Ahmad Souri coughs incessantly, covering his face with a towel to keep out the thin dust that is swirling all around him.
As he slowly picks his way through the parched dust bowl that is his village in Sistan, he uses a dry stick to scrape between the cracks in the ground, hunting for any fish bones or the odd dry weed to feed his starving livestock.
His daily battle is to eke out a living and maintain a feeble grip on his family’s culture and proud heritage spanning hundreds of decades. But his grasp on that lifestyle is fading fast as climate change and politics conspire against a once-vibrant community.
For more than 4,000 years, the area around Hamoon Lake by the Afghan border in southeastern Iran was home to a prosperous lakeside community thriving on fishing, mat weaving, animal farming and agriculture. But hope is running dry for the inhabitants.
Cases of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses have soared due to the high levels of dust in the atmosphere.
The proud villagers battle on, although many of them struggle for access to drinking water, electricity, healthcare and education, and suffer from respiratory illnesses, poverty, unemployment and addictions. The lifestyle their ancestors had fought so hard to develop and preserve over generations is being wiped out, with little chance of resurrection, for the depressed, unmotivated survivors. Hamoon Lake is Iran’s third-biggest lake. Most of it is located in the Sistan and Baluchestan provinces of Iran, but there is a finger that also stretches over into Afghanistan.
Hamoon consists of three small lakes named Hamoon Poozak, Hamoon Saberi and Hamoon Hirmand. They were all linked together some 20 years ago when water was in abundance.
The 1,100km long Helmand River, which originates in the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan, is the main water source for Hamoon. The survival of the inhabitants surrounding Hamoon depends directly on the river. But 20 years ago, the current drought set in – leading to widespread environmental, social and economic problems in the region.
‘The lake was our life,’ says Ahmad, from the village of Ghoorghoori.
‘When Hamoon was full of water we had everything – jobs, food, safety, health – but today we don’t have anything. We not only lost our source of livelihood but our whole culture.’
Since the late 1990s, when rain levels decreased and drought hit the region, the amount of water in the Helmand River decreased as well, with other contributing factors such as the construction of multiple dams in Afghanistan, and pumps being used to irrigate farmland, adding to the crisis.
The result is starkly visible. Children play on abandoned fishing boats that lie forlorn in the dust. There is a thick smog almost all through the day and the constantly blowing dust seeps into every crevice, with the result that all windows of houses are sealed tight. A surge in population towards the end of the 20th century, coupled with new water management technologies introduced to the region, saw the start of rapid changes to the local culture – a culture that had developed over years to suit the desert wetlands, with locals skilled at building long reed boats to navigate the shallow waters and red clay houses to withstand the desert heat.
But three consecutive harsh droughts in Iran and Afghanistan starting in 1999 saw Lake Hamoon dry up completely in 2001.
The once fertile wetlands deteriorated and the towns, the fisheries managing the annual catch of about 12,000 tonnes, and agriculture, which had shaped the area’s identity, were wiped out.
A dust storm envelops the area, so windows are always sealed shut.
Now an entire way of life for more than 400,000 Sistani and Baluch people has been torn apart. The drying up of 140,000 hectares of land in eastern Iran has brought poverty and insecurity to the inhabitants. Economic and ecological ruin is not the only problem that the people face – their health has also suffered. Cases of tuberculosis have soared due to the high levels of dust in the atmosphere.
Many elderly people live alone – they’ve watched their families leave for a better future. They can’t afford bricks so use barrels to build homes.
Many elderly people live alone in this increasingly abandoned wasteland where a local indigenous language, Sistani, is spoken. They have watched their loved ones leave in search of a better future elsewhere in the country – or further afield in some cases – but refuse steadfastly to turn their backs on the way of life of their forefathers.
‘Fifty villages used to be in this area,’ says Mohammad Bazzi, a 55-year-old livestock herder. ‘Where are they are now? They’ve gone because there’s no water, they’ve left for other towns.’
Although Mohammad is upset about the condition, he is reluctant to leave the place.
‘I love Siasar,’ said the elderly man. ‘It is my village, my home. My family has lived here for many years. Now I am the last one left. There’s neither electricity nor drinking water. I don’t even have a blanket to keep me warm during the cold nights.’
