While the world’s attention was focused on efforts to revive Lake Urmia, a warning which emphasized the importance of considering the possibility of failure of efforts went unheard.
Lake Urmia, once renowned as the turquoise jewel of Iran, now faces its possible permanent death.
Saltwater Lake, located in northwestern Iran, was a vital water basin and an environmental marvel. The Lake’s saline waters have become a unique tourist attraction. At the same time, its geographical features made it a haven for a diverse range of wildlife. Among the exceptional species that called this lake home were migratory flamingos. Despite its salinity, the Lake supported various aquatic life forms, including some extremophile species.
The moisture of the Lake had a profound impact on the region, fostering a humid climate ideal for agriculture and the cultivation of fruit gardens. Farmers, however, extended their reach beyond the river and surface wells, delving deep into the water resources beneath the Lake by drilling deep wells.
My first memory of the Lake is about decades before I went to school. Yet, the breathtaking natural beauty of the Lake remains in my memory, as vivid as if I had witnessed it only yesterday.
During that time, there was no talk of the Lake’s demise, and its expansive islands were not yet linked to the shoreline. It was an incredible notion to contemplate that one day, the Lake might cease to exist. That may be why the words of our tour guide lingered in my mind, cautioning that some were concerned about potential damage to the Lake due to agricultural development.
Fifteen years ago, I returned to the Lake; the ominous bridge across its waters had been completed. The concerns voiced by those who believed that the architecture of this overpass would disrupt the natural flow of water between the Lake’s northern and southern regions became a reality. The salinity of the Lake on two sides of the bridge had changed dramatically. Now, vast islands of the Lake had become part of the shores, while numerous dams obstructed the rivers leading to the Lake on one side. Conversely, a proliferation of deep wells continued to deplete the Lake’s underground water reservoir in the name of agricultural progress.
The escalating salinity of the Lake gave rise to a flourishing population of a kind of shrimp known as Artemia. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the Lake’s ecosystem had withered away, leading to the demise of saltwater algae and even resilient aquatic bacteria. However, the temporary prosperity of Artemia sparked enthusiasm among officials who believed it would be a lasting solution, oblivious to how upsetting the environmental balance could ultimately obliterate even the most extremophiles of species.
Today, no signs of Artemia or news of the once-vibrant migratory bird populations and the surrounding ecosystem exist.
The alarm bells have been ringing about the Lake’s ongoing desiccation for over two decades. Among the factors contributing to this crisis, experts emphasize the rising average temperatures, dwindling rainfall and ill-conceived interventions such as a bypass constructed across the Lake. Most significantly, experts point to the dams erected on the inflowing rivers and the alteration of river courses in the region. Above all, the legal and illegal deep wells, like insatiable vampire fangs, continue to drain the lifeblood of the Lake, pushing it toward the brink of extinction.
Discussions about revitalizing the Lake have been ongoing. While many officials attribute the decline to temperature increases and reduced rainfall, they have sought international organizations’ assistance to devise restoration plans for Lake Urmia.
Numerous proposals and projects have emerged, both domestically and internationally, making the rescue of Lake Urmia one of the most enticing endeavours. At times, it appeared that the situation had spiralled beyond anyone’s control, with some individuals exploiting the crisis for personal gain, promoting projects that had little to do with the Lake’s revival.
Throughout this period, the government and provincial authorities seemed reluctant to undertake even the most straightforward measures, such as regulating the usage of deep wells, implementing intelligent irrigation networks for the surrounding gardens, dismantling upstream dams, and restoring natural water flows into the Lake.
The economic and social justifications for these neglects were more than mere excuses, often rooted in political considerations, and, in the best of scenarios, expressed as concerns for the well-being of the Lake’s neighbouring communities.
However, the Lake continued its inevitable decline, impervious to words and claims, adhering to the laws of nature.
Warnings about the consequences of the Lake’s drying up have echoed for over three decades. With the Lake’s demise, the coastal regions, the entire nation of Iran, and parts of the surrounding area will experience severe climate shifts. Saline storms will encroach upon large swathes of Iran, leading to diseases, crop failures, and alterations in soil chemistry wherever agriculture persists. Following the Lake’s depletion, relentless extraction of underground resources has irreversibly depleted aquifers. The gardens nourished by this water have become the first casualties of drought. Numerous nearby villages are on the brink of becoming uninhabitable, sparking migration and labour market shifts with attendant security and political ramifications.
