WATER: from Holiness to Crisis


Dr.Masood Ahmadi Afzadi

 DAAD Alumnus

Faculty member, Department Comparative Religion and Mysticism, IAU of North Tehran Branch


 Water is considered the most imperative element of living on the Earth. Wherever there has been water, there has been signs of life and civilizations have propagated around it. Cultures and civilizations came to existence because of water and one of the main reasons why they perished was the exhaustion of this basic source of life . Thus, water has always been of great significance in people’s religious beliefs from the Genesis Era to the modern-day established religions. The Primordial waters and the Primeval Ocean contribute to all Creation myths. Incapable of vivification, saline waters are given the villain’s role, whereas freshwaters are cherished as divine players in the ancient myths, or even recent ones, due to man’s vital dependence on them. From a different perspective, water has ever been the incentive for many conquests and battles over governments and nations throughout history.

Today, however, the vivification attributed to water is overshadowed by other aspects in the world of industries, modernism and advancements. The same human who was once sacrificed at the altar of water and fire is today sacrificing water, being utterly ignorant of the fact that water is the blood running through vessels of the world as a body, of which human is an organ. Thus, once the body of existence kneels down due to drought, the civilized human would vanish from the Earth as well. This would in turn bring about crises in the civilization and culture as well as in other social, political, ethnical, and security facets of life.

Structured in three brief parts, this paper would provide an overview of water in the Creation myths of Iranian and Indian ethnic groups, the global condition of water, and the water crisis in Isfahan as the greatest realm of culture and civilization in Iran.

Keywords: water, creation, India, Iran, Isfahan, Avesta, Vedas, Zayande-rud, pollution, population, erosion, unemployment, agriculture, precipitation


Water in the Indo-Iranian Creation Myths

The earliest of human ancestors recognized water as a vital element. Probably that is why it is known to have been among the first creations of the Creator in the Iranian and Indian civilizations. The life-giving element is thus held sacred and, in the Indian and Iranian beliefs, there is a guardian yazata (izad) for it. The 11th day of the 12th month of the Iranian calendar is the day of khor, on which the Creator created water. There are two guardian angels appointed to safeguard water known as Apemnabat and Anahita, the latter being exclusive to waters[1].

In the Indian epic, Ramayana, too, the Earth is covered by water at the beginning of the creation. Then, Brahman, the substantive god of gods in Hindu deity hierarchy, transforms into a boar, and churns the earth from under water, and creates the universe. Vishnu, one of the major Hindu deity trinities, is also connected with water, and is referred to as the nomenclature of Narayana (i.e. one who rests on water)[2]. These might be the reasons why Iranians attach great significance to water, try to avoid contaminating it, and present votive offerings for it[3].


Creation in the Iranian Mythology

According to Iranians, water is the second material creation of Ahura Mazda. Bundahishn reads, “First, [Ahura Mazda] created the sky… then, in fifty-five days, he created water[4].” Thus, the sky is created first to bring about jubilation, and then comes in the rain[5].

Material creations of Ahura Mazda appear in the following order:

“of what was created by Hormazd, the initial was the sky, then followed water, then came the Earth, the fourth one the plants, the fifth one the sheep, the sixth one the people, and the last one, Ahura Mazda.[6]


Creation in the Indian mythology

Vishnu is in the prime position of power in the Indian mythology. In the Hindu Creation myth, the triad of deity manifestations or concepts of life: Brahma as the Creator, Vishnu as the maintainer and protector, and Shiva as the destroyer or transformer[7]. In this tradition, “the cosmos follows a cycle which revolves infinitely through successive cycles of creation and destruction.”

As the Indian and Iranian creation myths are compared, water is among the primeval creations and is likewise respected by the followers of both traditions. The significance and respect attached to this element is due to its vital role in the life of creatures. Going thirsty for merely a few hours would demonstrate the devastating results of lack of water. If there were no rain, the nature would be stripped of all the verdure and vivacity. Thus, water has been of prime importance to our Iranian and Indian ancestors.

Both mythologies refer to cycles of precipitation. In the Iranian myths, Hormazd creates the skies, and then water; in the Indian myths, also, there is a century-long deluge of rain, which might refer to the uninterrupted rainfalls of days- or months-long before the parting of the two nations, as is in today’s monsoons in India, which continuously poured forth long after their separation.


