16/11/2016 05:10 GMT | Updated 16/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Iran's Looming Water Crisis Leaves Farmers With A Stark Choice

Kaveh Kazemi via Getty Images

They were once hailed as the saviours of Iran. Heroes who kept the country alive during decades of international sanctions that isolated the country, during the years of war and conflict. Every grain of rice, every bowl of fruit that Iranians consumed was grown locally by the farmers. They put food on every Iranian family's table during difficult times when the future seemed uncertain. But today, following the easing of the sanctions, these farmers face an uncertain future of their own.

Over the years, the responsibility of growing crops in a semi-arid nation has taken a huge toll on Iran's water supplies. The farmers were given over 90% of the country's water to secure food for the nation and they used it voraciously. Now, there is a growing awareness that the country gambled away its water security in favour of food security and is on the brink of an unprecedented water crisis.

The thousand year old Zayandeh Rud river which used to flow through the city of Esfahan was a shocking, dry riverbed when we went to visit in September. Lake Urmia which was once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East has now dramatically shrunk to 10% of its former size. The few remaining patches of incredibly salty water have triggered an algae and bacterial bloom that has transformed the once turquoise waters to crimson. A transformation so dramatic it has caught the eye of the international community as well as the despair of the locals. But it's not only visible bodies of water that are facing a crisis.

Over the past 50 years, Iran has extracted 70% of its groundwater supplies mainly to support farming which uses traditional, yet wasteful, irrigation practices. As the water runs out, farmers are abandoning their land in their droves and those that cling on are there because they don't see any other path open to them. "I'm illiterate, all I know is farming and my children are the same. How am I going to go and find other jobs? What job can I find?" asks us Mr Esfahandiari, a pistachio farmer aged over 60 years of age living in the province of Kerman. "I expect the government to help us," he adds. Until very recently, pistachios were Iran's main export after crude oil and the Kerman province was one of the largest producers in the world, contributing to a billion dollar industry.

As the wells and dwindling groundwater resources run dry the farmers are left with a stark choice; either reform their traditional, yet wasteful, irrigation practices or abandon their family land for nearby, dense urban centres where they will have find work outside their skill set. As well as this risk of mass migration, the threat of political instability and conflict following such upheaval is something the government is eager to avoid.

"Iran like many countries in the region is facing water scarcity," Masoumeh Ebtekar, the country's Vice President and head of environmental protection told us when we met to interview her for an Al Jazeera film on the water crisis. "We need to change the current water management and water consumption patterns in order to be able to deal with this. We need to have a farming revolution." The government has partnered with international organisations such as UNDP and the Japanese government to create a pilot project focused on retraining farmers in more sustainable irrigation methods. Their first mission; Lake Urmia.

Five million farmers live around the lake and depend on its freshwater streams and rivers for their livelihood. It is the intensive farming of profitable, yet water thirsty crops, such as apples, in the region that tipped the lake out of balance and led to its disappearance. Now those very farmers are taking the charge in bringing it back. Around 300 villages are directly involved in the pilot project which involves swapping out water-intensive crops for more suitable ones and also using updated irrigation techniques rather than simply flooding fields. It's a small start but for farmers like Mr Rahmani, it's already having an impact. "Before we would just flood the field and most of it would evaporate. It was wasted. With this sprinkler irrigation system it's not like that. We have cut our water consumption by 40% or 50%," he explains. " It's made the farmers lives easier, increased yield and reduced cost."

Could a new dawn be rising on the farmers of Iran? Transition is always difficult but after travelling around the country and seeing firsthand the decimation the water scarcity has on the landscape and the people, it's clear that change is absolutely necessary. The farmers have seen the nation through a crisis once before - can they do it again?