An Ancient Water-Supply System Continues to Serve the People of Nakhchivan

Article, 03.06.2016

Between 2002 and 2011, a Swiss-financed project provided around forty thousand people in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan region with better access to drinking and irrigation water through the rehabilitation of ancient underground channels called “kahriz”. How well does the system work, five years later?

Around 40'000 people in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan region enjoy better access to water

“We had problems to wash our laundry before. When the kahriz was rehabilitated some years ago, we asked the engineers to create an additional part where the water exits the ground, so that we could use that space for washing our laundry. We are happy that the demand of the village women was heard by the rehabilitating team”, says Shafiga Salmanova, 52, from the Garabaghlar village of Kangarli district of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.

A kahriz, or qanat as known in Iran, is a gently sloping underground channel with a series of vertical access shafts or wells, used to transport water from an aquifer under a hill. Kahrizes create a reliable water supply for communities and provide irrigation water in hot, arid, and semi-arid climates. The kahriz technology is known to have been developed by the Persian in the early 1st millennium BC, and spread from there to other parts of the world.

Between 2002 and 2011, Switzerland provided USD 4.4 million to support the rehabilitation of Nakhchivan’s ancient water system as part of the “Community Owned Sustainable Water Use and Agricultural Initiatives” project implemented in the Autonomous Republic. A total of 125 kahrizes were rehabilitated under the lead of the International Organization for Migration, and 40,000 people gained better access to drinking and irrigation water, allowing irrigation of about 700 ha of land.

Before this project, rural communities suffered from a lack of drinking and irrigation water, which contributed to outmigration to mainland Azerbaijan or abroad. Women used to spend lots of time and energy to fetch water as the amount coming out of kahrizes was little. Bringing water to houses and fields made many return back home and increased their economic opportunities.

Upon completion, the rehabilitated kahrizes were put under the responsibility of a special kahriz department under the regional government, which continues to take care of rehabilitation and maintenance of kahrizes till now, using up-to-date equipment purchased with Swiss funds, relying on gained expertise during project implementation.

Five years later, the 125 kahrizes rehabilitated (out of 400 existing channel systems) are functioning well and are maintained properly both by the regional government and by local communities. This is true even for those kahrizes that were rehabilitated by the project 10 or more years ago. More kahrizes have been rehabilitated or cleaned since then with state funds and kahriz specialists trained by the project take care of recruiting younger staff to ensure a sufficient number of employees for professionally maintaining and rehabilitating kahrizes all over Nakhchivan. Particularly in rural areas, communities take strong ownership of “their” kahrizes. They organize smaller repairs themselves and contribute financially to maintenance, in some cases up to 30% of total repair costs.

“Our life depends on this kahriz”, says Sakina Gambarova, 55, in the Ordubad district of Nakhchivan. “The water became less recently, we need to send some people to check the wells up on the hill to see what the problem is.”

Vasif Talibov, the Head of the regional Parliament, adds: “We are grateful to the Swiss government for what they did in Nakhchivan to help people improve their livelihoods and economic activity. This good deed will never be forgotten.”