An orchard of dead trees near the village of Pouze Khoon, Iran. Until a decade ago, the pistachio groves were green. Now there is no rain and the groundwater is almost all gone. Photo: Newsha Tavakolian / The New York Times

By Thomas Erdbrink
18 December 2015

POUZE KHOON, Iran (The New York Times) – The early-morning sun meagerly brightened the gloom of this sad township, a collection of empty, crumbling houses along a highway through the dusty desert landscape in southeastern Iran.

Until a decade or so ago, Amin Shoul would come here every year to help his father harvest pistachios, the nuts that are as much a symbol of Iran as caviar. Now, with the last reserves of groundwater tapped out, the family’s grove and the seemingly endless fields beyond it are filled with dead trees, their bone-colored branches a deathly contrast to the turquoise sky.

Mr. Shoul, 32, a journalist, said he and his family had moved away years ago, leaving the house to squatters, unemployed laborers living off meager government stipends — and even they had started to leave. “I don’t see how we can ever return to the past,” he remarked, matter-of-factly.

As Iran emerges from isolation after signing a nuclear agreement with the West, attention has focused on its business relations, particularly in the oil and airline industries. But Iran needs expertise in a number of areas, including the environment. Most pressing in that regard is its impending water crisis.

Iran is in the grip of a seven-year drought that shows no sign of breaking and that, many experts believe, may be the new normal. Even a return to past rainfall levels might not be enough to head off a nationwide water crisis, since the country has already consumed 70 percent of its groundwater supplies over the past 50 years.

Always arid, Iran is facing desertification as lakes and rivers dry up and once-fertile plains become barren. According to the United Nations, Iran is home to four of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, with dust and desertification among the leading causes.

In Zanjan, northwest of Tehran, the historic Mir Baha-eddin Bridge crosses a riverbed of sand, stones and weeds. In Gomishan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the fishermen who once built houses on poles surrounded by freshwater now have to drive for miles to reach the receding shoreline. In Urmia, close to the Turkish border, residents have held protests to demand that the government return water to a once-huge lake that is now the source only of dust storms.

More than 15 percent of the approximately 150,000 acres of pistachio trees in the main producing area in Kerman Province have died in the last decade or so. […]

Soheil Sharif, a major producer in the area, said other farmers had ridiculed him when he installed a $600,000 drip irrigation system in his 90-acre pistachio grove a few years ago. But now his farm is green, while others around it have dried up.

He blamed the government for keeping energy and water prices low, saying that he paid only $270 a month for his electricity bill, covering his huge pump and 20 employees. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “And while we have no water, its price is also dirt cheap.”

His investment has paid off, Mr. Sharif, 44, acknowledged. “I have bought myself another 15 years,” he said as he walked among freshly picked pistachio trees. That is just enough to last to his retirement.

“After that,” he said, “this place, like everything else here, is done for.” [more]

Scarred Riverbeds and Dead Pistachio Trees in a Parched Iran

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