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Farmers who worked the fertile lands around Isfahan have had to find a new way to make a living since the river at the heart of this Iranian city ran dry. Instead of raising and selling crops irrigated by the Zayandeh Roud, they are now paid to keep its parched riverbed clean and litter-free.
The Zayandeh Roud, or “life-giving river”, has flowed through the ancient city for more than 1,000 years en route from its source in the Zagros Mountains in the west of the country to the vast wetlands of Gavkhooni in the south of the Isfahan region. But the riverbed now resembles a vast, gravelly beach, a dead stretch of sun-baked land that winds through the heart of Isfahan, a five-hour drive south of Tehran.
“No water in this river means I had to leave my farmlands in the town of Varzaneh and work for the Isfahan municipality for 15,000 tomans [$5.6] per day,” says Afshin as he cuts weeds on the riverbed.
The drying out of the river means about 2m people – 40 per cent of the population – in the Zayandeh Roud basin who depend on agriculture have lost their income, says Mostafa Hajjeh-Foroush, head of the agriculture committee of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce. “If this situation continues they should think of changing jobs,” he adds.
The water that disappeared – a result largely of mismanagement and overuse rather than drought – is stored at the Zayandeh Roud dam and diverted for domestic and industrial consumption, leaving the city’s 11 river bridges standing as symbols of what is missing.
Residents say the loss is overwhelming. “When I see the Zayandeh Roud dried, I feel I am drying, too,” says Fereydoun, a 27-year-old taxi driver.
The choking of the river has had a profound effect on a city that was built around the Zayandeh Roud in the same way that London grew up around the Thames and Paris around the Seine.
But Isfahan’s plight is just one example of a water crisis in a country gripped by 14 successive years of drought. Iran is hardly alone in facing a water shortage but its problems are acute. A growing population and shrinking economy make the situation difficult, but its position at the centre of a politically unstable region where competition for water is intense makes it dangerously volatile.
Thousands of villages rely on water tankers for supplies, according to local media, while businessmen complain shortages are a daily hazard in factories around Tehran. At least a dozen of the country’s 31 provinces will have to be evacuated over the next 20 years unless the problem is addressed, according to a water official who declined to be named.
The situation may be even worse than that, says Issa Kalantari, a reform-minded agriculture minister in the 1990s. “Iran, with 7,000 years of history, will not be liveable in 20 years’ time if the rapid and exponential destruction of groundwater resources continues,” he warns, adding that the shortages pose a bigger threat to Iran than its nuclear crisis, Israel or the US.
The authorities have warned of the need for water rationing, but so far they are asking only that heavy users cut back.
The crisis raises concerns about the risk of conflict in a country surrounded by unstable neighbours – most notably Afghanistan and Iraq – with water shortages of their own.
“Water has been a recurring source of friction with each of Iran’s neighbours,” says David Michel of the Stimson Center, an international security think-tank in Washington. “In the absence of more effective management I would expect that water issues will continue to be a flashpoint with Iran’s neighbours.”
Hassan Rouhani, the centrist president, has spoken frequently of the need to tackle the crisis since winning power last year, and has promised to reverse the populist policies of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his predecessor, who is accused by reformist politicians and environmentalists of making the problem worse.
But the reforms require money, and Iran’s economy is struggling under the weight of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme.
“Last year was a really bad year because of sanctions and a lack of sufficient funds,” says Alireza Parastar, director-general at the agriculture ministry, hinting at one of the reasons water reforms were set back.
Western officials are also reluctant to offer help on water conservation measures, say international experts.
“Supporting those in Iran who wish to reverse environmental management problems and reduce future threats from climate change is in the planet’s interest as well as Iran’s,” says Gary Lewis, resident representative of the UN development programme in Tehran. “Environmental challenges, especially water, ought to be the real future human security priority for Iran.”
