The looming death of Lake Uromiyeh – and what it means for Iran

Bleak and austere: a boat lies rusting and stranded in its waterless mooring on the salty flats of Lake Uromiyeh. Shallow water and high salinity may accelerate the death of the lake even sooner than expected.

REPRINTIn commemoration of World Wetlands Week we are re-posting an Op-Ed written by the UN Resident Coordinator in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mr. Gary Lewis after his visit to the Lake Urmia last year.

The slow death of Lake Uromiyeh signals a warning for the future.  Recently, at a meeting in New York, President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged Iran’s water problems by specifically mentioning this lake in northwestern Iran which was once also the world’s largest saltwater lake.

The lake is drying up at an alarming rate.  The essential problem is that a range of users regularly extract water from the basin that feeds the lake.  That outflow has vastly exceeded the inflow in recent years.  Add to this a recent drought, and, as a result, the water levels keep declining.

The lake has a celebrated status.  It is a national park, a Ramsar wetland site, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve.  But vast tracts of its surface now have no water.  But the problem is spreading.  The salt bed has dried up and salt particles are being blown around to adjacent crop lands.  This will gradually increase soil salinity and contribute to making the agriculture of this basin unsustainable.  The situation in Lake Uromiyeh is not unique in Iran – or even the region.


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Grounded by lack of water: Locals told me that only a decade ago the lake was flourishing. Waves were crashing against the 4-metre-high jetties in some parts. Now these places are completely dry. Boats sit stranded on its grainy sand.(Click on the image to view full size)

There are solutions, and I will come to these, but the key problem is that the declining water levels haven’t been addressed conclusively.  And time is running out.

I visited the lake a few days ago to see the situation for myself.  Locals told me that only a decade ago the lake was flourishing.  Waves were crashing against the 4-metre-high jetties in some parts.  Now these places are completely dry.  Boats sit stranded on its grainy sand.

Residents tell of the stocks of the most beautiful migrating birds – pelicans, flamingoes and others – all using the lake.  Back in the mid-1990s the locals were even worried about flooding from what was then a rising water level.  That is all finished now.  Residents say that cannot believe the speed of the drying out.

It is possible that what is happening to Lake Uromiyeh is one of the most vivid examples – anywhere on the planet – of how rapidly we humans can destroy our environment.  But there are others.

Example: the destruction of the Aral Sea.  Once (in 1960) the world’s fourth largest inland water body the Aral Sea lost 92% of water volume by 2011.

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Salt storms: The salt bed has dried up and salt particles are being blown around to adjacent crop lands. This will gradually increase soil salinity and contribute to making the agriculture of this basin unsustainable. (Click on the image to view full size)

 Example: Turkey’s Lake Burdur which lost 12 meters of its depth during the same period that Lake Uromiyeh lost 6 meters.

For more examples simply take a look at the Ramsar Convention’s “Montreux record” which lists wetlands suffering changes in ecological character.  It is shocking reading.  Wetlands all around the world – including both developed and developing countries – are being threatened by human activities.  Examples include countries such Germany, Spain, the US, Denmark and Austria.

The future for the Uromiyeh basin looks bleak, and if nothing is done for this area and several other wetlands across Iran, the repercussions will be severe.  Sadly this is part of a process happening all across the planet where half the world’s wetlands have disappeared within the past few decades.

However, there is still time to help save Lake Uromiyeh, but if that is to happen the government, the people of Iran and the international community must act now.

Here are the numbers.  The lake’s basin has an average water capacity of about 6.8 billion cubic meters per annum.  Around 3.1 billion cubic meters of this amount is required to maintain the lake’s ecosystem.  The remainder can be quite sustainably used for agricultural and industrial development as well as drinking water.


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Revitalization of satellite wetlands in Solduz: There are several shining examples of what can be replicated. They occur in a number of satellite wetlands surrounding Lake Uromiyeh which are being brought back to life. Places like: Qharagheshlaq; Nowruzlu; Shur Gol; Dorgeh Sangi; Dorna Gol; Solduz; Ghori Gol and Kanibarazan. (Click on the image to view full size)

The rest is siphoned off to serve agriculture and industry in the basin.

The result is that during the past two decades the surface area of the lake has shrunk from 5,000 square kilometers to 2,000 square kilometers.  But this seeming shrinkage to 40 per cent of the original size still masks a greater loss in water volume because the average depth of water when the lake was 5,000 square km was 6 metres.  For the current 2,000 square km the average depth is only 1 metre.

