Culture and Climate

    Climate and Landscape Change in the Orient:
    The Iranian Highlands

    Climate change poses less of a threat to the wealthy countries of the North than to those in the South and the Middle East. Yet we know little of how exactly climate change will affect the regions most at risk. The following article illustrates the threat by taking the highlands of Iran as an example.

    It has become a commonplace that the climate and the environment are changing on a global scale. The indicators of this transformation are well-known and are cited repeatedly. Glaciers are melting at the poles, in Greenland, and in high mountain ranges all over the Earth. Sea levels are rising. Devastating storms – hurricanes and typhoons – are ravaging the coasts of low-lying tropical regions, their towns, villages, and arable land. Both floods and droughts are claiming ever more victims among populations affected by these occurrences.

    For almost twenty years the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) has been recording the changes in the global climate and the associated transformations of natural landscapes and the biosphere. Quite apart from the fact that these observations are used in the development of climate models and ecological future scenarios, it is growing increasingly apparent that man is becoming a decisive agent of climate change and, in addition, of environmental changes that can be seen all over the world. Scientists point to man-made CO2 emissions as one of the main causes of the rise in temperature and its consequences. It is already under discussion that we should designate the current age a discrete geological era and term it the Anthropocene.

    Closer analysis of the scientific literature, however, shows that sources and data for credible climate scenarios on Earth are very unevenly distributed. They originate primarily in the dense network of observatories and measuring stations in the technologically-advanced industrial countries of the North. This is also where the big research centres and laboratories that analyse these findings and data and are located. It is no surprise that these results are then generalised and projected as a global standard. Meanwhile, however, it seems that findings generalised across-the-board and global predictions are less and less suited to reflecting the reality of regional or local developments in climate or landscape change. This is also true for large parts of the Middle East, in particular for the crisis-ridden regions between Lebanon to the west and the Hindu Kush to the east. Their observation and measurement networks are thinly spread. Their analyses tend to be incomplete, and there is often a lack of trained personnel to interpret collected data and incorporate them into international discourse. In short: we know very little about climate and landscape change in large parts of the Islamic Orient. We are largely dependent on indicators and sporadic observations, or on research findings that are presented piecemeal.

    A key region for research into climate and landscape change

    The Iranian highlands and their peripheral regions play a key role in future research into climate and landscape change in the Middle Eastern region. Why? One reason is that Iran’s dry, arid highlands, the centre of which is around 1000 metres above sea level, are in an area that is climatically almost ideally suited for collecting data on temperature and rainfall fluctuation. Secondly, the surrounding mountain ranges – the Zagros system in the west with peaks of up to 4,200 metres, and the Alborz in the north, including the Demavand (5,671 metres), the highest point in Iran – constitute highly sensitive ‘registration plates’ that react to every little alteration in the ecological balance of the region. This potential is also increased by the fact that individual mountain massifs in the Iranian highlands rise to up to 4,500 metres, and thus hold additional information relevant to climate change. Thirdly, and finally, Iran has the scientific infrastructure and professional competence potentially to conduct this kind of systematic research and thereby become an important link in the chain of climate research worldwide. However, at present this potential is very far from being realised.

    For the Iranian highlands and its peripheral areas, there are three examples that could serve as evidence of historical and contemporary transformation of climate and the natural environment: geological and palaeogeographical findings; recent changes in the water balance and groundwater resources; current research results on the basis of local field studies.

    Geological and palaeogeographical findings

    Climate change and the associated changes in rainfall, temperature, vegetation and the animal world, as well as in the processes that shape the landscape, are phenomena that have characterised the history of the development of the Earth over millions of years. In the Iranian highlands the great salt lakes, in particular those in the Dasht-e-Kavir (Great Salt Desert), but also other lake basins with no outlet to the sea as well as dry valleys where rivers once flowed bear witness to this permanent state of flux. Furthermore, ancient terrace systems in many lake basins and alongside numerous highland rivers indicate earlier, higher water levels and the correspondingly greater amount of water the rivers used to carry. The great alluvial fans and the rubble that envelop the mountains and mountain ranges right across central Iran are particularly impressive. These are referred to by the collective term ‘foothills’. ‘The mountains are drowning in their own rubble’ is a phrase one frequently encounters to describe these processes of erosion, which must have taken place under wetter conditions than those of today. Naturally, these processes of transformation are still going on today. As a rule, however, they take place so slowly that it is impossible to observe them directly. Occasional extreme weather, such as very heavy rain, constitutes an exception to this rule.

    Recent changes in the water balance and groundwater resources

    The dramatic changes in the water balance in the Iranian highlands and their peripheral regions present themselves as directly and strongly influenced by human activity. This can be seen, on the one hand, by human intervention in the natural discharge conditions of the few rivers that carry water either periodically or all year round. Dam building and the diversion of river water for irrigation purposes reduce the natural discharge conditions to such an extent that many of the watercourses, which are in any case diminishing, scarcely reach their estuaries.

    The problem of diminishing water resources is even more serious where the country’s groundwater is concerned than with regard to surface run-off. The ancient cultural technique of qanat irrigation, which dates back thousands of years and constitutes the backbone of intensive oasis agriculture in the Iranian highlands, is on the point of collapse as a result of climate change and human over-exploitation of underground water reserves.

