Azerbaijan's Sustainable Water Solution - One Kahriz at a Time

Water is life. It brings prosperity, health and happiness. But in Azerbaijan, as in many parts of the world, it is in desperately short supply. The land in this country in the South Caucasus is some of the driest on earth. The rivers Kur and Araz and reservoirs cannot provide enough water to meet the needs of the entire population. But Azerbaijan has substantial, high quality underground water reserves, which for decades were over-exploited with little concern for their sustainability. For the past decade, IOM has been working with local partners to improve the management of this resource, which holds the key to population stabilization.

"Kahrizes are a precious gift from our grandfathers, Their cool and pure water bring joy to all, Their silver rays quench our burning thirst, They irrigate our fields and orchards, Turning deserts into life."

Hassan Ali Nikbin sits in his lush garden in the shade of an old apple tree, his wife Melek by his side. They met in 1970, when the talented young poet brought some of his work to a nearby publishing house, where he met an attractive young typist. "I first fell in love with his poems, then with the man," smiles Melek.

Her husband, the son of an agronomist who worked on a Soviet kolkhoz, or collective farm, became totally deaf in 1969 following an infection that was not properly treated. "Despite my misfortune, poetry allowed me to express my love of nature and life," says Hassan Ali. "Later, it also became a way to feed my family."

The couple's two daughters and one son left their home village of Turkesh in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (NAR) to look for work in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Hassan Ali and Melek felt fortunate because many other young people fled poverty and unemployment in the NAR to work much further afield in neighbouring Turkey and Russia.

"They left because of the drought - they couldn't find work in agriculture," says Hassan Ali. "Yet there is water in the hills, water that our forefathers managed for hundreds of years through the kahriz system. But in the name of progress, Soviet engineers decided to drill wells deep into the ground. Year after year, the water table receded and the kahrizes dried up."

But today, thanks to the restoration of the ingenious, low-maintenance and sustainable kahriz underground water system, there is enough drinking and irrigation water for some 80 families who live and work in Turkesh.

Kahrizes were first developed in ancient Iran some 3,000 years ago to take underground water to the surface through simple gravity flow. For centuries, throughout the region, well-maintained kahrizes provided a constant year-round water supply through a network of interconnected wells and underground tunnels that collect water from the hills.

The tunnels, which can extend for kilometres, are usually 1.2 metres high and 60cm wide - just large enough to allow people inside to maintain them. In areas with soft ground, vaulted kahrizes are strengthened with stone walls.

Ten years ago, with funding from the United Nations Development Programme, IOM embarked on an ambitious programme to restore kahrizes to provide sustainable drinking and irrigation water to isolated villages in Nakhchivan.

The village of Turkesh was the first to approach IOM to ask for help to repair two derelict kahrizes, which had previously brought water to the village. The village elders identified an old man known as Kankan Yunis as the villager best equipped to explain how it could be done.

Born in 1937, Kankan Yunis, whose real name was Yunis Ibrahimov, turned out to be one of the last surviving traditional water engineers ("kankans") with kahriz building and maintenance skills handed down to him through generations.

"When IOM came to see me, I said I could start the following morning, even without payment," says Kankan Yunis. "From the age of 10, I worked with my father who was a respected kankan. My father learned from his father."

Less than a year later, two fully restored kahrizes in Turkesh were pumping 17 litres of water per second, enough to meet the needs of the local population and provide irrigation for 24 hectares of land.

The project, which by then had received funding from the European Union (EU), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also resulted in training for a new generation of kankans, including Yunis' two sons - Javanshir and Jumshud.

Traditional Kankan roles are well defined. The head or Bash kankan relies on the Charkhchi kankan to operate the winch that lowers him into the well. He works with a Laghimbar kankan who digs the tunnel and the Dolkesh kankan who brings the excavated earth to the surface.

"All this knowledge disappeared during Soviet times, when the authorities decided to systematically drill deep sub-artesian wells to bring water to the surface using electric pumps," says Arzu Musayev, IOM's National Technical Coordinator in Nakhchivan.

