Saving or Squandering?
Saving Lake Urumia is a priority for the government and President Hassan Rouhani has clearly said so. However, a controversy has surfaced now among experts and the authorities who are split on the issue, and whether or not to take measures to help save the lake.
While some experts believe water transfer from rivers to the lake are worth a try, as it can revive the lake and keep it functional for another ten years, another group argues: “as the lake is far from being revived, national resources must not be wasted on such projects.”
Prof. Rahmat Abdi-Baghi, managing director of Plantbacter International GmbH of Germany, in an article in the Persian economic daily Forsat Emrooz, gave his views on why it might be time to say “goodbye” to Lake Urumia.
Lake Urumia, the largest inland lake in Iran (and the third salt-water lake on earth), located in the far northwest of Iran, is in danger of nearly completely drying up. As a result, the population in the region will face the threat of harmful salt storms, said Abdi-Baghi.
In addition, the increasing salinity threatens the biosphere reserve of the Caspian Sea area. (The lake was declared a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention in 1971 and designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1976).
The lake has a length of 140km and width of 55km with an area of 5,470 sq km. Its average depth is 7m. At its deepest point, it is 16m and stands 1,280-3,600m above sea level. The salinity of the lake is up to 30 percent, approximately corresponding to the salinity of the Dead Sea, and therefore the absence of flora and fauna in its habitat.
However, the high salinity of the lake provides a huge natural habitat for a very old species of brine shrimp called ‘Artemia Salina’. Having no outlets, Lake Urumia resembles Lake Van in Turkey.
The concentration of salt in the lake that was normally 180 grams per liter, has now reportedly reached 350 grams, “which is a disaster to residents in the region,” according to Abdi-Baghi.
Fourteen rivers feed Lake Urumia, which are theoretically capable of expanding its water volume by 5.3 sq km annually. However, the rivers do not manage to expand the lake due to various reasons such as construction of dams and wells, among others.
“Construction of dams and digging of more than 50,000 illegal wells around the lake are leading to its desiccation,” said Abdi-Baghi.
In addition, water that seeps into the pores of the soil causes sedimentation and subsequently soil erosion. This prevents rainwater from being absorbed, as the soil has lost its capacity to absorb water.
Another factor is that the two important rivers feeding the lake, Siminehrood and Zarrinehrood, are now drying up. As a result, the lake’s water level has been steadily decreasing since 2005.
The ‘National Working Committee to Save Lake Urumia’ has come up with some recommendations to help revive the lake, but Abdi-Baghi argues “they are not feasible.”
The recommendations include transferring river waters to the lake; reduction of agriculture and horticulture water use by 40% and transferring the surplus amount to the lake; and implementing drip irrigation in agricultural land in the lake’s vicinity.
Arguing that it might be necessary to examine the advantages and disadvantages of the committee proposals before taking any measures, Abdi-Baghi said, “taking blind action could even worsen the situation,” beside incurring huge costs.
He said none of the committee’s recommendations is practical or feasible.
First, he argues that water transfer can give rise to environmental disasters, as transfer of river and rainwater to the lake prevents the crystallization of salt.
Besides, whether the targeted rivers have enough water to transfer to the lake is not certain.
Reducing agriculture and horticulture water use is not currently an option, said Abdi-Baghi. Due to the high number of dams and wells, agricultural areas around the lake have increased to between 350-750,000 hectares.
Abdi-Baghi suggests that rather than making controversial decisions, it is better for authorities to think of solutions that bring economical and ecological benefits to both the people and the environment.
Reviving the lake makes no sense, “neither economically nor ecologically.” Instead, he suggested that the lake’s area could be converted into gardens for fruit trees and other plants, using new technologies.