What does Parishan’s self burning tell us?

Last week Iran’s nature took one of its finest sons and most refined adepts into its heart for ever. Pure body of Kambiz Bahram-Soltani was buried in the section 14 of “Behesht é Zahra” in the midst of the great sorrow of his bereaved friends and fans. He was the man who fought from Miankale to Kolah-ghazi and from Dena to Parishan, till his last breath for the love of the nature.

Last June, a day I will never forget, while walking on the desolate bed of Parishan, Bahram-Soltani was describing his devastation to me; “To see Parishan like this makes me Parishan, Darvish” he sighed. (Parishan means anguished distressed in Farsi).

He is not with us now to see how Parishan, the greatest body of sweet water in Iran, became even more dry , thanks to the indifference of you and me, stayed dry for so long until it chose to put an end to its agony and eventually gave in to self-burning.

In general, for what reason do whales commit suicide? Why do mountain goats jump off the highest cliffs and end their lives? Why do dolphins lose the way of the sea and choose to follow the path of death? is it not because they do not see any other way to prolonged existence?

Parishan was doomed to the same fate when its most important feeders the Barm flat and its surrounding mountain skirts were facing the worst nudity of their past 500 years and a total 80% of the marvelous oaks of Zagros Mountains have virtually dried out and vanished forever.

Despite such dire straits, we witness everyday that cultivation of horticultural and agricultural products on the under story of Barm clearly accelerates and plunders the very last ounces of moisture in the soil, leaving Parishan no chance whatsoever, to fill up its water springs and regain its life.

We also know that nearly one thousand illegal wells have been drilled to compensate for the excessively expanding agricultural lands and for the low level of precipitation, which of course does not make the situation any better.

On top of this, we should add the faulty decision of putting the Kazeroon combined-cycle power plant into operation, in such location that makes it an expropriating burden to Parishan knowing it would extract the very last drops of water from the lake for its cooling systems.

In the meanwhile, we hear that the new industrial town of Kazeroon is planned to be located in a way that its sewage might pose another threat, in terms of drinking water quality, to both Parishan plain and the city of Kazeroon.

This is why Parishan has been burning since last Wednesday, it committed self-burning the same way Soltan Abad é Shiraz (in Qareh daq) burned last year which resulted in a phenomenon that neither the present nor the past generation had seen and not even heard before.

In fact, what happens is that the lower layers of the soil in the wetland environment reaches an extent of dryness that the plant remnants, so called peat, decompose and produce methane gas faster than normal so that the soil can easily ignite as soon as the temperature rises to a certain level, and the fire spreads quickly to the entire area.

Therefore the over exploitation of the ground water aquifers, driven by a desire of being able to boast about self sufficiency in agriculture regardless of the price, is the reason behind the land subsidence and the resultant soil self immolation. Once all organic assets of the sub-surface beds are destroyed there will be no sign of soil or of the soil-born life.

Thus, developing sustainable consumption patterns, increasing irrigation efficiency in agriculture and reducing the waste rates in this sector, maintaining the livestock and pasture balance, inhibiting the operation of the intensive industrial centers as well as suspending bills such as “leisure agriculture”, and finally introducing alternative income options for farmers and ranchers are among the foremost measures that should be taken to reduce the dependency of livelihood on the land and to set the ground for the revival of the landscapes such as Parishan,  Arjan, Barm, Zagros, Mianjangal; so that they could bring life back to the the local inhabitants of Fars province.

Shadegan the unhappy happiness!

SHADEGAN” is derived from the word Shad (happy) in Farsi and means happiness.

It has been nearly two decades since Shadegan, Iran’s largest wetland, was listed in Montreux record. The record addresses the endangered waters and is primarily aimed at giving the states heads-up for if they hesitate to take timely and efficient action, not only will they lose the areas listed in the Ramsar international convention, but they also will truly confirm the fact that an internationally important wetland is an extravagance they cannot afford and do not deserve. Haplessly, however, the governors of Pardisan building (Iran’s environmental conservation organization), resting assured of their chairs, have never bowed to such conventions and threats.

