Kerman Province in the south-central region of Iran is known for its pistachio farms, especially in the city of Sirjan. Pistachio production has dropped by more than 50 percent while this province used to provide more than 80 percent of Iran’s pistachios .
Production of the nut in Iran dates back to 5th century BC. In the last Iranian year (ended March 19, 2016), Iran produced 261,000 tons of pistachios, 50% of which were exported. According to official figures, Iran earned as much as $1.2 billion from the export of 130,000 tons of pistachios last year, making it the biggest source of income in the agricultural sector .
For centuries, Iran relied on one of the world's most sophisticated irrigation systems—a web of underground canals known as "qanats" that carried water from under mountains to the arid plains. But then came the electric pumps and mega-dams. The need to preserve water was and still is overlooked . Agricultural industry and mining are seeking water that is not available anymore .
The changing landscape is all too visible. In a not-so-distant past, the area was a beltway of green stretching for hundreds of square miles, using groundwater to produce grain and pistachios. Now, the sun bakes treeless plains that are increasingly giving way to deserts. During storms, the dead trees lose their branches, turning them into stumps, while the dust swirls about in ever-growing quantities .
In the dead pistachio grove, a rare rainstorm recently left white lines in the red soil. “Salt and other things,” a pistachio grower said — residue from the contaminated water brought up by wells that sucked the last remaining groundwater years ago .
To make the situation even worse in Sirjan, decisions have begun by local officials on allocating scarce water supplies to opencast Golgohar iron mine, just 50 miles west of the city . "A greater amount of the existing water will be dedicated to areas that have a higher rate of production", a government official stated.
Daily, a convoy of water trucks waits in line to fill 5,000-gallon tanks. Under a deal with the local water management company, up to 400 of these trucks a day draw water from the city’s main well and head to the iron mine, the largest such mine in the Middle East. It employs over 7,000 people, many of them from Sirjan, and a water shortage has compounded an already difficult situation brought on by collapsing iron ore prices .
Residents have objected and even staged a sit-in, but the tankers keep coming for the water. The drivers, often from the city, say they are scorned by their neighbors. “We need to feed our families too,” one of them, said. “When the water runs out, it will run out for all of us. We have to choose between jobs and drinking water” .
It is not just water levels that are declining. “The quality of the water has decreased dramatically, as have the levels of the underground water,” Akbar Mahmoud Abadi, a deputy at the local department of the Ministry of Agricultural Jihad in Sirjan, said in a written reply to questions. “The condition is very worrisome”.
"I met people developing new methods to extract water from 300 metres’ depth. It is not a good situation,” a researcher says. Much of the damage has occurred in recent times as farming expanded – the area devoted to agriculture has increased by 50% during the past 30 years. But the future looks bleak for the region's farmers .
If the water goes either for intensive pistachio production or the iron mine, residents of the city are also left without water   .
"Drying water bodies and rising levels of pollution mean more people of the region are becoming aware of the need for environmentalism and understand the value of trying to protect nature. But for now, some environmentalists in Iran are still being treated like criminals", an environmental activist in exile stated . In Iran, security forces declared any demonstrations about water shortage illegal .