Azerbaijan's Sustainable Water Solution – One Kahriz at a Time
Water is life. It brings prosperity, health and happiness. But in
Azerbaijan, as in many parts of the world, it is in desperately
short supply. The land in this country in the South Caucasus is
some of the driest on earth. The rivers Kur and Araz and reservoirs
cannot provide enough water to meet the needs of the entire
population. But Azerbaijan has substantial, high quality
underground water reserves, which for decades were over-exploited
with little concern for their sustainability. For the past decade,
IOM has been working with local partners to improve the management
of this resource, which holds the key to population stabilization.
"Kahrizes are a precious gift from our grandfathers, Their cool
and pure water bring joy to all, Their silver rays quench our
burning thirst, They irrigate our fields and orchards, Turning
deserts into life."
Hassan Ali Nikbin sits in his lush garden in the shade of an old
apple tree, his wife Melek by his side. They met in 1970, when the
talented young poet brought some of his work to a nearby publishing
house, where he met an attractive young typist. "I first fell in
love with his poems, then with the man," smiles Melek.
Her husband, the son of an agronomist who worked on a Soviet
kolkhoz, or collective farm, became totally deaf in 1969 following
an infection that was not properly treated. "Despite my misfortune,
poetry allowed me to express my love of nature and life," says
Hassan Ali. "Later, it also became a way to feed my family."
The couple's two daughters and one son left their home village
of Turkesh in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (NAR) to look for
work in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Hassan Ali and Melek felt
fortunate because many other young people fled poverty and
unemployment in the NAR to work much further afield in neighbouring
Turkey and Russia.
"They left because of the drought - they couldn't find work in
agriculture," says Hassan Ali. "Yet there is water in the hills,
water that our forefathers managed for hundreds of years through
the kahriz system. But in the name of progress, Soviet engineers
decided to drill wells deep into the ground. Year after year, the
water table receded and the kahrizes dried up."
But today, thanks to the restoration of the ingenious,
low-maintenance and sustainable kahriz underground water system,
there is enough drinking and irrigation water for some 80 families
who live and work in Turkesh.
Kahrizes were first developed in ancient Iran some 3,000 years
ago to take underground water to the surface through simple gravity
flow. For centuries, throughout the region, well-maintained
kahrizes provided a constant year-round water supply through a
network of interconnected wells and underground tunnels that
collect water from the hills.
The tunnels, which can extend for kilometres, are usually 1.2
metres high and 60cm wide - just large enough to allow people
inside to maintain them. In areas with soft ground, vaulted
kahrizes are strengthened with stone walls.
Ten years ago, with funding from the United Nations Development
Programme, IOM embarked on an ambitious programme to restore
kahrizes to provide sustainable drinking and irrigation water to
isolated villages in Nakhchivan.
The village of Turkesh was the first to approach IOM to ask for
help to repair two derelict kahrizes, which had previously brought
water to the village. The village elders identified an old man
known as Kankan Yunis as the villager best equipped to explain how
it could be done.
Born in 1937, Kankan Yunis, whose real name was Yunis Ibrahimov,
turned out to be one of the last surviving traditional water
engineers ("kankans") with kahriz building and maintenance skills
handed down to him through generations.
"When IOM came to see me, I said I could start the following
morning, even without payment," says Kankan Yunis. "From the age of
10, I worked with my father who was a respected kankan. My father
learned from his father."
Less than a year later, two fully restored kahrizes in Turkesh
were pumping 17 litres of water per second, enough to meet the
needs of the local population and provide irrigation for 24
hectares of land.
The project, which by then had received funding from the
European Union (EU), the Canadian International Development Agency
(CIDA) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC),
also resulted in training for a new generation of kankans,
including Yunis' two sons - Javanshir and Jumshud.
Traditional Kankan roles are well defined. The head or Bash
kankan relies on the Charkhchi kankan to operate the winch that
lowers him into the well. He works with a Laghimbar kankan who digs
the tunnel and the Dolkesh kankan who brings the excavated earth to
"All this knowledge disappeared during Soviet times, when the
authorities decided to systematically drill deep sub-artesian wells
to bring water to the surface using electric pumps," says Arzu
Musayev, IOM's National Technical Coordinator in Nakhchivan.
