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.
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.
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.
|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.|
Research conducted by: Hassan Partov, GRID-Europe