I need to mention that the wetland with its area of almost 538000 hectares, covers a little more than one third of the area of all wetlands in Iran which have been internationally recognized and included in the Ramsar convention. Even though Shadegan, with an area of almost 538000 hectares, occupies less than 0.3%  of the entire country, it provides a natural habitat for 30% of the all bird population (154 species), 25 % of all mammal population (40 species), and 45% of all fish population (36 species of wetland fish plus 45 species of sea fish). In addition, almost 30 major societies of plants consisting of 110 species (5.1% of Iran’s plants population), 3 species of amphibians, and 9 species of reptiles; and finally 4 different types of shrimps, all on the verge of nonexistence, are amongst inhabitants cohabiting in this matchless habitat. With the prospect of 100000 locals, living within the immediate vicinity of the wetland, who will possibly lose their only source of livelihood for which they have no alternative, the extent and depth of the disaster becomes even more alarming.

Yet the question is what have we done, since the convention, so as to control the situation? Have we been able to control the constant oil spill from old worn out pipes into the area? Have we been able to preserve the wetland’s water right? Have we thwarted illegal hunting? Have we prevented the sewage from sugar cane, steel and petrochemical industries from entering the wetland? Have we relocated the residential areas inside the wetland elsewhere? Have we built the infrastructure required to create an affluent eco-tourism? Have we issued sufficient permits or given enough freedom of action to environment conservation NGOs? Have we given a single thought to the existence of 30 petrochemical units and their subsequent pollution in the area? Have we…?

Do we need to review the answers to all these questions? Do I really need to tell you that the water entering Shadegan has decreased by nearly 30% and that the quality of the remaining water is in fact so poor that it is virtually impossible to find a living thing? Last year, I (author) had the chance of riding over the lake by boat twice and two hours each time. Much to my regret,  not even one single living creature could be seen slithering amongst the water to promise a brighter future. By the same token, the studies on the sweet water part of Shadegan conducted by Aquaculture Research Center of Southern Iran in 1995, 2008 and 2010 show significant decline in the quality and quantity indices confirming the extent of the critical situation; These studies also indicate a biomass production rate of about 4.5 times less than previous years.

It is even more saddening to learn that owing to the opening of Omidieh refinery, the wetland is now losing another 6583000 m3 of its annual water right which is no doubt a good reason to give the authorities in charge of Iran’s environmental conservation a standing ovation for their remarkable determination to preserve our motherland’s ecological capacity!!! Apparently Shadegan will no longer be “happy” and Iran will continue to be the record holder for the number of wetlands still standing on the Montreux register! We are, however, surprisingly enough still living a healthy and prosperous life, aren’t we?!

To address what necessity?

The Farsi version of Combating Desertification weblog has been responsible for sharing information in the domain of ecology and natural resources since 2005.  This responsibility has not been posed on the founder of the web-log (Mohammad Darvish) from outside, but stems from a profound inner passion within him. The weblog has now reached a point where it contains more than 3,000,000 words and thousands of pictures and has been updated at least for 22000 times growing into a reliable reference for a large number of activists, students and others interested in environmental issues.

On a suggestion from Mr F. Salamatbakhsh, a dear friend of mine, we now intend to make the content of the weblog accessible to English-speaking readers so as to open an illuminating window towards the ups and downs of the nature of our country, Iran. I am very grateful to those who support Farhad and me with their sincere advice and guidance in this new direction. May the god of dorcas gazelles, cheetahs, cranes and oaks help us prove worthy of such generous support.

I have dedicated this first note to Shadegan, a wetland I love very much, and that we all know is not happy (meaning of shad) these days, is it?


My special thanks to Dr. Mehdi Eshraghi (Green Blog Administration) for preparing the foundation for the English pages of Combating Desertification; also to Ms Shahnaz Moussavian who volunteered to assist Farhad by doing the technical and literary edition of his translations. I must admit I am thrilled by the sympathy and support that we have received from you. I feel overwhelmed with joy and excitement. Long live your honor and your love for your country.

Introduction of criteria and indicators of desertification in Iran’s environment


Based on the rules and considerations mentioned above, the necessary indicators are proposed in this chapter for the assessment of the desertification trend in Iran. But before reviewing these indicators it should be noted that they can be defended with certainty when Iran’s desertification susceptibility maps are prepared according to the said criteria and indicators and considered by the scientists. It should be noted that actually there is no comprehensive method for the assessment of desertification with global approval; the emergence, change and evolution of methods such as FAO/UNEP (1984), Global Assessment of Human-Induced Soil Degradation (GLASOD), Assessment of Soil Degradation (ASSOD) (UNEP, 1997) and finally the Land Degradation Assessment in Drylands (LADA) (FAO, 2002 and LADA’s E-mail Conference, 2002), present these assessment short-comings. So the Committee for Science and Technology (CST) prioritize this subject for Desertification Control Convention.

