Lake Urmia was once the largest salt lake in the Middle East, but now it is set to vanish altogether. (Vice)

By Havari Yousefi

October 13, 2020

Newly-released figures have confirmed what environment activists have known for years: successive Iranian governments have failed to protect Lake Urmia, one of Iran’s most precious ecological treasures. The lake, located in the province of West Azerbaijan, was once a haven for wildlife. But now it is vanishing at an alarming speed, the result of decades of neglect. Ecologists have called for greater measures to be put in place to reverse more than four decades of damage, warning that the future of both the wildlife and the residents who make the area their home are under threat.

The Lake Urmia Rehabilitation Headquarters reported on October 4 that the lake’s water level is down significantly from 2019, and that the speed with which it is drying up is greater and more intense than ever.

IranWire spoke to Iranian PhD student and agroecology researcher Mansour Sohrabi, currently based in Germany, about the dire situation for Lake Urmia, the mismanagement of the important ecology of the area, and the Iranian government’s long-term failure to devise a strategy to address the problem.

Deep Wells, Dams and Bridges

As the Lake Urmia Rehabilitation Headquarters report outlines, Lake Urmia currently covers 2726.72 square kilometers, whereas a previous report published on October 4, 2019, cited the area as 2807.79 square kilometers. The headquarters report that over time, the lake has essentially shrunk to half its original size. So why did this fragile ecology deteriorate so dramatically and at such speed?

Mansour Sohrabi says the destruction of Lake Urmia dates back to November 18, 1999, when construction of the Shahid Kalantari bypass was completed. The bridge, which connects the provinces of West Azerbaijan and East Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran, split Lake Urmia in half. “This bridge was built in the most dangerous part of the lake, across a sludge or clay pit measuring between 150 and 200 meters and in the middle of the two main faults of the lake, causing the lake’s bed to continuously sag,” Sohrabi says. “According to estimates, this bridge increased the evaporation of the lake by as much as 17 percent.”

Sohrabi says there are a range of factors contributing to Lake Urmia’s evaporation, an increase in land used for ​​agriculture in the ​​Lake Urmia area among them. Over the last four decades, he says, “the amount of agricultural land doubled, from 300,000 hectares before the 1979 revolution to 600,000 hectares today. More than 80,000 deep and semi-deep wells were dug in the catchment area. More than 88 dams have been built, and if we add the dams that are being planned or under construction to that number, there will be more than 100 dams in the lake area.”

Changing Nature by Shifting the Boundaries of the Lake Urmia Area

Sohrabi says that over the years, the water in the lake was diverted from the previous catchment area to other areas, and this has done lasting damage. “For years, about five cubic meters of water per second has been transferred from Shahid Kazemi Dam in Buchan to Tabriz. At Norouzlu Dam in Miandoab, facilities have been built to transfer another five cubic meters of water per second to the province of East Azerbaijan. In total, about 10 cubic meters per second is transferred to Tabriz from the Zarrineh Rud and Simineh Rud rivers.”

In addition to this transfer of water and the damage it causes, he says further damage is caused by some 45 factories and industrial parks that have been built along Lake Urmia’s banks. “Salty and low-yield lands located in East Azerbaijan province along the route the water is transferred on require this water for irrigation. Thermal power plants operating in East Azerbaijan province get their water from the Buchan Dam. An artificial lake and forest have been created in the Ein Ali Mountains near Tabriz to supply some of the city of Tabriz’s drinking water.”

Water is also diverted and transferred from the Siaza and Ghoucham dams in Kurdistan province to other areas, including to Hamedan, Marivan and Zanjan, indirectly affecting the water basin and water level of Lake Urmia. Mansour Sohrabi told IranWire if all of this water was not diverted and transferred elsewhere, about 600 million cubic meters of water would flow into the lake every year.

The ecological impact is dramatic. The artemia, a small species of crustacean, is one of the lake’s most important micro-organisms, but it can only survive in waters of 15 billion cubic meters. Currently, the lake contains 3.16 billion cubic meters of water, posing a serious risk to the organism. In order for Lake Urmia to regain its ecological balance, 12 billion cubic meters more water would be required.

Authorities Sit and Watch

Mansour Sohrabi points out that governments over the last four decades have failed to take action to rehabilitate the lake, and he urges the current administration to take immediate action to restore Lake Urmia’s ecological balance. But time is running out, and there is a significant chance that the lake will become salinated and impermeable and that regeneration will simply not be possible. In addition, authorities are discriminatory when it comes to the people living and working in the area. Azeri Turkish farmers are given permission to cultivate water-intensive crops such as sugar beet and corn on the shores of Lake Urmia. But the same rights are not granted to the Kurdish farmers in the Sharviran and Shamat areas, and they are forced to grow crops that require less water.

The construction of Hasanlu Dam alongside Lake Urmia has been particularly damaging. Previously, land used for agriculture in the area benefited from rainfall, but now the water is provided via irrigation projects based around the lake.

The Fate of Van, Aral, and Urmia Lakes

“The level and volume of water of Lake Van in Turkey, which is about 167 kilometers from Lake Urmia, has not changed in recent years,” says Sohrabi. “But in the last 20 years the level and volume of water in Lake Urmia has decreased significantly due to inefficient plans and the failure to manage the basin’s water resources.” He says that before anything else is done, authorities must determine exactly how and by what amount the water levels are affected by the dams.

He urges the water authorities to shut down illegal water wells, remove the bridge and entirely transform agricultural processes in the area, which will produce a more optimal cultivation pattern. “These measures could increase the level of the water in the lake to some extent. The only thing that can be done in the current situation is the conservation of a quarter of the water, and providing water to land and people from another source. The water flowing into the lake should be maintained at a length of 1500 kilometers and that water should be directed to the fragile surfaces of the lake to prevent further drying of the salt crystals and further salt saturation. But preserving 5,000 square kilometers of lake water under the current management style will lead the lake to dry up. We will inevitably have the same fate as the Aral Sea.”

The Aral “Sea” was once actually one of the world’s four largest lakes, measuring around 68,000 square kilometers. Situated between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, after intense agricultural development and the diversion of the Amun and Syr Darya rivers, the lake began a process of desertification in 1960. By 1980 it had split into a northern and a southern part. In 2004, the area of ​​the lake shrank to one-fourth of its former size, and in 2009, it dried up.

Lake Urmia: A Super-Crisis

Sohrabi says that, in addition to restoring the lake’s water share rights, authorities must make significant changes to control what comes into the lake by overhauling the existing catchment area: “This water absorbs all sorts of chemical toxic elements coming from the drains of agricultural lands, filling the lake bed of lake with phosphorus and nitrogen. These elements, when absorbed by the salt, produce toxic septic water, that, in addition to threatening the lake’s wildlife, will also endanger the entire ecological life of the region.”

He adds that land management must be based on efficient plans, and balanced with the ecological capability of the region and the surrounding landscape. “Gradual reduction and evaporation of water in Lake Urmia has become a super-crisis. The political and executive management of the Islamic Republic, with their destructive actions and financial corruption, have created the horrible situation.” Over decades, he says, officials have “ignored the value of nature. The consequences of this, and of disregarding the ecological potential of the region, has led to the deterioration of the lake, which continues to threaten the entire ecosystem of the region, not just the lake and its wildlife.”

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.