Étiquette : canal


Afghanistan: Qosh Tepa canal and prospects of Aral Sea basin water management

Let’s start with current events. In August 2021, faced with the Taliban takeover, the United States hastily withdrew from Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, whose population has doubled in 20 years to 39.5 million.

While the UN acknowledged that the country was facing « the worst humanitarian crisis » in the post-war era, overnight all international aid, which represented more than half of the Afghan budget, was suspended. At the same time, $9.5 billion of the country’s central bank assets, held in accounts at the US Federal Reserve and a number of European banks, were frozen.

Qosh Tepa canal

Despite these dramatic conditions, the Afghan government, via its state construction group, the National Development Company (NDC), committed $684 million to a major river infrastructure project, the Qosh Tepa Canal, which had been suspended since the Soviet invasion.

In less than a week, over 7,000 drivers flocked from the four corners of the country to work day and night on the first section of the canal, the first phase of which was completed in record time.

Politically, the canal project is a clear expression of the re-birth of an inclusive Afghanistan, as the region is mainly inhabited by Turkmen and Tajik populations, whereas the government is exclusively in the hands of the Pashtuns. The latter represent 57% rather than 37% of the country.

According to the FAO, 62.5% of the Abu Darya’s water comes from Tajikistan, 27.5% from Afghanistan (22 million m3), 6.3% from Uzbekistan, 1.9% from Kyrgyzstan and 1.9% from Turkmenistan.

The river irrigates 469,000 ha of farmland in Tajikistan, 2,000,000 ha in Turkmenistan and 2,321,000 ha in Uzbekistan.

So it’s only natural that Afghanistan should harness some of the river’s waters (10 million m³ out of a total of 61.5 to 80 million m³ per year) to irrigate its territory and boost its ailing agricultural production

By harnessing part of the waters of the Amu Daria river, the new 285 km-long canal will eventually irrigate 550,000 ha of arid land in ancient Bactria to the north, the « Land of a 1000 Cities » and« The Land of Oases » whose incomparable fertility was already praised by the 1st-century Greek historian Strabo.

In October 2023, the first 108 km section was impounded.

Agricultural production has been kick-started to consolidate the riverbanks, and 250,000 jobs are being created.

While opium poppy cultivation has been virtually eradicated in the Helmhand, the aim is to double the country’s wheat production and to become a grain net exporter.

Today, whatever one may think of the regime, the Afghans, who for 40 years have been self-destructing in proxy wars in the service of the Soviets and Americans, have decided to take their destiny into their own hands. Putting an end to the systemic corruption that has enriched an international oligarchy, they are determined to build their country and give their children a future, notably by making water available for irrigation, for health and for the inhabitants.

How did the world react?

On November 7, in The Guardian, Daanish Mustafa, a professor of « critical geography », explains that Pakistan must rid itself of the colonial spirit of water.

In his view, the floods that hit Pakistan in 2010 and 2022 demonstrate that « colonial » river and canal development is a recipe for disaster. It’s time, he concludes, to « decolonize » our imaginations on the subject of water by abandoning all our vanitous desires to manage water.

On November 9, the Khaama Press News agency reported:

Two days earlier, on November 7, Cédric Gras, Le Figaro‘s correspondent in Tashkent, published an article entitled:
« En Afghanistan, les Talibans creusent le canal de la discorde » (« In Afghanistan, the Taliban are digging the canal of discord »):

Obviously, the aim is to create scare. But if the accusation is hasty, it touches on a fundamental issue that deserves explanation.

Endoreic basin

Aral Sea Basin.

The Amu Daria, the 2539 km long river that the Greeks called the Oxus, and its brother, the 2212 km long Syr Daria, feed, or rather used to feed, the Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The water of both rivers were increasingly redirected by soviet experts to irrigate mainly cotton cultivation causing the Aral Sea to disappear.

I won’t go into detail here on the history of the ecological disaster that everyone has heard about but I am ready to answer your questions on that later;

Central Asia which of course should include Afghanistan.

The « Aral Sea Basin » essentially covers five Central Asian « stan » countries. To the North, these are Kazakhstan, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
In fact, Afghanistan, whose border with the latter three countries is formed by sections of the Amu Darya, is geologically and geographically part of the « Aral Sea Basin ».

