Life has returned to the dying Salt Lake in North-West Iran. The effort to restore what had been broken is succeeding.
Returning to the barren landscape after almost four years, I was able to see water.
Not nearly enough, but much more than last time. The lake is reviving. And this revival is the result of an immensely successful collaborative effort involving many players – some Iranian, some foreign.
Lake Urmia was once Iran’s largest lake. In its prime, it was the second largest saltwater lake in the world. But years of man-made disruption – from the frenzy of 60 years of dam-building to the massive over-use of feeder rivers – had diverted the natural flow of sweet water from the surrounding basin into the salty lake. As a result, it simply dried out.
It died at the hands of humans.
I also remember thinking that if the lake dried up two main things would happen. One is that salt from the dried lake bed would blow around and get dumped on farming land and crops in what essentially becomes a salt dustbowl in a fairly large radius around the lake.
Secondly, we could expect people to get sick. For example, in the vicinity of the dried-out Aral Sea in Central Asia, we already see people afflicted with allergies and respiratory diseases including cancers.
But there would be a third self-destructive phenomenon at play as well. As farmers drilled ever-deeper to pump out the aquifers at the side of the lake for farming, over-exploitation of this groundwater surrounding the lake would cause saltwater seepage into those very same wells.
This would hit people’s access to potable drinking water. So we were threatened by a “perfect salt storm” affecting people’s health and livelihoods.
When our plane landed in Urmia two weeks ago, having taken the normal one hour to fly from Tehran, I wondered what I would see. I had heard tell of an improvement.
But such stories often vanish in the face of requests to provide evidence. I wanted to see for myself.
It was when we started to approach the vast open expanse of lake bed that I saw the morning sun glimmering off something which had not been there when last I travelled to the lake.
Water. Not deep. But enough to cover the salt dust granules which had caused such havoc before. As we drove across the bridge which bisects the lake, the glimmering started to stretch out towards the rising sun.
And here are some of the pictures of that long and painful death I captured in October 2013.
I must confess I was so happy that tears were welling up in my eyes. The environmental problems we create can be fixed, I thought. And here is how it happened.
When lake Urmia was full, say 20 years ago, it was estimated to contain around 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water. At the worst point, 3 to 4 years ago, it accounted for a mere 0.5 bcm of salt water. The number now stands at 2.5 bcm. The deadly decline has been reversed. The amount of water now keeps increasing month on month.
Because the amount of annual precipitation in terms of rain and snow in the basin has not changed appreciably in the last few years, we must look elsewhere for an explanation of why the lake is now filling up.
There are three main reasons. The first is engineering works to help unblock and un-silt the feeder rivers. Second is the deliberate release of water from the dams in the surrounding hills. Third, and most difficult of all to accomplish, has been a change in the way water management in the basin happens – especially among farmers. Other approaches like banning illegal wells have also had an impact.
Here are some more numbers. Three to four years ago, when the water level was at its worst, only 500 of Lake Urmia’s 5,000 square kilometer surface was covered by any water at all.
That figure has now risen to 2,300 square kilometers. Admittedly, much of that water is spread extremely thin, and some tends to evaporate easily. But it is there, offering a protective covering for the estimated 6 billion tons of salt and dust, which now no longer finds its way so easily into the air, into our eyes and lungs, and onto the farmers’ crops.
This third approach – better water management – took considerable time and effort to achieve. But it appears here to stay. While practicing new roles and partnership of local authorities and communities within LU restoration process.
It took painstaking effort to get farmers to reconsider how they grow their crops by modifying their agricultural techniques when growing wheat, barley, rapeseed and fruit and vegetables.
The new techniques are astonishingly simple: changing farm dimensions to make for smaller plots which retain water better; not using flooding as a form of irrigation, but rather trickle-irrigation which is targeted at the crops and thus not wasted; avoiding deep tillage which causes unnecessary water loss; introducing drought-resistant crop strains; ploughing plant residue back into the soil rather than burning it.
Across the board, in some cases the crop yield – despite using less water – has also increased by 40 per cent.
Here is a final reassuring set of numbers. Considering the normal hydrological conditions, the lake has an average of 5.4 meters and Max. depth in northern part around 15 meters. When the lake was at its worst point, the lake’s average level had dropped to almost zero.
When we compare the level of the lake taken now with what prevailed at exactly this time last year, we note a 6 centimeter rise. The monthly increases have been incremental, but sustained.
The project which has brought about the improved water management is being implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Based in West and East Azerbaijan provinces with a focus on Lake Urmia surrounding cities and villages, it works closely with local farmers, provincial and national governments and others to initiate an adaptation process by implementing the “ecosystem approach”.
Following a 7 year project to introduce ecosystem approach for saving Lake Urmia , with the generous financial support from the Japanese government in recent years, as well as an inflow from the Iranian government’s own resources at both the national and provincial levels, these techniques have been successfully implemented in 90 villages.
But this number represents only about 10% of the irrigated farming area in the Urmia Basin. Nonetheless, in the areas where the sustainable agriculture is being practiced, there is a water saving of about one-third of the water that would otherwise have been wasted under the old inefficient practices. This saved water can flow back into the lake, thereby replenishing it.
UNDP’s interventions to save Iranian wetlands including Lake Urmia – starting 12 years ago, but intensifying significantly with the addition of 3 phases of Japanese funds – have focused on working with local farmers, cooperatives and government to support a new model of partnership among stakeholders and initiate an adaptation process by implementing sustainable agriculture techniques.
It has also advocated alternative livelihoods for women using micro-credit and biodiversity conservation.
