The Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan - once known as 'Iran’s granary', and home to the Hamoun Wetlands - is now a dustbowl. In the place of what was once a thriving oasis, powerful sandstorms have buried villages and ruined livelihoods.
More than 60% of the population relied on the wetlands for their everyday needs. But as the wetland’s principal source of water [the Helmand River, also known as the Hirmand River] was reduced to little more than a trickle, water levels started to drop. 15 years ago, it dried up completely.
The main culprit lies further upstream, across the Iranian border in Afghanistan. Here, the construction of the Kamal Khan Dam has completely blocked the river. With no source of water, the wetlands that once straddled both sides of the border and stretched well into Iran have disappeared.
If the lack of water is one problem, the massive amount of sand residue left on the pond has left a further unforeseen consequence. In Sistan and Baluchestan, powerful winds that blow from May to September - the ‘Wind of 120 Days’ –– whip up the sand and create powerful sandstorms.
According to our Observer in the region, the winds pick up so much sand from the surface of the dried-up Hamoun Wetlands that many villages have been completely buried.
"These storms are so big they block roads, trap people in their homes and swallow up entire villages"
Mohamad lives in the town of Zahedan.
Sandstorms are a new phenomenon in our province. We always had lots of wind, but after the pond dried up 15 years ago we’ve now got sand and dust storms for 200 days of the year.
It’s worth mentioning the trafficking of fuel between Iran and Afghanistan. That could also have played a role in the drying up of the wetlands. They drive across the wetlands because it’s a shortcut, and that speeds up the process of soil erosion. But we shouldn’t forget that the growth of this illegal traffic is a direct consequence of the drying up of the wetlands in the first place, which left many people here without jobs.
A village buried in sand in Sistan and Baluchestan.
These sand and dust storms reach everywhere imaginable. The level of air pollution here is several times higher than normal. Our province has become the center of tuberculosis in Iran.
Sometimes these storms are so big they block roads, trap people in their homes and swallow up entire villages, forcing people to leave. Last year in just a few days, 100 villages were buried in sand. Many are now ghost villages.
The interior of a building lies covered in sand in a village in Sistan and Baluchestan
The problem is that Afghanistan doesn’t give Iran its share of water from the Helmand River. The river is the most important source of water for the Hamoun Wetlands. They built a dam across the Helmand in their territory and we don’t get our share of the water. They only open the gates of the dam when it’s too full and there’s a risk of a breach. That’s another problem: it leads to flooding in areas downstream which destroys homes and roads.
Our government says they are negotiating with the Afghan authorities, but they just talk. They do nothing, and nothing has changed. People say here that the United States decides what happens in Afghanistan. They don’t care about us here in Iran. On the other hand, the government of Iran has done nothing to try to stabilize the sands by using mulch or other methods.
Air pollution in the town of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchestan
The particulates - a type of air pollution - are so small they can be found almost everywhere
A factory left ruined by a sandstorm in Sistan and Baluchestan