This is a so-called « endoreic basin ». (endo = inside; rhein = carried).

18 % of the world’s emerged surface is endoreic.

In Europe, we see falling rain and snowmelt flowing into rivers that discharge it into the sea. Not so in Central Asia. Rainwater, or water from melting snow, flows down mountain ranges. They eventually form rivers that either disappear under the sands, or form « inland seas » having no connection whatever to a larger sea and no outlet to the oceans. 18% of the world’s emerged surface is endoreic.

Among the best-known endoreic basins are the Dead Sea in Israel and Lake Chad in Africa.

Endoreic regions in Central Asia.

In Asia, there are plenty of them. Just think of the Tarim Basin, the world’s largest endoreic river basin in Qinjiang, covering over 400,000 km². Then there’s the vast Caspian Sea, the Balkhach and Alakoll lakes in Kazakhstan, the Yssyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan and, as we’ve just said, the Aral Sea.

The very nature of an endoreic basin strongly reinforces the fear that water is a scarce limited source. That realty can either bolster the conviction that problems cannot but be solved true cooperation and discussion, or push countries to go to war one against the other. Democraphic growth, economic progress and climate/meteorogical chaos can worsen that perception and make water issues appear as a « time-bomb ».

The early Soviet planners started with a strict quota system laid down in 1987 by Protocol 566 of the Scientific and Technical Council of the Soviet Ministry of Water Resources. The system fixed quotas for all countries, both in percentage and in BCM (Billions of Cubic Meters).

That simple quota system looks 100 % functional on paper. However, nations are not abstractions.

First, this system created quite rigid procedures and even would forbid some upstream countries to invest in their own agriculture since they had to deliver the water to their neighbors.

Second, conflict arose about dissymetric seasonal use of the water. The use of the water was completely different between « Upstream countries » such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and « Downstream countries » such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Seasonal use of water is dissymmetric between « Upstream » and « Downstream » countries.

Upstream countries could accept releasing their water resources in autumn and winter since the release of the water provides them up to 90 % of their electricity via hydrodams.

Downstream countries however don’t need the water at that time but in spring and summer when their farmland needs to be irrigated.

However, in Central Asia, their seems to exist some sort of « geological justice » since downstream countries lacking water (Kazakhstan, Uzbekhistan and Turkmenistan) have vast hydrocarbon energy reserves such as coal, oil and gaz.

Therefore, not always stupid, Soviet planners, which realized that a simple quota system was insufficient to prevent conflict, created a compensation mechanism. Downstream nations, in exchange for water, would supply parts of their oil and gas to upstream nations to compensate the loss of potential energy that water represents.

However imperfect that mechanism, for want of a better one, it remained in place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It can be said that by appealing to an external factor of a given problem, in this case to bring energy in the equation to solve the water problem, soviet planners conceived in a rudimentary form what became known as the « Water, Energy, Food Nexus ». One cannot deal with theses factors as separate factors. They have to be conceived as part of a single, dynamic Monad.

Today, we should avoid the geopolitical trap. If we consider the water resources to be shared between the states of Central Asia and Afghanistan to be « limited », or even « declining » due to meteorological phenomena such as El Nino, we might hastily and geopolitically conclude that, with the construction of the Qosh Tepa canal, which will tap water from the Amu Daria, the « water time bomb » cannot but explode.


So we need to be creative. We don’t have all the solutions but some ideas about where to find them:

  1. In Central Asia, especially in Turkmenistan but also Uzbekistan, huge quantities of water from the Abu Daria water basin are wasted. In 2021, Chinese researchers, looking at Central Asia’s potential in terms of food production, estimated that with improvements in irrigation, better seeds and other « agricultural technology », 56 % of the water can be saved farming the same crops, meaning that today, about half of the water is simply wasted.
  2. The lack of investment into new water infrastructure and maintenance cannot but lead to the kind of disasters the world has seen in Libya or Pakistan where, predictably, systems collapsed for lack of mere maintenance;
  3. Uncontrolled and controlled flooding are very primitive and inefficient forms of irrigation and should be outphased and replaced by modern irrigation techniques;
  4. Therefore, a water emergency should be declared and a vast international effort should assist all the countries of the Abu Daria basin, including Afghanistan, to modernize and improve the efficiency of their water infrastructure, be it lakes, canals, rivers and irrigation systems.
  5. Such and effort can best organized within the framework of the « One Belt, One Road » initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. BRICS countries such as China, Russia and India could help Afghanistan with data from their satellites and space programs.
  6. By improving the efficiency of water use, notably through targeted irrigation using « drip irrigation » as seen in the case of the Tarim basin in Xinjiang, it is possible to reduce the total amount of water used to obtain an even higher yield of agriculture production, while considerably increasing the availability of the water to be shared among neighbors. The know how and experience of African, South American, Israeli and Chinese agronomists, specialized in food production in arid countries, can play a key role.
  7. In the near future, Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES), which means storing water in high altitude reservoirs for a later use, can massively increase the independance and autonomy of countries such as Afghanistan and others. Having sufficient water at hand at any time means also having the water security required to operate mining activities and handle thermal and nuclear electricity production units. PHES infrastructure would be greatly efficient on both sides of the Abu Daria and jointly operated among friendly nations.

Over the past 1,200 years, nations bordering waterways have concluded 3,600 treaties on the sharing of river usufructs, whether for fishing, river transport or the sharing of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses.

Afghanistan’s Qosh Tepa canal project is a laudable and legitimate initiative. But it is true that by breaking the status quo, it obliges a new dialogue among nations allowing each and all of them to rise to a higher level, a willing to live together increasingly the opposite to the dominant paradigm in the Anglosphere and its european followers.

It’s up to all of us to make sure it works out fine.

Merci de partager !

Grands travaux : l’exemple inspirant du « Plan Freycinet »

Port de Marseille avec les voies ferrées arrivant sur les quais.
Charles de Freycinet.

L’analyse de Charles de Freycinet sur les buts de la science économique est limpide et se résume en une phrase : « Le progrès économique, c’est la plus grande satisfaction pour le moindre effort. »

Si l’objectif phare est de donner accès au chemin de fer à tous les Français, il s’agit de favoriser le développement économique du pays par le désenclavement des régions reculées.

Les promoteurs du plan veulent également aboutir à un contrôle plus strict de l’État voire au rachat des compagnies de chemins de fer.

L’analyse de Freycinet sur les buts de la science économique n’est pas sans rappeler la pensée du philosophe et scientifique allemand Leibniz :

Pour sa mise en œuvre, le « plan Freycinet » est inscrit dans la loi de Finances et une première loi est votée le 18 mai 1878.

Ensuite, il fait l’objet de trois lois promulguées par Jules Grévy, président de la République, à quelques jours d’intervalle:

1. Nouvelles lignes ferroviaires nationales et secondaires

Poseurs de rail.

La première concerne la construction de 8700 kilomètres de nouvelles voies ferroviaires soit 154 lignes dites d’intérêt général (avec un écartement des voies d’1m43) afin de desservir toutes les sous-préfectures du pays.

Leur construction est assurée, soit par les grandes compagnies privées, le coût étant le plus souvent pris en charge par l’État, soit par l’État lui-même. Freycinet est ainsi à l’origine de la compagnie de l’État (loi du 18 mai 1878).

Dans le même temps il s’agit de désenclaver tous les chefs lieux de cantons par des réseaux secondaires (lignes dites « d’intérêt local » avec un écartement des voies d’1 m) construites principalement à l’initiative des conseils généraux.

Le réseau ferré français, avant et après le plan Freycinet.

La longueur des ces réseaux départementaux passera de 2187 kilomètres en 1880 à 17 653 km en 1913.

2. L’aménagement du réseau fluvial

Dans le domaine de la navigation fluviale le plan Freycinet ambitionne la création d’un réseau national unifié et cohérent de voies navigables, par l’amélioration de 14 600 km de voies existantes et par la mise en service de 1900 km de canaux supplémentaires.

Le plan Freycinet porte les dimensions des écluses à 39 m de long pour 5,20 m de large, afin qu’elles soient franchissables par des péniches de 300 à 350 tonnes.

Le gabarit Freycinet.

En conséquence, les bateaux au gabarit Freycinet ne doivent pas dépasser 38,5 m sur 5,05 m.