Iran’s water problems are largely of its own making. Although it only gets about 200mm of rain a year, about a third of the global average, and 75 per cent of it falls on only 25 per cent of its area, it has a notable history of water engineering. It has built impressive dams and invented the ancient system of qanats, vertical shafts connected by gently sloping tunnels that channel water from higher regions with no need for pumps.
However, a population that has doubled to 76m in the past 40 years has put that system under pressure, as has a changing climate that has seen rainfall decline by 16 per cent over the same period. The growth of industry in dry regions has added to the strain.
But the biggest problem is a system of generous subsidies that has encouraged wasteful use of a resource long taken for granted. The problem is most visible in the agricultural sector, which uses about 90 per cent of Iran’s water and accounts for about 15 per cent of gross domestic product.
With little incentive to use systems that conserve supplies, Iran’s farmers have flooded their crops with supplies pumped from underground sources that are often difficult to replace.
Groundwater extraction nearly quadrupled between the 1970s and the year 2000, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, while the number of wells rose fivefold.
Analysts say more than $100bn in investment is needed over the next decade to improve irrigation systems and replace water-intensive crops such as wheat. At the same time, work is needed to curb the desertification and deforestation that have grown at an alarming pace, mainly because of overgrazing of livestock.
“The country’s 84.9m hectares of pasture can feed only 37m cattle rather than the current 83m and over 120 days each year rather than 200 days,” says Ali Mohammad Tahmasebi, an authority on deserts at the ministry of agriculture. “Shepherds do not face any limits.”
Though the roots of Iran’s water crisis go back decades, the problem grew much worse under Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, president between 2005 and 2013, according to reform-minded academics and former officials.
To curry favour with rural voters, he allowed management of Iran’s water to shift from the central government to the provinces. Isfahan was a victim of the move.
In 2006, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad visited Chaharmahal Bakhtiari, the mountainous province west of Isfahan and the source of the Zayandeh Roud, and announced that local farmers would have priority access to water.
The move encouraged farmers in the province to plant water-intensive crops. But as the neighbouring provinces of Yazd and Kashan grew, the Zayandeh Roud was used to supply them with water. Isfahan farmers began to run short.
They reacted by mounting protests – some of which turned violent – to highlight the diversion of water that they regarded as theirs. The farmers have vowed to block projects that could channel water toward Isfahan city, Yazd and Kashan.
About 1,000 farmers in the east of the province last year drove their tractors 100km to the city of Isfahan and destroyed valves on pipelines carrying water to the city of Yazd. The protest led to clashes with riot police. There was further unrest in the spring of 2014 when farmers threatened further protests if the river stayed dry. The central government in Tehran promised them compensation and said the river would flow in autumn so they could plant crops.
But Ali, a 24-year-old farmer, says his tractor is always ready to head to Isfahan. “We want our historical right which was given to us for thousands of years,” he says. “I can earn 300m rials ($11,755) every year if there is water, but now the government is going to give me a compensation of 30m rials ($1,175). It is ridiculous.”
Mr Hajjeh-Foroush says that those “who benefited from the previous government’s policies” are reluctant to give up those gains.
The damage in Isfahan province has been substantial. Analysts say tens of thousands of hectares of farmland have turned to desert. More than 500m trees have died over the past four years and land has subsided – a byproduct of draining groundwater supplies – in some areas by as much as one metre, threatening the city’s historical sites.
“Mismanagement has been far more damaging than drought,” says Aliahmad Keikha, deputy head of the state-run department of environment for natural environment and biodiversity. “We could cope with drought if there was a more efficient management.”
Analysts and politicians expect conflict to widen and intensify. “Iran faces a hydro-political crisis which means national crises in the future will be rooted in a water shortage,” says Morad Kaviani Rad, a professor at Kharazmi University.
Isfahan is by no means the only visible sign of Iran’s water crisis.
Urmia Lake in the northwest is on the brink of an ecological catastrophe. About 95 per cent of it has dried up over the past two decades, mainly due to wasteful irrigation practices and drought.
