Gary Lewis is the UN Resident Coordinator in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Follow him on Twitter: @GaryLewisUN
31 Jan 2014
“Angels will kiss the hands of those who help us,” the man said.
The face behind the handshake was grizzled and weathered with leathery skin that bespoke years of harshness. The fisherman’s eyes welled with suppressed tears. He yearned for a time when his life was one of plenty. Lakes brimmed with water and fish, his children were happy, and life was good.
He wanted me to tell the world about the desperate conditions in Iran’s harshest, poorest region: the Hamoun wetlands of Sistan.
“Wetlands” is really not the right word for these parched lands. There is little gainful employment, and more than half the residents get by on welfare delivered through the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (IKRF), a parastatal organization.
They were mainly fisher folk, though almost all are now unemployed, living amid the decayed ruins of ghost-like villages built alongside once-thriving lakes.
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, and the lake teemed with fish. 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.
I visited three villages and spoke with many residents who were upset with the lack of water and wanted the government and the UN to help. The Sistanis feel nothing is being done to save them other than cash handouts. They want to work.
“We are struggling for our very lives,” said one elderly lady, clutching at her two grandchildren. “We don’t want ours to be the last generation to live here.”
Approximately 400,000 people live in the Sistan area, many already below the poverty line. The cash handouts they receive from the government or the IKRF rarely exceed US $20 per month.
This environmental catastrophe has forced thousands to leave the region. The government indicates that in 2012, as many as 5,000 families left. In total, 600,000 people have moved out to start anew, many to Golestan province 2,000 kilometres north.
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. Increasingly they blow these storms back into Afghanistan and even to Pakistan.
The solution to this situation will probably only be found if two key things happen.
First, Afghanistan and Iran must agree on a course of action to more equitably share the water that each has apportioned and survived on for centuries.
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.
Iranians and the international community must respond to this tragedy. And they must do so now.