The modernization of water systems and urban structures in Iran: a crash test for the Persian tradition of water culture and integration

By Ayda Alehashemi, Jean-François Coulais

Stimulated by strong and steady economic and demographic growth over the previous century, Iran engaged a process of in-depth modernization of its hydraulic networks and infrastructures from the 1920s onwards. The article takes stock of this extremely rapid transition from a traditional and ancestral system, inherited from the water-led civilization of Persia, towards a universal model of water supply. Based on fieldwork carried out between 2015 and 2019 in a sample of cities representative of urban typologies encountered in Iran (Tehran, Semnân, Nâeen), the authors analyze the diversity of transition and hybridization trajectories between traditional hydraulic networks and their modern substitutes, their socio-economic and environmental effects, and the resulting evolution of urban forms and structures of territorial water governance since the beginning of the 20th century.The study raises questions about the future relations between networks and territories in the 21st century common to many countries. While the integration of hydraulic systems and traditional urban structures allowed a balanced distribution of resources due to doubling or tripling of networks producing resilience to the most severe water crises, remote regions are by contrast increasingly dependent on centralized management which they cannot influence, thereby suffering shortages without possible recourse. From this perspective, by favouring technical performance, modernization policies increased socio-spatial inequalities and weakened the cohesion of the country between its cities and arid zones. If the case of Iran is so unique, it is not only for environmental reasons such as ongoing depletion of its aquifers and a prospect of permanent hydric crisis. It is also because the speed and brutality of its modernization have created rifts and dependencies which do not concern the hydraulic networks alone, but also a vast set of intangible elements which form a system with the network and unsettle its social structures and cultural practices associated with water.

  • hydraulic system
  • Iran
  • urban structure
  • dam
  • qanât
  • well
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