At present the project’s interventions cover sites all around the lake, and most affected, part of the lake basin. To boost coverage from 10%, the plan is to move towards significant upscaling of this important initiative in an emblematic effort which is being recognized at an international level.
As I got on the plane to return home to Tehran in the evening, three takeaway lessons occurred to me.
First, we face powerful environmental challenges in Iran. But we can fix what we have broken. And this is happening – right now – in Lake Urmia.
Second, the public must educate itself and speak out on the environment. The UN received a petition in 2016, containing 1.7 million signatures, requesting action on Lake Urmia. The pressure has been relentless. Such pressure must be welcomed and acted upon.
Third, in the final analysis, these environmental problems cannot be solved if we act alone. The Lake Urmia response shows that it takes leadership by public authorities, acting in collaboration with the affected communities, and sometimes with support from the international community (technical support from UNDP and financial support from a partner like Japan) to do the trick.
What has happened in Lake Urmia is an example to inspire us all – both within and beyond Iran.
Lake Urmia had approximately 102 islands.Shahi Island was historically the lake's largest. However, it became a peninsula connected to the eastern shore when the lake level dropped below a certain level.
Shahi Island is the burial place of both Hulagu Khan (one of Genghis Khan's grandsons) and of Hulagu's son Abaqa. Both khans were buried in a castle above 1,000-foot (300 m) cliffs along the shore of the island.
In 1967, the Iranian Department of Environment sent a team of scientists to study the ecology of Shahi Island.
The lake is between the provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan in Iran, and west of the southern portion of the Caspian Sea. At its greatest extent, it was the largest lake in the Middle East and the sixth-largest saltwater lake on Earth, with a surface area of approximately 5,200 km2 (2,000 sq mi), a length of 140 km (87 mi), a width of 55 km (34 mi), and a maximum depth of 16 m (52 ft).
The lake has shrunk to 10% of its former size due to damming of the rivers that flow into it, and the pumping of groundwater from the surrounding area.
Lake Urmia, along with its once approximately 102 islands, is protected as a national park by the Iranian Department of Environment.
The lake is a major barrier between Urmia and Tabriz, two of the most important cities in the provinces of West Azerbaijan and East Azerbaijan. A project to build a highway across the lake was initiated in the 1970s but was abandoned after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, leaving a 15 km (9.3 mi) causeway with an unbridged gap.
The project was revived in the early 2000s, and was completed in November 2008 with the opening of the 1.5 km (0.93 mi) Urmia Lake Bridge across the remaining gap.The highly saline environment is already heavily rusting the steel on the bridge despite anti-corrosion treatment.
Experts have warned that the construction of the causeway and bridge, together with a series of ecological factors, will eventually lead to the drying up of the lake, turning it into a salt marsh, which will adversely affect the climate of the region.
Lake Urmia has been shrinking for a long time, with an annual evaporation rate of 0.6 to 1 m (24 to 39 in). Although measures are now being taken to reverse the trend the lake has shrunk by 60% and could disappear entirely.Only 5% of the lake's water remains.
The prospect that Lake Urmia might dry up entirely has drawn protests in Iran and abroad, directed at both the regional and national governments. Protests flared in late August 2011 after the Iranian parliament voted not to provide funds to channel water from the Araz River to raise the lake level. Apparently, parliament proposed instead to relocate people living around Urmia Lake.
More than 30 activists were detained on 24 August 2011 during an iftar meal.In the absence of a right to protest publicly in Iran, protesters have incorporated their messages into chants at football matches.On 25 August, several soccer fans were detained before and after the Tabriz derby match between Tractor Sazi F.C. and Shahrdari Tabriz F.C. for shouting slogans in favor of protecting the lake, including Urmia Lake is dying, the Majlis orders its execution.
Further demonstrations took place in the streets of Tabriz and Urmia on 27 August and 3 September 2011.Amateur video from these events showed riot police on motorcycles attacking apparently peaceful protesters.
According to the governor of West Azerbaijan, at least 60 supporters of the lake were arrested in Urmia, and dozens in Tabriz, because they had not applied for a permit to organize a demonstration.
On May 5, 2016, Leonardo Di Caprio posted a photo of "a dilapidated ship dock remains on dried up Urmia Lake" on his Instagram page stating: "It used to be the biggest salt lake in the Middle East, but it now contains five percent of the amount of water it did two decades ago due to climate change, dam construction and decrease in precipitiation.
On 2 August 2012, Muhammad-Javad Muhammadizadeh, the head of Iran's Environment Protection Organization, announced that Armenia had agreed on transfer water from Armenia to counter the critical fall in Lake Urmia's water level, remarking that "hot weather and a lack of precipitation have brought the lake to its lowest water levels ever recorded".
He added that recovery plans for the lake included the transfer of water from Eastern Azerbaijan Province. Previously, Iranian authorities had announced a plan to transfer water from the Aras River, which borders Iran and Azerbaijan, but the 950-billion-toman plan was abandoned due to Azerbaijan's objections.
In July 2014, Iran President Hassan Rouhani approved plans for a 14 trillion rial program (over $500 million) in the first year of a recovery plan. The money is supposed to be used for water management, reducing farmers' water use, and environmental restoration.
Several months earlier, in March 2014, Iran's Department of Environment and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) issued a plan to save the lake and the nearby wetland, which called for spending $225 million in the first year and $1.3 billion overall for restoration.
The Silveh Dam in Piranshahr County should be complete in 2015. Through a tunnel and canals it will transfer up to 121,700,000 m3 (98,700 acre·ft) of water annually from the Lavin River in the Little Zab basin to Lake Urmia basin.
In 2015, president Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet approved $660 million for improving irrigation systems, and steps to combat desertification.