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Food, Politics, and the Iranian Way of Water | Part 3


12 Jul 2011 16:39Comments
1_9004183218_L600.jpg Part 1: The life and near death of the qanat system. | Part 2: Qanats -- natural harmony.

Part 3: What does nature know?

[ personal history ] Water and air are of the essence; we can consider ourselves fortunate for as long as they remain pure.

This simple string of words has been ricocheting off the distant boundaries of my desert's memory, audible at any distance. They entered that vast space late one summer afternoon. I was dozing on a wooden platform about a foot above the water spanning a fig tree-lined stream. The stream flowed from a qanat north of Semnan and passed through our garden at the city's edge. Its cooling evaporation allowed comfortable siestas on even the hottest days of summer. My uncle, a practicing Sufi, uttered those unsolicited words as if they were the conclusion to a dissertation I had woken at the end of, or the final expression of a reverie he may have worked up, sitting at the edge of that cool platform gazing in the crystal-clear water rushing below his feet. Although it might have sounded obvious, it was in fact overwhelmingly weighty for a 14-year-old.

Mechanized water extraction had been sold as a way to beat droughts, scarcity, and famine, eliminate land owners' control over water, and free the farming class. Alas, of the 15 mechanized wells drilled on our own lands, only two still deliver reasonable amounts of water. Not only have the wells stopped producing sufficiently, they damaged, in just two decades, billion-year-old underground alluvial structures by altering flow speed and patterns, eroding barriers and filters, and clogging them. If done knowingly this would be nothing short of a genocidal act, similar to inducing a famine.

Hook, line, and stinker

In light of the level of knowledge displayed at the 1967 Water for Peace conference, accelerated dam building in Iran and rapid draining of alluvial strata was inadvisable. Dams halt the recharge of alluvial reservoirs, while wells deform their structure, on which qanats depend. This was not unpredictable.

Land reform policy, a dictate of the Kennedy administration, broke up large holdings and the qanats were divided between the new owners. Before that, individual owners maintained the qanats. Afterward, the task fell to dozens and even hundreds of shareholders who could not organize maintenance, causing the qanats to silt up. In turn this forced them to drill more deep wells. Likewise, neither of these consequences were unpredictable and, indeed, perhaps both were planned.

Thus, by 1990, over two thirds of the more than 50,000 qanats had dried up. Most suffered alluvial reservoir deformations, while land reform had halted maintenance of the rest. Qanats whose alluvial aquifers were damaged remain beyond repair. The water that used to collect in their staggered aquifers now drains deep below Iran's central desert. Centuries hence, those areas may turn into large swamps and spawn new ecologies.

At their peak, in the mid-20th century, Iran's qanats produced 1.2 million liters per second, more than two thirds of the Mississippi's flow near Minneapolis. With expansion of the qanat system and advances in organic agriculture alone Iran would have quadrupled its yield, keeping it not only self-sufficient but also an exporter, certainly a discordant tune to the ear of Western agribusiness. Of course, it is not a surprise that what big business wants in Western democracies is delivered for them by their governments -- through coups, wars, and sanctions. They remove obstacles in the way of transnationals on their march to turn the whole world into their consumers.

Meanwhile, Iran may have to start desalinating water from marshes and from the Persian Gulf. Nuclear power plants are ideal for this purpose. The vast amount of water vapor is condensed for drinking and agriculture. So, now Iran is in a row about "nuclear weapons," an alleged pretext used to wrest control of nuclear fuel needed for possible desalination plants. When will Iran be able to produce fuel and thus agricultural water independently?

The corporate politics of technology

QanatHoopStructure.jpgIt is important to point out that Iran's farming system was well understood. Land owners provided land, equipment, fertilizer, seed, and most importantly, water. Iran's climate requires expertise to manage water.

Qanat maintenance, called laroubi, is demanding. In 2008, an average Iranian autoworker made about $8 per day, while a laroub made over $40 per day. In an average qanat, by the time the laroub team reaches the end of the gallery, it has to restart at the exit. Longer qanats require multiple laroub teams. Each team is composed of around six people, two to man the lift at the intermittent vertical access shafts for moving workers up and down into the gallery, as well as lifting up and disposing of the collected silt and lowering the ceramic clay rings, often 15 feet high, that line the tunnel. These interlocking porous rings support galleries in soft soil and filter sediments. Broken and clogged clay rings are replaced periodically. Fresh air has to be pumped into deep qanats to keep the workers alive. This is capital-intensive work that requires experienced management. Even with all the expense, qanats continue to produce at half the direct financial cost of mechanical wells and take far less of a toll on the environment.

Was land reform concerned with the tenant-farmers' "inequitable" condition, or was it the agricultural system itself? History suggests the latter. Inequity was a Madison Avenue invention. And when it became clear that it was not being solved, it was replaced as a rationale by "preventing a communist revolution."

If we take farmers' economic well-being as our criteria, the record shows that it didn't improve. After land reform, their income decreased. This was predictable too. Initially, the qanats ran for a while, without maintenance, but then they stopped.

Land reform thus helped dismantle Iran's agriculture by destroying its key feature: its indigenous, self-sustaining, and reliable irrigation system.

To wit, consider the billions of dollars spent on the creation and maintenance of the water transport system between the Colorado River and the cities of southern California. That puts the economic and political value of the qanats into sharp focus. For those not familiar with water issues in the western United States, the movie Chinatown offers a fine introduction.

