Iran’s wetlands: A smile amid grief

TEHRAN, Feb. 02 (MNA) – “Wetlands for Our Future” is the theme for this year’s World Wetlands Day.

“About 10 years ago things were very different,” says Hassan a resident of the Hamouns situated in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan.  “Boats were bobbing in the water,” he continued, “fishermen were making their daily catches. As far as the eye could see, there was water and greenery. The Hamouns were alive.”

Sadly, today the Hamouns face a different situation. Gone are glittering waters that were once home to migrating birds and an abundance of fish. The dry, empty bed of the lake is the graveyard for upturned and unused boats.

“We are struggling to make ends meet,” Hassan added, “and as a result of this environmental catastrophe some of us are migrating to other parts of the country.”

“Wetlands for Our Future” is the theme for this year’s World Wetlands Day. When we listen to people like Hassan, we are forced to accept our collective responsibility for protecting these essential and often under-recognized environmental treasures.

Many people are unaware of how much wetlands help to protect us. They help ensure fresh water for all of us. They purify and filter harmful waste from water.  They serve as incubators for fish. In this way they help feed us. Through fishing and fisheries they help provide livelihoods. Bursting with biodiversity, wetlands can bring us tourist revenue when they are managed sustainably.

During the past almost two years, I have been privileged to travel to most parts of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  I have seen the wonders of this rich civilization. I have met many proud and resilient Iranians. I have seen the most stunning mountains, forests, deserts, waters and wetlands. I have seen images of breathtaking beauty. I have seen images of hope.

But, sadly, I have also seen images of desperation – almost all of which are related to the water challenges we face. The stories I re-tell here come from Iranians whose livelihoods are under threat from the pressure being imposed on the wetlands as a result of water resource management, pollution and – to a degree – the impact of climate change.

One of the first places I travelled to shortly after I arrived in Iran, was Qeshm – a beautiful Persian Gulf island in the Straits of Hormuz. Qeshm is a popular tourist destination. It boasts of wetlands, warm sea breezes and the geological wonderland of the Chahkouh Valley. But, it too, has problems related to water.

“In the past four, five years we have witnessed biodiversity decline,” said local resident Abdolrahman. “We see water pollution in our wetlands as a result of leaking gasoline tanks. What was once home to a variety of fish is now one of the most polluted wetlands of Iran.”

Last year, in April 2014, I visited the Shadegan wetland in Khuzestan province, now a wetland-under-threat. This is from where Adel and his brothers tells us the Shadegan wetlands was once their home – once their place of livelihood. “Sometimes I feel lost,” Adel says, smiling incongruously amid his grief.

“I miss the good old days when my family and I all lived and worked near the wetland. We were happy because the wetland was ‘alive’. But now my relatives have all migrated to other cities in order to make a living because our wetland is slowly declining”, he says.

The stories of these men – Hassan, Abdolrahman, Adel – are not unique. They recur with alarming frequency across a land whose wetlands were once treasured in the Middle East. The degradation of Iran’s wetlands has created immense damage – to both biodiversity and to people’s lives.

For when agriculture and fishing are threatened, livelihoods are threatened. When people cannot sustain themselves economically, they move – if they can. And they move to places where other people already live. The consequences can be harsh. Those who are displaced are vulnerable. Tension arises among the communities into which these newly displaced people move. There is more pressure on the environment. A vicious cycle ensues.

These stories are grim. And we ignore them at our peril.

So, when I hear these reflections, I worry about ecology. I worry about development. But what concerns me most are the humanitarian and human security challenges which may also be heading our way. Maybe decades from now. But maybe also just years from now.

However, amid the anxiety, there are real stories of success and encouragement.

For example, in October 2013, when visiting Lake Urmia for the very first time, I was devastated by my first vision of the lake. What used to be a thriving salt-water lake – the largest of its kind in the Middle East – had been replaced by dry, empty salt-beds. The winds were blowing the salt on to the agricultural lands at the rim of the lake, irreparably damaging this agricultural land. It was another sad story. Yet, for Lake Urmia, hope has also emerged.

During the past year, the Governments of Iran and Japan together with the United Nations have joined forces to tackle this environmental challenge. By improving the way water is being managed in some of the agricultural fields in the Urmia Basin, the plan is to release more of this “saved” water back into the lake. The objective is – over time – to reallocate more water back into the lake in order to restore it to ecological sustainability.

So, in the middle of 2014, in Gul village, we met a young boy – Esfandiar.

“I wanted to thank you for helping us,” Esfandiar said, “my father was trained with a new method of farming which in the long run will help restore parts of Lake Urmia. Now my father does not need to leave us and go look for a job in other areas. I get to spend more time with him. I am happy.”

Thinking of his own future, Esfandiar added, “I hope to grow-up and become an engineer so that I can come back and help my dad deal better with the water problems of our home.”

The damage to these wetlands did not happen overnight. It was many years in the making. It occurred for many different reasons. It will take us a long time to rebuild.

We all first need to recognize that there is a problem. Only then can we start to fix it.

Already we can see change happening through the words and actions of President Rouhani and Vice President Ebtekhar. They – and other leaders – have spoken out about the threats to (and from) the environment. They correctly speak of these challenges as a matters of national priority. They recognize that the science is in – and that the politics now has to catch up.

How do we do this? Training and education are the key concepts to recovering our wetlands. If we educate and train people (like Esfandiar’s dad) and if we make different lifestyle choices – sometimes tough choices – then we can work together to overcome these challenges.

I believe it is important to educate our youth – like young Esfandiar – to conserve and preserve the environment. Hopefully they will make fewer of the mistakes my own generation has made – all across the planet. Mistakes we cannot afford to keep making.

In all of this, the United Nations is here to partner Iran in finding solutions. And to work with Iranians to help implement them.

Happy World Wetlands Day!

This article was written by Gary Lewis for Mehr News Agency on February 3, 2014. Gary Lewis is UN Resident Coordinator in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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