Urmia Lake Revival Efforts Paying Off

Urmia Lake Revival  Efforts Paying Off
Urmia Lake Revival  Efforts Paying Off

Efforts to revive Urmia Lake in northwestern Iran have entered a new phase, suggesting that the imperiled lake is on a slow but sure path to recovery.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Isa Kalantari, director of the Urmia Lake Restoration Program, said measures to stabilize the lake’s water level have been successful, which means “we can begin the restoration phase” to return Urmia Lake’s water level to what it was more than a decade ago.

“The water level is about 1.2 billion cubic meters more than what it was a year ago,” he said. “The ULRP will begin the new phase in the Iranian month of Mehr (Sept. 20–Oct. 21).”

The lake is said to be holding around 2.5 billion cubic meters of water, some of which will evaporate during the summer “but water will accumulate from September onward”.

Reviving Urmia Lake, which at its prime not long ago was twice the size of Luxembourg, is high on the government’s agenda, with President Hassan Rouhani forming the ULRP soon after taking office in 2013. However, a number of problems, particularly matters of finance, have slowed down progress.

“Projects handled by the Energy Ministry have suffered setbacks due to problems posed by contractors,” Kalantari said, without elaborating.

“We, like everyone else, lack the necessary funds to carry out all of our plans but we hope to receive more money this year.”

Officials have said the lake will be restored by 2023.

  Key Projects

To stabilize the lake’s water level, a number of key projects have been implemented in the past three years, the most important of which took place last year.

One of the most prominent measures taken by the ULRP was the merger of Zarrinehroud and Siminehroud rivers, whose flows were directed toward the lake. Shortly after, the reservoir of Boukan Dam was opened, feeding the lake with about 70 cubic meters of water per second.

The government approved a project last November to transfer water from Zab River in Kurdestan Province to the lake, which is meant to help counteract its evaporation in summer. Scheduled for completion in 2019, the river will feed around 600 million cubic meters of water annually to Urmia Lake.

Furthermore, the administration banned all agricultural development projects last year in the immediate vicinity of the lake and is reportedly procuring funds to purchase 40% of the water rights of farmers around the lake in West Azarbaijan Province over five years and has earmarked $60 million for the scheme.

According to Kalantari, the plan will not impact farmers’ crop output, adding that with the implementation of modern, efficient technology “[farmers] will be able to produce the same amount of crop with 40% less water.”

The lake has dried up drastically due to a variety of factors, including the construction of a 15-kilometer causeway to shorten the travel time between Urmia and Tabriz cities as well as construction of several dams that have choked off water supply from the mountains towering on either side of the lake.

  Shift in Color

In satellite images released by NASA last week, Urmia Lake’s water had a red hue, which is a drastic shift from the usual aquamarine or greenish color.

Clearly concerned, many thought it was a sign that the efforts had failed to pay off, but scientists at the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quickly moved to allay fears.

In a statement published last week, they attributed the color to a species of bacteria called Halobacteriaceae, which are specialized bacteria that thrive in extremely salty conditions.

These “salt-loving” bacteria “produce pink-red pigments, and when found in abundance, the pigments from these bacteria can turn super-salty water pink or red. The presence of the red-pigmented bacteria, seen from space, marks an environment that has become extraordinarily saline,” the statement read.