v. Kārēz in the Late 20th Century and Their Prospects
In 1990 it was estimated that the kārēz technique supplied water to around 1.5 million hectares of the planet’s total irrigated surface area, which constituted only the minor portion of approximately 0.6 percent (Balland, 1992a, p. 1). The technique has largely remained a phenomenon specific to the Iranian lands, where its role continues to be of primary importance. In Iran itself underground water channels are the most widespread, with a total length of about 80,000 km for the channel network, of which 18,400 channels have been measured. In the 1970s and 1980s their overall outflow was estimated to be 239 m3/sec (Balland, 1992b, p. 109, following Ehlers; Behnyā, 1988). Moreover, the applications of the kārēz technique to non-agricultural uses have been the most considerable in Iran, where they have often been maintained up to the present day. Example are the operation of water mills (Papoli-Yazdi, 1992) and the water supply to cities—Tehran was still exclusively supplied through kārēz up to the 1920s—for drinking and domestic uses.
For Afghanistan the available statistical data of the great agricultural survey of 1967 were not particularly reliable, and sometimes even excessive. In 1990 an approximate and more or less plausible estimate for about 6,000 kārēz, with a total network length of some 12,000 km, was an overall outflow of around 100 m3/sec (Balland, 1992b, p. 109). Such an outflow could have irrigated around 160,000 hectares, which equals about 7 percent of Afghanistan’s irrigated land.
The only country outside the central Iranian lands where underground water channels are indispensable for farming is Oman, which is located very close to Iran and was long under its political influence. In the 1970s the number of Omani kārēz was estimated to be about 11,000, of which 4,000 were major channels with a continuous outflow (Costa and Wilkinson, p. 55; Weisgerber, p. 69). Their overall outflow was assessed to be some 45 m3/sec (Dutton, pp. 217-19).
Although data are rarely gathered together and the resulting statistics are less than precise, it is still possible to conclude that in other geographical areas the yields obtained by the underground channel technique are far smaller: 3.6 m3/sec for the central and western Sahara (Bisson, 1992, p. 10); 5.059 m3/sec for the Haouz of Marrakesh (Pascon, 1977); and 16.5 m3/sec for Turfan and Komul, where 1,231 channels irrigated 21,860 hectares in 1990 (Liu, p. 67). In these regions the channels can be regarded as marginal, although their local importance is great for certain oases.
The useable worldwide outflow of the kārēz in 1990 must not have exceeded 450 m3/sec and was probably much closer to 400 m3/sec, with a distribution of 60 percent in Iran, 25 percent in Afghanistan, and about 10 percent in Oman. It is only for these three countries that the evolution of the technique and its continued use in agriculture constitutes a macroeconomic problem of the first importance in the near future, because in general the reliance on kārēz technique in agriculture is declining.
The rapid and quite widespread decline of the kārēz in the second half of the 20th century has affected more or less all of the pertinent geographical areas from the Sahara to China. Although it is impossible to precisely quantify this decline, an approximate evaluation is possible. At the end of the 1970s the combined outflow of all kārēz worldwide was estimated to be 700-800 m3/sec (Goblot, 1979, p. 193). Even if this figure was probably exaggerated, it is very instructive to compare it with the much more reliable figure for 1990, given above. Moreover, some of the data available for specific countries are more convincing. In Iran the total outflow went from 574 m3/sec in 1954 to 224 m3/sec in 1977 (Bonine, 1989, p. 120). In China, at Turfan and Komul the outflow was measured to be 24.6 m3/sec in 1963 (Liu, p. 67), and in the following three decades it was diminished by about one-third. These statistics can be considered plausible and of general applicability, because all the local observations agree and the symptoms of decline are everywhere in evidence. Many kārēz have recently been completely abandoned or are no longer being repaired, even if they still function with reduced outflow, so that their impending demise is a given. Others have been completely modified in their uses and are no longer used for transporting water to irrigate agricultural areas below their outlets. Openings along the courses of kārēz are reduced to a series of wells used by the local populations (Dupaigne, 1977).
The causes of this decline are complex, but by far the principal reason is the development of a rival technique, which consists of wells with motorized pumps (Goblot, 1979, pp. 194-95; Beaumont, 1989, pp. 28-30; Ehlers and Saidi; Haimiti; Mantimin). Sinking these wells is much less costly than the construction of new kārēz. For example, in 1976, in the Asadābād basin, in the heart of the Zagros in Hamadan province, the cost of excavating one kārēz of 2 km length with a mother well of 16 m depth and 57 openings was estimated to be 600,000 tomans, to which annual maintenance cost of several thousand tomans must be added. In contrast, a well with a motorized pump that is sufficient for the cultivation of an equivalent area could be obtained for 175,000 tomans, but the annual maintenance cost for power, clearing, etc. was about 20,000 tomans (Ehlers and Saidi, p. 105). Furthermore, the motor-pump wells are far more adaptable in their use. Since the motor-pumps are only running during the growing season, they completely eliminate the waste of water in the winter, which from the economic point of view is the fundamental weakness of the kārēz system. Lastly, the much simpler technique almost completely eliminates the dangers and accidents that are often inevitable in the excavation and maintenance of the underground water channels. Under these circumstances it should not be surprising that in Iran the construction of new kārēz practically ceased in the 1950s. The most recent underground channel projects were reported for China in the 1980s, when the People’s Republic was still a very poor country (Kobori, 1989, p. 35).
