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“We can fix what we have broken” – Iran’s Lake Urmia shows new signs of life

PortandTerminal.com, November 12, 2019

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

TEHRAN, IRAN – Lake Urmia, in Iran’s northwestern corner, was once the largest lake in Iran and the second-largest salt lake in the Middle East. In its prime, it covered about 2000 square miles (5200 square kilometers)—a bit larger than the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Years of man-made disruption – from the frenzy of 60 years of dam-building to the massive over-use of the lake’s feeder rivers – diverted the natural flow of sweet water from the surrounding basin into the salty lake.  Without freshwater coming into it, the lake simply dried up. 

What was left after the lake dried up

When the water dried up what remained were piers that lead nowhere, the rusting carcasses of ships half-buried in the silt, and white, barren landscapes of exposed salt flats.

Winds that whip across the lake bed blew salt dust to farm fields, slowly rendering the soil infertile. Noxious, salt-tinged dust storms inflame the eyes, skin, and lungs of people as far away as Tabriz, a city of more than 1.5 million about 60 miles (100 km) away. 

Lake Urmi once had a flourishing tourism industry, where visitors bathed in salty water similar to those of the Dead Sea in Israel. Once its tourist hub, the Port of Sharafkhaneh is situated on Lake Urmia and used to welcome thousands of visitors each year.

Once its tourist hub, the Port of Sharafkhaneh is situated on Lake Urmia and used to welcome thousands of visitors each year

Today, Sharafkhaneh is a husk of its former self. Young people move away as soon as they can due to a lack of opportunities in the area leaving an increasingly elderly population to fend for themselves. At the 2016 census, its population was 4,244, in 1,446 families.

 My childhood in Sharafkhaneh seems like a long time ago. The motel abandoned, and the almond trees have withered. The port today is a sparsely populated village where most people are old, and it no longer resembles the place where I left my childhood memories.

Solmaz Daryani, Photojournalist, “The eyes of Earth (Urmia Lake)

Signs of hope

Water. Not deep. But enough to cover the salt dust granules which had caused such havoc before. 

A combination of Iranian government and United Nations investments into saving the lake and a lucky spell of exceptionally rainy weather have helped to revive the lake.

Make no mistake though, while there is water again in the Lake Urmia, it is nowhere near the levels it was 20 years ago.

The images above show the lake on February 5, 2019, and April 12, 2019, before and after the heavy rains and flooding in the region

When lake Urmia was full 20 years ago, it was estimated to contain around 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water.  At the worst point, 4 to 5 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, but there’s still a very long way to go.

We face powerful environmental challenges in Iran.  But we can fix what we have broken.  And this is happening – right now – in Lake Urmia. 

Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Islamic Republic of Iran


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