Anahita and Sarasvati, goddesses of water

The goddess of water in the Iranian mythology appears in the complete form as Aredvi Sura Anahita, meaning a pure, uncontaminated river, and is hence associated with concepts of water, rain, abundance, vegetation, luxuriance, blessing, matrimony, love, maternity, procreation and victory.

In the ancient land of Persia, Anahita was the goddess of fertility. She embodies water, rivers and procreation in the Iranian archetype. She is described in Avestan scripts as wearing a colonnaded and hundred-starred crown, a golden embroidered robe, and a golden necklace.

She is the source of all waters on earth and the resource for fertility of all creatures. Aban Yasht describes her as a beautiful, tall graceful young maiden who has been worshipped and appreciated since long ago, even before Zoroaster. The Spring of life flows from her, and those statuettes of fertility known as the mother goddess, samples of which were dug out in the excavations of Sarab Hill dating back to about 9 millennia BC, are known to be manifestations of this goddess[8].

Of all Indian goddesses, Sarasvati is the most similar and the closest to the Iranian Anahita. As described in Anahita in the Ancient Iranian Mythology, "Sarasvati is the best mother, the best river, and the best goddess in Rig Veda. It is a celestial river, and this is where she is comparable with the notion of Anahita in the Avestan tradition.[9]

Evidently, the deity connected to water is female in both myths, and is sanctified as a goddess. Anahita is pictured in Avesta as follows:

“Truly, Aredvi Sura Anahita, as is her manner, appears while carrying Barsam in her hands, wearing golden rectangular earrings, and a necklace around her tender neck. She has a girdle around her waist so as to accentuate her breasts and to look more pleasant.[10]

The goddess of water thinks of the idea of being revered and being offered with sacrifices and presents. This is all of her feminine spirit which calls and craves for affection and attention.

The presupposition that a woman cannot be an entirely independent being, and is in constant need for protection, and is incomplete without a man had ever been prevailing. In both Indian and Iranian myths, also, Anahita and Sarasvati are incapable of doing things on their own. Once they intended to practice their deity, they would need company. Anahita is accompanied by the wind, rain, clouds and sleet, and Sarasvati is, in addition, accompanied by the thunder, the snow and the fog. In both myths, the goddesses enjoy the protection provided by the ever-powerful gods.

In Iran, Tishtrya is the guardian of Anahita, and in India Indra, the most powerful of all gods, protects Sarasvati. Also, it is by proxy of these gods that the goddesses can conceive and create rain, for the guardian gods are initially required to defeat the malevolent demon of drought in a fierce battle, and that is when waters are freed and the rain is liberated from the demon’s trap and falls.

“Tishtrya is yet another character connected to a natural phenomenon, namely rain; however, there is no notion of duality in his character. He is a benevolent deity who is engaged in a cosmic battle with Apaosha, the demon of drought, who is the destroyer of life. Tishtrya (the glorious, bright star) is the first of all stars and is the source of all waters, rainfall and fertility.[11]

Mehrdad Bahar’s account of Tishtrya and Tir is as follows:

“… and it is a questionable matter why the month of Tir (Tishtrya/ Tishtar) is in the beginning of summer… probably a short while afterwards, Tishtrya arrives in the Farakh-Kart Sea in the form of a pure white horse, the god did battle with the demon who, in contrast, had assumed the form of a terrifying black horse. After three days and three nights, Apaosha gains the upper hand over Tishtrya, who was weakened from the lack of sufficient prayers and sacrifices from humankind. The yazata proceeded with grief and confusion to call upon Ahura Mazda, who himself then intervened by offering a sacrifice to the god. Infused with the power brought by this sacrifice, Tishtrya is able to overcome Apaosha, and his rains are able to flow to the fields and pastures unabated by drought.[12]

A bit of scrutiny shows that the first battle between the demon and the deity in question is in mid-summer [month of Mordad] according to the Persian calendar, proven also by the climate of Iran. During this month, white clouds appear in the sky, at times even for several days, but there is no rain since the clouds are infertile, which is considered as the victory of Apaosha. Then, after some time maybe towards the end of summer, empowered by Ahura Mazda’s sacrifice, Tishtrya defeats the demon and frees the waters. This, also, is in line with the climatic conditions of Iran, where the earliest rainfalls occur when the autumn is looming. According to Iranians, the first rainfall is a sign of Tishtrya’s victory over Apaosha.

