By Khalil Khani*
Lake Urmia, in the mountains of northwest Iran, began shrinking in 1995 due to a combination of prolonged drought, and the extraction of water for farming and dams, according to the UN Environment Program. Lake Urmia is an important ecosystem, a key stopping point for migratory birds, and home to an endemic shrimp as well as other underwater species.
The Urmia Lake Basin is a generally mountainous territory containing two of the famous Iranian volcanic peaks (Sahand, 3707 meters, and Sabalan, 4810 meters), and with several vast productive plains in the valleys and around the Lake. Most parts of the Basin are located at altitudes above 1280 meters and up to 4886 meters above mean sea level. The elevation of the Lake’s water surface is varying between above 1270 and below 1280 meters.
The catchment area of Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran includes a number of wetlands that are important and significant in terms of environmental, social, and economic values. The complex of these wetlands includes the large and extremely salty lake of Urmia and about 30 salty-sweet water surrounding wetlands, seven of which are of special importance. Some of these wetlands are part of the Ramsar Convention and are of international importance, while others are registered as national protected areas.
Unfortunately, in recent years, Lake Urmia has been shrinking at an alarming rate and a considerable part of its area has been lost. A range of users in the basin regularly over-extract water sources of the lake, resulting in a situation wherein the outflow has vastly exceeded the inflow. This has been exacerbated by an ongoing drought.
As a result, Lake Urmia is facing the threat of turning into an irreversible situation since 1995, where the dimension of its impacts would gradually spread from biodiversity to socioeconomics, affecting the health and livelihoods of the surrounding communities.
In the last few months, thousands of people have demonstrated clerical regime policies toward environmental mismanagement, water scarcity, land subsidence, and the drying up of rivers, particularly in central and southwestern Iran.
Also, in recent weeks many citizens of northwestern Iranian provinces have protested the drying up of Lake Urmia and the lack of any tangible actions for bringing life to the Lake. However, the protests have been suppressed. This time was no exception as well, security police arrested several people after they protested the drying up of a lake once regarded as the Middle East’s largest hypersaline lake, official media said.
Lake Urmia is another clerical regime that made an environmental disaster in the hands of IRGC and Supreme Leader’s mega corporations’ dominance, which are free of any accountabilities and taxations.
Lake Urmia is located 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. Formerly covered an area of around 6,000 km2 before 1989 contained about 30,000 million m3 of water. The length of the lake varies from 130 to 146 km, and also the widest part is 58 km, the narrowest part is located in the midst of Zanbil Mountain and Shahi Island, which is 15 km. The basin area of the lake is 52,355 km2. Lake Urmia has 102 small and big islands, the largest island is Qoyondaghy Island with 2.3 km2, and is the only island where freshwater is found.
The main water sources ending in the 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. Once the water reaches the lake, due to the environment’s heat and air temperatures, only evaporates. Water that is supposed to flow into the lake is diverted for privileged people’s uses, such as elite Clerics, IRGC-owned industries and plantages, farms, or entities owned by the religious foundations under Iran’s Supreme Leader’s Supervision, these dynamics have created big changes in the lake.
Academics concluded that the shrinkage of Lake Urmia is an outcome of human interventions rather than just a meteorological anomaly. Persistent drought (climate change) has in some ways contributed to the shrinkage of Lake Urmia, while other much more important causes were human interventions such as the construction of dams on the 13 rivers feeding the lake, or the pumping of groundwater from the areas adjacent the water body. Research has demonstrated that the crisis was not caused primarily by climate change, since the lake has survived many severe droughts in the past. Reduced river discharge is regarded as the main cause of the shrinkage of Lake Urmia.
Lake Urmia used to provide important cultural, economic, aesthetic, recreational, and scientific values. The lake area has decreased by 95% in recent decades. Historically, the lake attracted migratory birds including flamingos, pelicans, ducks, and egrets. Its drying up, or desiccation is undermining all, including 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. Here, 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 of Lake Urmia are perhaps even more complicated. The tourism sector has clearly lost. The lake once attracted visitors from near and far, but some believing in its therapeutic properties are gone. Now, Urmia has turned into a vast salt bed, and white barren land with beached boats serves 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 cancer, 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.
Lake Urmia basin has very unique geology due to several tectonic events during the different geological eras, the geology of the basin is rather complicated. Major parts of folded sedimentary deposits were metamorphosed under volcanic events and magmatic activities. Numerous thermal springs all over the basin demonstrate the extent of these volcanic activities. From a geological point of view the entire basin is categorized into 4 broad tectonic zones;
- A very small area on the far western border of the basin consists of ultrabasic, Gabro, and Diorite-Radiolarite and limestone rocks.
- Urmia-Hamadan zone; this zone is situated west of the basin and contains a collection of metamorphic rocks and Paleozoic platform sediments of generally Permian age.
- Central Iran zone; this zone contains metamorphic rocks and platform Paleozoic This zone continues to the north of Lake Urmia and is limited from north and east by the fault of Tabriz-Sofian-Bostanabad.
- Alborz-Azerbaijan zone; this zone is composed of areas in northeastern Azerbaijan, northeast of the Tabriz fault. Sabalan Volcano (4810 m), the vast extension of volcanic ash rocks, and salt domes in the Aji Chai sub-basin are major geological features in this zone.
In some ways, this tale is grimly familiar. After decades of relentless development, in which environmental concerns were 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 clerical 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, GavKhouni, Bakhtegan, Parishan, Anzali, and Hamouns comes into the country where 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 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.