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The Last Kankan of Nakhchivan
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The Last Kankan of Nakhchivan
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Water scarcity has become one of the world's greatest challenges. In less than 20 years, nearly two billion people could face shortages. But Azerbaijan, which sits between Europe and Western Asia, has come up with an ingenious solution to its water crisis by looking to its past for inspiration. 

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Produced by UN 21st Century.

Learn more about the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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Segment 1

DALJIT DHALIWAL
Water affects the survival of every living thing on Earth. The scarcity of this precious resource has become one of our greatest challenges. In less than 20 years, nearly two billion people could face water shortages. But one country -- Azerbaijan, which sits between Europe and Western Asia -- has come up with an ingenious solution to its water crisis.
VOICEOVER
Water resources in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan are very limited. Precipitation in many regions of the country is very low. The water distribution system is obsolete: pipes are rusted and a significant amount of water is lost due to leakage. But, in the early part of the 20th century, the people in Azerbaijan had plenty of water, much of it delivered by a man-made system of tunnels that took underground water to the surface through gravity flow. This system is locally known as kahriz.
YUNIS IBRAGIMOV
We all know that there is no life without water. The kahriz provided water without the need of external energy, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months, for years.
VOICEOVER
Like his grandfather and his father before him, 71-year-old Yunis Ibragimov is a kankan, an expert in ancient construction skills. Kankans were tasked with building and maintaining the kahrizes. This model of water distribution was used throughout Asia for thousands of years. Gently sloping horizontal tunnels with interconnected wells collect water and bring it to the surface for household and irrigation use without the need for pumping. Kahrizes were the people's life-line, especially in places like Nakhchivan, a province of Azerbaijan. Four hundred thousand live here, one of the driest places in the country. But just below ground there is plenty pure water. Once there were 400 kahrizes here. Fifty-six-year-old Hasanali Nikbin can't hear or speak. But he is a prolific writer and he has written about the essential role of Nakhchivan's kahriz water systems.
HASANALI NIKBIN [narrated]
Their streams are rays of light, flashing fires and telling stories of abundant harvests, turning deserts into heavens of grass and trees, of thorns and blossoms.
VOICEOVER
The arrival of electricity during Soviet times spelled the end of the ancient water networks, even though electric pumps were powered by fuel. Tunnels began collapsing and water stopped flowing. People no longer depended on kahrizes for their water.
ARZU MUSAYEV
No one looked after them.
VOICEOVER
Water engineer Arzu Musayev.
ARZU MUSAYEV
The specialists, the kankans, forgot their skills. This was the main reason for the breakdown of the kahriz system.
VOICEOVER
After Azerbaijan's independence, there was no money for maintenance and the Soviet-built system of pipes and pumps fell apart. Now there was no access to either water system: the kahrizes or the fuel- and electricity-based system. Water shortages became acute. Low-income rural communities, heavily dependent on agriculture for their survival, suffered serious hardships. Regional conflict and lack of access to water led to unemployment and poverty. Hundreds of thousands were driven out. Entire communities in Nakhchivan began migrating to the country's capital, Baku, and further afield. Alverdi Ismailov is the president of a water users group.
ALVERDI ISMAILOV
If there was enough water, no one would have left the villages and people would have continued working on their land.

Segment 2

VOICEOVER
Enter IOM, the International Organization for Migration. In 2000, they began implementing a program here to identify and rehabilitate the existing kahrizes.
YUNIS IBRAGIMOV
I heard that they were looking for kankans. One day someone knocked on my door. He said that they needed my help to fix a kahriz. When we discussed my salary I said that I would do it for any amount of money.
VOICEOVER
As Yunis began training dozens of young people on the art and science of building kahrizes, IOM staff inspected hundreds of abandoned wells, explored many kilometres of tunnels and examined historical documents and blueprints.
YUNIS IBRAGIMOV
The first thing you do is to put small stones in the water, more or less the size of my hand. The second layer of stones should be slightly larger.
YOUNG KANKAN
I started as a worker, now I am a master. From him I learnt to build walls, measure water flows and prevent structure collapse.
VOICEOVER
It takes years to learn how to become a master kankan. It's hard work and many apprentices find it utterly frightening.
YUNIS IBRAGIMOV
It's a difficult and dangerous work and it's not easy for young people to learn the skills. I have worked for decades and it's still a challenge for me.
VOICEOVER
The dangers go well beyond the poisonous snakes that move below ground to escape the intense outside heat. Gas and tunnel collapse have taken the life of kankans in the past. But the profession is seen with great respect and admiration by the people here. The fact is that without these irrigation systems nothing could grow and no one could live here. But for many communities here, the kahriz is more than just a communal water source. It's a way of life. In the ancient mountain village of Yuxari Aylis, a sunnat toyu -- a circumcision party -- is taking place. It's a momentous event in the life of this young man and the village comes together to celebrate it. Two thousand people live here and almost all depend on kahrizes. People like farmer Xanim Qasimova. She's expecting guests today and goes to her kahriz to store fruit juices and fetch water for tea. Xanim keeps her perishable foods here as temperature inside the tunnels are always cool, whatever time of the year it is. The water that comes from a source way up the mountains is pure and refreshing.
XANIM QASIMOVA
I would not give up my kahriz for anything. For no amount of money. During the hot summer I go to sit there. That place means everything to me.
VOICEOVER
Since the beginning of IOM's project, 100 kankans have been trained and are now working full time. Almost 70 kahrizes have been rehabilitated. Each renovation cost, on average, USD$12,000, a pittance compared to funds needed for building new water distribution systems. Kahrizes have proven to be sustainable and eco-friendly, providing pure water all year around without the need for external energy sources. Since their rebirth, agricultural production in Nakhchivan has increased, and so has employment. This is a clear example of traditional technology helping to solve one of today's most crucial problems: how to make sure that drinking water will continue to be available to future generations.
DALJIT DHALIWAL
And that's all for this edition of 21st Century. We will see you next time. Until then, goodbye.
TITLE
21st Century a production of United Nations Television Department of Public Information