By Pouyan Khoshhal
September 11, 2021
This time, it was the rain that would take the most credit for extinguishing the fires consuming vast stretches of Iran’s Anzali wetland. This 20,000-hectare haven for wildlife is situated next to the Caspian Sea in the northern province of Gilan. The blaze broke out on Monday, August 30 and raged until September 3, when it was finally put out by a combination of on-the-ground firefighters, a Defense Ministry firefighting plane, a Red Crescent helicopter and, above them all, the bursting of the saturated clouds.
It’s been reported that seven hectares of reed beds were completely destroyed by the fire. Judiciary officials said this one had been lit deliberately, and the police have arrested five people alleged to be responsible.
The fact is that no single human, equipped with normal resources, could cause this much damage at a stroke. Why the fire burned for so long, or spread as far as it did, has everything to do with the recent history of the Anzali wetland itself. Like other vital water sources in Iran, it has been drying up for years.
A plume of smoke emanates from where, just days earlier, flocks of migratory birds had taken to the skies over Anzali. Firefighting equipment is sparse, and the route to where the fire was burning is not easy to traverse. It didn’t take long for the fire to consume a huge tract of green reed beds, turning them to black and grey ashes.
“The fire started on Monday, in the Anzali wetlands area of Cheragh Poshtan village,” a resident of the port city of Bandar Anzali told IranWire. “The water level on the wetlands has fallen a great deal and great stretches of it are covered with reeds, water hyacinths and other shrubs. Because of this, the fire spread fast. The fire engines couldn’t get ahead because the ground was soft.
“They brought a helicopter from Mazandaran province, and for a few days a firefighting plane from the Defense Ministry also flew over Anzali. But since tackling the fire at night is impossible, and the wetland was covered with mist, every time the fire would flare up again. In the end, on Friday, the rain finished it all off.”
A Wetland Ready to Burn
In late August, five hectares of reed beds next to the village of Shanghai Pardeh also went up in smoke. In 2019 around 10 hectares of Anzali were lost to wildfires.
This time around, the commander of Gilan’s Environmental Protection Police Force and provincial judiciary officials announced that five people were accused of deliberately starting the fire in a bid to repurpose the land. Two have reportedly confessed and the case against them is with the court.
Despite the official assertion that these five had their eyes on a land-grab, environmental experts say deliberate acts of arson play an insignificant role in the repeated wildfires that have engulfed this area and others for years.
“Misguided government policy has almost destroyed agriculture in Gilan,” an environmental expert who has studied the Anzali wetland told IranWire. “So for the past two decades, people have resorted to ‘clearing’ land in order to repurpose it.
“It’s not correct to say that wildfires are deliberate. Didn’t such things happen before? In recent years, what’s brought these fires on is that the wetland has been drying up. Dried-up reeds and other plants have piled up, turning the environment into a piece of deadwood that catches and turns into a destructive fire whenever the wind turns hot, if somebody makes the smallest error like throwing away the still-burning butt of a cigarette.” Garbage left in the area like mineral water bottles, he added, sometimes acts as a lens under the sun and ignites wildfires large and small.
Searching for Petty Thieves
“The lagoon my father talked about was worlds apart from what we see today,” Reza, a young resident of Bandar Anzali, told IranWire. “He said the lagoon was so pristine, so big, that when you went there to fish you got lost.
“They’d spend the night there to fish. The water in the lagoon was uncontaminated then, and the fishermen drank from its waters. It’s not like that anymore. If the Anzali wetland wasn’t in northern Iran, and it didn’t get the rains for half the year, it would now be in the same, sorry state as the Hawizeh [Hor al-Azim] marshes in Khuzestan and other dried-up and forgotten wetlands of Iran.”
Of the alleged arsonists’ arrest, he said: “They’re after the petty thieves. But they know better than anyone else that these fires were really started by those who sat on their behinds and let the wetlands go dry. Water does not catch fire. If this wetland had water, it wouldn’t have burned by this.”
Man-Made “Natural” Causes
According to figures published by the Iranian Environmental Research Institute of the Center for Education, Culture and Research, the surface area of the Anzali wetland is 211 square kilometers in winter and spring. But in summer, it shrinks to just 19 square kilometers. Its depth used to be 10 meters but now, in some spots, it has fallen to below half a meter.
Mohammad Reza Mahboubfar, a specialist in environmental crises, also told IranWire arson is not the root cause of fires in the Anzali wetland. “The increase of three to five degrees in temperature and the drop in humidity are among the key contributing factors to wildfires in this area. The decrease in humidity is, of course, is a natural phenomenon. But it’s rooted in human activity: first humans destroy the environment, then the land turns into a desert. When this happens, we see a barrage of natural outcomes. They say some people wanted to grab land in this area. Sure, this has happened before. But for a fire to burn more than seven hectares?”
Dam-building and the irresponsible extraction of water to feed other provinces in Iran have long played a role in the drying-up of natural marshes. “The volume of water taken from the wetlands upstream has been so great, it’s sharply reduced the amount flowing in,” Mahboubfar added. “Now it’s on the verge of going dry.
“In addition to the decrease in water [volume], this zone has also suffered from the inflow of wastewater from agriculture, industry and urban areas. In recent years they also built piers on parts of the Anzali Lagoon to attract tourists, but these piers cut off parts of the lagoon from each other: just one more of the reasons it’s drying up.”
The Environmental Research Institute concedes that among the major threats to the Anzali wetland are the excessive drawing of water, pollution, contamination by household and agricultural waste, the accumulation of sediment, the conversion of land around the lagoon for agricultural use, the hunting of aquatic birds, the increase of heavy metal particles, especially lead, and the accumulation of large quantities of irresolvable garbage brought in by the rivers, and by visitors.
The sewage of at least 600 villages in the area flows into the Anzali wetland, as do 11 main rivers and 30 tributaries, leading to a major build-up of sediment. Another problem is that in recent years a non-native variety of water hyacinth has spread across the lagoon, pushing out native plants.
Mahboubfar says a large number of reed beds around the lagoon have also disappeared because the surface water is gone. “In other words, the lagoon has retreated. As a consequence, the land gradually turns into desert.”
Anzali’s Ecosystem Has Been Destroyed
People must be told the facts, says Mahboubfar: “Drought is worsening as a result of climate change and other events that have affected the environment. The drying-up of various parts of the country is triggered by water diversion projects, dam-building and the expansion of industries that consume a high volume of water, driven by the illusion of development.
“When we talk about lagoons, forests, rivers and the like, we’re really talking about a natural heritage that has become our heritage after thousands, or millions, of years. We have to protect them as we protect our own eyes. A few bouts of rain will not solve the problem. During the hot season, nothing of this water remains. Unfortunately, Anzali Wetland’s physical body, it ecosystem, has been devastated.
“You cannot expect this natural heritage to come back in the short term or because of several years of abundant rainfall. The physical body of this wetland must be revived and human interference in its ecosystem must stop. Water diversion must stop as soon as possible. Then, and only then, will we see a gradual revival.”
Like other scholars, Mahboubfar fears the water crisis in Iran is so bad that the Tehran region and northern Iran could be completely dry, and all the plains subside, within the next 10 years. This, if it happens, would be irreversible.
Professor Parviz Kardavani, known as the “father of Iranian desert studies”, puts the time-frame at 50 years before Tehran becomes inhabitable due to desertification – if nothing is done. “Just now, Tehran has five dams. But it has no water. They have to bring water from Gilan, which has led to the desertification of northern regions of Iran, including the Anzali wetland,” he said in an interview on August 3 this year, two weeks before he passed away.