    Qanats and the foothills mentioned above are inextricably linked. Qanats (also known as foggara in north Africa, or karez in Afghanistan) are man-made underground galleries which serve to collect the groundwater that circulates in the foothills of mountainous regions (cf. Fig.). These deposits, fed by rain and melt water, are accessed by ‘mother shafts’ which descend up to a hundred metres into the rubble cloaking the many mountain ridges, and are then gradually conducted to the surface via the underground galleries, some of them up to seventy kilometres long. Qanat technology, which was developed in the pre-Christian era in the northwest of Iran, was of great economic significance – and to a certain extent it still is. Up to the Second World War qanats were important not only for the irrigation of fields and gardens but also for supplying many villages and towns with drinking water. There were estimated to be more than 35,000 qanats altogether. Today, there are presumably far fewer than 10,000. Human (over)exploitation of the natural groundwater flows on the one hand, and on the other the drilling of motorised wells, for irrigation purposes or drinking water, which have led to a drop in the groundwater table, but above all the reduction in rainfall in the mountains, which guaranteed the replenishment of groundwater reserves – all these are unmistakable indicators of a process of desertification. Desertification as an expression of ongoing climate and landscape change: these phenomena can be observed everywhere in the Iranian highlands. It is particularly true of many oasis settlements in the central highlands. Deserted villages, shrinking arable land or dried-up date tree groves, fruit and vegetable gardens that were once used intensively but are now covered in desert sand – these are phenomena one encounters everywhere. The desert is spreading!

    Current research results based on local field studies

    To date, very few scientifically exact proofs of climate change in Iran have been recorded. One of the few exceptions is a recently completed study of climate and landscape change in the northwest of the country and its effects on the mountain nomadism of people in this region. Taking the example of the 4,740-metre-high Sabalan Kub in the province of Azerbaijan, analysis of climate observations and measurements made over a long period of time – more than forty years in some instances – provides evidence of greater extremes of temperature, both in summer and in winter, and increasing dryness as a result of diminishing rainfall. In the months of June to October in particular, clear increases in average temperatures accompanied by a decline in rainfall lead to evidence of the desiccation of the nomadic pastures, as was also recorded with the qanats. Here too, in the area on the periphery of the Iranian highlands, which has the climatic advantage of higher rainfall, we see evidence of desertification processes as phenomena controlled solely by Nature. A decline in the reproduction of vegetation in pasture areas, both in the high mountains and the lowlands, has profound repercussions on nomadic pastoralism, which is already in a delicate state. The nomads, who are very familiar with and sensitive to their natural environment, are highly aware of these changes. A reduction in grazing potential on the high pastures in summer as well as in the winter pasture grounds of the foothills is one handicap. Another is the increasing limitation of alternative pasture grounds through conflicts with the settled farming population: they too keep cattle, and they also turn pastureland into agricultural fields. These and other factors show the extent to which climate and landscape change are not only a natural and scientific phenomenon, but also have profound repercussions on the everyday culture of the people and on the economy.

    The dramatic sedimentation processes taking place at Lake Urmia, not far away, point in the same direction as the measurable changes in climate and landscape balance at Sabalan Kuh. This salt lake of more than 5,000 square kilometres has no outlet to the sea and very high concentrations of salt. Like Lake Aral, it too is now in danger of drying up. The level of water in the lake dropped by around seven metres between 1995 and 2011: a clear indicator of climate change. The 40 mm. reduction in rainfall between 1997 and 2006 in the drainage basin of Lake Urmia is another unmistakable indication. Here, however, there are strong human influences involved, namely the diversion or blockage of inlets to Lake Urmia for irrigation purposes.

    The Middle East: a future ecological powder keg?

    The trends we are seeing in the Iranian highlands and surrounding areas and the incontestable proofs of higher temperatures, less rainfall, and an increase in extreme occurrences such as droughts or flooding also apply to its neighbouring regions, both in the West and in the East. There too the climate is teetering on the brink. There too mankind is increasingly both the cause and the victim of climate change, and also of landscape changes that make a lasting difference to our livelihoods. So will the Middle East of the future be not only a political but also an ecological powder keg?

    The model calculations and future scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change referred to at the start of this article point unmistakably in this direction. In its most recent report, published in 2007, it says of Asia as a whole, ‘All of Asia is very likely to warm during this century; the warming is likely to be well above the global mean in central Asia …’ (2007, vol. I, p.879) – the Middle East being included as part of central Asia. As far as rainfall is concerned, the findings for Iran are projected into the future, confirming that ‘summer precipitation is likely to decrease in central Asia’ as well (ibid.) This trend will have devastating consequences. For example, in their analysis of the effects, adaptation strategies and vulnerabilities of the affected societies in west and south Asia, with particular reference to Iran and the surrounding region, the authors conclude that: ‘Cereal yields could decrease up to 30% by 2050 […] In West Asia, climate change is likely to cause severe water stress in the 21st century’ (2007, vol. II, p. 481).

    This and other prognoses consistently point to such grave environmental changes in the Middle Eastern region that the conflicts that will determine their future will no longer be just about ideologies and mining resources like oil and gas. Already, arguments about the essential and determinant factor ‘water’ in Turkey, Syria and Iraq are indicating that they have the potential to develop into international conflicts. Many experts and political analysts see in ‘water as the potential for conflict and war’ one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the reduction in natural rainfall on and over the Iranian highlands can be expected to have a tremendous and immediate influence on the precarious situation of national food production in the face of a steadily increasing population. This is equally true for fruit and vegetable farming and for nomadic cattle farming, with its production of corn, meat and/or milk. It is however also true with regard to the adequate supply of clean drinking water and water for both domestic and industrial use to swiftly-growing populations in towns and in the countryside – not only in Iran.

    Climate is one factor shaping the culture of the Islamic Orient and its inhabitants, and this has been identified using methods that are great testimonies to human intelligence and human technology. In the future, climate and climate change will be, above all, a technological challenge – thereby extending the common understanding of the term ‘culture’ to include the technological dimension.
    Eckart Ehlers
    is Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Bonn.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2013

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