Saving imperiled Hamouns of eastern Iran

Tehran, Feb 1, IRNA - UN Resident Coordinator in Iran, Gary Lewis, in an article, said he is duty bound to tell the world about the desperate conditions of Hamoun wetlands of Sistan, in southeastern Iran.

According to a press release issued by the UN Information Center (UNIC), parts of his article is as follows:

Hamouns comprise three large wetland areas covering 5,660 square kilometers. Two-thirds of these wetlands are located in Iran, linked and fed by water from Afghanistan’s Helmand River.

Twenty years ago, most of this area was green. Flora and fauna were abundant. The lake teemed with fish. The total annual catch used to exceed 12,000 tons. Fishermen would regularly haul in fish weighing 20kgs. The wetlands also supported agriculture and water buffalo herds, providing a livelihood for thousands of families.

Then the development of dams and canals in Afghanistan started drawing off water to feed agriculture in the equally poor Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz, and water levels in the lakes plummeted. Then came the building of four reservoirs within Iran itself, diverting more water.

There are approximately 400,000 people living in the Sistan area. A large number of them already live below the poverty line.

This environmental catastrophe has forced thousands to leave the region. The government indicates that in 2012 alone, as many as 5,000 families left the area. In total, 600,000 people have moved out. Most have trekked 2,000 kilometres northwards to Golestan province to start new lives, others are scattered across Iran. The ones who remain simply get poorer and poorer, year after year.

What is striking is the pace of this man-made catastrophe. In just 20 years livelihoods have been devastated. Easterly winds that once blew over the lake acting as a natural air conditioner now only stir up dust storms, bringing days of choking haze. Increasingly they blow these storms back into Afghanistan – and even beyond to Pakistan.

The solution to this situation will probably only be found if two key things happen.

First, Afghanistan and Iran must jointly agree on a course of action to more equitably share the water that each has apportioned and survived on for centuries. Two hundred years ago, there were no borders. What mattered then were communities – and families with a common culture and a common narrative. Finding solutions was easier.

Second, Iranians themselves need to better apportion what little water does come through to Iran. Most of it is diverted into the Chahnimeh reservoir system for drinking water and agriculture. Much of this water can still be allowed to flow naturally into the Hamouns, re-charging them and re-energizing their communities.

Iranians and the international community must respond to this tragedy. And they must do so now. Champions need to arise to work with the Hamoun dwellers and to help revive their way of life.


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