Le « gabarit Freycinet » correspond aujourd’hui au gabarit européen de classe I.

En France, 5800 km de voies fluviales ont conservés cette taille et en 2011, 23 % du trafic fluvial y transite.

3. La modernisation des ports

Manet, port de Bordeaux en 1870.

Au niveau portuaire, Freycinet déplore que :

L’originalité du plan Freycinet, au niveau portuaire, recouvre trois aspects :
–le souci de l’interconnexion,
–l’étendue et
–le mode de financement.

La modernisation des ports, affirme-t-il :

Freycinet, qui avait bien conscience que la bataille pour le maritime se gagne sur terre ferme. Un port sans hinterland capable d’accueillir les flux de marchandises est comme un cœur déconnecté d’artères en mesure de faire circuler le sang.

Freycinet mettra donc l’accent sur l’amélioration de l’intermodalité, ce qui signifie l’extension des quais, la multiplication des bassins, notamment à flot, l’approfondissement des chenaux, afin que « l’installation générale soit appropriée à la fois aux deux modes de transport qui viennent s’y rencontrer ».

Alors que l’État financera les superstructures, les infrastructures, l’outillage sera à la charge des chambres de commerce ou des particuliers par voie de concession. 116 ports sur 188 sont ainsi modernisés.

–La longueur utile des quais passe de 140 km en 1879 à 205 km en 1900, une augmentation de 46 % ;
–le nombre de ports présentant plus de 7 mètres de profondeur s’est élevé de 9 en 1878 à 15 en 1900 ;
–le tonnage de jauge de navires entrés et sortis a progressé de 64 % entre 1878 et 1898 ;
–aux mêmes dates, le poids des marchandises importées ou exportées a augmenté de 75 %, passant de 17 à 30 millions de tonnes.

L’abaissement du prix du fret, l’accroissement de la rapidité et de la régularité des transports, le perfectionnement des moyens de manutention sont autant de progrès à enregistrer.

Un plan décennal

Dans son chiffrage initial, largement dépassé au final, le plan prévoyait de consacrer environ 3 milliards de francs aux lignes de chemin de fer, 1 milliard aux canaux et 500 millions aux ports. Le tout était financé par un crédit d’État à 3 %, remboursable en 75 annuités.

Si à l’origine, le « plan Freycinet » aurait du être réalisé en dix ans, la faillite retentissante de la banque l’Union générale en 1882 (cadre du roman L’Argent de Zola) et la crise économique qu’elle engendrera, retarderont sa mise en œuvre.

La crise du crédit public brise l’élan et entraîne à moyen terme le ralentissement considérable du rythme des réalisations. Cet arrêt brutal aura deux conséquences.

D’une part, l’allongement des délais de construction provoque une élévation de leurs coûts, et de l’autre, l’abandon prématuré du système de financement imaginé par la loi du 11 juin 1878.

Ainsi, ce n’est qu’en 1914, c’est-à-dire après 36 ans, que l’ensemble du plan arrivera, à quelques détails près, à son stade de réalisation.

Entre-temps, cette mobilisation des forces productives, par effet d’entrainement, à fait naître le savoir-faire permettant la réalisation de la tour Eiffel ou les écluses du canal de Suez et celui de Panama.

Faute de crédit productif public et de volonté politique réelle, à part quelques miracles accomplis à l’époque De Gaulle/Pompidou, la France n’a jamais connue une initiative de cette ampleur visant à susciter un « choc de productivité » par l’investissement en infrastructures. Quel candidat aura aujourd’hui le courage et la compétence pour défendre un « Nouveau plan Freycinet » ?

Relance française

Le 1er octobre 2020, dans sa chronique dans Le Monde, Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur, professeur à PSE, directeur d’études EHESS, confirme la réussite retentissante du Plan Freycinet.

Merci de partager !

Persian Qanâts and the Civilization of Hidden Waters

By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

World Day of handwashing, UNICEF.

By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

At a time when old diseases make their return and new ones emerge worldwide, the tragic vulnerability of much of humanity poses an immense challenge.

One wonders whether to laugh or cry when international authorities trumpet without further clarification that to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, “all you have to do” is “wash your hands with soap and water”!