Standards for desertification criteria and indicators designation

Whereas the desertification indicators in each region should be able to describe the qualitative impact of the considered criterion in the formation of desertification process regarding its importance, strength and extent; theretofore we have to find valid criteria and indicators for the measurement of desertification trends or talking about the assessment and control methods of this phenomenon will only be meaningful in books.

Another issue is the accessibility of the measurement means according to the certain conditions of the studying area. For instance, the lead accumulation indicator of soil as an assessment means of toxic substances accumulation indicator is considered inefficient and a waste of time in an area that is far away from the industrial poles and basically lead tetra-ethyl is not used for the enhancement of the octane number of the automobile fuels. Also a criterion should describe the affected area entirely, rather than areas out of the affected boundaries, and the indicators of the related criterion should be built up according to the area specifications and conditions (on local applicability level).

The last perception is based on the knowledge that without considering the cultural, social and economic conditions of a society, the transfer and application of the best and modern technologies for eradication of desertification is impossible; a perception that more than two decades (since 1980) absorb more advocates (JDCR, 1994). Therefore, taking into account the criteria such as local organs, such as the power structure, the state of human development indicators, social groups, race, gender, family relationships, religion, household behaviors and the state of the women, economic incentives, labor force, immigration patterns, land tenure, participation, receptivity level to group reflections, the importance of the structural management in decision-makings can be more advantageous to the assessment of the desertification trend and discovering confrontation methods rather than taking action on the basis of criteria and indicators resulted from the natural environment.

Rubio and Bochet (1996) presented a series of necessary specifications for the selected indicators of desertification as follows:

Desirably quantitative;

  • Highly sensitive to the environmental changes;
  • Widely applicable and accessible;
  • Relatively independent;
  • Easily measured and economical;
  • Describe the current situation;
  • Indicate the difference between the changes resulted from the natural cycles and human pressures;
  • Depending on the important ecological phenomena;
  • Accordance with the conditions of the studying area.

Finally, the difficult and time consuming process of desertification assessment will come to reality and make the desertification control process, shorter, cheaper, more efficient and sustainable when the criteria and the indicators designated have the following six specifications:

1)                  Authentic, definite and easiest possible criteria for the study of different dimensions of the desertification trends that is considered an obvious and indigenous descriptor;

2)                  Assessment possibility of the selected criteria for four aspects of current condition, speed, natural potential and desertification risks;

3)                  Simplest, cheapest and most efficient possible indicators by considering the regional specifications for measurement and analysis of the related criteria;

4)                  Designated criteria and indicators include the unique general specifications of the arid, semi-arid and arid sub-humid climatic zones and their local features in the environment of Iran;

5)                  Selected criteria should more consider the causes of desertification rather than the event itself;

6)                  Possibility of continual observation and deduction of the selected criteria for the purpose of evolution.

Scope of desertification in Iran

Based on the existing outputs, 35.2% (573,884 km2) of the total of 1,629,807 km2 area of the lands of the country (Statistics Centre of Iran) are hyper-arid zones[1] (Khalili, 1992). On the other hand, 8.9% (178,245 km2) of the total area of the country have non-arid climate. So based on of the existing accepted definitions, more than 44.1% of the total area of the country is not included in the region affected by desertification.

Therefore the first and most important data provided is that the criteria and factors that are due to confirm the desertification and explain the quality of its process in the country, should be based on the natural (climatic, geographic and geologic) and humanistic (demographic, cultural, sociological and legal) features as well as three climatic sub-divisions of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid with total area of 877,678 km2. In the process of searching and discovering the main desertification indicators, the characteristics of the deserts of Iran (gravelly plains, sand dunes, nebka, yardang, barkhan, clay plains, spectacled hills, polaya, etc.) should not be considered.

