By: Gary Lewis

Lake Urmia comes back to life slowly, but surely

News ID: 3933428 -
TEHRAN, Mar. 15 (MNA) – 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.

Life has returned to the dying Salt Lake in North- West Iran. The effort to restore what had been broken is succeeding. 

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. And here are some of the pictures of that long and painful death I captured in October 2013.  

I remember standing on a dead, flat, salt bed – which is what the exposed bottom of the lake has become. The water had all gone. But the wind hadn’t. And that gusting wind was whipping up all the exposed salt granules and blowing them into my face, into my lungs and onto the agricultural lands which surround the lake. It was like what I imagined a scene from the planet Mars might resemble.

I recall asking myself what living in this dust-bowl would be like – day-in and day-out – for the residents and farmers in the Lake Urmia Basin. 

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. Here is what I saw this morning.

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. First, some numbers.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.

Gary Lewis is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  

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