are quick to offer the government solutions to the present water shortage, talking of educating the domestic as well as the agricultural and industrial consumer in efficient water use where once such knowledge was ingrained. Better productivity and the recirculation and reuse of water needs to be relearnt from the past.

Practical solutions include deepening the existing wells and digging more, as well as repairing existing pumps and cleaning the ghanats and canals that are already in place. Long term projects need to be acted on swiftly: an increase of grassland can reduce the flow of lost water and soil erosion by 40 per cent, thereby increasing the mass of water held in underground reservoirs. The three dams near Tehran: Karaj, Latian and Lar, are called on to supply 560 million cubic metres of the 900 million cubic metres of water the capital alone drinks. The volume of stored water is rapidly falling and Tehranis are having to get used to their water being cut off for several hours a day.

The Iranian government must balance the conflicting needs of a growing population with practical conservation, the increase of foreign tourism with sustainable growth. In an era when, increasingly, the location, extraction and preservation of water will become an international issue, the main challenge is how to combine centuries-old knowledge with modern methods that increase efficiency. And that will take more than the combined prayers of the population to achieve.

Iran Factfile

Name: Islamic Republic of Iran

Official language: Farsi (Persian)

Official religion: Islam

Capital: Tehran

Land area: 1,643, 510 sq km. More than three times the size of France.

Monetary unit: Rial

Population: 67,300,000 (expected to double in 25 years) with one person per 38 [km.sup.2].

Overview: Iran has only started to recover from the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the past few years. The country is the world's largest theocracy and the leading centre for militant Shi'a Islam. Iran's active support for Islamic fundamentalist movements has led to strained relations with central Asian, Middle Eastern and north African nations, as well as the USA. The country hosts more refugees than any other country in the world most significantly Kurds, Lors, and Afghanis.

Economy: Based on petroleum and natural gases which accounts for 76.6 per cent of exports, and to a lesser extent on gypsum and iron ore mining. Carpets and flesh and dried fruit account for 8.8 per cent and 3 per cent of exports respectively. Principal crops are wheat, barley, rice, sugar beet, tobacco and pistachio nuts. Oil wealth fails to reach the economically deprived. In the early 1990s, Iran experienced a financial crisis and was forced to reschedule $15 billion in debt. The strong oil market in 1996 helped ease financial pressures and allowed for Tehran's timely debt service payments. Iran's financial situation tightened in 1997 and deteriorated further in 1998 because of lower oil prices. As a result Iran has begun to cut imports and has fallen into arrears on its debt payments.

Natural hazards: Periodic droughts, floods, dust storms, sandstorms, earthquakes along western borders and northeast. There have been 943 registered earthquakes in the last 20 years.

Environmental current issues: Air pollution especially in urban areas from vehicle emissions, refinery operations, and industrial effluents; deforestation, overgrazing, oil pollution in the Persian Gulf, inadequate supplies of potable water. The environment is not a concern to the religious leadership.

Crime: Revolutionary guards enforce law and order. Although Iran does not publish law and order statistics, more than 100 offences carry the death sentence, many of which fall under the banner of `political crimes'. Despite substantial interdiction efforts, Iran remains a key shipping point for southwest Asian heroin to Europe; domestic consumption of narcotics is a persistent problem and Iranian press reports estimate that there are at least 1.2 million drug users in the country.

Ethnic groups: (expressed as a percentage) Persian 51, Azerbaijani 24, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8, Kurd 7 Arab 3 Lur 2, Baloch 2, Turkman 2, other 1

Religion: (expressed as a percentage) Shi'a Muslim 89, Sunni Muslim 10, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i 1

Languages: (expressed as a percentage) Persian and Persian dialects 58, Turkic and Turkic dialects 26, Kurdish 9, Luri 2, Balochi 1, Arabic 1, Turkish 1, other 2

Suffrage: 15 years of age; universal

Irrigated land: 94,000 [km.sup.2](1993)

Health: Cities have an adequate system of primary healthcare, but rural Conditions are basic. Almost 40 per cent of children under five are malnourished.

Kamin Mohammadi is a travel writer and editor based in London, where she was deposited by the tides of the Iranian revolution 20 years ago. She has begun to revisit Iran where she has watched dervishes whirl in ecstasy in Kordestan, visited the damaged oil fields of Khuzestan, made the Zoroastrian pilgrimage in the central desert and walked in the gardens of Hafez and Sa'adi in Shiraz. On her latest visit, she was shocked and concerned by the impending drought in Iran, especially by seeing the normally lush hills of Kordestan burnt and bare while the desert around Yazd was strangely green. The article (see page 40) is a result of an effort to find some answers to this calamity.
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Author:Mohammadi, Kamin
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Words:3069
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