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Food, Politics, and the Iranian Way of Water | Part 2


11 Jul 2011 06:04Comments

Part 1: The life and near death of the qanat system.

Part 2: Qanats -- natural harmony.

PomegranateTree_-_Birds.png [ personal history ] Anthropologists and archeologists believe qanats were invented in Iran just over four millennia, or two hundred generations, ago. Then the technology spread west and east, bringing new rhythms of life to barren lands, from the deserts of Sudan to the oasis of Turpan.

The first qanats were byproducts of mining in the Zagros Mountains, the wall of soaring peaks and deep valleys rising along Iran's western edge. Miners bore secondary tunnels to discharge water collecting in their active shafts. This offered nearby farmers something as precious as the coal itself: endless water. With this gift they could settle and grow food year round.

The qanat's simple concept allowed it to develop rapidly: Bore a slightly slopping shaft into the foothills of mountains, and water will seep in along its length and grow into a stream by the time it reaches open air.

As foothills rise quicker than the sloping tunnel, the earth rises fast, often more than a 1,000 feet over the far end of the tunnel. Penetrating alluvial layers, soaked by rain and melted snow, the tunnels receive a constant and persistent gift, which they collect and deliver to delighted tea drinkers, dusty travelers, and farmers with equally vital concerns.

Typical qanat shafts run from about a mile to over 15 miles, although there are 120-mile-long ones in northeast Iran, still productive after 12 centuries. Thousands still produce near freezing water in places where there is no rainfall from March to November. They deliver millions of gallons of water each day. In fact, the 1967 International Conference on Water for Peace held in Washington, D.C., demonstrates that much was understood about the delicate relationship of qanats and the aquifers on which they depend.

Certainly, qanats are complex structures to design and build. They require expert prospectors, engineers, and excavators, and thus, substantial capital. Depending on the historical period, the construction costs were borne either by governments or financially capable land owners. Regions they thus transformed were named after them. For example one of the qanats at Sharifabad is known as the Qanat-e Pazookie, which dates back to the early Sassanid period, circa 1100 C.E.

Iran is mostly a high desert plateau, much like eastern Oregon. Similarly, its plains are bordered by mountain ranges, Alborz to the north and Zagros to the west. The eastern mountains don't get much snow, although there is sufficient rain to feed the alluvial reservoirs and the qanats that tap into them.

High-grade, foot-deep topsoil covers many mountain skirts. But lack of reliable surface water and scant rainfall for most of the year makes them effectively barren, or at best, grazing land. On the plains, the average annual rainfall is less than a single day's average precipitation in the northwest United States. Useful and abundant water tables in most areas are over 500 feet below the surface, making vertical access impractical. Without qanats, 75 percent of Iran's arable lands would have been left fallow, leaving the desert's periphery scantly populated.

Perfect brew, good dough, abundance

It is best to enjoy qanats at their roaring or gurgling mouths while sipping tea brewed with their water. Tea helps us ascertain many important characteristics of the water, from alkalinity to mineral content. Tea reacts with all the elements in water and expresses them, making it a good evaluation tool.

My father's business office in Tehran was in an old caravanserai, or caravan inn, near the city's bazaar. At its heart was a large courtyard protected by huge trees, surrounded by two stories of offices set behind deep arcades that cut off the rays of hot sunlight that made it through the thick foliage.

Next to his office was that of a prominent tea merchant who stored most of his new arrivals in the courtyard. Between his wares and the Sharifabad qanat water, supplied daily in jugs, there was good tea every day. I learned quickly that water is 95 perfect of a perfect brew. It is hard to ruin tea if the water is right. Like memories of certain deserts, those of good tea are indelible. Spiritually, qanats are there to serve tea drinkers first, then for making sangak, with the overflow for agriculture, cooking, and drinking.

