Only 15 years ago, Hamoun was the seventh largest wetland in the world, straddling 4,000 square kilometres (1,600 square miles) between Iran and Afghanistan, with water rolling in from the latter's Helmand river. Photo: AFP

By Thomas Erdbrink
5 May 2015

TEHRAN (The New York Times) – Every day, when I walk to our supermarket in the western part of Tehran to buy the groceries my wife tells me to get, I pass a long row of plane trees, neatly planted decades ago according to the design of ambitious city planners.

Last week, three of the hardy trees had been cut down, and just the other day three more had disappeared. I asked a parking attendant hired by the nearby health club to manage the ever-increasing traffic where the trees had gone.

“All dead,” he answered, shrugging. “Completely dried up. The city came and cut them down. They were a hazard, you know.”

Recently, during one of Tehran’s spring storms, a broken branch had nearly fallen on his head, he told me.

There have not been that many storms in Tehran, Iran’s sprawling metropolis, which stretches from the mighty Alborz mountain range in the north far into the dry plains to the south, toward the holy Shiite city of Qum. Actually, there has not been much rain here for years.

Signs of the drought in Iran — which, according to experts, has lasted for more than two decades — are not very visible in the capital. There are many parks and trees because of the active city government.

But make no mistake: The city is dry. Its underground water supplies are depleted, and officials have long warned that, one day, the trees will dry up and water might need to be rationed.

Outside Tehran the situation is much worse, and some experts predict that the south will become uninhabitable if the drought persists.

Still, to the dismay of those aware of Iran’s water problems, many in Tehran keep washing their cars with water from wells that they somehow believe will fill up miraculously — even though average rainfall has dropped and the city’s population has tripled in the past 30 years.

“The well is endless. The water comes from deep inside the earth,” my neighbor assured me after I asked if it was really necessary to “wash the street,” as he calls drowning the asphalt in gallons of water to clean the dust. “God has given us this water to use,” he said.

Nowhere is the drought more visible than in Iran’s former capital, Isfahan, a desert city 250 miles south of here. It is home to a once mighty river, the Zayanderud, or the River of Life, that cuts through the historic center like a clumsily rolled out carpet.

Over the past three years, however, the river has been dry, the result of little rainfall and a lack of sufficient water management. Residents who in the past would stroll along Isfahan’s riverbanks and breathe in the cool breeze off the flowing water instead cover their faces to defend against the dust blowing from the dry riverbeds. […]

Agriculture uses more than 90 percent of all of Iran’s water, including for water-intensive crops such as melons, grapes and sugar beets. Taking on this sector requires a lot of determination and would require unpopular decisions.

The drought has been causing dust storms that have prompted the United Nations to name four Iranian cities in the top 10 most polluted cities for air quality in the world. Recently a friend told me that he had decided to sell his family’s house in southern Iran because he saw no future there with the continuing drought.

Clerics have urged everyone to pray for rain. [more]

The Empty River of Life

Iranian boys sit on the roof of a mud-house in the village of Adimi situated in the once exceptional wetlands of Lake Hamoon, now sand-baked earth. Photo: AFP

By Cyril Julien
21 March 2015

(AFP) – Nazar Sarani's village in southeast Iran was once an island. It is now a desert, a casualty of the country's worsening water crisis.

"We live in the dust," said the 54-year-old cattle herder of his home in the once exceptional biosphere of Lake Hamoun, a wetland of varied flora and fauna, which is now nothing but sand-baked earth.

Climate change, with less rainfall each year, is blamed, but so too is human error and government mismanagement.

Iran's reservoirs are only 40 percent full according to official figures, and nine cities including the capital Tehran are threatened with water restrictions after dry winters.

The situation is more critical in Sistan-Baluchistan, the most dangerous area in Iran, where a Sunni minority is centred in towns and villages that border Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Only 15 years ago, Hamoun was the seventh largest wetland in the world, straddling 4,000 square kilometres (1,600 square miles) between Iran and Afghanistan, with water rolling in from the latter's Helmand river.

But with dams since built in Afghanistan as well as other blocked pathways holding back the source of Hamoun's diversity, the local economy has collapsed.

Some 3,000 families whose lifeline was fishing have left and young people head to other provinces for work.

A study in 2013 by the World Resources Institute ranked Iran as the world's 24th most water-stressed nation, with public consumption around twice the world average.

Government subsidies on water do nothing to encourage efficiency, and public education messages on television and radio are ignored.

Agricultural use—for water-heavy crops such as rice and corn—is thought to eat up nearly 90 percent of national supply, with experts saying irrigation is poorly managed, resulting in high wastage.

For those whose taps are running dry, the result is hardship and human turmoil: drug use is rising and sandstorms are causing respiratory illnesses.

Sarani's village, Sikhsar, where wooden boats sit on hard mud that was once the waterfront, is a place that mother earth has transformed.

The area once had several villages, 3,000 cows, lakes and birds.

Sarani's own herd used to number 100. Now down to just 10 cows, his depleted milk sales are not enough to feed the family or educate four children.

Most local youths have headed to the cities of Yazd, Semnan and Tehran to work as construction labourers.

The water problem is everywhere. Lake Urmia, a near 145-kilometre-long (90-mile), 48-kilometre wide salt lake near Iran's northwest border with Turkey, is almost empty.

And in the city of Isfahan, an ancient jewel long dubbed "half the world" for its beautiful palaces, boulevards, bridges and mosques, the Zayanderud river that runs through it is often bone dry. [more]

As lakes become deserts, drought is Iran's new problem



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