The Water History of Iran

My name is Sophia Montakab and I am a PhD student of Middle Eastern History at UCI. Within the Middle East, my central focus is Iran and in particular its water history. Thanks to the Humanities Dean’s Gateway Award in Persian Studies I was able to travel Iran. I drove from Shiraz, to Esfahan, to Tehran, and then to Yazd visiting historic hydraulic structures and meeting with Iranian water experts.

Dating back to the time of the Achaemenids (550-330 BCE), the Persians developed the earliest, most sophisticated irrigation technologies in the world. The most famous and frankly astounding technology is called the qanat. This chain-well system taps into groundwater in arid climates and transfers high quality water to the surface of desert zones without the need to pump. Qanats make the desert bloom. Unlike modern irrigation technologies, the qanat system is more ecologically and even economically sustainable since the technology is driven by gravity alone. Furthermore it is extremely efficient in its minimal loss of water to evaporation.

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However, since the introduction of modern irrigation technology during the White Revolution in the 1960s, qanats have fallen into disrepair. Today, most agriculturalists invest in private pump wells to make the desert bloom. Qanats require a higher level of community cooperation than private pump wells. This switch in irrigation technology reflects the larger evolution of the Iranian economy since the twentieth century. These pump wells are causing an ecological and economic crisis in many regions of Iran.  The invasive manner by which the pump penetrates the water table, coupled with the vast increase in the rate of water pumped since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has caused the groundwater table in many regions to shrink. Groundwater is a finite resource. It takes hundreds of years of snow run-off to replenish a water table. For a growing portion of the Iranian Plateau, extraction rates exceed replenishment rates.

Throughout my travels through southern and central Iran, I met farmers who were forced to sell their land and move to the cities due to this lack of water. In this way, the water crisis results in intensified urbanization in Iran. In the agricultural village of Mobarak Abad by the tomb of Cyrus, I met with a tribal leader who estimated that 30% of his village had relinquished farming in the past year and moved to the city due to the lack of water.

Here is a picture I took of some local children enjoying the fresh water from the last functioning qanat left in Mobarak Abad:

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Due to this water crisis, water historians and hydraulic engineers are currently partnering in Iran to develop new technologies to combat these vast challenges. By delving into the history of water management in Iran, and especially the legal aspects of water rights, I hope my dissertation will contribute to this important project. I argue that in Iran, as throughout the world, the study of society cannot be separated from the study of the environment.

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