Apart from their role as competitor, the multiplication of motor-pump wells had disastrous effects for the water economy of the kārēz, because they lead to a drastic lowering of the water tables. Since almost always the motor-pump wells are dug in the neighborhood of kārēz, both take the water from the same subterranean sources, which in turn are usually overexploited (Bonine, 1982, pp. 148, 158). But the number of active kārēz diminishes proportionally less quickly than their average output, even though the competition of the motor-pump wells and the lowering of the water tables are two major factors in the decline of the kārēz technique. In Iran the number of underground water channels declined between 1954 and 1977, from about 21,060 to about 18,700 (Bonine, 1989). While these figures suggest a decline of only a little more than 10 percent in the number of kārēz, their overall outflow diminished by more than 60 percent during the same period. In other words, the kārēz remain a characteristic feature of the agricultural landscape, even if their role has lost much of its importance.
Other factors may also contribute to the decline of the kārēz system, although they seem comparatively quite minor. The number of trained channel workers (for moqanni see ii (5), above) is declining, since this very difficult, though poorly paid, occupation has been disparaged with the increased standard of living, and thus the maintenance of the kārēz system has become much more random, leading rather often to a channel’s ruin and progressive abandonment. In Iran, during the agrarian reform of the 1960s, the dispossession of the great landowners may have brought an end to a few kārēz, whenever village communities failed to independently organize the channels’ maintenance. Yet these situations seem to have been rather rare, and most often the social system proved to be sufficiently flexible so that the village communities were able to maintain their channels (Kielstra).
Despite the undeniable decline of the kārēz system, the technique itself is not doomed, and the underground water channels should not be written off as relics of the past (Balland, 1992a, pp. 3-4). The kārēz are a “soft” technique, which is much more respectful of the water supply, as provided by the groundwater table, than the “hard” technique of motor-pump wells, whose damage to the environment is considerable. Moreover, the underground water channels constitute an immense infrastructural capital, built up over generations and therefore impossible to abandon. In the last two decades of the 20th century, once the first infatuation with the great novelty of motor-pump wells had passed, it was realized that the existing kārēz network should be used to its full capacity, since the construction of new channels had more or less ceased. Just about everywhere governments were henceforth preoccupied with promoting the clearing, as well as sometimes the extension, of channels, the repair or reinforcement of their openings, and even, as observed in Oman (Owen, p. 114), the return to service of networks which had fallen into disuse. This change in attitude has been particularly noticeable in Afghanistan, where reconstruction programs, after years of war and decades of disinterest, have made kārēz repair a top priority.
Occasional innovations and advances testify that this millennia-old technique can be adapted to the 21st century. It is perfectly conceivable to combine underground water channels with motor-pump wells. A lifting motor could be used at an already existing opening to reduce the cost of digging, or a new well near a kārēz could use a motorized pump to immediately benefit from the underground channel’s outflow. Both options could be used to increase the value of the network, because they allow for the irrigation of new areas very far from the channel’s outlet at high elevation (Bisson, 1989, p. 190; 1992, pp. 18-21). The safety of the workers can be considerably improved, if more resistant and cohesive materials like cement conglomerate or blocks, or even iron frameworks, are used for the channel walls. If the floors are lined with cement, virtually all infiltration can be stopped, while the yield will be considerably increased (Wessels). Furthermore, urbanization holds surprising possibilities for renewal. Tehran gets its water from mountainous areas, some of which are quite far away, and from the 1960s onwards the infiltration of Tehran’s wastewater significantly increased. Because of the topography of the piedmont south of the city, the increased waste water infiltration led to a very noticeable elevation of the water table level, which, in turn, strongly augmented the kārēz outflow throughout the area and as far as the plain of Varāmin (Beaumont, 1989, p. 30).
In sum, the kārēz keep all of their value whenever the physical and social conditions are favorable. The strength of a community’s social structure determines whether kārēz maintenance and water distribution are managed in a satisfactory manner, and it is thus essential that local populations be determined to support the preservation of their kārēz systems (Wessels, pp. 259-60). In a world where the problem of water resources will soon become particularly distressing in all arid and subarid regions, the kārēz will continue to make a precious contribution to its solution.
EC = Daniel Balland, Les eaux cachées: Etudes géographiques sur les galeries drainantes souterraines, Publications du Département de Géographie de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne 19, Paris, 1992.
IDA = Pierre Briant, ed., Irrigation et drainage dans l’antiquité: Qanats et canalisations souterraines en Iran, en Egypte et en Grèce—Séminaire tenu au Collège de France, Paris, 2001.
PICKI = Jianzhong Lai, ed., Proceedings of International Conference on Karez Irrigation, Urumqi, 1993.
QKK = Peter Beaumont, et al., eds., Qanat, Kariz and Khattara: Traditional Water Systems in the Middle East and North Africa, London, 1989.
WESDASZ = First International Conference on Water, Ecosystems and Sustainable Developments in Arid and Semi-Arid Zones, 9-15 October 2006, held in Urumqi and organized by Xinjiang University, the University of Tehran, and the EPHE; the proceedings were distributed in 2009 on CD-Rom; cf. the conference history given online: http://watarid.aquitaine.cnrs.fr/spip.php?article107 (accessed 4 August 2010). WQ = K. Grewe, ed., Wasserversorgung aus Qanaten: Qanate als Vorbilder im Tunnelbau—Internationales Frontinus Symposium 2.-5. Oktober 2003, Walferdange, Luxemburg, Schriftenreihe der Frontinus-Gesellschaft 26, Bonn, 2005.
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(Xavier de Planhol)
Originally Published: December 15, 2011
Last Updated: April 24, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XV, Fasc. 6, pp. 578-583