If you drove through the Hamoun Wetlands of southeastern Iran centuries ago, you would have found an oasis. In the rainy season, lakes and marshes have drenched its more than 1,500 square miles, sustaining deer, flamingos and even leopards. Humans made a decent life for themselves by tending cattle, catching fish and cultivating the fertile ground.
But when Hashem Shakeri drove through this year, he found a desert. A 20-year drought and poor water management have destroyed the wetlands—along with wildlife, agriculture and whole villages they once sustained in modern Sistan and Baluchestan Province. Shakeri documented this loss for his haunting series An Elegy for the Death of Hamun.
“Wherever I went, people talked about the drought,” he says. “They believed that Hamoun had taken life away with itself.”
The Hamoun Wetlands have always suffered dry spells, but this one is particularly brutal. Trouble began in the early 1950s, when Afghanistan built a dam on the Helmand River, which feeds the wetlands, tamping its flow to Iran. The decline spiraled through the 1990s, when water diversions and a drought that hit in ’98 triggered a full-blown water crisis. Animals and crops died. Fisheries closed. And nearly 100 towns were buried in sand whipped up by dustbowl winds.
This had dire consequences for Sistan and Baluchestan Province, a 70,000-square-mile region home to 2.8 million people, mostly Sunnis. Many people lack basic access to clean water, food and education, subsisting on government handouts of just $10 per month. With unemployment at nearly 13 percent, some have turned to smuggling fuel and drugs. “Humans have become hardened in their battle with the nature,” Shakeri says. “They are fighting tooth and nail to survive.”
It’s a battle Shakeri has long followed from Tehran, a two-hour flight from Sistan and Baluchestan. He’s wanted to document the drought for years but lacked the resources to do so until this year, when the International School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus, Denmark lent him a medium format camera. During two trips in May and October, he drove more than 850 miles through the region, accompanied by fixers who helped him communicate with locals, many of whom speak Baluchi instead of Persian.
Shakeri focused on capturing scenes directly related to the drought—whether dusty riverbeds, abandoned fishing boats or shriveled palms. He exposed his color film several stops over to soften the intense sunlight; it gives the images a washed-out, dreamy feel that captures the sense of disappointment, exhaustion, and stasis he encountered at every turn. “To me, the poetry and narration of the image are very important,” he says. “At the height of bitterness and pain, I like to take beautiful pictures.”
Unfortunately, the project is now on pause, since renewed US sanctions against Iran have made it impossible to find the 120 color film Shakeri uses. The sanctions also make life even harder in Sistan and Baluchestan. Though the United Nation Development Program has been working with Iran and Afghanistan on a deal to restore the wetlands, that will take years. In the meantime, relief seems as distant as the oasis that once was.