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Parks, soil and water

Today Baku is a green oasis of parks and tree-lined avenues despite its desolate surroundings but the whole verdant character of the city is artificial. Before the oil boom there was barely a tree. Fifteenth-century Arab writer Abdar Rashid ibn Salih observed 'The soil in the town is infertile and there is only one small part where gardens of figs and pomegranates can be seen'. Arriving here in the 1860s/70s the Nobel brothers, along with other homesick European entrepreneurs, set out to change all that. They had the novel idea of importing soil using their newly-designed oil tankers. These would otherwise have returned empty from delivering exported crude. The city elders agreed to help by placing a tax on all returning tanker ships which did not bring soil or tree saplings to plant in it. Within a few years the city began to sprout the parks and avenues which are today its landmarks but these had to be watered. Before the 19th century Baku's only supply of fresh water would have come from underground streams, accessed by ovdans (wells).

At first, the Nobels watered their new park with water produced ingeniously from condensed steam - a by-product of the oil cracking process. But, as with other desert cities such as Las Vegas, the sudden economic boom required dramatic engineering solutions to ensure that the exploding population had something to drink. An extraordinary canal was cut all the way from the Russian border to carry the cool, fresh mountain water of the Samur river all the way to Baku where today, as then, it is stored in a great reservoir in the suburb of Xirdalan.

Laborious care is taken to maintain the city's parks which are often watered from tanker lorries while trees receive manicures from men wielding axes. Water remains a valuable resource which one cannot take for granted. Homes without large tanks usually receive a water supply for only part of the day and there's at least one filling station in the city which on closer inspection proves to be dispensing not petrol but water.