Friday, April 27, 2012

Flood Pictures in Gilan (Northwest Iran)

Amir Pourtouiserkani sent in the below pictures from a recent flood in Gilan Province, Iran (northwest of Tehran, along the Caspian Sea). Amir is an Iranian flood scientist and a reader of the blog, thanks Amir! The Iranian news services are also reporting damage from the flooding. There’s more coverage and flood photos here and here.

This thin band along the Caspian Sea is normally the wettest part of Iran, easily rainier than Seattle, and twice that of London. In the episode earlier this month, rain (and at some points hail) fell for about a week and then the rivers went everywhere, attacking bridges, washing out roads, filling houses with mud and killing a small girl.

From my experiences in Iran, I would guess that the people had personal awareness that a flood could be coming, based on watching how much rain had fallen… but there’s likely no formal river forecasting products like there are in other countries.

The original farsi caption for the last photo (of the family wailing about their loss), translated into “this picture speaks to us with a lot of meaning”.  


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Iran’s Largest Earthen Dam (Gotvand Dam)

The saying in the US goes: “Try as you might, there are two things you cannot avoid in life…death and taxes”.

In Iran, it’s “death and drought”. You can get out of taxes if you really want to.

Today we go inside one of Iran’s attempts to get out of drought. This post may look long but it’s mostly pictures.
Dry mountain landscapes in Southwest Iran

About 30% of the world but 90% of Iran is arid or semi-arid, meaning that rain wouldn't provide enough water to grow food. Ahwaz’s average annual rainfall is about 250 mm (9 in), about the same as El Paso, Texas. Some years have been drier than normal recently and with increased demand for water, the stresses on the system are greater than ever. Add in revenues from oil, a desire for energy independence, and strong government support for technology, and it should be no surprise that Iran has one of the most active dam-building programs in the world.
Dam Tom
Our side visit to one of the lower dams near Ahwaz

Depending on the landscape, many smaller dams can be more cost effective than mega-projects, but Iran also has its share of superlatives (e.g. biggest this, tallest that). One of those is Upper Gotvand Dam (Gotvand-olya, also Gotwan), the tallest (182 meter, 600 feet) earth-fill dam in Iran. “Earth-fill” means the dam is a long squat mound of dirt and rocks, which gets its strength from being large and heavy. This is as opposed to concrete dams which are thinner and shaped more a thumbnail; the water pushes concrete dams from behind and this wedges the edges deeper into the canyon walls. Hoover dam is a concrete dam, for example.

Here’s the face of Gotvand dam. The photos can’t take in the giant scale of it all. The distant specks at the end of the middle white line are dumptrucks. The green symbol is the national emblem of Iran, a stylized version of the script for Allah (God).

Same view as above, slightly panned to the right.

We asked Eisa Bozorgzadeh (Technical and Research Deputy of the Iran Water and Power Resources Development Company, IWPCO) if we could see the site. He was one of the organizers of the recent Hydropower Conference in Tehran.

Eisa arranged a tour on, around and inside the dam; we were picked up by a company car and escorted by one of the chief engineers and a chauffeur. It was the same service (and vehicle) Ahmadinejad had during his official visit at the dam’s christening. When I asked the driver what the President of Iran was like in person, he replied that “I am just driver of car, I cannot speak”. I took it to mean either, drivers can’t talk to dignitaries, or they’re not allowed to gossip about other dignitaries.

Visit to the main office of the dam (Kitty, me and the engineer, Mr Naderan)

Earlier that week we had visited the power company’s head office in Tehran. In the lobby of that building were a host of scale models and wall-sized maps.

A scale model of power generating turbines

So it was strange then going to see the real thing:

Inside the actual partly-constructed power-house

Our day at Gotvand started with the screening of a promotional video about the dam, why and how it was constructed and so on. The soundtrack of the video reminded me of Lord of the Rings, ranging from tranquil woodwinds to thunderous battle scenes.

We were treated to a 3-D computer model fly-through of the dam.


The spinning turbine. Think MCP from Tron.

We were also lead through the dam’s schematics…
Side-view of the dam. For how tall it is, it’s many times as thick.

The schematic showed a complex network of tunnels through the mountainside. This is looking down from the top.

Then we drove all over the site, a good portion of which was still under construction…

Downstream of the dam looking upstream. The building with the windows is where power is generated. The dam is in the background, left.

The view from the top of the dam looking downstream.

From the top of the dam looking upstream (the vertical black slots are where water goes into the tunnels)

Same view, looking left. Again, it is impossible to take in the scale and size of things. Those dots in the water are boats, patrolling the lake as it fills for the first time.

The wind at the top of the dam felt like it was going to knock us down.