Azerbaijan's independence from Russia in 1991 led to the collapse of much of the country's infrastructure and electricity supplies became erratic. Soon, sub-artesian wells stopped pumping and villages were left without water.

Over the next several years, tens of thousands of people abandoned drought-affected villages to migrate to cities and abroad in search of work.

"Restoring water supplies was crucial to stop the exodus," says 78-year-old Hajishaban Imanov, who has always lived in the ancient merchant city of Ordubad, once famous throughout the region for its carpet weaving and silk production.

Sitting under an old mulberry tree with two of his friends, he recalls how villagers used to rely on kahrizes for their water supplies.

"The kahriz of Toyenek in Ordubad city was constructed some 200 years ago by Hussein Bey, a rich landlord and local benefactor. It was the pride of the city but it was replaced by the wells during Soviet times," he recalls.

"Families had to pay up to 25 manats (US$30) a month to cover the cost of electricity and a lot more when a faulty pump had to be replaced," says Abdullayev Abdulla, who heads the local Water User Committee. "Overpumping also dried up the kahrizes, parts of which collapsed."

In 2007, he and other members of the Water User Committee asked the authorities in Baku to close the subartesian wells and restore two derelict kahrizes with IOM's assistance.

"The renovation of the kahrizes is a success," says Imanov with conviction. "Families made a one time payment of 150 manats (US$186) for the renovation and 2 manats (US$2.50) per month for maintenance costs. In exchange, they have access to as much water as they need."

"An assessment carried out in 2007 by IOM and SDC shows that kahrizes also provide better quality water at a much lower cost," says IOM's Vassiliy Yuzhanin, who heads the IOM office in Azerbaijan. "Kahrizes also contribute to empowering women, who are the main beneficiaries, by associating them in all stages of the decision making process," he adds.

With its pine tree lined streets and well kept white buildings, Naftalan exudes an almost Mediterranean air, but for the hot, dry winds that blow in summer from the parched plains which stretch as far as the eye can see to the foot of the Caucasus mountains.

Developed in 1968 as a spa for people suffering from skin diseases, rheumatism and neurological disorders, Naftalan saw its hour of glory under Soviet rule, when up to 70,000 patients visited its sanatoriums for treatment every year.

Faced with huge demand for water, the authorities decided to drill down 300 feet to pump fresh water through six sub-artesian wells. With short cropped hair and an athletic build, 47-yearold Vilayet Zamanov worked as an engineer with the town's water board before heading Naftalan's Water User Community.

"Apart from the fact that we couldn't bring enough water to the sanatoriums, erratic water supplies poisoned relations between local inhabitants and thousands of people displaced by the 1992-1993 Nagorno Karabagh conflict. One day, a group broke down the front door of my office with an axe," he says.

Standing on the site where IOM is finalizing the refurbishment of a 1,000 metre-long kahriz with funding from the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), Zamanov says regular water supplies have now restored peace and harmony to the town, which today has a population of 15,500, including some 2,000 internally displaced people and 3,500 soldiers stationed in a nearby base.

"Thanks to the kahriz, people no longer have to fight for water. The kahriz feeds into a 12,000 cubic metre basin, which will soon be refurbished with IOM's assistance to further improve the quality of the water," says Zamanov.

To date, 58 kahrizes have been renovated under the IOM programme, providing drinking water to some 5,815 families. A further 4,500 families now have access to irrigation water. Another 35 structures are currently under renovation.

As a result, productivity in Nakhchivan's agricultural sector has increased, stabilizing population movements, improving household income and providing local employment. Some 170 young kankans have received training, with more young people waiting to apply.

"We have also sent five head kankans to UNESCO's International Centre for Qanats and Historic Hydraulic Structures in Yazd in Iran," says IOM's Lucie Dupertuis, who heads IOM's office in Nakhchivan.

"Their knowledge will not only help refurbish ancient kahrizes and hopefully construct new ones. It will also preserve these skills to ensure water sustainability for future generations," she adds.

Did you know ?

There are some 1,450 kilometres of underground water channels in Azerbaijan, long enough to link Baku to Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. It is estimated that a hundred years ago, there were some 1,500 Kahrizes across Azerbaijan.