Drought turns part of Iran into a new dust bowl

In this corner of the Middle East, a changing climate and debilitating dust storms have brought life to a standstill.

Photograph by Hashem Shakeri
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Teenage boys catch fish for sale from the dirty, sewage-filled water under Zahak Dam. Before recent years of drought, the lake had been filled by the Helmand River. Now the local community is suffering from a lack of water.
Photograph by Hashem Shakeri

In southeastern Iran, summers have never been for the faint-hearted. The temperature routinely tops 110 F (43.3 C). There isn’t a hint of rain. When, every May, a vicious, hair dryer-like wind, known as the Wind of 120 Days, begins to whip in across the semi-arid flatlands, the entire area wanes under a months-long barrage of sand, cloying dust, and noise.

American soldiers across the border in neighboring Afghanistan are warned to be particularly wary when these gusts pick up. “High winds can turn tent pegs and loose objects into flying missiles (which may not be visible in blowing sand),” cautions “A Soldier’s Guide to Staying Healthy in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a U.S. army medical manual. Locals are sometimes forced to shout at one another just to make themselves heard amid the breathless whistling.

And that was before things really went wrong. In recent years, Sistan and Baluchestan province, which makes up much of the most affected area, has become bogged down in a relentless wave of environmental disasters. A prolonged drought has hastened the disappearance of the storied Hamun wetlands, while higher temperatures continue to evaporate what meager surface water remains. At up to 1,500 square miles (4,000 square kilometers), the wetlands were a bountiful source of irrigation and promise in a land with little of either.

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Four girls from a family in Choutani village take water from a Houtag, or pit dug to gather rainwater. During times of drought, the pits become dirty and muddy, yet they are the only source of water for many people, who have no choice but to boil it and drink it.

But now the dust storm season has expanded, sometimes spanning half the year—and so, as a consequence, has the volume of respiratory problems. In 2016, the UN’s World Health Organization ranked Zabol, a provincial hub, as the most polluted city on the planet. With agriculture now all but impossible and everyday life a struggle, locals and officials alike say that the region risks becoming uninhabitable.

“From one side of the wetlands, Afghanistan has built several dams in the upstream, and on the other, the area is faced with constant drought,” said Naser Moghaddasi, a senior advisor to the Iranian Department of Environment and the country’s delegate at the COP 24 climate conference in Poland in early December. “It’s created a hotspot in what was once a prime area for cultivation and created big problems for a lot of people.”

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Nabi Sarani, 63, has lost many of his sheep this year due to drought. Only these few animals remain. However, he hopes that a new well will allow him to continue working the land.

Country-wide threats

Where once deer and leopards rummaged for food, now fire engines stand ready to tackle the blazes that often erupt across the bone-dry landscape. According to local media reports, Sistan and Baluchistan received only 1.1 inches (29 mm) of rain this past winter, less than a third of its requirements.

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Much of the Gulf might soon be too hot for humans.
MIT study

Iran as a whole is buckling under the pressures of climate change and poor water management. Lake Urmia, formerly its largest body of water, has mostly withered away—as has Lake Bakhtegan, once the second largest in the country. At Isfahan, the Zayandeh River seldom flows these days, leaving the city’s famous arched Khaju Bridge high and dry. And, in June 2017, Ahvaz in Khuzestan province, aside the Persian Gulf, posted one of the highest temperatures ever recorded, 128.7 F (53.7 C). (Read more about the collapse of Lake Urmia.)

There’s every possibility the situation might deteriorate further, experts warn. Climate change-related woes are thought to have played a part in the fierce anti-government protests which roiled Iran in late 2017 and early 2018 and ultimately left at least 20 people dead. Much of the Gulf might soon be too hot for humans, according to a 2015 MIT study.

Regional collapse?

But in Sistan and Baluchistan, many horrors are already playing out. As a distant and isolated province with an almost entirely agrarian economy, it’s been poorly placed to adapt. In a possible harbinger of things to come elsewhere, it’s slowly falling apart.

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Residents have migrated in droves. Up to a fifth of the province’s 2.5 million people are or soon will be on the move, according to a local member of parliament. Drug smuggling and addiction have proliferated, as some unemployed farmers get sucked into the trade and others get hooked on its wares. Some $28 billion-worth of drugs, mostly heroin, are ferried over the border from Afghanistan every year, according to the UN, some of which is launched over frontier guards by catapult under the cover of dust storms. Amid deepening poverty, rates of child marriage have reportedly surged, with girls as young as nine married off, often for their dowries.

(Read about the death of Iranian nomadic life.)

Authorities insist they’re aware of the danger. “We know we cannot continue to operate open agriculture in dryland areas,” Moghaddasi said. “We need to diversity our economy among people who depend on nature.”

He says his government is discouraging the cultivation of water-intensive crops, like rice, and expanding medical services in dust storm-heavy districts, such as Zabol. But the state is still mismanaging its water resources, experts say, leading some scientists to refer to the crisis as a “socio-economic drought.”

At the same time, Iran has jailed at least a dozen prominent environmentalists, including one who died in prison in suspicious circumstances early in 2018. Four of these men have since been charged with crimes that often receive the death penalty there. All are accused of espionage, in part because of their use of specialized equipment, such as camera traps, to record rare Persian leopards.

From international science collaborations to on-the-ground fieldwork, much environmental research has since come to a standstill. NGOs “have become paranoid. You self-censor. You limit your activities. You think you need permits for everything,” said Kaveh Madani, a scientist and water expert who served as deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment for several months until he fled the country in April 2018. “It’s also confusing for scientists. What data is available or should be publicly available? You start thinking about whether you could get in trouble for communicating with your research partner in the U.S.”

Given these challenges, experts ask if adaptation measures that are emerging turn out to be too little, too late for the people of Sistan and Baluchistan.

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Hossein, 13, is from Beris, Chaabahar, which is on the sea but lacks secure access to freshwater.