NPR | James Doubek: Iran’s Lake Urmia was once the second-largest saltwater lake in the world, covering more than 2,000 square miles at its deepest in the 1990s.
In the past two decades, the lake has dried out, shrinking at times to less than 20% of its average size. It’s not a story of climate change, though that certainly contributed. It’s a case of water mismanagement.
Scientists call it a “contemporary environmental catastrophe” and a “tragic wake-up call” to rethink how the resource is managed in water-scarce countries.
Researchers blame water overuse and inefficiency in agriculture, new dams and irrigation projects, a bridge cutting across the lake, declining rainfall and rising temperatures for much of the drying out.
“For me this is a really important topic: the environmental problems in the world,” says photographer Maximilian Mann, who traveled to Iran three times to document the bare land once obscured under saltwater.
“I was really surprised about the size of the lake and how fast the lake is dying,” he says. “It was really a shock for me to see it. When I was there the first time, I can remember: I went to a hill and I saw only desert.”
Mann’s collection of photos from around Lake Urmia shows not only the desiccation of the lake, but the lives and livelihoods of the people who depend on it.
An estimated 5 million people live in Lake Urmia’s basin, which is situated in far northwestern Iran, near the borders with Turkey and Iraq. The people Mann met in the region primarily spoke Azeri Turkish rather than Persian, Iran’s official language.
Mann, who lives in Germany, traveled to Iran first in September 2018, then in November and again in January this year. His photos are collected from all three trips.
“I think trust is really important,” he says. He built up trust with people in the photos over time, sometimes meeting the same people multiple times.
“I made really nice friends there,” Mann says. He has no immediate plans to return to Iran, but says he would like to see the people he met again someday.
In his experience, Mann says, it was easier to find men who were willing to be photographed because many of the women in rural areas near Lake Urmia “are more conservative than in cities and don’t like being photographed by men.”
Lake researchers and advocates say there have been encouraging signs in the past few years. After a visit in February 2017, representatives from the United Nations said three factors were contributing to Lake Urmia’s resurgence: engineering to unblock and desilt feeder rivers, the release of water from dams in surrounding hills, and efforts to encourage farmers to use new, water-saving methods.
This past spring, massive flooding in Iran helped the lake regain water level as well. Mann’s photos were taken before that flooding.
“The floods certainly helped and increased the water levels,” says Amir AghaKouchak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine who has studied the lake. “However, one or a series of floods won’t have a long-term impact. The main issue in the basin is that the water demand is much higher than the renewable water in the basin. … If the water demand in the basin is not managed, after a while the lake will continue to dry out.”
Maximilian Mann is a documentary photographer based in Dortmund, Germany.