Until the mid-1960s, qanats provided nearly 70 percent of Iran's irrigation needs, especially between April and November. In spring, rivers deliver snow melt from distant mountains in a short period that allows farmers to sow the first of their annual crops -- mostly table vegetables. Grains, cotton, and fall produce are planted in early and late summer and harvested in the fall, only possible with qanat water. Fruit orchards, too, are irrigated by surface water until late spring and then by qanat water on hot summer days into autumn.

pomegranate_color_smaller.jpgThe winter solstice ritual of Yalda is incomplete without shinny clusters of split pomegranates and crisp melons. Yalda, which dates back at least 2,800 years, celebrates light's gradual triumph over darkness. Family and friends gather at an elder's house. The melons, symbolizing nature's perseverance, and pomegranates, fertility, keep kids awake deep into the night with sugar highs and abundant vitamin C, and adults as well, for other reasons. Pomegranate orchards require timely irrigation. Too much and they are tart, too little and their seeds shrivel and dry out. Uncontrolled rainfall is detrimental. Predictable qanat water allows irrigation according to plants' needs. For centuries, Iranians used qanats for properly raised produce to consume late into fall and winter.

Nothingness to nothing

For three months in 1962 we watched, along with two villages' worth of farmers, as a machine bore a 350-foot-deep hypodermic hole into the fertile soil of one of our farms. The promise of a cheap, endless supply of water offered by this Western miracle was intoxicating. It was the mantra of the engineers and workers of the deep-well company. The engineers were from British Leyland, a large engine manufacturer. Their words were like music: no need to maintain the qanats any longer. Water would be had, effortlessly, eternally. That no one would be needed to take care of the qanats suggested that the land owner would no longer be important. "You can be independent" would be the slogan today, but back then, it didn't mean much to a tenant farmer. Anyhow, the seed was planted that qanats, and therefore the land owner, were dispensable. Technology was here to rescue and to free.

Technology hit water at 350 feet. A huge engine was bolted atop a nine-foot-high concrete foundation buried seven feet in the ground. Probably that was to keep the engine from deserting its eternal chore of chugging up water 350 feet.

Around 1 a.m. some morning in July, its roar rose. Most animals and smart villagers had been fast asleep. A few insects were out to enjoy the cool moisture of the night and the symphony of the owls. To the naked eye, the stars were just as they had been the previous night and probably very much as when the first qanats were being built. Then the dogs who had been sleeping started to howl, perhaps expressing their thanks to the diesel engine for waking them up to such a spectacular heavenly display. Or maybe they were just expressing the sorts of things people articulate to noisy neighbors at 1 a.m. Certainly, that roar was not a sound made for the night. Nights are made to be filled with the sounds of insects and a few lonely guard dog howls. Most animals know that. Our intelligence leads us to ignore natural rules, unwisely.

The engine's roar was blinding, loud, and insistent. You wanted to shut your eyes in fear of it blowing up from the pain to which it was giving voice. When finally water gushed out, it flew right across the concrete basin that was built to catch it and overshot its far edge by yards. The engine's noise drowned the jubilant cries of the farmers who had stayed up in anticipation of this transformational moment, a pantomime celebration with the 1,650 RPM diesel drone as background.

My sleepless dreams of unending water were appended by another -- endless fumes, vibration, and the engine's incessant moan. I'd seen Tarzan cover his ears near deafening waterfalls. This did not feel at all the same. This was, somehow, unnatural. Nothing like a qanat, delivering in soothing gurgles or enlivening roars that began ages ago and would continue for eons. The engine was making a big deal of doing what qanats did with natural elegance.

Water for nothing. But the new god was noisy and smoky. Donkeys in the area started taking roundabout paths, skirting the clangorous beast.

The roar of the engine masked the chirping, cawing, and cooing of early morning sparrows, crows, and doves, and let pass unnoticed the cessation of the nightsong of the owls and insects. I bolted up just before noon, puzzled to find myself in a heated debate with no one about the "thing." I walked the few hundred yards from our makeshift camp of mosquito nets to the well. The mechanics were offering more diesel fuel to it and trying to adjust its operating temperature, hoping to reduce its fumes.

The temperature seemed to have risen twice as fast as the sun. It does so on high plains, jumping from chilly at dawn to sweltering by midmorning on the way to a searing noon. A cycle, nonetheless, essential for crisp, sweet melons, aromatic tarragon, succulent peaches, and strong cotton yarn.

A few farmers were wading in the crater made by the gushing water. In a rush to counter the heat, I jumped in too. If 12-year-olds could have heart attacks, I would have had one then. The water was just above freezing -- like qanat water. The roar of the engine spared me the laughter of those used to bathing in qanat water, and I took the sight of their suddenly exposed teeth as grateful smiles. At least there was one similarity with a qanat. The water was seriously cold.