The Uromiyeh basin straddles three boundaries: West and East Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan provinces.  A study by the Government and the United Nations argues that each province can retain a portion of this water for development and let a sustainable remainder flow into the lake.  The problem is one of political economy.  Provincial politicians are accountable to their own constituencies and have job creation and economic growth at the top of their agendas.


Water resource allocation plan which could save Lake Uromiyeh
Basin province Water needed to sustain wetland (‘000s of cubic metres) Water needed for development and drinking (‘000s of cubic metres)
West Azerbaijan 1871 2036
East Azerbaijan 270 1080
Kordestan 959 585
Total 3100 3701

Source: Iranian Department of Environment and UNDP, 2011.  Note: this allocation plan has been adopted by the Cabinet


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What was once a flourishing lake: Salty dust storms originating from the open bed of the lake threatened residential areas as well as cropland. (Click on the image to view full size)

Like many, I have seen this process at work across the world in past decades.  Profit in the short term – destruction in the long term.  Most recently, I saw it in Indonesia where loggers were felling old growth forests all across the archipelago at a rapid rate.  The result?  Damage to the lungs of the planet and release thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  The concessionaires do it for profit.  The logging labourers do it to put food on the table.

Back to Iran.  In those sectors such as agriculture and energy which affect the lake, local interests often do not align with those of conservation – or sustainability.  These pressures are being felt not only in Lake Uromiyeh, but all across Iran.  The Gavkhooni and the Kerman Hamoun (Jazmourian) wetlands are already dead.  Lake Uromiyeh may be next.  Then the Sistan Hamouns, Lake Parishan – Shadegan wetland – Kaftar, Bakhtegan, Alagol.  Iran has over 1,000 wetlands – many of which are at risk.

The news gets worse.  On top of man-made destruction, climate change will worsen water shortages in Iran.  While climate change models predict higher precipitation in some parts of the world, in Iran, they actually predict lower rainfall.  Climate change will also bring higher temperatures, leading to more water loss by evaporation.

This means there will be less water available.  Less water will reduce agriculture crop yields and result in the shrinkage of arable lands.  If there is no adaptation, this will undoubtedly leave its impact on food security because food production is closely linked to water availability.

If this happens, it will also make Iran’s water and power sectors more vulnerable.  So we will likely see increased social, economic and environmental stress in those regions in Iran where water problems are already high.

In summary, we are at risk of a “perfect storm”: water scarcity – land degradation – and climate change – all feeding into each other.

To combat this, Iran needs to enhance current water and natural resources management approaches while developing climate-change-resilience in various sectors at the national and community level.

It can – and should – start with Lake Uromiyeh.  There is already significant local media and political interest in the lake and what is happening to it.

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Wasteland: Salty dust storms originating from the open bed of the lake threatened residential areas as well as cropland. (Click on the image to view full size)

There is currently a United Nations-supported plan in place.  It is officially approved by government.  And it currently offers the best prospect for halting and reversing the decline in the Uromiyeh basin.  Since 2005, the “Wetlands Project” – jointly implemented by the Government of Iran, the Global Environment Facility and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – has been providing a scientific evidence base to track the unfolding environmental disaster in Uromiyeh.  The project has led to an improvement in Uromiyeh-basin institutional arrangements to implement the management plans which can solve the problem.  Crucially, public awareness of the threat has also increased as a result of this work.

But the main problem remains speed.  All this is taking place far too slowly.  To turn things around, we need to take a long term view – but we also need to act quickly right now.

In the long run, and in order to play its own role in halting climate change, Iran needs to shift away from its current high-carbon-intensive development path to energy efficiency, conservation and the use of cleaner, renewable energy.  We need to re-afforest desertified lands and improve sustainable livelihoods for people who live in the parched zones of Iran.

The real breakthrough – I believe – will only come when discussion on the impact of climate change goes beyond a discourse between the technocrats and policy-makers.  We need to build climate-change-resilience-thinking at the community level.


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Salty dust storms originating from the open bed of the lake threatened residential areas as well as cropland. (Click on the image to view full size)

The public as a whole – but especially the youth – needs to understand what is at stake.  For this, we need much – much – more public discussion and awareness-raising.  For this, we need better education on the environment.

But these are big issues and will take a lot of time.  In fact, there are four key actions we can take which are easier in the short- to medium-term.

And we can start with Lake Uromiyeh.

1. Involve all interest groups in planning resource allocations for the future of Lake Uromiyeh

Around Lake Uromiyeh, diverging business and political interests tend to pull in different directions.  This need to be acknowledged.  These interests need to be drawn into negotiations concerning the lake’s future.  The UNDP project helped to provide a platform for this.  So, yes, there is a framework.  And political leadership can make more use of this platform.  Communities that benefit from the government’s development policies must have a say in the use of the water.

