I took the title of this piece from a poem by the French-Canadian poet and singer, Gilles Vigneault. Set to music, it was popularized by the late singer, Monique Leyrac. One of the author’s images for the passage of time is a common one: water flowing under a bridge. I thought of it the other day while reading an article in Le Monde on the Zayanderud, the river that flows through the major Iranian city of Isfahan. Or maybe used to flow through Isfahan.
Isfahan is arguably the most beautiful and interesting city in Iran, endowed with monumental architecture by the early Safavid shahs, notably Shah Abbas I.
The Persian heartland of Iran is composed of the cities that ring the empty, inhospitable desert that occupies the center of the country.
Isfahan is one of those cities, but it is unique in a special way: Isfahan straddles a river. All the other cities depend on qanats for their water supplies. A qanat is simply a gently sloping tunnel dug into the alluvium of the mountains. Holes for access and air occur every hundred feet or so, and when viewed from the air, a qanat appears as a long line of pits stretching across the barren landscape. Some are over twenty miles long, with shafts as deep as a thousand feet. The modern capital of Iran, Tehran, got all its water from qanats until the early 1950s, at which time it had a population of over two million. Old Persian houses of the well-off, such as one I visited in Yazd, sometimes had subterranean rooms directly connected to the flowing water.
In the case of Isfahan, a river, the Zayanderud, arising in the Zagros mountains and disappearing into a closed basin, brought water to the city.
The Zayanderud was the life of the city, providing irrigation for croplands, drinking water for residents, and a source for the fountains of numerous mosques, madrasas, and public baths.
As a sizable river, the Zayanderud required bridges and the Safavid Dynasty endowed it with several.
A week or so ago, Le Monde reported that water no longer flowed under the bridges of Isfahan. This is not a new story. The news media has been reporting for some years that the river had been taxed with water withdrawals beyond the capacity of its flow. The reasons are multiple: population growth, climate change, and bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. However, the effects are dramatic on Isfahan’s beautiful bridges, bridges that served as market places and public recreational areas as well as transportation to important quarters of the city. Time has stopped. Plus d’eau sous le pont.
Hydrologists have been warning for years that the Earth’s fresh water is limited and very unequally distributed. Early concerns focused on population growth and pollution, but climate change has been recognized as a major factor.
Americans from western states understand the situation well. The history of American water development bears the same marks of corruption, incompetence, and lack of environmental awareness. A reckoning is certainly coming this century, though one would never know it by the continued rapid growth of states like Arizona and Texas. California is rationing water now. In ancient civilizations, such as the first cities of southwestern Iran, salinization due to lack of sufficient water to wash out the accumulating salts in agricultural fields effectively ended urban life in some places. Sadly, humans are often slow learners.
I count myself fortunate, then, to have stood on the banks of the Zayanderud, on an early August morning almost 50 years ago, watching the river flow swiftly through the sluices of the bridge. Today, it only happens for holidays and special occasions. In the future, perhaps, it will never happen again. The flow of the river depends on the snow pack of the Zagros mountains, which, like that of the mountains of the American west, will decrease as global temperatures warm.
Moroccans must wonder, too, about the drying of the Atlas. If California is any model, longer, deeper droughts and more serious forest fires can be expected. Add to that overgrazing, man-made deforestation and pollution and the future of Morocco’s great mountains begins to look grim indeed.