[1] It should be noted that the method for the climatic zonation of the country (De Martin, edited by Ambreger, Gousin, Torent White, Coupin, etc.) play a leading role in the said areas. For instance, four years after Khalili, a French scientist named Henry N. Le Houerou (1996) announced that the total desert area of the country including Eremitic (20,000 km2) and hyper arid (306,000 km2) areas, is 326,000 km2, which is less than the figure presented by Khalili (1992). Few years before Khalili, Ganji (1976) also calculated the total desert area of the country (approximately 700,000 km2) by using Coupin method (Khalili, 1999). Therefore, one of the main important pillars and priorities of the country in this area might be considered the calculation of the total area of different climatic zones of the country by using UNEP global methods (UNEP, 1997).

Desertification characteristics:

Based on the last definition of desertification presented to the Inter-Governmental Convention on Drought and Desertification control Committee (CCD) and ratified by its members on 26 December 1996 (UNEP, 1997), the only difference between desertification and land degradation is considered the climatic restrictions of the affected zones. In other words, while climatic factors never contribute to land degradation, a part of its function in the fragile climatic zones of dry lands (except hyper arid zones) is called desertification[1]. Therefore, from the total of 13012.6 million hectares of the lands of the earth that can undergo the land degradation trends, approximately 5169.2 million hectares or 39.7% are potentially affected by desertification.

Therefore, it is concluded that two conditions are essential although not enough for the occurrence of desertification in every land; 1) the discussed area have the minimum potential for production[2]; 2) the production potential of the land have not exceeded certain limits[3].. Thus 978.1 million hectares of lands of the earth because of not having the first and another 6875 million hectares because of not fulfilling the second conditions are out of the boundaries of desertification trend. But the necessary condition is an external factor that causes change and degradation of the environment; a change that is generally irreversible. This external factor is assumed the result of natural pressures such as climatic changes or human pressures. However; while the climatic changes generally happen in the scale of geological ages, the desertification process degraded and deteriorated more than 5 billion hectares of productive lands (38.5% of all lands of the earth) with a hasty growth (Daily, 1997); therefore as mentioned above, humans are the most important factor of happening and intensification of desertification in the world, a creature that have most suffered from this process himself[4]. On the other hand if we even accept that the natural factors are effective in the happening of desertification, only the human factor can slow down or stop the desertification trend (FAO/UNEP, 1984). This is a fact that should always be considered in the introduction mechanism of desertification criteria and some factors should be selected regarding the interactions among the criteria and the human functions.

[1] The reason for using another scientific term instead of land degradation goes to the incentives and more feeling underlying the word desertification which take more attention unconsciously (Le Houerou, 1998 and Horstmann, 2002); though this attention have most often led the people and authorities to assume desertification as a synonym to the physical expansion of natural deserts and ignore the main invisible reducing trend of soil productivity in more humid areas; a misunderstanding, the result of which is observed in the designation of wrong criteria and factors for desertification (Ekhtesasi and Mohajeri, 1997).

[2] It means that the annual average precipitation of the region is less than 5% of the annual average evapotranspiration (Wolfe, 1997).

[3] The definite limit is designated as annual average precipitation lower than 65% of the annual average evapotranspiration (Wolfe, 1997).

[4] The bitter satire is the unwise management of resources by the wisest creature (human) on the earth!

Desertification assessment:The criteria and indicators

  1. 1.     Hypothesis

 The hypothesis or main issue of the present study is to review the possibility of achieving the minimum, expressive, simple and regional criteria and factors that can provide us with the actual review of the desertification process in Iran. In other words, this study attempts to introduce a list of the most efficient assessment criteria for the land degradation in the regions affected by the process of desertification and to provide measurable, accessible and simple factors for the assessment of exact condition of the said criteria. Therefore, by strengthening and updating the watch and observation systems of the country, the more accurate forecast of desertification risk according to the affected climatic conditions or natural environments and increase in percentage of success of the national action programmes are more expected.

In the process of this important achievement, the complete definition of desertification and its scope, and also its difference with other scientific terms such as desert and land degradation, together with strict and adducible norms for identification of criteria and indicators will be necessary. This paper has also tried to respond properly to the following question of: Why the climatic factors can not only be referred in the assessment of desertification process?

