Why is the largest lake in the Middle East drying up?

Ali Hajizade

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Lake Urmia, which is situated in Iran and is one of the largest lakes in the Middle East, is consistently monitored by a number of environmentalists and activists from various countries.

Unfortunately, the lake has drawn the attention due to its desiccation and disastrous consequences of this process.

The lake is situated in north-west Iran, at the interface of administrative boundaries of two provinces – Western and Eastern Azerbaijan. This territory is also known as Southern Azerbaijan.

The lake is a unique natural phenomenon, which is, unfortunately, on the verge of extinction. It is important that the lake is a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

Complete desiccation of the lake may lead to mass migration from the region. (Photo courtesy: NASA)
Complete desiccation of the lake may lead to mass migration from the region. (Photo courtesy: NASA)

There have been ongoing disputes over the causes of the desiccation the lake’s desiccation. According to some experts, the main cause of the desiccation of the lake is the drought in the region, which began in the late 90s, although, for instance, Lake Van in Turkey, is situated just 126 miles from Lake Urmia and there are no problems there. Others see the cause in intentional blocking of river water flows and groundwater pumping for agricultural purposes.

Whilst the Government of Iran announces various lake-saving projects, declaring astronomical, by Iranian standards, sums, in fact, the lake is still drying up.

The fact that the Iranian Government started to react to this process, can be regarded as a relative progress in the current reality of Iran. The point is that for extended periods of time the authorities were explaining their inaction by the lack of finances. It’s weird that the country that spends enormous funds on expansion in the region, couldn’t find money to prevent a major ecological disaster on its own land.

Last year, a report on Lake Urmia said that water levels had declined by 3 cm and its area has shrunk by 36 sq.km. over a period of two weeks.

The desiccation of the lake has affected routes and population of birds, which used to nest in the islands, situated in the lake and around it.

In 2007, US National Center for Biotechnology Information published research regarding the lake’s unique ecological environment and species. It shows how rich and unique the environment in lake Urmia was, at least in 2007.

Complete desiccation of lake Urmia will be a tremendous catastrophe for Iran and first and foremost for the population of the north-west of the country. Local people are already concerned about “salt storms”, which pose a serious threat to their health and to the agriculture in the region. If the lake dries up, such major cities as Urmia and Tabriz will also be affected.

According to the statement of one Iranian official, complete desiccation of the lake may lead to mass migration from the region.

We should take into account that the region, the lake is situated in, is mainly populated by Azerbaijanis. Protest and separatist pressures among local Azerbaijani population have gradually grown in the region over the past 5-8 years. Protests and requests, originally aimed at getting the right to receive education in their native language and environmental requirements related to the desiccation of lake Urmia, escalated into radical requirements up to secession of South Azerbaijan from Iran, as a result of firm reaction and repressions by the Government.

Indifference and empty promises of Tehran regarding the environmental disaster have given rise to conspiracy theories, according to which, Iranian Authorities want the lake to dry up, because that will lead to mass migration from the region and accordingly the issue of “Azerbaijani separatism” will be resolved.

In a conversation with me, local activists told that the Authorities were encouraging large-scale agricultural activity near the lake, using its water for the expanding needs of agriculture. They also told that the majority of large-scale farmers in the region are people close to the Iranian regime and the Government was encouraging them, providing loans and turning a blind eye to indiscriminate building of dams and use of water, which fed the lake before.

That is why local activists see political motives in the actions of the Iranian deep state.

The offer of certain Iranian politicians to relocate Azerbaijanis living near the lake to other places only nourishes the theory of activists about political reasons for the inaction by authorities.

In 2011, the regime responded with mass arrests and repressions to the protests of Azerbaijani population, aimed at attracting attention to the issue of the lake’s desiccation.

Activists often remind many about the destiny of another dried-up lake – Hamun. As a result of its desiccation, people of 124 neighboring villages had to leave their homes.

In case of lake Urmia, we talk about millions of displaced people. Even if there are certain similarities between situations with lake Urmia and lake Hamun, I really do think – these are two different matters.

In addition, the discharge of non-treated wastewater, especially from the nearby industrial zone, poses a serious threat to the lake and ecology of the region. This kind of action can further aggravate the situation and cause irreversible disastrous consequences.

In 2016 the problem of the desiccation of lake Urmia became worldwide known thanks to the actor Leonardo Di Caprio’s instagram post.

Leonardo Di Caprio shared Solmaz Daryani’s photo. Daryani focuses on the water crisis in Iran. She periodically posts photos of Lake Urmia.

Activists and environmentalists rejoiced at this occasion. They thought that if the problem drew world attention, the authorities would take measures. However, today we can conclude that no serious measures have been taken. The issue was not resolved, despite promises of the President of Iran Hassan Rouhani and big words and speeches of officials.

Ali Hajizade is a political analyst and founder editor in chief of thegreatmiddleeast.com. He tweets @AHajizade

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