Equivalents of Tishtrya and Apaosha in the Indian tradition are Indra and Vritra, respectively. Indra is Vritra’s archenemy in supporting gods and the mankind. As the deva of rain and defeater of the drought demon, that is Vritra, Indra is greatly revered by the farmers of India. As a Vedic god, he is the origin of numerous archetypical myths.[13]

Research shows that Anahita and Sarasvati are both vernal goddesses. The spring is the season for growth, fertility and prosperity, and both goddesses possess all such attributes. Tishtrya and Indra both manifest the winter, while Apaosha and Vritra are symbols of the fierce summer heat and drought. In the Iranian myths, kings and other significant figures ask for Anahita’s help, and offer her sacrifices in return.


Global Condition of Water

Fresh water is not a global resource, but a regional one, as it is available only in certain watersheds across the globe. As it is limited in amounts, it is found in a variety of forms. The limitations are seasonal in some of the watersheds, and are bound to the capacity and capability of water storage during dry seasons. Elsewhere, such limitations are determined by the extent of recharge of underground aquifers, amount of melted snow, and use of forest soil for water storage.

The regional nature of water resources impedes the ratification of statements or conventions so as to reflect man’s increasing concerns about them. Water is a unique commodity, and is of extremely vital nature, inadequacy of which would distress other critical resources such as food, energy, and aquatic and wildlife reserves. Likewise, extraction of other supplies such as foodstuff, minerals and forest products could be restricted, proportionate to the quality and quantity of the water sources. Some watersheds around the world are already revealing restraints. In certain underdeveloped and well-developed countries, per capita water harvesting is declineing due to ecological issues, the increase of costs and the scarcity of water.

Of all the waters on earth, 97.4% is the salient sea and ocean waters, which are practically of no use due to salinity. Thus, freshwater comprises a mere 2.6% of all the total sum of ground waters, of which the major part could be found in the form of ice in the two poles and in glaciers (1.98%) and underground waters (0.59%), and are therefore inaccessible. As a result, only 0.014% of all the waters in the world are usable and human life all depends on this very meager amount. Still, of this amount in turn 0.001% is the share of atmospheric waters, rivers, plants and animals, 0.005% of soil moisture, and 0.007% of the freshwater of lakes[14].

The water that evaporates off the ocean surface per annum sums up to 424 km3, the major part of which returns to the source as rain, and a scant amount of 40,000 km3 waters the land in the form of precipitation, and ultimately flows as surface runoff towards the oceans through rivers and underground streams.

As evident, in spite of the fact that the bigger part of earth is covered with water, only a very meager fraction of waters is usable, and the man is bound to make all their plans in accordance with these constraints.

On the other hand, the distribution of these already scarce resources is utterly uneven. The topical and chronological distribution has been varying and does not go in line with the population distribution and demands of human communities for water.

Therefore, we live in a world where water stress has always been a seriously binding, ever-increasing issue. Currently, a major part of the population in developing countries is deprived of sufficient water for their drinking, washing and cooking purposes. It is predicted that by 2050, the populations of India and China would increase by 563m and 187m respectively, the latter already being poor in terms of agricultural lands. Both countries are at present struggling to supply and provide water sources. Elsewhere, other countries such as Egypt, Mexico and Iran are in a process of population increase, and their population would be doubled by 2050 as it appears in the UN predictions. Further, more severe problem would unfold in these already water-stressed countries as their population grows, and if they do not put duly measures on agenda to optimize their consumption of limited water sources, they would be confronted with fierce difficulties in their path towards sustainable development.

One of the most significant indicators of water shortage is drying-out of the rivers, which is currently evident in a number of major rivers. Thus, people living upstream the branches of such rivers experience severe shortage of water for the bigger part of the year if not all. This is also the case in many of the rivers across Iran.

