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Water, culture and identity in Balochistan - II

February 18, 2012

-Photo by author

This is the second part of a two-part series on Balochistan’s karez irrigation system. The first part can be found here.

The problem with the Karez, that I spoke of in my last blog, is that everybody I know who has ever worked with them falls in love with them. Your scribe tends to be of a particularly delicate constitution when it comes to the matters of the heart. So, no surprise that I did too! But no love story is complete without a heart break, so no surprise that the karez broke my heart as well — initially. In Balochistan, there was a general atmosphere of doom about the future of these wonderful structures and social manacles. As one of my interview respondents tellingly said:

Karezes were a great source of social and communal life for us village folks. People would sit on their sides and discuss their issues and find solutions to their problems. But modern times, new technologies and tubewells have dried out the Karezes and their resurrection is no longer possible, nor is there any future for the existing ones.”

Or as another one said:

Nowadays times have changed. New technology is coming in, with new machines, and new [modern] people who like latest machines. The traditional irrigation is being progressively forgotten.

I thought at the time (2007) that I had extracted my pound of flesh from the research and published my couple of academic articles on the subject in due deference to God and academia and perhaps I should move on too — having borne witness to the demise of these amazing structures. That is until I got a call from Azerbaijan from my friend — from thereon — Lucy Dupertuis. She said something that I could not believe my ears were hearing — they were restoring karezes in the Nakhchivan region of Azerbaijan! “You are doing what?” I asked. And she repeated, “Restoring Karezes in Azerbaijan”. And she had read my academic drivel and thought I could help them do it better.

-Photo by author

To Azerbaijan I went, and that’s where I observed my dream come true. Karezes being restored after more than 70 years of dormancy. The Soviets did in the 1930s and 40s what we are doing right now in Balochistan and the project and the people were coming together to restore something that the Azeris thought was part of their identity, past and future. Besides, the tubewells had already done to Nakhchivan, what they are doing to Balochistan at present.

-Photo by author

Armed with that experience, and the angst of a mid career academic, I went about looking for donors who could fund a research exercise in trying to develop the technological and social template for how one might go about sustainably restoring karezes. Amongst the donors I worked hardest on were the Americans, who said that they had a strategic interest in Pakistan — yeah right! — and had boat loads of cash to spend.

Your scribe presented at every major think tank in Washington DC the case for how, stability and prosperity in Balochistan and Southern Afghanistan is contingent upon sustainable rural livelihoods, and how karezes were the lynchpin of rural agricultural livelihoods.

-Photo by author

In Southern Afghanistan, the Soviets knew this fact back in the 1980s and were thorough about bombing and dynamiting the legendary karezes in Kandahar and Southern Afghanistan — to break the back of the insurgency against them. The karezes of Kandahar were the ones that used to water the vineyards that made the wine that Babur — the first mughal emperor of India — eagerly awaited in the 16th century, in the plains of Bhera — the fourth exit on the motorway between Rawalpindi and Lahore these days.

I went from the local USAID office in Islamabad to the US State Department, to every major think tank in Washington DC, to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to make the case for supporting action research on these structures in Balochistan. Everybody liked the idea but it did not work out.

Karezes have some of the most well developed water markets of any water system. In Balochistan, karez communities often hold 24 hours of water in reserve to be auctioned at the beginning of every planting season to finance karez maintenance. The water right can bring up to Rs 3000 per hour. This reserve could be capitalised by becoming a shareholder — hopefully a non-profit or commercial outfit — to finance karez maintenance. That was the part of the idea, besides engineering interventions that didn’t sell — well enough.

Within the karez system are the agents of its survival and thrival — even in these soulless modern times. Shuja Nawaz, Usman Qazi, Lucy Dupertuis, Nadir Barech, Arbab Nizam, Tim Schettino, Marcus Moench, Abdullah-al-Ghafri and thousands of kankans (Karez diggers) and mir-e-aab (water masters) will keep struggling in karez defense. In working with these people your scribe hopes to pay his debt of devotion to Balochistan, and its marrow — Karez.


Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography King’s College, London. He has seen the world but still maintains that makki ki roti with mustard greens, butter and lassi on a hot summer afternoon is the greatest pleasure in life. He can be reached at


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