There are several shining examples of what can be done – and replicated.  They occur in a number of satellite wetlands surrounding Lake Uromiyeh which are being brought back to life.  I was there and saw some of them working well.  Places like: Qharagheshlaq; Nowruzlu; Shur Gol; Dorgeh Sangi; Dorna Gol; Solduz; Ghori Gol and Kanibarazan.

These examples of community-government cooperation need to be expanded.  Such inclusive resource planning between the community and the Department of Environment would transform the general tendency (found all over the planet) of top-down development planning and implementation, more towards a consensus-based decision-making and water management model.

While there exists a general agreement on this in principle, a coordinated approach to implement it is currently lacking.  Lack of coordination will breed distrust.  And then it is every man for himself – till the water runs out.

2. Stop treating water as an open resource and price it at what it is worth

At the root of the misuse of water is a perception of local communities that water is an “open resource” – a phenomenon referred to by economists as the tragedy of commons.  It is inconceivable that water from ground sources should be free in Iran.  There simply is not enough to go around.  And soon there will be less of it.

At present, surface water resources are made available to farmers for far less than its real cost of provision.

A first step in reversing the perception of water as an “open resource,” would be to start charging an economic rate for its use as part of an effective and integrated approach to land and water resources management.  This would assist in instigating its wise use and management.

With the right water prices, marginal agriculture activities could prove unprofitable, leading to efficiency and healthy competition.  But it will take more than pricing.  It will require reviewing, formulating and enforcing the right mix of policies and legislation across several sectors to ensure good integration and alignment of interests across the Uromiyeh basin.  It will also require an appropriate investment plan for capacity development and structural change.


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Stop treating water as an open resource: Illegal pumping of surface water from the feeder rivers and canals accounts for a significant portion of water “lost”. (Click on the image to view full size)

 3.  Stop the illegal harvesting of water

A game changer in restoring balance to the water sector is to halt the illegal harvesting of aquifers.  Illegal harvesting also applies to pumping water from surface water bodies – which, itself, accounts for a significant portion of “water lost”.  And this will also require enforcement.

4. Question the idea of an inter-basin transfer of water

Environmentalists speak of five reasons why this idea will not work.  First, it will be expensive both to construct and maintain.  Second, it will take too long.  Third, it will create a problem somewhere else – for example, in the three other basins from where the water transfers would come. Fourth, it will also create an ecological problem for Lake Uromiyeh where the brackish (e.g., the Caspian) water is of a totally different type.  We do not need a new pond, we need a restored Uromiyeh ecosystem.  Finally, if it is proving extremely difficult to control illegal exploitation in Lake Uromiyeh basin, why do we think we will be able to control the new water better?


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Communicating to save Lake Uromiyeh: the United Nations can also play an active role in exchanging lessons learnt and the use of best practices. These efforts can complement those at the local level to save Lake Uromiyeh. Gary Lewis (centre) speaking to local media on the shore of Solduz satellite wetland. (Click on the image to view full size)

What can the UN do?

The wetlands project – which has done much to lay the evidence base and institutional strengthening to counter the evolving tragedy of Lake Uromiyeh – is still going strong.  But it will end soon.  Now into its eighth year, most of its funds currently come from the Government of the Islamic Republic itself, something which speaks volumes at a time of budgetary constraints in Iran.

This project and other climate change resilience initiatives can be supported by the international community as a mark of willingness to engage with Iran in an area of common interest at a time of immense diplomatic opportunity given recent developments at the UN General Assembly in New York and elsewhere.

Finally, the UN can also play an active role in exchanging lessons learnt and the use of best practices.  These efforts can complement those at the local level to support a “Save Uromiyeh” campaign.


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Yielding its final treasure: Even as it dies, the lake is yielding its last resource – salt – for industrial and human consumption. (Click on the image to view full size)


Most of the solutions we seek lie within Iran.
Breakthroughs will come when discussions on the effects of climate change go beyond a discourse between technocrats and policy-makers.  The key is to work with local communities.  It is imperative to raise awareness, get local communities involved in the management of the resources and have more public discussions.

Political leadership must prioritize the human security challenge of water shortages – desertification – and climate change.  There are other Lake Uromiyehs in the waiting.

If changes aren’t made, we may witness what has happened in the Aral Sea.  Desertification – the salinization of agricultural soil – plus all the health and development hazards that follow.  That particular man-made catastrophe has also led to the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

We cannot let these things happen to the people of the Uromiyeh basin – or of Iran – or of anywhere in the world, for that matter.

By United Nations In Iran


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