Someone had caught a blind fish -- or, I should say, an eyeless fish. It had been dragged from the depths without getting mangled in the turbine. It was alive, up here, in bright sunlight, far above its home. There was absolutely no way to "throw it back." An ugly sight. I felt a familiar shudder, another "end of age" feeling.

The tea brewed with that water was not good. My mother explained that the water had more calcium and manganese than is good for tea. Oh well, I thought, at least the plants wouldn't care, and so it was a reasonable compromise to improve the farmers' living standards. After all, the Sharifabad qanat was just a few kilometers away.

But the plants did notice the excess manganese. They were accustomed to an environment where nature had relegated redundant minerals to strata below where they rooted. After a few years, specially formulated fertilizer was required. Even plants know better.

Peace across the world

We proceeded with the wells, unaware of their true context. As we experienced poor results during the following decades, we blamed ourselves for the unwise use of technology whose consequences no one could have predicted. Not so.

For several years, culminating in May 1967, hundreds of people from around the world, each in some way involved with water, had researched and prepared studies to bring to Washington, D.C., to share at the ironically named International Conference on Water for Peace. Their reports are recorded in the conference's eight-volume, 11,000-page proceedings: evidence for the claims made here.

It takes little browsing in the reports to make clear that any ignorance of the technological and political consequences was feigned. The attendees were knowledgeable of the conditions, the options, and the vulnerabilities of the system. The geologists, mineralogists, hydrologists, economists, agronomists, physicists, and politicians also understood the critical role of water in every part of the world and the specific role of qanats in Iran.

Surprisingly, one finds detailed and comprehensive studies of the alluvial layers in the aprons of major and minor mountain ranges enclosing Iran's central desert. It is clear that everyone knew the qanats were a natural way of discharging these reservoirs without damage or depletion.

It was understood, through experience in other corners of the globe, that drawing rapidly from such underground formations would alter their geology and in most cases clog the pores through which water percolated and collected. The proper balance between that made available for human use and that left for feeding the teeming ecology at the desert's periphery, which had kept desertification in check, was known and well comprehended. No one can hide behind "Well, we didn't know."

Satisfying an induced thirst

718px-Qanat_cross_section.svg.pngFifteen more deepwater wells were dug on our different lands by September 1968, when I got on a Lufthansa flight to Boston via Cairo, Frankfurt, and New York. Rushing west with the thirst to master electric distribution networks to help electrify the lives of all the remote farmers I peered down upon from seat 15A, I was unaware that a conference the year before would result in changes beyond anyone's dreams.

The eight-millennia-long miracle of human ingenuity had allowed a rich life to develop on an otherwise vast, forlorn plateau, a tiny part of which was then visible from my sealed porthole. Shortly after takeoff, I sensed a tingling incongruity. Gazing down on dark green patches struggling to distinguish themselves from the barren land around them in the early morning light, my goal seemed pathetic. Electricity would not improve much; it could even make this landscape freakish -- artificial lights burning all night where there was meant to be darkness, coolness, with little but the aural traces of insects chasing their mates. Perhaps it was just a pang of nostalgia at 35,000 feet, or perhaps a spark of rationality. How much does an 18-year-old know about life? Ashamed, I poked in the pocket in front of me to find something distracting.

Most of the water that Khayyam and Khwarizmi drank and with which they irrigated their vineyards while developing their notions of nothingness and zero came from qanats. Thus they laid the foundations of modern mathematics and science, and hence, technology, whose products were eventually used to subvert the system that had nurtured them.

In a Persian poetic parable, a dying eagle's glance follows the length of an arrow that has pierced its breast up to its terminus where, through dimming eyes, it notices eagle feathers used to stabilize the arrow's deadly trajectory. How would Khayyam or Khwarizmi regard the trajectory of turbines from where they pierce the earth to their terminus in aquifers deep below? From zero to nothingness in a few short centuries.

For several decades, these events have prompted nightmarish visions that seem incoherent, yet related. Mindless embrace of technology? Foolish land redistribution? Coincidences? Benign stupidity? Lack of foresight? Even nightmares have bases. But there was no proof, just speculations. The proceedings of the Water for Peace conference changed all that.

End of Part 2 | Part 3: What does nature know?

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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