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11-01-2015, 01:16 PM

In the Safavid era (15th and 16th centuries), the problem of the shortage of water intensified and led to the construction of many water reservoirs and qanats. Sharden, the French explorer who made two long journeys to Iran at this time, reports that: “the Iranians rip the foothills in search of water, and when they find any, by means of qanats they transfer this water to a distance of 50 or 60 kilometers or sometimes further downstream. No nation in the world can compete with the Iranians in recovering and transferring groundwater. They make use of groundwater in irrigating their farmlands, and they construct qanats almost everywhere and always succeed in extracting groundwater.”

The dynasty of Qajar ruled Iran from the 16th century to the early 18th century. According to Goblot, the time of Qajar can be considered as the heyday of qanats, for the qanats could flourish. Agha Mohammad Khan the founder of the Qajar dynasty chose Tehran as his capital city, a city where there was no access to a reliable stream of surface water and it had to rely on groundwater. The rich supply of groundwater and suitable geological-topographical conditions of Tehran allowed this city to house many qanats whose total discharge amounted to 2000 liters per second. Haj Mirza Aghasi (ruling between 1834 and 1848), the prime minister of the third king of the Qajar dynasty, encouraged and supported qanat construction throughout the country . Jaubert de Passa who surveyed the situation of irrigation in Iran reported a population of 50,000 in Hamedan, 200,000 in Isfahan and 130,000 in Tehran in the year 1840. Then he claims that in these cities life is indebted to the qanats which are being constructed in a simple but powerful manner. In a nutshell, the period of Qajar that lasted about 1.5 centuries witnessed considerablr endeavors to revive and build new qanats.

During the Pahlavi period, the process of qanat construction and maintenance continued. A council that was responsible for the qanats was set up by the government. At that time most of the qanats belonged to landlords. In fact, feudalism was the prevailing system in the rural regions. The peasants were not entitled to the lands they worked on, but were considered only as the users of the lands. They had to pay rent for land and water to the landlords who could afford to finance all the proceedings required to maintain the qanats, for they were relatively wealthy. According to the report of Safi Asfiya, who was in charge of supervising the qanats of Iran in the former regime, in the year 1942 Iran had 40,000 qanats with a total discharge of 600,000 liters per second or 18.2 billion cubic meters per year. In 1961, another report was published revealing that in Iran there were 30,000 qanats of which just 20,000 were still in use, with a total output of 560,000 lit/se or 17.3 billion cubic meters per year. In 1959 a reforme program named as the White Revolution was declared by the former Shah. One of the articles of this program addressed the land reform that let peasants take ownership of part of the landlords’ lands. In fact, the land reform meant that the landlords lost their motivation for investing more money in constructing or repairing the qanats which were subject to the Lnd Reform Law. On the other hand, the peasants could not come up with the money to maintain the qanats, so many qanats were gradually abandoned. The introduction of modern devices, that made it possible to drill many deep wells and extract groundwater much more quickly, accelerated the qanats’ destruction. The pumped wells had a negative impact on the qanats due to their overexploitation of the groundwater. These changes, that occurred in Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign, inflicted great damage on the qanats of the country so that many qanats vanished forever. The statistics related to 14,778 qanats estimates the overall discharge of these qanats to be 6.2 billion cubic meters per year between the years 1972 and 1973. If we assume the total number of the qanats at that time to be 32,000, their annual discharge would have amounted to 12 billion cubic meters. In 1963, the Ministry of Water and Electricity was established in order to provide the rural and urban areas of the country with sufficient water and electricity. Later, this Ministry was renamed the Ministry of Energy. Three years later, in 1966, the parliament passed a law protecting groundwater resources. According to this law, the Ministry of Water and Electricity was allowed to ban drilling any deep or semi-deep wells wherever surveys showed that the water table was dropping because of overpumping. In fact, this law was passed only after the growing number of the pumped wells sounded the alarm about overpumping and depletion of groundwater leading to the decline in qanat’ flow all over the country. This law, as well as the Law of Water Nationalization that was approved in 1968, and eventually the Law of Fair Distribution of water passed (in 1981) after the Islamic revolution emphasized the definition of restricted and free areas for drilling. In the restricted areas, drilling any wells (except for drinking and industry) was prohibited in order to prevent the continuous depletion of groundwater. So the rest of the qanats had a better chance to survive.

After the Islamic revolution, a special attention was given to the qanats. For the first time in 1981 a conference on qanat was held in Mashhad during which the different options to mitigate the problem were explored. The organization of Jahad Sazandegi took responsibility for the rehabilitation of qanats, and subsidized their shareholders. Now the same organization which was renamed as “Ministry of Jihad Agriculture” is responsible for the qanats and continues to grant some funds to the stakeholders to maintain their qanats. During the last years, the parliament has allocated an annual budget of 13 million USD to this ministry in order to go to the construction and maintenance of the qanats. Many other qanats may dry up without this budget, because the owners of the qanats do not afford to pay the whole expenses.

In the years 1984-1985 the ministry of energy took census of 28038 qanats whose total discharge was 9 billion cubic meters. In the years 1992-1993 the census of 28054 qanats showed a total discharge of 10 billion cubic meters. 10 years later in 2002-2003 the number of the qanats was reported as 33691 with a total discharge of 8 billion cubic meters.

In the year 2000, holding the International Conference on Qanats in Yazd drew a lot of attention to the qanats. In 2005 the Iranian government and UNESCO signed an agreement to set up the International Center on Qanats and Historic Hydraulic Structures (ICQHS) under the auspices of UNESCO. The main mission of this center is the recognition, transfer of knowledge and experiences, promotion of information and capacities with regard to all the aspects of qanat technology and related historic hydraulic structures. This mission aims to fulfill sustainable development of water resources and the application of the outcome of the activities in order to preserve historical and cultural values as well as the promotion of the public welfare within the communities whose existence depends on the rational exploitation of the resources and preservation of such historical structures. Another mission is to promote research and development to restore the qanats and other traditional historic hydraulic structures for sustainable development objectives through international co-operation and global transfer of knowledge and technology. According to a report published in 2005 by the Water Resources Base Studies Department affiliated to the Ministry of Energy, there are 15 Regional Water Authorities throughout the country, based in 30 provinces, conducting research projects on water resources in 609 study sites. Each study site is the smallest research unit, containing one or several catchments. Out of 609 study sites, 214 sites with an overall area of 991,256 square kilometers have been declared as restricted regions, and 395 sites with an area of 630648 square kilometers are considered free. In the restricted regions there are 317,225 wells, qanats and springs that discharge 36,719 million cubic meters water a year, out of which 3409 million cubic meters is surplus to the aquifer capacity. This deficit in the volume of the aquifer reserves has led to a long-term groundwater level drop of 41 centimeters a year, on average. In the free regions, the number of wells, qanats and springs amounts to 241,091 with an output of 37,527 million cubic meters a year. Therefore, in 2005, in the country as a whole, there were 130,008 deep wells with a discharge of 31,403 million cubic meter, 33,8041 semi deep wells with a discharge of 13,491 million cubic meters, 34,355 qanats with a discharge of 8,212 million cubic meters, and 55,912 natural springs with a discharge of 21,240 million cubic meters.[19]

In 2014 scientists were performing rescue archaeology at the site of the future reservoir of the Seimareh Dam. During this work remnants were uncovered that Iranian archaeologists claimed to be a water conduit from the late fourth millennium BC. If proven, this would be a possible forerunner of qanat technology some 2000 years back in time.[20]