The dying Hamoun wetlands — Iran’s sorrow

hamoun wetland iranTehran: The fertile Hamoun wetlands on Iran’s border with Afghanistan have a long history. They supported a sophisticated culture in ancient times where, according to legend, Zoroastrianism originated. The verdant landscape was the setting for the epic Persian poem, the Shahnameh.

But it has taken just a few years to turn the 5,660 sq km area into an ecological disaster. Its once teeming waters are now reduced to a cracked, dust-covered expanse dotted with abandoned boats.

State mismanagement, 15 years of drought and the building of dams in neighbouring Afghanistan are blamed for the disappearance of the waters, leaving the local population, who for generations lived on fishing, cattle breeding and hunting, with no source of income.

“We are alive but we do not live,” said Somayyeh, a 26-year-old woman whose family lost 100 cows and 50 sheep because of the drying out of the region. “Hamoun brings us nothing but dust and misery.”

The dying wetland is just one sign of a growing water crisis in Iran that political leaders say is likely to become the country’s biggest challenge in the future.

Over the past four decades the country’s population has doubled to 78m while rainfall has declined 16 per cent. Annual rainfall is about 200mm, about a third of the global average, and 75 per cent of it falls on just 25 per cent of the country. Wasteful irrigation practices and the growth of industry in arid regions have added to the pressure on water resources.

Some 74 important Iranian wetlands are “seriously damaged”, according to Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vice-president and head of the Environment Protection Organisation.

The dried up wetlands are not only harming the local economy but are also creating dust storms and a choking haze in many parts of the country, contributing to respiratory disease, cancer and even depression.

Hamoun also has the potential to provoke instability in a region where competition for water resources is intense. Tehran blames the Kabul government for cutting off water supplies to the wetland by building dams and canals for irrigation schemes in the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz — although analysts point out the creation of reservoirs in Sistan-Balochistan province by the Iranian government’s has also diverted water from Hamoun.

Nasser Ahmad Noor, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Iran, pointed out that the situation on the other side of the border was “even worse”.

“For more than three decades Afghanistan has been at war, while Iran was going through development, progress and [strengthening its] authority,” he told a gathering organised by the Iranian government at the border town of Zabol.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s centrist president has promised to tackle the country’s water crisis and has given special importance to Hamoun, along with the Zayandeh Roud river in the historic city of Isfahan, which has in recent months seen water flow after more than a year of being completely dry, and Lake Urmia in the northwest, which has shrunk alarmingly.

The country’s environment authorities have called for international assistance to save the wetlands. “International organisations have a responsibility to help Iran with adaptation to climate change, which has inflicted serious damage [on the country], Ebtekar said on a trip to Hamoun last week.

She added that Iran had made tackling its water crisis a national priority, but needs technical know-how and regional and international co-operation as well as funding.

However, international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme make it difficult for foreign donors to provide financial assistance to Tehran. Pressure from Washington also limits most other assistance to the Islamic regime, say Iranian analysts and western officials. Falling oil prices in recent months have added to the budget pressures on the Iranian government.

Gary Lewis, resident representative of the UN development programme in Tehran, said the crisis in Hamoun cannot be solved by one country alone, it rather needed consensus.

For the inhabitants of Hamoun, it may be too late. The area is home to ethnic and religious minorities and has been plagued with drug-trafficking and violence. Poverty is widespread and thousands who have farmed here for generations have migrated to other cities as their livelihoods have literally dried up.

Poverty and unemployment in the area have been exacerbated by the closure nearly a decade ago of the Zabol border crossing into Afghanistan. This has improved security in the area but deprived local residents of illicit border trading and smuggling, on which many families depended for survival.

Ali-Osat Hashemi, the governor of Sistan-Balochistan province, said there were no accurate figures for the number leaving the area. But officials in the town of Nimroz point out that at least 3,500 students have left schools over the past 10 years and say migration is continuing.

Nasrin, a 24-year-old soil and water engineer, says she and her two younger sisters have no jobs and no prospect for good marriages and that dust from Hamoun has left them with little hope that their lives will change. “It feels like the world ends here,” she sighed.

By Gulf News