Because many qanats were ruined and others stopped from lack of maintenance, Iran's agriculture slowed critically. By the late 1970s, it was importing large amounts of agricultural products from the United States, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Australia. Landowners and tenant farmers were taken out of the picture, preparing Iran for entry by multinational agribusinesses based in France, Britain, and the United States.

In 1975, the Pahlavi government contracted with a German consortium to construct a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, a remote location on the Persian Gulf. Far from population and industrial centers, its location didn't justify its stated purpose, except as a desalination plant. Yet this was never publicly discussed. Certainly, there would have been a voilà moment, after a multinational agribusiness acquired nearby uncultivated land at bargain prices, and suddenly the plant would be recognized as a good source of fresh water.

The 1979 Revolution halted the Bushehr project. When construction was relaunched in the late 1980s and with it the possibility of water production under Iranian control, nuclear issues erupted. As the West doesn't want Iran to have a reliable source of fresh water, weaponization became the excuse and control of fuel production the problem, I believe. If Iran managed to produce its own fuel, it would regain control of its water. This would be an dire threat to foreign agribusiness.

The road to the arc of crisis

QanatSurface1.jpgThe loss of the qanats and then the failure of mechanized wells caused chaos in Iran's farming sector by the early 1970s. The Ministry of Agriculture, later the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reform, was reorganized as the Ministry of Agricultural Corporations to provide bridge loans to struggling farmers and to help them create corporations that would consolidate their land, wells, and qanats. In exchange, farmers received shares of the corporations. The corporations managed the consolidated farms and distributed profits.

The corporations were the new land owners: they provided water management, hired workers, and marketed the products. They also managed equipment. Thus a political force was eradicated, and with it the qanat system. The government could now contract large transnationals as "consultants" to help it run its huge corporation farms.

Many felt that the corporations' accomplishments in certain regions of Iran was making up for land reform's damages. In fact, those accomplishments were achieved by cheap credit and large subsidies that facilitated the purchase of the latest farm equipment. None of that was justified by their income, and no banker would make such loans. Beautiful photos of fruit orchards and lush cotton, wheat, alfalfa, and vegetable fields belied the expense behind them.

The picture-perfect fields were created with oil rent, which was turned around and paid back to Allis-Chalmers, Fiat, Caterpillar, Massey Ferguson, British Leyland, Kubota, and others for mechanical equipment, and Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Pfizer, and others for fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, herbicides, and soil additives. Aerial assault fleets attacked insects and weeds, replacing old organic methods that had demanded only a fraction of the financial and public health costs.

The corporations were abandoned after the Revolution. Farmers reverted to individual production, but as disparate individuals they couldn't manage the qanats and had to rely on more deepwater wells, for which the Islamic government kept issuing licenses in fear of popular discontent if it stopped.

Four of these agricultural corporations have been revived over the last five years. The immediate benefit has been their ability to organize and attend to those qanats that can be saved. The villages of the Gonabad region in the northeast have become an example for others with a sustainable and predictable production model, reducing reliance on deepwater wells and resurrecting their qanats.

Revolution? Genocide? Cultural demise

Whether land reform caused the social upheaval that led to the 1979 uprising remains controversial. The fact that the rural population grew faster than the available land could sustain is certainly an important factor. In past studies, Mohammad Gholi Majd refuted the connection, but he has recently hinted that the link should not be ignored.

But that is not a central question for this essay. The issue raised here is more serious: Why were the qanats subject to such severe attack? It was not that scientists, archaeologists, hydrologists, and politicians were unaware of the value of this system that for millennia had supported a population orders of magnitude greater than would otherwise have been possible on the interior Iranian plateau. This was quite evident at the 1967 Water for Peace conference.

The wholesale policies that deliberately destroyed the qanats, physically and economically, can't be written off as ignorant. Powerful circumstantial evidence points to an orchestrated attempt to turn Iran into a perpetual agricultural consumer with deep pockets lined by oil revenues. To substantiate this evidence, more research needs to be done in as yet unsifted historical archives.

The last bite

QanatSurface2.jpgIt is hard to stand at a qanat's mouth and not be struck by the fact that it is older than most civilizations. Faith, study, planing, and investment over centuries created this abundant water supply system, strategically delivering distant mountain snow melt to the agricultural lands around the vast desert.

The miraculous animal and plant life along the desert's edge continues. The subsurface moisture they depend on is still there. Their survival rituals, seemingly in complete ignorance of the human pests, is unbroken. Perhaps they know they were there before the humans, and will survive them too.

If humans are to sustain themselves on this plateau, sustainable water sources must be developed again. Nuclear-powered desalination is an untested technology, as brutal as deepwater wells. It will displace water over large distances, from underground salt water reservoirs in the desert back to the plains around it. The ecology will be altered with unknown consequences.

Where aquifers were not seriously damaged, citizens have woken up. In Gonabad, for instance, where over 1,000 qanats of varying size feed agriculture and 40,000 citizens, unanimous opposition has risen to the further government issue of deep-well permits near qanats. Revenue is being spent to catch up with long-ignored maintenance. Qanats that had nearly dried up are producing again. Gonabad township stands to be self-sufficient with water from qanats alone, even as cultivated areas have expanded threefold.

But is it possible to revive and maintain the water and the wheat that produced that special flour used for sangak? Is it possible that in a couple of generations children can indeed grab fresh bread on their way home and enjoy them while they do their history homework?

The deck is stacked. GMO superpowers with the support of their governments don't want to see that future. It will require a vigorous, democratic government to resist. Alas, given the history of Western greed, qanats and sangak may never be back.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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