For instance, a 2017 article published in Geopolitics Quarterly (Ahmadi, Akbarzadeh, 2017) delved into the security threats posed by the Lake’s drying up, citing migration, dust storms, disease outbreaks, the collapse of tourism, the demise of conversion industries, poverty, and unemployment. The article predicted direct implications for Iran’s national security.
Now, we find ourselves in a calamity. In recent months, especially after satellite images and field assessments have revealed that a substantial portion of Lake Urmia has evaporated, discussions abound concerning the factors contributing to this dire situation. Nevertheless, many officials and policymakers point to recent years’ low rainfall and climate change as the primary culprits. It is ironic that while global warming is invoked as the sole reason for the Lake’s arid condition, Iran’s 7th five-year development plan, currently under review in parliament, does not mention the environment, climate change, or global warming even once.
While many have focused on and emphasized various lake restoration projects, one crucial aspect has remained in the shadows.
There’s been little criticism of the core idea of reviving Lake Urmia. If there is criticism, it typically revolves around the disregard for scientific recommendations in the planning and implementation of such efforts and the pervasive politicking surrounding them.
The significance of Lake Urmia surpasses its fate, demanding immediate practical and scientific restoration initiatives and a willingness to bear substantial costs. Even in the face of enduring drought, it is imperative to explore step-by-step restoration strategies.
Yet, the critical oversight that persists, even after more than three decades of witnessing the Lake’s steady decline and numerous warnings regarding its environmental, social, and security ramifications, is the absence of a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario. Astonishingly, there is still no sign of such a plan.
The fundamental question we must grapple with is: How do we prepare for the Lake’s continued desiccation if, for any reason, our restoration efforts fail? How do we confront the consequences of a parched lake, including the impact on gardens, mass migration, salt storms, diseases, and the migration they induce?
In the face of a challenge, a wise individual exerts every effort to resolve it. Yet, recognizing the issue’s complexity, wisdom dictates the development of contingency plans for situations where all attempts to solve the problem falter.
Have we established educational programs for the residents of areas most vulnerable to the Lake’s demise, whose livelihoods are intricately linked to the Lake today? Are we preparing them for alternative employment opportunities in service and industry so that urban migration is only one of their recourse when faced with unemployment?
Have the provincial and city authorities in the most hazardous regions contemplated revisions to architectural regulations for newly constructed homes, ensuring they are designed to withstand the harsh new climate characterized by salt storms?
On a more fundamental level, have we explored the development of air filtration systems in home air conditioning units capable of filtering salt from the air?
Have we encouraged research in various universities focused on agriculture, investigating methods to combat increasing soil salinity in distant lands whose chemical composition may shift due to these winds? Have we laid the groundwork for implementing some of these methods in the past decade?
Our actions should be rooted in a reasonable hope of resolving the problem. Still, simultaneously, we must also be prepared for the most dire of circumstances.
The costs that should have been invested in these critical projects are not comparable with the price we are confronting today. However, the failure to allocate resources and the subsequent neglect has catapulted us into a far more disastrous realm of coping with the consequences of the environmental crisis.
We are living in an age defined by the consequences of climate change. Many scientists harbour skepticism about the assurances of world leaders, with some boldly asserting—either privately or publicly—that we have exceeded the point of no return in reversing climate change. It’s an era where our focus should shift toward mitigating our impact on the biosphere, adapting to the changes we’ve wrought, and cultivating the resilience needed to navigate the uncharted territory of this new age.
The ultimate fate of Lake Urmia remains uncertain. Yet, we fail to extract valuable lessons from its story. In that case, we risk reliving similar scenarios and confronting even more formidable consequences in the future.
This issue serves as a reminder that addressing environmental challenges requires both foresight and decisive action in Iran and globally. It underscores the importance of embracing sustainability, responsible resource management, and comprehensive disaster preparedness to safeguard our planet and its fragile ecosystems.