Iran Beset by Water Woes From Wetlands to Afghan Border

Aziz Sabouri was 10 when he started herding cattle along the shores of the Hamoun Lakes by the Afghan border in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan province.

Now 80, his face craggy with deep lines, Sabouri stands in the middle of a vast tract of bone-dry land, taut with cracks and dotted with derelict boats -- the oases of wetlands he dreams of from his youth all but vanished.

“I want the government to bring water back,” said Sabouri, wearing a white turban and the province’s traditional long tunic over baggy trousers. “If there is water, my life will change.”

Holder of the largest gas deposits and fourth-biggest oil reserves according to BP Plc, the Islamic republic has been hobbled by U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear program. Yet Sabouri’s worries are more specific: water deficits, dust storms, 650,000 wells drilled that deplete groundwater, wasteful irrigation practices, a shrinking habitat and chronic air pollution.

Iran is an arid country, ranked 24th most water-stressed by World Resources Institute. Water shortages aren’t uncommon, largely from drought, the worst from 1998 to 2001. Dust and sand storms that increased amid climate change now blow across desiccated lake beds, plaguing the Hamouns, Lake Urmia in the northwest and the Shadegan wetlands in the southwest.

In the Hamouns, a severe freshwater decline has devastated fishing and farming, prompting the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people. Those remaining agonize over limited water supplies.

Dried Lake

In Urmia, the saltwater lake’s shrinkage led to higher salinity in surrounding lands, salt drifts hurting crops and a brine shrimp’s habitat. The disappearance of the lake, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, has been accelerating since 2011.

Withering too are the Shadegan wetlands, a UNESCO-listed heritage site with fresh, brackish and salt waters near Iraq’s border, Parviz Garshasbi, deputy head of Iran’s Watershed Management Organization, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Iran’s current water consumption, he said, doesn’t help: 11 to 13 billion cubic meters beyond its groundwater capacity. A million gallons of water in comparison fills 20,000 bathtubs.

Iran’s water availability per capita fell to 1,900 cubic meters last year from 7,000 in 1956, according to the UN. After warning about over-usage, the government briefly cut water supplies to 3,000 big users in Tehran last year.

Restive Populace

A thousand miles (1,660 kilometers) from Tehran’s urban sprawl, the Hamouns’ ecological distress angers Iran’s most restive province. It also affects relations with Afghanistan, where a third of the wetlands exist.

Sistan-Baluchestan is Iran’s poorest province. With 2.5 million people, it has the second-lowest number of households using the public water system and Iran’s youngest population. Southern Sistan-Baluchestan, which shares a border with Pakistan, is home to a predominantly Sunni, ethnically Baluch population where Sunni insurgents have staged several attacks on border police in the past few years.

Villages near Hamouns’ parched lake beds are strikingly similar to those around the adjacent Afghan province of Farah. Before sections of the border were closed two years ago, families would freely cross to visit relatives on the other side.

Now, “we have our livelihoods at stake, our economy at stake, we have our future at stake,” Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president of Iran and head of the country’s Environment Protection Organization or EPO, said at a ceremony in the border town of Zabol.

A decade ago, the three lakes comprising Hamoun’s wetlands covered 5,600 square kilometers, the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. They served 420,000 people, two cities and 935 villages, EPO says. Today, only a few shallow patches of water remain.

‘It’s Empty’

“This is it, there’s nothing, it’s empty,” said Ali Owsat Hashemi, governor of Sistan-Baluchestan, pointing toward an endless arid horizon.

The drying has almost doubled seasonal dust and sandstorms from 120 days a year to 220 days, increasing respiratory, heart and intestinal illnesses and rates of cancer, according to a 2014 report published by EPO and the United Nations.

It’s a fate mirroring that of Urmia, 2,100 kilometers to the west. Once the Middle East’s largest saltwater lake, it’s now 20 percent of its former size. Salt-infused winds blowing across barren sections are causing “serious” local health problems, according to the UN Development Programme.

Urmia’s devastation gained the attention of President Hassan Rouhani, who has pledged $5 billion for recovery works. Officials say early efforts may be paying off with water levels in Urmia beginning to recover. How much is unclear. Ninety percent was dry in 2014.

Flamingos Return

Majestic flocks of flamingos, once a fixture at the lake, returned last fall after several years’ absence, the head of Urmia’s national park said.

The Hamouns, spread across a frontier shared with Afghanistan’s Nimroz and Farah provinces and on UNESCO’s tentative inclusion list, have received far less attention. Ebtekar wants that to change.

EPO ponied up $1 million to start. Ebtekar hopes Afghanistan will also step in to help.

Iran links the Hamouns’ problems to Afghanistan, urging its war-stricken neighbor to control irrigation of the Helmand River that starts in the Hindu Kush mountains and traverses agrarian provinces before reaching the border.

An Iran government report about the Hamouns says increased irrigation, diversion of water for crops, population growth and largely U.S.-funded projects including the Kajaki Dam started reducing flows to Sistan-Baluchestan in the 1950s.

Shared Interest

“It’s important that our agricultural practices are revisited on both sides,” Ebtekar said in an interview. With a new Afghan government on Ashraf Ghani’s election in September, “we’re very hopeful they will pay more attention to this issue,” she said.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Iran insists both countries have a shared interest in water management and replenishing the borderlands but said Helmand province and his nation have “been struggling with more than 30 years of war.”

“We hardly use any of our own resources,” the ambassador, Nasser Ahmad Noori, said in an interview. Population growth and a lack of rain contributed “but we can’t put the problem entirely at Afghanistan’s door,” the envoy said.

Over the years, cooperation over water matters has barely gone beyond the Zabol ceremony where poetry is read and traditional Sistani music plays.

Efforts to reach a water-management pact on the border date to the 1970s. Talks revived in the mid-2000s, a few years after after the Taliban government was deposed. They stalled again in 2008 when Afghanistan refused to endorse a UN-backed proposal from Iran to save the Hamouns.

“We need to forge consensus between both countries,” Gary Lewis, the UN representative to Iran, said at a recent gathering on the dusty banks of a Hamoun lake bed.

For Sabouri and others, the presence of officials in the impoverished enclave brings scant reassurance.

While the area around the Hamouns is largely free from the attacks that have plagued Iran’s security forces further south near the border with Pakistan, parts of the frontier with Afghanistan are still closed, halting a black-market trade route for fuel and goods, making things even worse for locals in light of the lake’s disappearance.

People were left with little choice but to leave.

“Fifty villages used to be in this area,” said Mohammad Bazzi, a 55-year-old livestock herder. “Where are they are now? They’ve gone because there’s no water, they’ve left for other towns.”

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