Reviving Iran's drylands

dry land in Iran
The pilot site for Tehran's component of the Carbon Sequestration project, which is implemented through UNDP's partnership with the Government of Iran. (Photo: Pasha Tabrizian/UNDP Iran)

Zari Sa’adati, a 35-year-old woman living in Eastern Iran, used to fear she could not support her family in the barren environment of Hossein Abad valley.

“My family was about to migrate to the city nearby in search of a living,” she says.


  • The project helped more than 30 communities living in semi‐arid areas improve their livelihoods and combat desertification.
  • 15,000 hectares of dryland were rehabilitated and 60 village groups were created – 9 of which were exclusively run by women – to set up and manage micro-financing funds.
  • Phase 2 replicates the project in 6 other provinces of Iran, including Tehran and Kerman.

Degraded by over-grazing, wood-cutting for fuel, and severe erosive winds, the dry and dusty rangelands near the Afghan border made it almost impossible for inhabitants to pull together a meager living.

“When I first visited the Hossein Abad valley, I could not imagine that people could live there. Sheep and goats were trying to get something from a dry and dusty land,” said Prahbu Budhathoki, a technical advisor for UNDP. “People were completely covered with clothes to protect themselves from sistani wind and scorching heat. There was life, but living conditions were simply not right.”

Today, a specialized Iranian government agency, supported and partly funded by UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is rehabilitating the hostile land. Patches of land have been seeded with plants selected for their capacity to slow the advance of the desert and reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in dry land areas by sequestrating carbon in plants and soil.

The project also aims to empower local communities by providing small loans in a region neglected by mainstream banks.

“It was essential to involve communities to give them a sense of ownership and make them feel they could take their destiny into their own hands,” says Budhathoki.

Village Development Groups were specifically mobilized for the project. They manage several micro-financing funds set up with money from the project and community members’ savings. Villagers can borrow funds to use as starter money for income-generating activities like purchasing, growing and selling seedlings or for environmentally-friendly animal husbandry.

“This small herbal extract workshop that I started with the help of the project’s microcredit system has contributed to our family income. We are now busy enough to stay in our own village,” says Zari.

While most community members drew on microcredit funds for environmental rehabilitation activities, some borrowed money for social initiatives. For instance, a Health Service Network where parents can bring their children for medical checkups was created entirely with micro-credit funds.

By the end of 2011, 60 village development groups were created, 9 of which were exclusively run by women.

“In addition to its significant positive impact on the environment, one of the project’s major achievements is the involvement of women. It has given them confidence, “says Farzaneh Derakhshi, a UNDP Programme Associate.

The first phase of the project, which ran from 2004 to 2010, demonstrated that degraded drylands could be cost-effectively restored and sustainably managed by local communities for their own benefit. In 2010, UNDP and partners agreed to extend the project for another five years using the same participation methods so local communities are in charge of the restoration, conservation and sustainable use of the environment that they depend upon for their livelihoods. Phase 2 is now ongoing in six other provinces, including Tehran and Kerman.