In 1996, the lake stretched over 5,200 cubic kilometres and held 31bn cubic metres of water. Now it holds 1.5bn.
More than 80,000 groundwater pumps and 37 dams for irrigating farmland in the lake’s basin mean more water has left the lake than flows into it. Agricultural yields from the Urmia region, meanwhile, have generated only about $1.2bn a year.
“Reviving the lake is essential,” says Mr Kalantari, the former agriculture minister who is advising the government on measures to save Urmia. “We cannot sit idly and witness evacuation of the region.”
At $4bn, the cost of returning the lake to health would be prohibitive. It could also take about 12 years, he says. But President Rouhani has ordered the replenishment of the lake no matter the cost, a sign of the new government’s determination to tackle the water crisis.
Ministers have been ordered to draw up plans for a new water management system, and stop the expansion of farms in arid regions and consider measures to discourage the use of groundwater pumps in stressed areas such as Urmia Lake.
Analysts say the problems Mr Rouhani faces – from international sanctions to stagflation – mean that environmental projects could take a back seat even as domestic and border tensions over water rights simmer.
The shortages in Iraq have left the Hoor al-Azim wetlands in southwest Iran, which is served by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, depleted.
Supplies from the Harirud, a border river in the northeast, have been diverted upstream in Afghanistan to irrigate its farmland, jeopardising the supply to the religious centre of Mashhad, Iran’s second-biggest city, which is facing the biggest drinking water crisis in the country.
“Mashhad will soon be a hostage to Afghanistan,” warns Mr Kaviani Rad.
The Hamouns in the southeast – three wetlands covering 5,660 sq km mostly in Iran but also in Afghanistan – which should be fed by the Helmand river have been mostly dry over the past decade. There are unconfirmed reports that villagers around Helmand have started migrating to northern provinces.
“What would remain of Iran if Urmia Lake, Zayandeh Roud and the Hamouns are erased from its map?” asks Mr Keikha. “The drying up of the Hamouns is [equivalent to] drying up of the roots of a great civilisation in the world’s east. We have not been good soldiers to safeguard this ancient land.”
Extraction technology: History washed away a qanat at a time
Qanats, the gently sloping shafts and tunnels that form Iran’s irrigation system, have been running in the country for more than 2,000 years, conveying subterranean water from mountains to plains.
But their future is at stake as the increasing use of groundwater pumps sucks aquifers dry, leading to destruction of the ancient system first developed in Persia and then extended to Asia, Africa and Europe.
Qanats are built by skilled workers who identify the mountain water source and locate the sites for vertical shafts, which are dug by hand, and then connected by gently sloping tunnels that open on to the plains below.
In recent decades, however, technology and greater demand have turned into the biggest threat to the system. Government authorities have been accused of failing to maintain and extend the qanats system, which could no longer meet rising demand, and did little to prevent excessive extraction through quicker and easier methods. The 36,000 qanats left in Iran – about half the number of 50 years ago – provide 14 per cent of the water needed for agriculture.
In the Shahre-Ray area of southern Tehran, where farmlands meet part of the city’s vegetable needs, there are 40 qanats, half the number that existed in the 1960s. In their place are some 1,400 pumps set up to irrigate farmlands and provide drinking water for a booming population.
“Most qanats suffer from a shortage of water or have dried up mainly because of pumps operating around them and, to a lesser extent, due to successive years of drought,” says Abdolhamid Rasekhi, an expert on Tehran’s qanats.
Another challenge is the cost of maintenance. The annual cost of dredging the 7km Karimabad Tehranchi qanat in southern Tehran, for instance, is 500m rials ($19,277).
Meanwhile, the qanat builders are not being replaced when they leave the trade, raising fears that the systems will eventually die out.
“We developed qanats and introduced them to the world, then we lost them. It’s so sad that one of the most sustainable ways of water harvesting is almost gone,” says Dr Kaveh Madani, an authority on Iran’s water at Imperial College, London.
Additional reporting by Pilita Clark in London