They forget one small detail: 3 billion people do not have facilities to wash their hands at home and 1.4 billion have no access to either water or soap!

Yet, since the dawn of time, mankind has demonstrated its capacity to mobilize its creative genius to make water available in the most remote places.

Here is a short presentation of a marvel of such human genius, the “qanâts”, an underground water conveyance system dating from the Iron Age. Probably of Egyptian origin, it was deployed on a large scale in Persia from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.

The qanât or underground aqueduct

Typical cross-section of a qanât.

Sometimes called “horizontal drilling”, the qanât is an underground aqueduct employed to draw water from a water table and convey it by simple gravitational effect to urban settlements and farmland. The word qanât is an old Semitic word, probably Accadian, derived from a root qanat (reed) from which come canna and canal.

This “drainage gallery”, cut into the rock or built by man, is certainly one of the earliest and most ingenious inventions for irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions. The technique offers a significant advantage: by conveying water through an underground conduit, contrary to open air canals, not a single drop of water is wasted by evaporation.

Oases’ are NOT natural phenomena. All known oases are man-made. It is the qanât technique that allows man, in a given geographic configuration, to create oases in the middle of the desert, when a water table is close enough to the ground level or at a site close to the bed of a river lost in the sands of the desert.

From Mexico till China, diffusion of qanât technique.

Copied and expanded by the Romans, the qanât technique was carried across the Atlantic to the New World by the Spaniards, where many such underground canals still function in Peru and Chile. In fact, there are even Persian qanâts in western Mexico.

While today this three thousand year old technique may not be appropriate everywhere to solve current water scarcity problems in arid and semi-arid regions, it has much to inspire us as a demonstration of human genius at its best, that is, capable of doing a lot with a little.

The oases of Egypt

Egyptian man-made oasis of Dakhleh.

Today, 95% of the Egyptian population prospers on only 5% of its territory, mainly around the Nile delta. Hence, from the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, irrigation and water storage techniques for the Nile floods were developed in order to conserve this silty, nutrient-rich water for use throughout the year.

The river water was diverted and transported by canals to the fields by gravity. Since water from the Nile did not reach the oases, the Egyptians used the gushing water from the springs, which came from the large aquifer reserves of the western desert, and conveyed it to the fields by irrigation canals.

One of the fruits of this attempt to “conquer the desert” was a sustained habitation of the Dakhleh oasis throughout the Pharaonic period, explicable not only by a commercial interest on the part of the Egyptian state, but also by the new agricultural perspectives it offered.

Roman aqueducts

With its 170 km, 106 of which are underground, the Qanat of Gadara (now in Jordan) is the largest aqueduct of antiquity. It starts from a mountain water source held back by a dam (right) to supply a series of cities east of the Jordan River, in particular Gadara, near Lake Tiberias.
The Qanât Fi’raun, or aqueduct of Gadara, in Jordan.

Closer to us in time, the Qanât Fir’aun (The Watercourse of the Pharaoh) also known as the aqueduct of Gadara, a city today in Jordan. As far as we know, this 170 km long structure, depending on the geography, combines several bridge-aqueducts (of the same type as the Gard aqueduct in France) and 106 km of underground canals using the Persian qanât technique. It is not only the longest but also the most sophisticated aqueduct of antiquity, and the fruit of a years of hydraulic engineering.

In reality, the Romans, hiring persian water experts, did nothing more than terminate in the 2nd century an ancient project designed to supply water to the “Decapolis”, a collaborative group of ten cities founded by Greek and Macedonian settlers under the Seleucid king Antiochos III (223 – 187 BC), one of the successors of Alexander the Great.

These ten cities were located on the eastern border of the Roman Empire (now in Syria, Jordan and Israel), united by language, culture and political status, each with a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Its capital, Gadara, was home to more than 50,000 people and known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its own university attracting scholars, writers, artists, philosophers and poets. But this rich city lacked something existential : an abundance of water.

The Gadara qanat made the difference. “In the capital alone, there were thousands of fountains, watering holes and baths. Wealthy senators cooled themselves in private pools and decorated their gardens with cooling caves. The result was a record daily consumption of more than 500 liters of water per capita,” explains Matthias Schulz, author of a report on the aqueduct in Spiegel Online.