In Moladadi, the people live in poverty. They can’t afford to build their homes with brick so instead use old barrels and tyres to afford them some protection from the fierce heat of the desert. Their impoverished state means they cannot afford to move out of the area to greener lands. To make matters worse, in Siasar, people have to walk half a kilometre from the village in order to use the washroom. This is to keep flies out of the village, say the village elders. ‘Pests such as flies and other insects could spread diseases,’ one villager says.
But this rule causes numerous problems, particularly to women and young girls. Golpari, a 12-year-old girl who lives with nine members of her family, says: ‘Every time we feel like using the washroom, we must go far from our home. It is sometimes not safe and often I have to request my brother or my father to accompany me and my sister.’
Collecting potable water is a problem too. Residents in the area have to drive 10km to a well in the neighbouring village.
As the fishing industry dried up, many turned to cattle farming to survive, but even that is limited and rising numbers of remaining residents are struggling to survive on government handouts of $15 (about Dh55) a month.
‘Some days we just have bread and milk, nothing else,’ says a woman in the village, who requested anonymity. Sometimes even milk is scarce. In such situations, the locals first feed the animals, then consume the rest.
‘We value our livestock as very precious because they sustain us,’ the woman says. In Moladadi, the people who used to fish have become farmers. With the trickle of accessible water, they grow tomatoes, eggplants and watermelons for their own basic consumption.
A shepherd in Moladadi says: ‘The farmers’ work has changed the soil. When the wind blows, it creates sandstorms.’
Many villagers suffer eye injuries due to the dust storm swirling all through the day.
For between 120 and 160 days in the summer months, temperatures around the lake reach 500C and sandstorms rage, causing illness and destruction.
Women have to walk 4km in search of wood to cook.
To feed the cows and sheep, the men have to venture long distances away from Moladadi to find suitable grazing pastures. They do not return to their homes until nightfall. Women must walk up to 4km to fetch wood to make a fire to cook the family meals. There is less and less wood available in this arid area, increasing the hardship in an already barren landscape.
Golpari, 12, has to walk far every time she need to use the washroom.
Golpari, the little girl, says: ‘It is a very difficult life here. We face a lot of challenges. My family has to walk a lot in search of wood to build a fire. And it is getting more difficult to find every day. It takes all our time and is very tiring, especially when it is so hot.’
Education is considered an expensive luxury here, so many children don’t go to school, instead spending their days tending cattle.
Education is considered an expensive luxury so many children are unable to go to class – even if they have the correct ID documents or are able to travel long distances to the nearest school.
Instead, they start tending the sheep and cows from as young as five or six in a desperate attempt to help the family make a living.
The animals are bought and sold between the villagers or in town markets to generate a small income for the farmers.
Two years ago, hope returned to the villagers when it rained and snowed, but it was short-lived – just three months.
Two years ago, the ever-hopeful locals held their collective breath when heavy rains and snow returned to the region and the lake reached more than 10 per cent of its water capacity.
A fledgling fishing industry even emerged as the men eagerly returned to their familiar jobs and dared to hope that the weather that had left them despondent would finally come to their rescue.
However, their hope was short-lived as three months later the water from the swollen river stopped flowing due to repeated cuts and riverbed changes.
One weary fisherman says: ‘Now the lake is once again dry and only dead fish remain.’ Masoumeh Ebtekar, the director of the Environment Protection Organization, has said that Iran and Afghanistan should establish closer environmental cooperation in the wake of the latest drought situation.
In a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Masoumeh said that such a collaboration should mainly focus on the revival of Hamoon Lagoon to soften the impact its degradation leaves on the environment and people’s lives. She further said that Iran is ready to work with Afghanistan to jointly solve the issue of dust storms, which has taken a toll on the two neighbouring countries. She said: ‘We have our livelihoods at stake, our economy at stake, we have our future at stake.’
Iranian photographer Mahdi Barchian, who has visited the region on several occasions following the water crisis, said the inhabitants are in urgent need of help from the international community to resolve the situation.
‘They just need water back in the area. They were happy about 20 years ago but in the past 15 years they have lost everything because they lost water. They just need water.
‘The lack of identity cards prevents children from attending school, thereby propagating the poverty of the previous generation.
‘There is little hope for the people living around Hamoon Lake. They only pray for the return of water. But hope is drying up.’