The spillway partially completed. Note the lettering on the side of the hill. Spillways are like the overflow drains on a bathtub. If the level gets too high, water can be released quickly and safely, but without generating power.  

The view down into the spillways. Eventually tall metal gates will be put in these slots to hold back the flow, or be raised on demand. I can't even see anything in this view to give an idea of the human scale. 

Looking downstream across the spillways. 

In that mass of rebar in the foreground of the previous picture was a worker free-climbing (without a harness as far as I could tell).

The motto “We want. We can.” Note the painted over C between “We” and “Can”. It must have been a rough day on the job site when they discovered a typo on the mountain.

The dam itself is full of sensors to check if it is leaking or cracking or moving in any way.

Next we drove inside one of the dam’s many tunnels.

A robotic drilling machine, I think for putting in reinforcements in the dam walls. Human to left for scale.

In the heart of the outlet tunnels were a variety of pumps and control panels.

And then there was this… Water is roaring through this tunnel on the way to the outlet. It creates wind and noise unlike anything I had witnessed before. We were warned to take off glasses and remove anything loose from our pockets. When this metal portal was pulled open, the roar was like when the cabin of an airplane loses pressure mid-flight and everything is sucked out towards the hole. We thought we were going to lose our fillings.

Here’s a video. Turn on the audio for full effect.

Strong winds inside the dam’s tunnels

I’m surprised Kitty didn’t have her smile blown off. Happily it stayed with us for a while.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Iranian Money

Although not hydrology related, one of the strangest things for us in Iran was money. One of the hardest struggles for us travelling overseas has been getting money- not having it, but getting it. The suffering is mostly our fault for trying to live off an American credit card registered to an Australian address (but to an American phone number). Just think of how many websites reject our debit card on a technicality, such as our Australian zip code only having 4 digits (the US uses 5 digits). Going to Iran, however, was a whole other level of punishment.

The US has had economic sanctions on Iran for decades. With the renewed tensions about nuclear research, Obama passed a raft of new sanctions. Every so often new sanctions are announced in the media but you almost never hear specifics about what they entail. It’s like a parent downgrading a child from “you are grounded” to “you are so grounded” to “you are so grounded, it’s not even funny”.  

For an ordinary citizen, it is hard to track down the rules, in part because the sanctions are sweeping but there are also over approved 10,000 exceptions. For example, it took me a couple days to appreciate what was wrong in this picture…

20120214_190902How does someone like Coke get approval to do business Iran? Can you think of another company that is so quintessentially American? Coca Cola is viewed by some as Liquid Imperialism, one of America’s most successful tools for exporting its way of life.


The kicker? It’s being bottled at the plant on Khomeini Boulevard, the leader of the 1979 Revolution.

Briefly, here’s what American travellers in Iran should know: The unit of currency is the rial but nearly all prices are quoted in toman (1 toman = 10 rial… If rial were pennies, toman would be dimes). Confusion about toman versus rial usually never works out in the favor of tourists.

Credit cards and ATMs do not work (we saw one “Mastercard” sticker in the window of a store, but I think it was being ironic). Cash is king. Some businesses take US bills, but the exchange rates are more of an opinion than a reality.

Prices are usually unlabeled (unless it’s in Persian script) so negotiation is expected. Iran is not that unusual in having a culture of bargaining, indeed countries like America or Australia are the global exceptions. But count your change, I’ve paid everything from $0.15 to $4.00 for a bottle of water.

Iran has issues with inflation (22% per year), partly because of government incentives to keep investments in Rial. Banks offer 18.5% interest rates for certificates of deposits (CD). That means you would double your money in about four years. Compare this with the CD rates of about 1% in the US. Good luck on extracting your money back into US dollars though when your term is finished. The Iranian stock market is nearly decoupled from the rest of the world- during the recent Global Financial Crisis, Iran was the only country whose stocks went up.

Many websites said that crisp new $100 bills would get us the best exchange rates. Our last stop on leaving the US was the bank where I scrutinized bills obsessive-compulsively, asking to change out anything with a fold or a smudge. I did figure that asking them to vacuum-seal my withdrawal would be too suspicious though.

The official exchange rate from US dollars to rial is about 12,300. Given that we had to change over a month’s worth of money on arrival and would have to pay all our hotels and expenses in cash, we ended up with around a shoebox-sized stack of bills. I have never felt more affluent than the day that I sat in the restaurant of a 5-star hotel wearing a suit with every pant and suit pocket stuffed with Iranian bank notes.

The street market exchange rate is more like 16,000 rial per dollar (a difference of nearly 30%). That seems like a situation that is ripe for arbitrage, buy dollars at 12,500, sell toman at 16,000 and keep the profit. However, when we were leaving Iran and wanted to change our money back into dollars and heard a rumor that they no longer buy rial from foreigners at the airport. That meant that instead of arbitraging we were going to be arbitraged.