Entrance of the Gardara qanât, Jordan.


The Shahzadeh Garden in Iran, an oasis built with the age-old technique of qanats.

We all admire the roman aqueducts. But few of us are aware that the Romans only adapted the technique of the qanâts developed much earlier in Persia.

Indeed, it was under the Achaemenid Empire (around 559 – 330 BC.), that this technique spread slowly from Persia to the east and the west. Many qanâts can be found in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya), in the South East Asia (Iran, Oman, Iraq) and further east, in Central Asia, from Afghanistan to China (Xinjiang), via India.

The development of these “draining galleries” is attested in different regions of the world under various names: qanât and kareez in Iran, Syria and Egypt, kariz, kehriz in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aflaj in Oman, galeria in Spain, kahn in Balochistan, kanerjing in China, foggara in North Africa, khettara in Morocco, ngruttati in Sicily, bottini of Siena, etc.

Historically, the majority of the populations of Iran and other arid regions of Asia or North Africa depended on the water provided by the qanâts; their construction lifted entire areas to a higher “economic platform”, made deserts habitable and opened new land for agriculture. The map of demographic expansion followed the trail of the development of this new higher platform.

In his article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât » (From natural rhythm to human rhythm: the life and death of a traditional technique, the qanât), Pierre Lombard, a researcher at the French CNRS, points out that this is not an artisanal and marginal process:

Until a few years ago, the importance of the ancestral technique of qanât was sometimes ignored in Central Asia, Iran, Syria, and even in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, the Public Authority for Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman estimated in 1982 that all the qanâts still in operation conveyed more than 70 % of the total water used in that country and irrigated nearly 55% of the cereal lands. Oman was still one of the few states in the Middle East to maintain and sometimes even develop its qanât network; this situation, apart from its longevity, does not appear to be exceptional. If one turns to the edges of the Iranian Plateau, one can note with Wulff (1968) the obvious discrepancy between the relative aridity of this area (between 100 and 250 mm of annual precipitation) and its non-negligible agricultural production, and explain it by one of the densest networks of qanâts in the Middle East. It can also be recalled that until the construction of the Karaj dam in the early 1960s, the two million inhabitants of Tehran at that time consumed exclusively the water brought from the Elbourz foothills by several dozen regularly maintained qanâts. Finally, we can mention the case of some major oases in the Near and Middle East (Kharga in Egypt, Layla in Saudi Arabia, Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, etc.) or in Central Asia (Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan) that owe their vast development, if not their very existence, to this remarkable technique.”

On the website ArchéOrient, the French archaeologist Rémy Boucharlat, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS, an Iran expert, explains:

“Whatever the origin of the water, deep or not, the technique of construction of the gallery is the same. First, the issue is to identify the presence of water, either its going underground near a river, or the presence of a water table under a foothill, which requires the science and experience of specialists. A motherwell will be dug to reach the top of the water table, indicating at which depth the [horizontal] gallery should be drilled. It’s slope must be very small, less than 2‰, so that the flow of water is calm and regular, and conduct the water gradually to the surface area, according to a gradient much lower than the slope of the foothill.

“The gallery is then dug, not starting from the mother well because it would be immediately flooded, but from downstream, from the point of arrival. The conduct is first dug in an open trench, then covered, and finally gradually sinks into the ground in a tunnel. For the evacuation of soil and ventilation during excavation, as well as to identify the direction of the gallery, shafts are dug from the surface at regular intervals, between 5 and 30 m depending on the nature of the land ».

Aireal view of persian qanât system.

In April 1973, Lyndon LaRouche’s friend, the French-Iranian professor and historian Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), published his translation from Arab into French of “The Civilization of Hidden Waters”, a treatise on the exploitation of underground waters composed in the year 1017 by the Persian hydrologist Mohammed Al-Karaji, who lived in Baghdad. (Translated in English in 2011)

After an introduction and general considerations on geography, natural phenomena, the water cycle, the study of terrain and the instruments of the hydrologist, Al-Karaji gives a highly precise technical outline of the construction and maintenance of qanâts, as well as legal considerations respecting their management and maintenance.

Commentary on the qanâts in the treatise of Al-Karaji (11th century).