Azerbaijan's independence from Russia in 1991 led to the
collapse of much of the country's infrastructure and electricity
supplies became erratic. Soon, sub-artesian wells stopped pumping
and villages were left without water.
Over the next several years, tens of thousands of people
abandoned drought-affected villages to migrate to cities and abroad
in search of work.
"Restoring water supplies was crucial to stop the exodus," says
78-year-old Hajishaban Imanov, who has always lived in the ancient
merchant city of Ordubad, once famous throughout the region for its
carpet weaving and silk production.
Sitting under an old mulberry tree with two of his friends, he
recalls how villagers used to rely on kahrizes for their water
"The kahriz of Toyenek in Ordubad city was constructed some 200
years ago by Hussein Bey, a rich landlord and local benefactor. It
was the pride of the city but it was replaced by the wells during
Soviet times," he recalls.
"Families had to pay up to 25 manats (US$30) a month to cover
the cost of electricity and a lot more when a faulty pump had to be
replaced," says Abdullayev Abdulla, who heads the local Water User
Committee. "Overpumping also dried up the kahrizes, parts of which
In 2007, he and other members of the Water User Committee asked
the authorities in Baku to close the subartesian wells and restore
two derelict kahrizes with IOM's assistance.
"The renovation of the kahrizes is a success," says Imanov with
conviction. "Families made a one time payment of 150 manats
(US$186) for the renovation and 2 manats (US$2.50) per month for
maintenance costs. In exchange, they have access to as much water
as they need."
"An assessment carried out in 2007 by IOM and SDC shows that
kahrizes also provide better quality water at a much lower cost,"
says IOM's Vassiliy Yuzhanin, who heads the IOM office in
Azerbaijan. "Kahrizes also contribute to empowering women, who are
the main beneficiaries, by associating them in all stages of the
decision making process," he adds.
With its pine tree lined streets and well kept white buildings,
Naftalan exudes an almost Mediterranean air, but for the hot, dry
winds that blow in summer from the parched plains which stretch as
far as the eye can see to the foot of the Caucasus mountains.
Developed in 1968 as a spa for people suffering from skin
diseases, rheumatism and neurological disorders, Naftalan saw its
hour of glory under Soviet rule, when up to 70,000 patients visited
its sanatoriums for treatment every year.
Faced with huge demand for water, the authorities decided to
drill down 300 feet to pump fresh water through six sub-artesian
wells. With short cropped hair and an athletic build, 47-yearold
Vilayet Zamanov worked as an engineer with the town's water board
before heading Naftalan's Water User Community.
"Apart from the fact that we couldn't bring enough water to the
sanatoriums, erratic water supplies poisoned relations between
local inhabitants and thousands of people displaced by the
1992-1993 Nagorno Karabagh conflict. One day, a group broke down
the front door of my office with an axe," he says.
Standing on the site where IOM is finalizing the refurbishment
of a 1,000 metre-long kahriz with funding from the US State
Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM),
Zamanov says regular water supplies have now restored peace and
harmony to the town, which today has a population of 15,500,
including some 2,000 internally displaced people and 3,500 soldiers
stationed in a nearby base.
"Thanks to the kahriz, people no longer have to fight for water.
The kahriz feeds into a 12,000 cubic metre basin, which will soon
be refurbished with IOM's assistance to further improve the quality
of the water," says Zamanov.
To date, 58 kahrizes have been renovated under the IOM
programme, providing drinking water to some 5,815 families. A
further 4,500 families now have access to irrigation water. Another
35 structures are currently under renovation.
As a result, productivity in Nakhchivan's agricultural sector
has increased, stabilizing population movements, improving
household income and providing local employment. Some 170 young
kankans have received training, with more young people waiting to
"We have also sent five head kankans to UNESCO's International
Centre for Qanats and Historic Hydraulic Structures in Yazd in
Iran," says IOM's Lucie Dupertuis, who heads IOM's office in
"Their knowledge will not only help refurbish ancient kahrizes
and hopefully construct new ones. It will also preserve these
skills to ensure water sustainability for future generations," she
Did you know ?
There are some 1,450 kilometres of underground water channels in
Azerbaijan, long enough to link Baku to Ankara, the capital city of
Turkey. It is estimated that a hundred years ago, there were some
1,500 Kahrizes across Azerbaijan.