When I approached the teller’s window at the airport, I got a disdainful sneer and a “tsk tsk tsk”, which translates into “what makes you think you could even ask?” The only people that could change rial into dollars (at the excellent 12,500 government rate) were locals. Here was half of the line at that counter: 


Money lines at the airport

If you squint on the floor between the two men on the right you’ll see one of the several briefcases full of money that they were trying to dump on the desk. Several of those in line were carrying stacks of ten or more passports, each trying to exchange at the limit on behalf of their entire traveling party.

The flustered attendant in the booth made an announcement (in Farsi) that evoked an upset roar throughout the terminal. Men in the line were having heated arguments with each other and the security guards had to come to restore order.

Before we went to the airport, our local friends suggested that we use our remaining money to buy gold because it was very cheap in Iran. That seemed like madness, but some googling suggested there’s some truth to the idea that someone could arbitrage gold prices.

We had heard about Iranian gold in another context- a common pre-negotiated wedding agreement (called Mahr) is that a woman would be paid her weight (in kg) in gold coins were a couple to get divorced. These gold coins are illegal to take out of Iran (they’ll seize them at the airport). So our option would have to be going down to the market where gold jewelry is priced by weight. Good luck trying to change a tennis bracelet for euros at the Travelex in our next country!

Oh, also, while we were in Iran, our assets were frozen by the US government. We didn’t know how long our visa was going to last in Iran so we didn’t but an onward flight until after we arrived. When we were preparing to buy our exit flight, I logged onto my bank account online to see if there was enough in my checking vs savings account.  Within hours I got an email from my bank saying:

Your account was accessed from or an attempt was made to access your account from a country restricted by the United State Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

[Our] policy requires compliance with economic sanctions imposed by OFAC in every country in which [we do] business…. [We are] required to take appropriate steps to comply with OFAC-imposed economic sanctions, including being familiar with the various sanctions programs. As such, a business decision has been made not to allow account access from the jurisdiction from which your account was accessed….

If we do not remove the restriction from your account, you have two options:

  • To instruct us to liquidate and close your account and forward all the funds and/or assets in your account, in a single, lump-sum transfer, to another account in your name at a non-U.S., non-(name of restricted country)or otherwise permissible financial institution located outside the United States, or
  • To maintain your account with the current restrictions.

We didn’t even buy anything, it was just the act of logging on from a computer in Iran that caused the violation. To get my money back, I had to first call the bank and give them an explanation, fax them a form with the same explanation, then leave the country, access my online account from a computer outside Iran and then call my bank again to verify. It took less than a day for my account to be reactivated.

That said, as punishment, I fully expect to get audited on my taxes this year. I can’t think of anything else I could do to set off more red flags. If I do, then I’ll probably “get so audited, it’s not even funny.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tom Tries to Put His Hand Inside a Cow (Ahwaz, Iran)

When I first saw the cow with the fistula, it was as if I was floating above my body. The cow, like me, had a two thousand yard stare. Cows have a conflicted mix of curiosity and fear, and I felt much the same way as it did. We sniffed in the air at each other.

Dr. Mohsen Sari was one of our local hosts for the Ahwaz dust conference and is the advisor of our translator, Fazel Almasi. Dr. Sari is an assistant professor in Animal Sciences at the Ramin Agricultural and Natural Resources University. After our conference, Fazel had to tend his cows’ rumen (stomach) every two hours around the clock as part of his studies. The fistula is a hole in the cow’s side so researchers can put food directly in (or out of) its stomach. 


When Dr. Sari asked us “You want… to put your hand inside a cow?” I don’t think he was expecting so enthusiastic of a response from us (“Oh h*** yes!”). Normally he has to coerce technicians or students to do it and was surprised that this is how we wanted to spend our last morning in the city.

He met us on his day off to open the facilities where he does research. The animal science department has a mix of experimental farms and chemistry labs where they study everything from the medicinal properties of marigolds to cheap ways to keep chickens.

DSCN1860And sheep… lots of sheep


Licking their own noses seemed to be a pastime.


Staring was another pastime.


The bovines got into it too.

Herding sheep into the pen

As we drove to the site, Dr. Sari tried to describe the suffering that happens during summer dust storms. It sounded like sucking on a tailpipe while sitting in a brick oven. The heat was brutal and relentless; we were never quite sure when he was using Celsius or Fahrenheit.

He ran his finger across the face of his car stereo and sighed at the smudge. He had just cleaned it. It was a new car and already it was having a host of mechanical problems. It was the same with his laptop and the lab equipment. He shuddered to think what it was doing to his one-year-old infant. His contract meant that he was going to be in Ahwaz for at least eight years.