Pollution and contamination are yet other factors that practically make the ever-scarce water resources even less consumable.


Condition of water in Iran

Topographically a mountainous land, Iran is lined with the Alborz mountain ranges stretching in the east-west direction, and Zagros ranges stretching northwest-southeast. The two ranges function as a wall in preventing nimbus clouds from reaching the inner land through the north and west sides. That is why Iran is mainly composed of arid and semi-arid climates, and has historically been considered a water-stressed country with water shortage being a restraining agent.

Topographical distribution of water in Iran is extremely uneven due to its natural location and situation of the land. Chronological distribution of precipitation also follows a similar trend, and has been varying in the past years or even over different seasons, causing difficulties for different sectors particularly those connected to agriculture and drinking water supplies which have sustained considerable losses. Even in years with normal levels of rainfall, the chronological inequality of precipitations has appeared to be a severe condition which is further intensified in drier years. As an example, some areas classified as very wet experience water shortage in dry months. The chronological analysis of precipitation rates demonstrates very wide span of changes from year to year.

Thus, an increase in the per capita consumption of water is inevitable in urban, rural and industrial sectors, particularly considering the population growth and the resulting increase in the demand. Water is of key role in the process of economic, social and cultural development of the country. The upturned agricultural production, the food security, development in urban and rural population centers and the improvement in the quality of life all rest on investment in various aspects regarding development and exploitation of water sources[15].

On the other hand, considering the precipitation rate, vegetation and other working factors, renewable water sources of Iran are estimated to be 130 to 139 billion cubic meters per annum, and taking in the return flows, the estimate stands at 126 billion cubic meters. Of all the renewable waters 105 billion cubic meters are in the surface flows and another 25 billion in water influx.

Consequently, as the average volume of water available per annum is a fixed figure, the demand for water is on the increase due to population growth, agricultural, urban and industrial developments over the past few years, which have reduced the per capita renewable water source bringing it down from 5500 m3 in 1961 to 3400 m3 in 1978, 2500 m3 in 1988, and 2100 m3 in 1997. The figure stands at 1750 in 2006, and would hit a low of 1300 m3 in the perspective of 2021 considering the current population growth rate. Excluding the already arid areas in Iran such as the Persian Gulf and Oman Sea coasts, and the eastern half of the country from Khorasan to Sistan and Baluchestan and the central area where the per capita renewable water is lower than the national average, the per capita figures would demonstrate the beginning of water-stress and water-shortage phases in Iran.

According to experts, an unrealistic air of abundance of water in Iran was pervasive in the years before the 1979 revolution, which resulted in excessive digging of wells and implementing of water pumps in agriculture. In other words, Iran suddenly surged from a qanat-based agriculture to extensive irrigation methods based on the illusion of having abundant water sources. As a result, agriculture took up an unsustainable development trend, and survived on the many illegal deep wells dug after the revolution insomuch as the land is left with dried-out aquifers, and an ever-worsening trend of desertification has put the country on the verge of somalization.

Experts believe that while 90% of the water available in Iran is devoured by the agricultural sector, the national and media policies mainly focus on the household consumption, which is merely 4% of the total use, and the authorities neglect the main issue causing trouble in the nation, namely the agriculture water[16]...

The emergency measures to be taken in order to address this issue are to firstly block illegal and unauthorized wells and secondly, providing aids required for the alteration of national agricultural infrastructures.


Condition of Water in Isfahan and Civilization-Creating River of Zayande-Rud

The middle Zagros, including the watersheds of the greater Karoon watershed (Dez-Karoon) and Zayande-rud watershed, has a considerable volume of 27 billion m3 under average conditions per annum. Of this, 92% belongs to the greater Karoon, with Zayande-rud owning a mere 8-percent share. This is while the population distribution is not in harmony with the distribution of the aforesaid renewable resources.

Five solutions can be considered in order to beat the issue of water shortage in Zayande-rud watershed:

1.      Consumption management and saving water sources

2.      Cloud seeding using ionization methods

3.      Transfer of water from the Persian Gulf

4.      Replacement of the population towards the areas with more ample water sources

5.      Transfer of water from the adjacent watersheds while closely observing the standards

Notes on the five proposed

1.      As recent studies show, Zayande-rud basin is categorized among the closed watersheds with very low or no water production due to irrigation losses which flow back into the water resources and are re-used in order to increase the irrigation efficiency. In other words, no water from the Zayande-rud basin evaporates out of access so to be harvested by the increase in irrigation efficiency.

