By Khalil Khani*
Lake Urmia is in northwestern Iran, between eastern and western Azerbaijan provinces. As one of the largest natural permanent hypersaline lakes in the world, it was the largest inland body of saltwater in the Middle East. The lake formerly covered an area of around 6,000 km2 before 1989 and contained about 30,000 million m3 of water. The length of the lake varies from 130 to 146 km, while its widest part is 58 km. The narrowest part, located in the midst of Zanbil Mountain and Shahi Island, is 15 km. The basin area of the lake is 52,355 km2. Lake Urmia has 102 small and big islands, the largest being the Goyondaghy Island with 2.3 km2, and is the only island where freshwater is found.
The main water sources ending in Lake Urmia basin in addition to many natural springs were Zarriné-Rūd, Simineh-Rūd, Mahabad River, Godar River, Barandouz River, Shahar River, Nazlou River, Zola River, Kaftar Ali Chay, Aji Chay, Boyuk Chay, Rudkhaneh-ye Qal’eh Chay, Qobi Chay, Rudkhaneh-ye Mordaq, Leylan River, and Alamloo River. Now, many IRGC constructed dams are blocking the flow of these rivers to Lake Urmia. The water that enters Lake Urmia is only rainfall and runoff from rivers flowing into it. As a closed basin lake, its water levels fluctuate with changes in rainfall. The water that does reach the lake only evaporates. Water that is supposed to flow into the lake is diverted for use by privileged people, such as elite clerics, IRGC owned industries and plants, farms or entities owned by religious foundations under Iran’s Supreme Leader’s supervision. These dynamics have created big changes to the lake.
Lake Urmia used to have an important cultural, economic, aesthetical, recreational, and scientific value. Now, the lake area has decreased by 90% in recent decades. Historically, the lake attracted migratory birds including flamingos, pelicans, ducks, and egrets. It’s drying up, or desiccation is destroying the local food web, especially the destruction of one of the world’s largest natural habitats of the brine shrimp Artemia, a hardy species that can tolerate salinity levels of 340 g/l, more than eight times saltier than ocean water.
The lake has been threatened by multiple anthropogenic activities, including increased agricultural activity, urban expansion, extensive construction of dams, and changes to the lake system including a constructed causeway, as well as severe climate change-induced droughts. Also, the excavation of too many deep wells has resulted in the massive exploitation of aquifers. As a result, the salinity of the lake has sharply increased which is disturbing the ecosystems, local agriculture, livelihoods, and regional health, as well as tourism. It is highly important to identify the responsible casual factors to develop strategies against this tremendous decline process.
The social, economical, and psychological effects on humans as a result of the drying of Lake Urmia are perhaps even more complicated. The lake once attracted visitors from near and far, some believing in its therapeutic properties. Now, Urmia has turned into a vast salt bed and white barren land with beached boats serving as a striking image of what the future may hold.
Desiccation has increased the frequency of salt storms that sweep across the exposed lakebed, diminishing the productivity of surrounding agricultural lands and encouraging farmers to move away. Poor air, land, and water quality all have serious health effects including respiratory, various cancers, and eye diseases.
Salt storms are an emerging threat for millions of people in north-western Iran, even all the way up to Tehran, thanks to the catastrophe of Lake Urmia. Once one of the world’s largest salt lakes, Urmia is now barely a tenth of its former size. As the water recedes, extensive salt marshes are left exposed to the wind. These storms are getting saltier and are now happening more often, even in the cold and rainy seasons of the year.
Salt storms pose a direct threat to the respiratory health and eyesight of people living in both rural and urban areas around Lake Urmia. Increasing soil salinity reduces the yield of agricultural and orchard crops grown around the lake. The lake has shrunk so much that boating is no longer possible, resulting in a loss of tourism and many economic activities.
In some ways, this tale is grimly familiar. After decades of relentless development, in which environmental concerns seldom registered, Urmia’s fate can quite closely resemble that of the Aral Sea and of Bolivia’s Lake Popoo, or an array of others once impressive, now much-reduced bodies of water.
The tragic demise of the Aral Sea in Central Asia is a chilling precedent. The Aral Sea faded away due to the diversion of water for agriculture from its tributaries, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The Aral Sea became a hallmark of poor agricultural water management in the Soviet era. Over the course of five decades, its surface area dropped to less than 10% of its original extent in the 1960s.
If Lake Urmia is to be revived, the authorities must look urgently at the construction of dams, irrigation projects designed to boost agri-businesses, and growing regional water demand. It is ironic that the collapse of Lake Urmia and other Iranian water bodies such as Shadegan, GavKhuni, Bakhtegan, Anzali, and Hamouns started in the country when the 1971 Ramsar Convention was signed. As a pioneering intergovernmental treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, Ramsar envisaged action by both national governments and international cooperation, otherwise, environmental disasters are awaiting Iran one after another under the corrupt clerical rule.
*Khalil Khani is an Environmental Specialist and a Human Rights activist. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology, Botany, and Environmental Studies from Germany and has taught at the University of Tehran and the Hesse State University in Germany. He is also a Doctor of Medical Psychology from the United States.