In his introduction to Al-Karji’s treatise, Professor Mazaheri emphasizes the role of the Iranian city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan). This ancient city, he says, was part of

“the long series of oases extending at the foot of the northern slope of the Iranian plateau, from the Caspian to the first foothills of the Pamirs. There, between the geological extension of the Caspian towards the East, there is a strip of arable land, more or less wide, but very fertile. Now, to exploit it, a lot of ingenuity is needed: where, for example in Merv, a big river, such as the Marghab, coming from the glaciers of the central East-Iranian massif, crosses the chain, it is necessary to establish dams, above the strip of arable land, without which, the ‘river’, divided into several dozens of arms, rushes under the sands. Elsewhere, and it is almost all along the northern slope of the chain, one can create artificial oases, by bringing the water by underground aqueducts.” (p. 44)

The construction of dams and underground aqueducts are among the most interesting legacies of their (the ancient Persians) irrigation techniques (…) Long before Islam, the Persian hydrologists had built thousands of aqueducts, allowing the creation of hundreds of villages, dozens of cities previously unknown. And very often, even where there was a river, because of the insufficiency of this one, the hydronomists had brought to light many aqueducts allowing the extension of the culture and the development of the city. Naishabur was such a city. Under the Sassanids, and later under the Caliphs, an important network of aqueducts had been created there, so that the inhabitants could afford the luxury of owning a ‘’bathing room’ in the basement, at the level of the aqueduct serving the house.”

Water room of a qanat in the basement of the Water Museum in Yadz, Iran.

Let us recall that most Persian scholars, including the famous mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, not suffering from today’s hyper-specialization that tends to curb creative thinking, excelled in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine as well as in hydrology.

Mazaheri confirms that this “civilization of underground waters” spread well beyond the Iranian borders:

“Already, under the [Umayyad] Caliph Hisham (723-42), Persian hydronomists built aqueducts between Damascus and Mecca (…) Later, Mecca suffering from lack of water, Zubayda, the wife of Hâroun Al-Rachîd, sent Persian hydronomists there who endowed the city with a large underground aqueduct. And each time the latter was silted up, a new team left Persia to restore the network: such repairs took place periodically under Al-Muqtadir (908-32), under Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), under Al-Naçir (1180-1226) and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, under the Mongol prince Emir Tchoban. We would say the same of Medina and the stages on the pilgrimage route, between Baghdad and Mecca, wherever it was possible to do so, hydronomic works were undertaken and ‘underground aqueducts’ were created.

Hydronomy is a highly demanding skill. To practice it, it is not enough to have mathematical knowledge: decadal calculus, algebra, trigonometry, etc., it is necessary to spend long hours in the galleries at the risk of dying by flooding, landslide or lack of air. It is necessary to have an ancestral instinct of ‘dowser’.”

The annual rainfall in Iran is 273 mm, which is less than one third of the world’s average annual precipitation.

The temporal and spatial distribution of precipitation is not uniform; about 75% occurs in a small area, mainly on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, while the rest of the country does not receive sufficient rainfall. On the temporal scale, only 25% of the precipitation occurs during the plant growing season.

7,7 x the circonférence of the Earth

Still in use today in Iran, qanâts currently supply about 7.6 billion m3 of water, close to 15% of the country’s total water needs.

Considering that the average length of each qanât is 6 km in most parts of the country, the total length of the 30,000 qanât systems (potentially exploitable today) is about 310,800 km, which is about 7.7 times the circumference of the Earth or 6/7th of the Earth-Moon distance!

This shows the enormous amount of work and energy applied to build the qanâts. In fact, while more than 38,000 qanâts were in operation in Iran till 1966, its number dropped to 20,000 in 1998 and is currently estimated at 18,000. According to the Iranian daily Tehran Times, historically, over 120,000 qanat sites are documented.

Moreover, while in 1965, 30-50% of Iran’s total water needs were met by qanats, this figure has dropped to 15% in recent decades.

According to the Face Iran website:

The water flow of qanâts is estimated between 500 and 750 cubic meters per second. As land aridity tends to vary according to the abundance of rains in each region, this quantity of water is used as a more or less important supplement. This makes it possible to use good land that would otherwise be barren. The importance of the impact on the desert can be summarized in one figure: about 3 million hectares. In seven centuries of hard work, the Dutch conquered 1.5 million hectares from the marshes or the sea. In three millennia, the Iranians have conquered twice as much on the desert.

