Environment

Celebrating Water in an Arid Paradise, From Antiquity to Present

Golnoush Hassanpour

Legend has it that a lingering land dispute between the ancient rulers of Iran and Turan over the boundaries of their territory brought about an eight-year drought when not a single drop of rain fell on earth.  To settle the dispute, Arash the Iranian Master Archer was called upon to release his arrow from the top of Mount Damavand, the highest peak in Iran, to determine the boundaries of the lands wherever his arrow landed. Arash ascended to the peak of Mount Damavand and with a deep breath pulled his bow with all his might. When he finally did release his arrow to the wind, he exhaled his last breath and gave his life for his beloved land, Iran. The arrow traveled for days and finally landed on a tree by the river Jayhoon.  No sooner than the border was set between once enemy nations, Iran and Turan, did the rain pour on both lands that had suffered much from the drought. ‘Tir’ (meaning arrow) or ‘Tishtar’ (lightening) refer to thunderstorms that bring much-needed rains to boost harvest and avert the drought.  Tirgan, the joyous festival of rain is a celebration of water that takes place in the peak of the dry summer season when the land is dehydrated and crops are thirsty for rain. The legend of Arash is a reminder of the importance of water and rain to the people of Iran. Tirgan, like other Iranian celebrations such as Norouz, Shab-e Chelleh, and Chaharshanbeh Soori, is rooted in Zoroastrian beliefs that honor the patterns of nature and believe in harmony between man and the sacred elements – fire, water, wind, and earth. It’s not difficult to understand why ancient Iranians, their rituals, and sacred sites were so centered on nature when we consider the scarcity of resources like water in the hot, arid, and semi-arid lands and the dependence of an agrarian society on those resources for survival. Scarcity, however, didn’t prevent the flourishing of ancient and thriving civilizations in the Iranian plateau. Ingenuity in engineering design and architecture allowed Iranians to become deeply engaged stewards of the land and design heavenly abodes – literally paradises – in the driest of climates. Qanats, Aab Anbars, yakhchals and Badgirs are compartments of a resourcefully designed system to create paradise out of the desert. Qanats or underground channels were first seen in the first millennium BC and carried water from aquifers to settlements in hot and arid areas for irrigation and human use. They extended for as much as hundreds of kilometers without loss of water to evaporation. Subterranean reservoirs or cisterns, called Aab Anbars, developed centuries later to store water from Qanats. A ‘yakhchal’ or ice pit was an aboveground conical structure constructed with heat- and water-resistant material that applied evaporative cooling to store ice in the middle of the summer heat in the desert.

Tirgan, the joyous festival of rain is a celebration of water that takes place in the peak of the dry summer season when the land is dehydrated and crops are thirsty for rain. The legend of Arash is a reminder of the importance of water and rain to the people of Iran. Tirgan, like other Iranian celebrations such as Norouz, Shab-e Chelleh, and Chaharshanbeh Soori, is rooted in Zoroastrian beliefs that honor the patterns of nature and believe in harmony between man and the sacred elements – fire, water, wind, and earth. It’s not difficult to understand why ancient Iranians, their rituals, and sacred sites were so centered on nature when we consider the scarcity of resources like water in the hot, arid, and semi-arid lands and the dependence of an agrarian society on those resources for survival. Scarcity, however, didn’t prevent the flourishing of ancient and thriving civilizations in the Iranian plateau. Ingenuity in engineering design and architecture allowed Iranians to become deeply engaged stewards of the land and design heavenly abodes – literally paradises – in the driest of climates. Qanats, Aab Anbars, yakhchals and Badgirs are compartments of a resourcefully designed system to create paradise out of the desert. Qanats or underground channels were first seen in the first millennium BC and carried water from aquifers to settlements in hot and arid areas for irrigation and human use. They extended for as much as hundreds of kilometers without loss of water to evaporation. Subterranean reservoirs or cisterns, called Aab Anbars, developed centuries later to store water from Qanats. A ‘yakhchal’ or ice pit was an aboveground conical structure constructed with heat- and water-resistant material that applied evaporative cooling to store ice in the middle of the summer heat in the desert. To

