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In the past major, cities and civilisations depended on underground water tunnels. Without their sustainable water supply, cities like Jerusalem, Esfahan and Damascus would not have existed. Ancient Roman and Persian civilisations would not have flourished. The Spanish would not have been able to spread through South America without them! And now the water tunnels are in danger, they are vanishing, silting up and collapsing but there is hope…..all can be seen in "Tunnel Vision" broadcast by TVE in the running up of the World Water Forum 2003. The production of "Tunnel Vision" is generously supported by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation.

In the summer of 2000, a small group of Syrian villagers living near the borders of the steppe Southeast of the Northern City of Aleppo renovated and cleaned their only water source with international help from Germany and the Netherlands. Their source is an ancient 1500-year old Byzantine water tunnel called qanat. They spent 3 months backbreaking work cleaning out the 600 meters’ long tunnel. Joshka Wessels led  a research team based at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) and conducted a nation-wide survey of flowing Syrian qanats in 2001. They found a total of 42 qanat sites containing 91 qanats, of which 30 were still in active use. In one site, Dmeir, the qanats gave an average water supply of 20 litres per second. Although not much compared to Iranian or Omani qanats that can give up to 300 litres per second, the qanats of Dmeir give enough to irrigate vast amounts of land. Again renovation activities were started with the help of local government and farmers’ community. In this time of ecological farming and increasing environmental awareness “Tunnel Vision” explores what is the benefit of this sustainable water supply system within a changing social and economic environment?


Qanats are underground tunnels that tap the groundwater and lead the water artificially to a human settlement and agricultural lands using gravity flow conditions. The tunnels can be many kilometres long and very deep. The longest qanat is more than 40 kilometres long and 100 meter deep and can be found in Iran! In general a qanat system consists of an underground part and a part above ground surface. The underground part is divided in the "water production section" and the "water transport section". In the "water production section", the water is collected, either from a natural source or infiltration of groundwater. This section is underneath the groundwater level of the surrounding area. The "water transport section" transports the water to the surface. This section is usually lined with plastering on the sides to prevent leakage of water. The gradient of the tunnel is very precise and should not exceed 5 % in order not to let the flow erode the rock or sand in which the tunnel is dug. On the other hand, the gradient should not be too low because then the water can not be transported to the surface. The technique is similar to mining and originates from Old Persia (present day Iran) around 3000 years ago.

In Iran, Qanats are scattered throughout the landscape and some are still used to provide water to turn a wheat mill. Qanat digging is a profession that is dying out. In 1975, the last qanat was dug in Iran. There are only 40 traditional qanat diggers left in Iran. Qanats are not dug anymore because of the dangers that accompany the digging. Lot of traditional qanat diggers died during the construction of these tunnels.

From Persia the technique was exported to neighbouring countries. Through contacts between Persians and other people like the Greek and Romans, the technique spread further east and westwards. The Byzantine and Arabs continued to use and re-use the technique. Nowadays, qanats can be found in Japan, China, Central Asia, and Pakistan ranging until North North Africa, Spain and finally South America. In general Qanats are only found in dry areas. In the Arab World, the ancient tunnels systems can be found from Iraq until Morocco and from Syria until Oman.

In May 2002, UNESCO declared that traditional water conveyance systems, such as qanats, are international cultural heritage and therefore should be protected worldwide. International Scientists from various backgrounds that are presently working on underground water tunnels, came together during this Second International Conference on Qanats organised by the Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment and Water Resources in Oman. During the First International Conference on Qanats, held in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2000 by UNESCO and the Yazd Water Authority, one of the main recommendations was the establishment of the Regional Centre for Water Management in Tehran. This centre will be an excellent opportunity for qanat scientists to share experience and find sources of study.

Hopefully in these times of upcoming groundwater shortages, especially in the Middle East, more concrete steps will be undertaken to save the remaining qanats for the future. The everlasting problem is to make a choice between the short-term solution of individual pumping and the long-term solution of maintaining and repairing old traditional qanat systems. The reviving of qanats requires in most cases the closing down of pumps, reorganisation of the farmers’ community and strong institutional support.