  1. 2.     Preface:

It seems that what we call “desertification” today and have already believed in its hasty process of degradation of the global environment, is so far from the limited boundaries of its effects assumed by A. Auberville and Luies Lavvden[1] and can not only be briefed in “creeping desert”; the real desertification is the “soil deterioration” of the lands out of the natural desert boundaries in the form of soil productivity decline and increase in soil sensitivity to erosion[2], qualitative and quantitative decline of water tables, soil subsidence, growth in number and volume of floods, sedimentation of reservoirs and reduction of the dams efficient life, soil salinization and waterlogging, soil bareness, and finally immigration and decline in biodiversity[3]. Therefore the international desertification conferences should not necessarily be held in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Cairo or Khartoum, because Bonn, Rome, Hague or Tokyo can easily be named as threatening options. When the utmost soil degradation share in the world happens in Europe rather than Africa or Asia and when Europe witnesses the degradation of more than 23% of its soils (UNEP, 1997)[4], so that the Central European cities like Bonn and Rome lead the desertification control movement and more than 187 countries join a convention[5] that desertification control is its most important goal. It should be noted that considering the proved destructive role of human beings in the emergence of this world-wide crisis[6] it seems that to confront with it also require certain actions and several inter-disciplinary precisions and powerful interactions at the higher levels of decision-makers.

In 1987 A.C., a report was published by Oxford University entitled: “Our common future” (Excerpted from the speech of Javier Perez de Cuellar), that even after 16 years the power and credit of the insight dominating the words is not reduced; according to the report: “The earth is unique but the world is not; to continue our lives, all of us depend on environment to live, however all the societies and countries try for their existence and prosperity without paying attention to the impact of their efforts on others.”

So the hasty process of desertification in the beginning of the third millennium is a proof to the validity of the Oxford report. Millions of human beings are subject to death, and Malaria still takes a million victims annually[7]; and a million people live in the most vulnerable lands of Africa affected by desertification. But the civilized and wise people of the North think of their exclusive persistency and prosperity by doubling the Carbon production only during past three decades[8], with lamentable pertinacity! without paying attention to the apparent crises happening out of their borders. Are the time-to-time outbreaks of unknown viruses such as HIV/AIDS, SARS etc. a reason for understanding the accuracy of the Oxford motivation as all of us depend on environment to live?

Thus desertification is selected as one of the three main challenges of 21 century (after climatic change and freshwater scarcity) among 37 important global challenges (Roohi Pour, 2002, excerpted from the Annual Report 2000 of International Board of Science). Confrontation with such an important subject that is categorized as the highest among other priorities and identification, assessment and continued observation of its impacts can be considered vital and effective. Only efforts that realize the purpose of searching and introducing the most appropriate and practical criteria and factors of desertification get their proper validity. This is why He. E. Dregne, a famous scientist evolved in this field said that: “Confrontation with desertification without assessment and observation of different forms of degradation of the drylands is impossible.” (Dregne, 1998).

Now, before discussing the main subject, it is necessary to know the official definition of desertification, its scope and its main causing factors. Then the identification of area affected by desertification in Iran and its local and regional characteristics will be essential.

[1] A. Auberville and Luies Lavvden were two of the first people who used this scientific term (Le Houerou, 1995 and Dregne, 1986)

[2] According to the FAO report, the annual desertification reduces the production potential of 5-7 million hectares of the agricultural lands (almost one fifth of the area of Germany). (Horstmann, 2002).

[3] In 1975 the land fit for cultivation or the capacity of one hectare field (one of the desertification criteria) in the region including Iran (Middle East), was ) 0.45 that reduced to 0.37 individuals in 1995. In Arab countries of the Middle East region the number was 0.18 which reduced to 0.13 (Hoven, 2002).

[4] The amount of soil degradation for Africa and Asia are estimated 21.55% and 20.14% respectively (UNEP, 1997). Interesting enough, this amount has passed the limits of 27% for Italy.

[5] Excerpted from the speech of Mr. Lyons, the Resident Representative of UNDP in Islamic Republic of Iran, on the occasion of the Day held in Kerman, 17 June, 2003 (Lyons, 2003). It should be remarked that 53 out of 187 member countries were from Asia or Oceania (UNCCD, 2003).

[6] In his latest message on the occasion of the World Desertification Combating Day, 17 June 2003 announced that: “All parts of the earth are affected by this phenomenon” (Annan, 2003).

[7] Hamshahri, No. 3033, 26 March 2003, p. 5.

[8] Ibid.