complete the system, ‘Badgir’ towers or windcatchers channeled the slightest breeze from high above to the dwellings below. Together, Qanats, Aab Anbars, yakhchals and Badgirs created a durable infrastructure system that allowed human habitation to prosper in the harshest of climates for thousands of years. The word paradise originates from Persian ‘pardis’, referring to the exquisite gardens that fed from qanats and created a contrast of lush green against the dry landscapes. Legend, spirituality, and stewardship – all point to the high regard ancient Iranians had for natural elements like water, on which life depended. Fast-forward to the 21st century and technological advances have reshaped the relationship that once defined human interaction with the natural elements. In an effort to resolve security of access to water in major urban centers and bring Iran into the modern era of technology, major dam and transmission pipeline construction projects started in Iran in the 1950s. Technological advance, however, seems to have alienated the deeper sense of respect for and stewardship of the environment. Among the most worrying current environmental trends in the country are desertification, drought, and loss of wetlands and fresh water. Most notably, the drying of Lake Oroumieh – the largest salt lake in the world – to nearly 20% of its former extent has caused concern about dust and salt storms. The consequence has been increased in the rate of respiratory and heart illness, devastation to fishing, and a threat to farming due to salinization and irrigation shortages.

The reasons for this have been blamed primarily on excessive damming of headwaters and overapplication of groundwater for agricultural irrigation. Lake Oroumieh was once the site of majestic flocks of migratory birds including flamingoes, pelicans, ibises, storks, avocets, stilts, and gulls. Lake Bakhtegan, once Iran’s second largest lake; Lake Hamoun, a desert oasis that once supported an abundance of fish, fox, otter, deer, leopards and migratory birds; and Zayandeh Roud or Life-Giving River have also dried up almost completely under the combined impacts of prolonged drought and damming. A 2013 study by the World Resources Institute ranked Iran as the world’s 24th most water-stressed nation, putting it at extremely high risk of future water scarcity. Despite the grim news, interesting developments have taken shape in the environmental sphere to combat modern environmental crises. Just last month in April, Iran’s Department of the Environment announced the launch of 60 new schools with a curriculum focused on environmental studies in five eco-zones around the country.

The schools are part of a pilot project to incorporate environmental awareness in children from kindergarten to high school, with the aim of expanding the program to all schools inside the country in the next 10 years. Non-governmental organizations have played a major role in raising the conscience of the general public. One of the most prominent and active environmental NGOs in Iran was founded in 1993 by “Mahlagha Mallah”, known as the “mother of Iran’s environment”, and has established branches across the country. The Women’s Society against Environmental Pollution holds seminars, monthly sittings, education courses and environmental markets with the mission to carry out “research and educational activities in order to empower every segment of local communities”. Although the NGO’s membership is not exclusive to women, it recognizes women’s central role in raising public awareness of sustainable living and encourages women to take leadership. In 2009, the Society published an article on “Water Rights” and the right of the continued “Healthy Life of Iranian Wetlands and Lakes”, which stressed the crises in the case of three prominent wetlands in the country and made recommendations for protection of delicate wetland systems. On the verge of 100 years old, Mahlagha Mallah continues to persevere in her efforts to protect Iran’s environment. She plants trees while sitting in her wheelchair and is a role model for urban sustainable living. She practices composting, avoids bottled water, and limits purchases to those with biodegradable packaging. In doing so, she has avoided creating waste in nearly half a century. The leadership of people like Mallah and new waves of environmental activism creates a sense of optimism about the future for Iran despite the decades-long lack of comprehensive planning and management that have given rise to the current water resource crises. It still remains to be seen if the rate of social and technological ingenuity can overcome the rapid drought and desertification in the country.

About the author

Golnoush Hassanpour

Golnoush Hassanpour

Tirgan Media