2.       Cloud seeding: the implication of this method did not affect the amount of rainfalls over the Urmia Lake; so was the case following the 15-year course of action in Yazd.

3.      Transfer of water from the Persian gulf: a project with 1100km of transmission pipeline, of which 200km is in tunnels, and includes 10 pumping stages of an elevation of 2000 meters and costs of 190,000 billion IRR is of no economic justification.

4.      Replacement of the population: this solution is off agenda, at least due to its exacerbating social outcomes.

5.      Transfer of water from the adjacent watersheds while closely observing the standards set by UNESCO: in fact, Shahr-e Kord enjoyed rights to the water of Zayande-rud as one of Isfahan environs. Later on, along with alterations in the provincial divisions and with the heterogeneous distribution of population and resources, and as the management of water sources was given to provincial authorities, the balance in the distribution of water resources was lost. Currently, there is considerable conflict over two great water transmission projects between the two provinces of Isfahan and Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiyari.

5.1.            Behesht Abad project: it is commenced in Ardal, Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiyari, and is supposed to compensate for a part of the water shortage issue in Isfahan. Studies on this project took 19 years, and now the two neighboring provinces of Isfahan and Chahar Mahal cannot come to an agreement over whether to use tunnels or pipes to transfer the water.

5.2.            Golab 2 tunnel: it is an intra-provincial and intra-regional tunnel planned to provide drinking water for Isfahan and its environs by transmitting water from Chadegan to a point in the vicinity of Isfahan University of Technology (IUT) where Isfahan’s second water treatment facilities are to be established. This plan, is not also agreed upon on the side of Shahr-e Kord authorities[17].

Regardless of the agricultural issues, and that the farmers in the east of Isfahan have rights to the water from the first Kuhrang tunnel (as they have paid a part of its construction costs), the more vital concern in Isfahan is about Gavkhuni terminal basin [Tālāb], which, if not secured, would soon become a source of haze and would obscure the adjacent lands over a radius of several neighboring provinces. The haze from Gavkhuni is filled with elements from industrial waste deposits, and can thus do irreparable harm to people[18].


Dry-out of Zayande-Rud and Its Consequences

1.      Destruction of agricultural farms in the east of the province due to water shortage and the consequent soil salinity

(The agriculture in Isfahan greatly depends on underground water sources. The dry-out of Zayande-rud and the overuse of such sources for agricultural purposes have resulted in decline of water levels of up to 300 meters in some areas. This in turn has heightened the salinity of the soil insomuch as the chemical properties of the soil have hit a critical high and in some instances have gone beyond the standard limits. The soil salinity contributeed to destruction and abandonment of lands, and ultimately to severe desertification, which is particularly evident in the plains of east of Isfahan- case study: Sagzi plain.)

2.      Increased rate of unemployment, immigration and crime among the farmers of the east area

3.      Widespread dejection among the residents

4.      Decline in aesthetic values of the province and the consequent decrease in the tourism phenomenon

5.      Spread of conflicts and disagreements among people and the authorities as well as between the two provinces of Isfahan and Chahar Mahal

6.      Decline of underground aquifer levels by 0.5m every year across the plains of Kashan, Aran and Bidgol, Natanz, and Ardestan

7.      Land subsidence caused by overuse of underground water reserves (as seen, for instance, in Mahyar plain and the lands surrounding Varzaneh)

8.      Demise of aquatic creatures and the wildlife, and in general, destruction of the ecosystem of Zayande-rud and Gavkhuni

9.      Gradual destruction of mortar bridges (such as Si-o Se Pol, etc.)

10.  Soil erosion and expansion of desertification especially in the eastern areas

11.   Increase of soil salinity and heavy metals (cadmium, lead, silver, etc) in Gavkhuni

12.   Issue of haze and its spread to neighboring provinces such as Tehran

13.   Drying and dying of old trees (as seen in Marbin, Najafabad, Khomeini-shahr, the plane trees near Falavarjan, etc) and parts of the urban green space

14.   Falling of the per capita consumption of water in Isfahan down to 600m3 is indicative of extremely critical conditions (if the per capita consumption falls down to below 1700, it demonstrated water stress, and once it hits near 1000 the condition is critical.)

