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Karez System Cultural Landscape

Date of Submission: 12/04/2016
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Government of Pakistan, Directorate General of Archaeology
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N30 18 10.81 E60 58 42.15 - N30 04 39.45 E69 13 25.36
Ref.: 6110

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The Karez system of the Balochistan desert is a vibrant example of an ancient and still functional approach to community-based water management in an arid landscape. Karez irrigation technology was developed in arid and semi-arid areas from India and western China through the Middle East into North Africa. The technology is believed to have originated in the 1st millennium BC in Persia from where the knowledge travelled east and westward along the Silk Route, throughout the Muslim world, arriving in Xinjiang in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD) and in Balochistan somewhat earlier.

Traditionally, areas of population correspond closely to the areas where karez are possible. In this way the karez, its communities and their lands and pastures combine to form an organically evolved cultural landscape, rich in meaning and perfectly adapted to its harsh environment.

Karez are constructed as a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by sloping tunnels, which tap into subterranean water in a manner that efficiently delivers large quantities of water to the surface by gravity, without need for pumping. The first well where the water is tapped for a karez is called the mother well, and there is a zone of roughly 1,200 feet in diameter where it is forbidden to dig new wells or otherwise threaten the quality and quantity of the groundwater. The vertical shafts along the underground channel are purely for maintenance purposes, and water is used only once it emerges from the daylight point.

Karez allow water to be transported over long distances in hot dry climates without loss of much of the water to evaporation. The system has the advantage of being resistant to natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, and to deliberate destruction in war. Furthermore, it is almost insensitive to the levels of precipitation, delivering a flow with only gradual variations from wet to dry years. A karez is environmentally sustainable as it has no additional energy requirement and, thus, has low life cycle operation and maintenance costs.

Karez are owned and maintained by the community who buy shares in it or “shabanas”, 24-hour cycles. A karez, depending upon its size, may have anywhere from 18 to 32 shabanas distributed between its shareholders, with individual claims ranging from the right to a few minutes to a week of water. A shareholder, or shareeq, is entitled to the standing of a country gentleman in the community and may sit in a jirga and weigh in on collective decisions. In this way the system of water access, distribution and use is closely linked to social structures and community identity. Although a karez system is expensive to construct, its long-term value to the community, and thereby to the group that invested in building and maintaining it, is substantial.

Today, though the system is under threat, there are approximately 1053 functioning karezes in Balochistan having more than 22,000 lps discharge, irrigating 27,000 ha in 2012. Another 270 karez are not functioning but could be restored to use. They are located in the northwest corner of Balochistan bordering with Afghanistan and Iran. A group of four representative karez is being proposed for inclusion on the Tentative List:

  1. Spin Tangi Kareze, District Quetta
  2. Chashma Achozai Kareze, District Quetta
  3. Ulasi Kareze, District Pishin
  4. Kandeel Kareze, Muslim Bagh, District Killa Saifullah

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The karez cultural landscape of Balochistan represents the "combined works of nature and man", a living heritage tradition of great longevity in a harsh land where groundwater is vital to agro-pastoralist and sedentary agriculture. For more than a millennium karez have been the linchpin of groundwater tapping technology and part of a widespread technological adaptation characterizing the arid portions of the Muslim world.

The system illustrates the development of a communal technology, labour intensive but resilient and sustainable, in response to “the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal.” This cultural landscape has evolved organically and in the process has refined a perfectly balanced social and economic system that continues today to benefits both people and the landscape.

In rural Balochistan karez are based on community management; a community enterprise managed by tribal tradition and run by social control. While routine karez management and maintenance procedures kept the rural communities together through strong communal involvement, the drying of karezes strains those bonds. As karezes require considerable social organization for their maintenance, strong social capital undergirds the system.

In Balochistan, social station is not determined by landholdings but by the size of one’s share of water in a karez. The system is a bond that holds together the social, economic, and cultural life of the communities in which they are located.

The karez system is equitable between upstream and downstream users. A water user who has the first parcel of land along a karez water course also has rights to the last parcel of land on the same channel. The user with the second parcel of land also has rights to the second to last parcel of land, and so forth. Such an arrangement ensures that everyone in the community has an equal stake in maintaining the entire water course, unlike in other irrigation systems in which the upstream water users invariably benefit and need not contribute to the maintenance of the entire water channel.