Indeed, to each new qanât corresponded a new village, new lands. From where a new human group absorbed the demographic surplus. Little by little the Iranian landscape was constituted. At the end of the qanat, is the house of the chief, often with one floor. It is surrounded by the villagers’ houses, animal shelters, gardens and market gardens.

The distribution of land and the days of irrigation of the plots were regulated by the chief of the villages. Thus, a qanat imposed a solidarity between the inhabitants.”

If each qanât is “invented” and supervised by a mirab (dowser-hydrologist and discoverer), the realization of a qanât is a collective task that requires several months or years, even for medium-sized qanâts, not to mention works of record dimensions (a 300 m deep mother-well, a 70 km long gallery classified in 2016 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in northeast Iran).

Each undertaking is carried out by a village or a group of villages. The absolute necessity of a collective investment in the infrastructure and its maintenance requires a higher notion of the common good, an indispensable complement to the notion of private property that rains and rivers do not take in account.

In the Maghreb, the management of water distributed by a khettara (the local name for qanâts) follows traditional distribution norms called “water rights”. Originally, the volume of water granted per user was proportional to the work contributed to build the khettara, translated into an irrigation time during which the beneficiary had access to the entire flow of the khettara for his fields. Even today, when the khettara has not dried up, this rule of the right to water persists and a share can be sold or bought. Because it is also necessary to take into account the surface area of the fields to be irrigated by each family.

The causes of the decline of the qanâts are numerous. Without endorsing the catastrophist theses of an anti-human ecology, it must be noted that in the face of the increasing urban population, the random construction of dams and the digging of deep wells equipped with electric pumps have disturbed and often depleted the aquifers and water tables.

A neoliberal ideology, falsely described as “modern”, also prefers the individualistic “manager” of a well to a collective management organized among neighbors and villages. A passive State authority has done the rest. In the absence of more thoughtful reflection on its future, the age-old system of qanâts is on the verge of extinction as a result.

In the meantime, the Iranian population has grown from 40 to over 82 million in 40 years. Instead of living off oil, the country is seeking to prosper through agriculture and industry. As a result, the need for water has increased substantially. To cope with rising demands, Iran is desalinating sea water at great cost. Its civilian nuclear program will be the key factor to provide water at a reasonable cost.

Beyond political and religious divisions, closer cooperation between all the countries in the region (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) with a perspective to improve, develop, manage and share water resources, will be beneficial to each and all.

Presented as an “Oasis Plan” and promoted for decades by the American thinker and economist Lyndon LaRouche, such a policy, translating word into action, is the only basis of a true peace policy.

Bibliography :

  • Remy Boucharlat, The falaj or qanât, a polycentric and multi-period invention, ArcheOrient – Le Blog, September 2015 ;
  • Pierre Lombard, Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanat, Persée, 1991 ;
  • Aly Mazaheri, La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, Persée, 1973 ;
  • Hassan Ahmadi, Arash Malekian, Aliakbar Nazari Samani, The Qanat: A Living History in Iran, January 2010;
  • Evelyne Ferron, Egyptians, Persians and Romans: the interests and stakes of the development of Egyptian oasis environments.


[1] The ten cities forming the Decapolis were: 1) Damascus in Syria, much further north, sometimes considered an honorary member of the Decapolis; 2) Philadelphia (Amman in Jordan); 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras in Jordan); 4) Scythopolis (Baysan or Beit-Shean in Israel), which is said to be its capital; It is the only city west of the Jordan River; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis in Jordan); 6) Hippos (Hippus or Sussita, in Israel); 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari in Syria); 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil in Jordan); 9) Gerasa (Jerash in Jordan) and 10) Canatha (Qanawat in Syria)

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Le pont rouillé de Mèze

Le pont rouillé de Mèze, Karel Vereycken, aquarelle, août 2018.



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Krsta Paskovic: canal building from China to Serbia

With Paskovic, of the Danube Propellor Association

In 2013, at the World Canal Conference in Toulouse, France, Karel Vereycken interviews Serbian, Chinese and Italian experts and historians on the important role of canals.

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