Courtesy of William James

They may be the world's first example of technology transfer: ancient Persian irrigation systems known as qanats, whose use later spread as far east as Japan and as far west as Chile. Now, a new international qanat center based in Yazd, Iran, aims to revive the cultural heritage and use of these underground water channels. Still in limited existence in Oman and Syria, these systems are better known in Iran, where the center aims to repair and preserve approximately 2,500 miles of these channels.

"Qanats have been around for 4,000 years," said Andras Szollosi-Nagy, who heads the international hydrology program at the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is sponsoring the initiative. "They are an ancient but proven technology, which has contributed significantly to irrigating arid lands."

Qanats are a system of tunnels that carry water from underground highlands down to surface lowlands....

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