This ancient, community-based water system is an environmentally sustainable technology of extreme relevance as the world faces a future in which water scarcity will be a critical issue. The traditional technology of karez water conservation based on indigenous knowledge and embedded in community structure can serve as an alternative and sustainable model for dryland water sourcing and distribution.

Criterion (ii): The Karez Cultural Landscape of Balochistan is an outstanding example of a shared hydraulic adaptation that extends over a vast area from Spain to Western China and has flourished for more than a millennium. Their outstanding universal value lies in the simple but sophisticated technology employed by agro-pastoralists to draw life from the desert.

Criterion (iv): The spread of karez technology to Balochistan vividly illustrates two important stages in human history across half the globe. The first stage was linked to the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BC) when Persian rule extended from the Indus to the Nile. Karez were constructed from Mesopotamia to the shores of the Mediterranean, as well as southward into parts of Egypt. To the east of Persia, the technology spread to Afghanistan, the Silk Route oases settlements of central Asia, and ChineseTurkistan. The expansion of Islam from the 7th century onwards initiated another major diffusion of karez technology. The early Arab invasions spread them westward across North Africa and into Cyprus, Sicily, Spain, and the Canary Islands. The result of these expansions was a significant technological advance that enabled settlement and agriculture in areas that were previously unexploitable.

Criterion (v): The Karez Cultural Landscape of Balochistan is an outstanding example of human interaction with a hostile environment which both enabled human occupation and made the desert bloom. As long as the karez are maintained by strict and complex tribal community structures, the environment will accommodate human occupation and the relationship between karez and settlement location will continue. The close relationship, spatial and social, between karez and settlement locations is still maintained in this area of Balochistan and the tribal structure to administer the karez is still in place, with all its indigenous expertise. As the world faces increasing water vulnerability, the relevance of this karez as a time tested system of sustainable water harvesting and management will only increase.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The link between the attributes of the Karez of Balochistan and its OUV are clearly and truthfully expressed in the physical fabric of the system, which although maintained and renewed, is original in its design, elements, traditional materials and function. The link is also credibly expressed in the living system of tribal knowledge and social practice which has been handed down for generations and continues to administer the karez for community benefit.

The Karez Cultural Landscape has within its proposed boundary all the attributes necessary to express its Outstanding Universal Value. It is whole in all its required parts including intact hand-dug shafts, tunnels and pipes from Mother Well to daylight wells and of adequate size to fully display its significance. Designed in response to very specific environmental factors, it has fulfilled its original function continuously for hundreds of years. Although modern hydraulic methods have been introduced in the arid areas of Balochistan, the superiority of traditional karez technology has been acknowledged by locals, agencies and government who are working to support the continued use and expansion of the vulnerable karez complex.

Comparison with other similar properties

The World Heritage List includes one property, Bam and its Cultural Landscape (Iran 2004/7), which shares some of the values expressed in the karez of Balochistan. Bam is located in the same geo-cultural area as Balochistan, but, due to its position at the crossroads of important trade routes, developed very differently into a fortified trading settlement and citadel. The cultural landscape is based on a system of qanats (karez); although part of the nomination, the karez play a supporting role and are interpreted in terms of the function they played in the commercial development of Bam and its impressive citadel.

There are two karez systems on the Tentative List of China and Iran respectively: the Karez Wells of China and Qunats of Gonabad, Iran. In both cases, the emphasis is on karez wells as part of a regional technological development which enabled exploitation of arid desert environments.

The ICOMOS thematic study, The Silk Roads (Williams 2014), highlights the crucial role played by this form of water management in the development of the Silk Road. The study stresses the need to prioritize study of the dating and linkages of karez across the region and research into variations in the engineering and organisation of these systems. It points out that karez will have very specific documentation, management and interpretative needs which are yet to be developed.

The Karez system of Balochistan is a part of this widespread and long lived hydraulic adaptation which enabled human interaction with a hostile environment. Moreover, its position on the cusp of the Persian Empire, the Silk Road and the route of Islamic expansion gives it an added historical depth and interpretive potential. The cultural landscape of the karez of Balochistan, with their living traditions and indigenous expertise, provides an ideal laboratory for study of this phenomenon, looking not only at the technology but also at its historical development, transmission and social implications. The karez cultural landscape has relevant lessons to teach as the world faces increasing water vulnerability and the relevance of sustainable water harvesting and management increases.