15.   Economic loss and damage caused by water shortage[19]


Research shows that, according to the GDP of 2010-11,, the losses incurred due to water shortage sums to over 34 thousand billion in the most optimistic scenario. In order to compensate the economic growth gap, a similar amount must be invested in the reforming and improvement of consumption pattern, recycling of waste waters, and improvement of productivity of water. The present research examines the economic effects of water shortage on agricultural activities, decline in the exports of agriculture products, increase in the imports of such products, macroeconomic indices in Iran, the increased inflation, and growth in the implicit value of water. Some of the objectives defied in the water section of Iran's 5th development document are to provide access to hygienic drinking water for 100% of the rural and urban population, as well as to mechanisms for collection and treatment of the waste water for 60% of urban population and 30% of the rural population. To realize this perspective, the compilation of an inclusive plan is called for in order to operationalize the goals defined in the document, while giving the main priority to the principles of sustainable development based on waste water and water sources.


Examining the Reasons for Dry-out of Zayande-Rud

-          Decreased precipitation

-          Overuse of water along the upstream of the river by the farmers of Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiyari in order to plant more lands

-          Transfer of water to Yazd and Kashan

-          Overuse of water by industries, power plants, refineries, and agricultural sector

-          Immethodical pumping of water for constructing gardens and expanding farmlands in the upstream (the discharge rate of the river is decreased by 50% compared to Zayande-rud dam at Kale Bridge.)

According to the water-right defined in Sheikh Bahaii’s Tumar [rolled letter], the water from Zayande-rud was divided into 33 parts, of which 20 belonged to the upstream farmers from Kale bridge or Madiseh Village to Marbin in Isfahan, and the other 13 goes to the villages in the east of Isfahan. Currently, the eastern villages are deprived of their right[20].

-          Aging and depreciation of water distribution network and loss of water along the route

-          Lack of proportion between the urban green space and its very high water demand

The urban green space is considered to be a fundamental element in the continuity of natural and human life in the modern urbanity. The unduly expansion of cities and the increase in the water contamination call for the extension of urban green space. During recent years, the green space in Isfahan has been considerably damaged due to lack of water, which has now turned into a great concern for the authorities. It is particularly evident along the peripheral green spaces. According to a research, species such as western chestnut, gall oak, woodbine, and weeping ash are highly resistant to water shortage, while other types such as cornelian cherry, dogwood, sorbus torminalis, white bean, and tagouk have medium resistance but are preferable for the beauty of their flowers and fruits. Also, willow, poplar, buttonwood and water poplar are sensitive to dryness. Planting grass would result in up to 80% of evaporation[21].

-          Obstacles and opportunities in the plans for water transmission to Isfahan and the current stands of the plan (including Behesht Abad and Karoon)

As the distribution of water sources and precipitation across the country is not uniform, the inter-basin transfer of water is required for water collection, its transfer, and increase its quality for an even development of human activities. The scarcity of water sources and the increase in the demand for water in the Zayande-rud basin have brought into the focal point those water transfer plans concerning the transmission of water from adjacent watersheds, especially from the great Karoon basin to Isfahan.

It was indicated that the distance, the need for grave structures, big investments, the vastness of areas affected, issues of right owners to water, and socio-political and financial issues are amongst the most significant topics regarding the transfer of water from the great Karoon basin to Zayande-rud watershed, confronting the planners and managers with considerable challenges. The most important issues affecting the decision-making process in the procedure of water transfer are the growth in population and urbanity, improvements in the standard of living, agricultural and industrial developments, the water resource contamination, strategic and ecological issues. These issues must be taken into consideration while planning and practicing the project in question. Finally, the planning and management of intra-basin water transfer project from the greater Karoon basin to Zayande-rud must be carried out on realistic bases and the management of supply and demand, a holistic view of the water cycle, and principles of sustainable development and the land use planning.


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