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River Iran Dries Up*

December 5, 2001

Drought Dries Up a City's River, and Sears Its Soul


SFAHAN, Iran, Nov. 30 — The people of this city are inconsolable. They talk as if a lover has left them, but it is worse. Lovers can be replaced.

Their river cannot.

The drought that has devastated southeastern Iran and Afghanistan has wreaked its own peculiar havoc on Isfahan, in north-central Iran. For two years, its river has been bone dry, except for brief periods when man or nature managed to make the water flow again. Where once water beckoned, there is only a sandy, rocky plain stretching as far as the eye can bear to look.

Imagine Paris without the Seine, London without the Thames. Isfahan, with just over a million people, may be smaller, but its people are no less passionate about the Zaindeh River, or Zaindeh-Rud, as it is called in Persian.

"Isfahan doesn't have a meaning without the river," said Safarali Shahsanai, a 30-year-old construction worker. "It has lost its beauty. We are heartbroken."

The river's arid turn has had some serious consequences. A power station had to be shut down. A hundred thousand farmers are out of work, their fields parched. Water is being rationed in the city; for the poor in particular, drinking water can be hard to find.

But the identity crisis should not be discounted.

Zaindeh-Rud means "the river that gives continual life," and once it did. It irrigated fields upstream and irrigated the city's social life as well. Couples walked along its grassy banks, catching their reflections in the water. Children took off their shoes and waded on the cobblestone ledge running beside the brick and stone bridges that arched over the river. Boats moved dreamily along the surface.

"All the beauty of this city was this river," said Mansour Dadavi, a student who moved to Isfahan three years ago. "It gave the city life. Now it's like a desert in the middle of the city. They would be better turning it into a park."

Doing so — barring the river's return once the drought ends — might take a visionary equal to the one who developed Isfahan in the first place.

In the early 17th century, Shah Abbas I, known as Abbas the Great, of the Safavid Dynasty, set to work creating a showpiece in Isfahan. He built the country's most famous mosques, including the stunning Imam Mosque, and the Ali Kapu Palace. The river filled the fountains outside the palace and the mosques, and irrigated their gardens.

Shah Abbas and his son also built lovely bridges to arch over the Zaindeh-Rud. The Khaju Bridge, constructed in 1650, is essentially a brick bridge on a stone dam, with 24 arches. Sluice gates were built to raise the water level to irrigate fields. The shah even had rooms within the bridge painted and tiled as a retreat for him and his court.

Over time the bridges became romantic gathering places for regular folk, too. Their arches provided perfect cover for lovers or children playing hide-and-seek. In the teahouses tucked in caverns under the bridge, men smoked water pipes and contemplated the passage of time and water.

They still come to smoke, but they no longer bother looking out at where the river was. The teahouse owners watched Zaindeh-Rud sink day by day, thinning in some patches more quickly, like a man losing his hair, until the riverbed was completely bald.

Now the bridges seem like redundancies, crossing over a stretch of land that people just walk across. "The bridges have no meaning," said Mr. Dadavi.

There are also worries that the bridges, constructed to be lubricated by water, may crumble.

Drought is certainly the most to blame for the river's disappearance. Poor water management, with much of the water used for irrigation lost through poor pipes and drainage, has not helped.

But residents seeking a scapegoat easier to punish than Mother Nature have settled on their president, Mohammad Khatami. They accuse him of diverting the river to his home province, Yezd.

When Mr. Khatami ran for re-election in June, this city, which has turned out in large numbers for reformist politicians in the past, largely stayed home. The reason, everyone agrees, was the river.

Mr. Khatami's allies defend him. "People are mistaken that the water has been diverted to other places," said Rajabali Mazroui, a member of Parliament from Isfahan. "The problem is a shortage of water, which is due to the shortage of rainfall."

But in the spring of 2000, Mr. Khatami did happen to inaugurate, proudly, what officials called the largest irrigation project in the Middle East — a 200-mile pipeline designed to send water from Zaindeh- Rud to Yezd.

Whether or not the pipeline bears any blame for the dry mockery that now runs through their city's midst, many of Isfahan's residents have decided it does.

Of course Mr. Khatami had diverted the river, said Abas Nikbakht, a cabdriver in Isfahan. A former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had done the same, sending water to his hometown, Kerman.

"And if I were president," Mr. Nikbakht said, "I would have done the same for Isfahan."

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