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Iran's Battles Severe Drought

By Afshin Valinejad Associated Press Writer Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001; 12:01 p.m. EDT

SHIRAZABAD, Iran Mohammad Mokhtari speaks slowly and mournfully, as if describing the loss of a loved one. And indeed, three years of drought has robbed the farmer of much that he holds dear.

"Our paradise is dying," said the white-bearded Mokhtari, looking older than his 60 years.

His village of Shirazabad in the heart of the eastern Iranian desert was once an oasis known as the "Pearl of the Desert." In the good years, dozens of trucks every day carried Shirazabad's cherries, apricots and grapes to the cities. Today, a single truck brings drinking water, and the few Shirazabad residents who have not fled in search of jobs rush to the tanker to get their daily ration.

Shirazabad's pastures and orchards once fed by underground aquifers have dried to a crisp brown. They look as if they've been destroyed by fire.

The drought, in its third consecutive year, is blamed on inadequate rainfall and damage to water resources because of lack of proper management. It is being felt across Iran.

Most of the young have left Shirazabad and dozens of villages like it in the hardest hit areas in the south, east and northeast.

Mokhtari says he cannot leave because his roots are in Shirazabad. His seven children, though, have gone 150 miles north to the provincial capital of Mashhad, where they scratch out a living selling cigarettes on street corners.

Mokhtari and his wife are left alone, the days passing slowly. His fields are parched. He sold his sheep because of the drought.

"Once 50 workers harvested fruit from my orchards to be transported to big cities. Now, we have been devastated," he said. "The Pearl of the Desert does not exist any longer."

Agricultural damage across Iran is estimated at more than $2.6 billion. Authorities in 30 cities throughout the country ration water.

Ninety percent of the country's 62 million people have had their drinking water affected by the drought. Tehran's 10 million residents have their piped water shut off one day a week.

According to a U.N. report, a total of 12,000 mobile water tankers in addition to those already in use are needed to deliver drinking water to urban, rural and nomadic populations, livestock, wildlife and orchards.

The drought has caused $900 million in losses to 200,000 livestock herders because of dead or ailing livestock, the report said.

The drought has threatened more than 6.4 million acres of irrigated farms, 9.88 million acres of rain-fed fields and 2.7 million acres of orchards.

Many wetlands, particularly those in southeastern Iran near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, have dried up completely, according to the U.N. study. The drought is being felt in most neighboring countries.

Iran's parliament has allocated $500 million to fight the drought and the government has declared June through December a "water crisis period."

The U.N. report urged Western nations to provide money and equipment to Iran to help it battle the water shortage.

Abass Shirmohammadi, head of northeastern Khorasan province's water and sewerage company, said at a recent seminar in Mashhad that water management efforts must be focused on preserving water resources.

"For the first time, we have been forced to drill wells with a depth of 320 meters (1,056 feet) to pump water. We are wounding the earth," Shirmohammadi said.

Hossein Sanatinejad, a climate and water expert at Mashhad's Ferdowsi University, said 70 percent of water resources were wasted because of inappropriate water consumption.

Provincial radio carries advertisements encouraging water conservation. In one, a man complains to his wife that she hasn't repaired a hole in the pocket of his pants. The wife tells her husband that instead of buying thread to repair his pants, she bought a new water-saving faucet.

Gholamreza Manouchehri, deputy energy minister for water, warned at the Mashhad seminar that drought and poor water resource management could further devastate rural agriculture and lead to "a new wave of immigration from villages to cities in the future."

A visitor entering Shirazabad might think it was deserted. Only a few elderly residents are stirring in the heart of the village, home to 60 families.

Aslan Jajarmi sat near one of his dead trees on a day when temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

"All my fruit trees have dried up," the old man said as he wiped tears from his cheek. "This small garden was all I had in this world. My life has now been ruined. Once, the sun did not reach the ground because of trees. Now it's a barren land."

-- Martin Thompson (, August 19, 2001

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