Activities  Lake Hamoun

Unique Ecosystem

An ancient seat of civilization, Sistan lies in a large depression divided between Afghanistan and Iran. In the centre of this closed basin lies a historic riverine oasis nourished by the Helmand, one of Afghanistan's major rivers rising in the western Hindu Kush. Remarkably, although the river empties in an extremely arid evaporation pan, it sustains a vast and predominantly freshwater wetland complex, the Hamoun. Reaching their greatest extent with spring floods, these wetlands cover an area ranging from 2,000-4,000 km2.
The wetlands harbour over 100 species of birds and are an extremely important haven for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl, notably ducks, flamingos, herons, pelicans and shorebirds. More than a third of the Iranian part has been designated as an internationally protected area under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, but no land has been set aside for conservation in the Afghani portion.

Severe Drought

Rainfall variability in the Hindu Kush means that flooding in the Helmand alternates with droughts, which may cause entire lagoons to dry up. This occurred several times in the past century, when only the uppermost of the lakes remained flooded. Reflecting a dramatic decrease in precipitation, Landsat satellite imagery showed the snow-covered area in the Helmand basin to have decreased by almost two-thirds, from 41,000 km2 in 1998 to 26,000 km2 in 2000. By 2001, Iran and Afghanistan were experiencing for the third consecutive year an extreme drought that was so severe that the Hamoun dried out completely.

Devastating Impacts

Sistan's population, swelled by refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, has been severely affected by water shortages. Irrigation channels have run dry and agriculture has come to a standstill. Many villages have been abandoned as people migrate in search for water. Sand drifts blowing off from the dried lakebed have submerged nearly 100 villages beneath dunes in a landscape reminiscent of the Aral Sea disaster.

Wildlife has shrivelled under the heat. A thriving fishery with an annual catch of around 12,000 tons has been wiped out. Migratory birds no longer stop for lack of refuge and livestock herds have been decimated.

1976 - Winding through the Margo desert, the Helmand forms a dendritic delta and dissipates in a series of lagoons or "hamouns". Numerous seasonal rivers also converge in the closed basin. Water flows in a circular fashion through a string of lakes starting with Hamoun-i-Puzak in the northwest sweeping into Hamun-i Sabari and finally overflows into Hamoun-i Helmand in the southeast. Dense reed beds appear as dark red, while tamarisk thicket fringing the margins of the upper lakes shows up as pink. Peppered bright red patches represent irrigated agriculture, mainly wheat and barley. The lakes flood to an average depth of half a meter denoted by lighter shades of blue, while dark blue to black indicates deeper waters not exceeding four meters. Landsat MSS false colour composite (Bands 4,2,1)
2001 - Hamoun wetlands vanished as Central and South Asia were hit between 1999 and 2001 by the largest persistent drought anywhere in the world. The only sign of water in this scorched landscape of extensive salt flats (white) is the Chah Nimeh reservoir in the center right of the image, which is now only used for drinking water. Degraded reed stands in muddy soil are visible as dark red in the southern end of Hamoun-i Puzak. Landsat 7 ETM+ false colour composite (Bands 4,3,2)

Characteristic reed boats, called "tutans", are the traditional means of transport in the wild expanses of the Hamoun. The wetlands play an important role in the economy of the local inhabitants, providing them with rich grounds for hunting and fishing.

In 2001, the Helmand River at the Afghan-Iran border ran dry, falling by 98% from its annual average.

Trucks ferry in water to Afghan drought-stricken communities.
Children help with water collection at distribution points in an overall context of deteriorating public health.

Poster Quick Look

See also Nasa Feature

Research conducted by: Hassan Partov, GRID-Europe