UN fears Iran's worst drought in 30 years may be far reaching
As a scorching wind blew dust against her mud-brick farmhouse, Mahnaz Bravi saw no end to her suffering. "Drought is like death. Now I have a field which gives me nothing at all," lamented Bravi, raising a dark blue cloak over part of her face as she stood in the archway to her home.
Years of little rain have turned her plot of wheat bone dry and killed off dozens of chickens, several sheep, a cow and a bull; all she has left are a tomato patch, a scrawny calf, two mangy sheep and a goat.
Bravi, a widow who lives with her six daughters in Idmamad village in eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province, survives on public handouts as she and millions of Iranians grapple with their worst drought in 30 years.
The drought has also hit Afghanistan and Iran's other Central Asian neighbors. Some of the trickle of Afghan refugees sneaking into Iran said they were fleeing drought and famine as much as the US war on the Taliban. UN officials say the effects of Iran's drought are only getting worse.
They fear it is "more fundamental and far reaching than others before it," that a natural, recurring phenomenon has been exacerbated by water wastage, overgrazing, and an urban bias in the allocation of water. In June, Qolam-Reza Manuchehri, Iran's deputy energy minister charged with water-related issues, warned that water scarcity had "reached a critical state" and called for tough economizing.
Water has been rationed in dozens of Iranian cities in the last few months. According to official estimates, last year's drought alone cost Iran some 3.5 billion dollars. Last year, an estimated 2.8 million tons of wheat, 280,000 tons of barley and 800,000 head of livestock were lost, according to a report on Iran prepared by the United Nations Development Program and cleared by Tehran.
In the year 2000, Iran imported seven million tons of wheat, becoming the world's largest importer of the commodity, the report said. In the central region around Mehriz, where 50,000 people depend on orchards for a living, 80 percent of pistachio trees have died, the report added. Trees that used to provide shade for animals are also gone. Bravi pointed to a barren dusty landscape where only a couple of trees still stood, with several dried carcasses piled up near her farmhouse waiting to be hauled away.
Even though severe drought hit 12 of Iran's 28 provinces in 2001 compared to 25 last year, its cumulative effect in some areas was now especially harsh, the UN report said. Relief workers speak of Iranian school children having to be bused from one town to another in hard-hit Sistan-Baluchistan province just to use the toilets while farmers were now falling ill for lack of proper food.
Sheikhs have led prayers for rain in Shiraz while residents reportedly rioted in Isfahan in early July over the lack of water. Relief workers said eddies of dust seen hovering over the dry bed of Lake Hamoun, a short drive from Idmamad, have been piling up around farmhouses abandoned by farmers who can no longer cope.
Francesco Bastagli, UNDP's resident representative in Iran, warned of a permanent exodus. "The longer the dry spell lasts, more people move out. Once they make the move, they don't go back," Bastagli told AFP. Residents recalled that Lake Hamoun used to offer abundant catches for fishermen, serve as a watering hole for farm animals and provide a sanctuary for birds like ducks, flamingos, and pelicans.
"When the lake was full of water, I saw cows, sheep, goats and camels come to walk (and drink) on the lake shore," said Ibrahim Heraty Sadegh, who was born in nearby Zabol and is now a school teacher in Zahedan. The lake was a good place to hunt birds, swim, picnic and water ski, he added. But it is now dry. In the last three years, the Taliban militia ruling neighboring Afghanistan dammed the Hirmand River, cutting off a major flow to the lake and helping seal its fate, UN officials and area residents said.
Sadegh recalled that the lake had dried up in previous droughts, though Western experts feared the effect may be more prolonged this time. UN officials and non-government organizations are recommending that Iran shift its emphasis from emergency response to long-term management and prevention. For example, they recommend Iranians use less water to clean sidewalks and homes, plant fewer water-intensive crops like melons and build fewer dams, where reservoirs tend to evaporate in the hot sun.
Iran has already successfully captured water from flash floods in some areas and stored it underground, they noted. "There is now a widespread perception in Iran that something radical must be done," according to the UN report. For Bravi, she prays to God to look after her children. "I'm so miserable I leave it to God to help them." — (AFP, Idmamad)
by Lachlan Carmichael
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)