The experimental farm had an ark’s worth of animals. There were dozens of cows, sheep, chickens, and at least one buffalo and a cat. Wild ferrets roamed the university grounds, looking much like prairie dogs. There may have been an ostrich pen, but it was empty at the time. Dr. Sari led us around the site wearing a formal suit and crisp white shirt. He would have likely worn a tie were it not considered Western and Un-Iranian.


Dr. Sari (left) dressed for the occasion. Kitty is wearing a trench coat and headscarf- as one does on the farm. 

When someone says “it smelled like a barnyard”, that person is usually talking about something other than a barnyard. However, I can confirm that a real barnyard smells just like you would imagine it.

After petting our third cow, it dawned on us that we were probably disqualifying ourselves from overseas travel for years to come. I was picturing the immigration/customs arrival cards we often have to fill out in airports:

Have you visited a forest, had contact with animals or visited properties that farm or process animals or plants? Have you had contact with biological cultures, fertilizers or other agricultural products? Have you been camping in a place that is muddy or dusty? Have you been in a malarial region? Are you bringing in large quantities of cigarettes or alcohol [we can’t help ourselves at Duty Free]… Are you carrying any gifts given to you by strangers [in Iran, you can’t travel 500 yards without someone giving you a gift]…


Kitty, seconds before making herself an enemy of Customs agents.


A cow nibbles on my pants.


My view of the situation


The view from my pants

The cow with the fistula (hole) looked just like any of the others except that it had a large white plastic cork (cannula) in its side. The stopper plugged a hole that was kept separate from the cow’s hair by a black cloth square. The purpose of the fistula is to take out partially digested food from the stomach. There are a few galleries of cows with fistulas. Although the cows don’t have much feeling in their stomach, I eventually decided it was probably unethical for me to reach inside for the sake of entertainment and that looking was enough.  


The fistula is the white plug near the center of the photo.

Next to the pen for the cows was a large artificial insemination station where they collect the goods from bulls. Dr. Sari is a maven of animal husbandry and regaled with facts about the fascinating sex lives of animals. Apparently, lesbianism is rampant among domesticated cows- when you see a cow yawning, she’s actually savoring the pheromones of her lady friends. Also, ostriches mate for life.


What it looks like when something feels fear, curiosity, boredom, and excitement at the same time.

Later in our trip, we visited a camel farm (not with Dr. Sari) and learned more than we ever cared to know about those guys. Camels don’t like being watched during sex, so to block their view from humans they’ll gather in a ring and have sex in the middle. If you hurt a female camel, the male camel will come bite your shoulder.


A camel smiles at us (on a farm near Kashan… the camel farm wasn’t a research station, we just visited it to make sure our outrage from Customs agents was going to be thorough.)

Also, if you interfere with a camel’s sense of sight and smell (e.g. put a blindfold on and rub aromatic oils under its nose), he will have no reservations about mating with his mother. But if you pull the hood off or return his ability to smell mid-performance, he’ll realize what he’s doing and feel such shame that he’ll stop immediately and then bite off his own member.

The mind reels, there’s so many questions. How did they discover this? Who is doing this kind of thing for the first time? And how did they do it enough times to declare it a pattern? Who would do research on this, with controlled experiments? And if that’s not enough husbandry for you, google “camel dulla”… or “koala bellows”. Do it after lunch though. 

Later, Dr. Sari showed us his chemistry labs where his samples are analyzed. The workstations were clean, with each instrument having an essential dust cover. The dust shortens the lifespan of the equipment considerably, and Dr. Sari prizes his devices.


A dust cover protects the gizmos

One of the most challenging things about being a scientist in Iran is getting hardware to do his work. The embargo makes anything specialized and technical a factor of two or more times more expensive than what one might pay in the US or Europe. Also, anything that could be used in biological/chemical/nuclear weapons development is tightly controlled. Some researchers have to turn to the black market with its extortionist prices.


A laboratory centrifuge

Dr. Sari withCentrifuge

Dr. Sari with another centrifuge, a spinning device for separating materials of different densities


On the left is a dielectric radiation-emitting gyrotron for rapid thermal enhancement of samples… also known as a microwave oven.


Some of the controlled machines (like centrifuges) are needed for Dr. Sari’s legitimate food and animal sciences research (never mind others’ work on water quality). He walked around the lab, proudly introducing each instrument. His new realtime PCR machine (used in DNA research, shown above) was clearly his favorite; he lovingly petted its case and his voice got higher when we talked about what it could do. “This device though” he tilted his head forward and looked at us over his glasses is “extremely restricted”.    

Tom and the Water Cycle

Outside the labs, the university buildings were decorated with murals. One was about environmental quality. On one side was neglect- deforestation, erosion, and ruined homes. On the other was prosperity- fisheries, crops and community. In both cases, the water keeps flowing.