Hope in the Midst of Degradation

Hope in the Midst of DegradationHope in the Midst of Degradation

This year’s theme for the World Wetlands Day (Feb 2) was “Wetlands for Our Future.” The day marks the adoption of the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands in 1971.

Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator in Iran says many people “are unaware of how much wetlands help protect us.”  

They help ensure fresh water, purify and filter harmful waste from water, serve as incubators for fish and through fishing and fisheries help provide livelihoods. Bursting with biodiversity, wetlands can bring tourist revenue when they are managed sustainably, he said in a press release issued by the UN Information Center in Tehran.

During the past two years, he said, he has been privileged to travel to most parts of Iran.  “I have seen the wonders of this rich civilization.  I have met many proud and resilient Iranians.  I have seen the most stunning mountains, forests, deserts, waters and wetlands.  I have seen images of breathtaking beauty.  I have seen images of hope.”

But, sadly, he said he had also seen images of desperation – almost all of which are related to the water challenges. He had heard stories from Iranians whose livelihoods are under threat from the pressure being imposed on the wetlands as a result of water resource management, pollution and – to a degree – the impact of climate change.

He related the story of Hassan, a resident of the Hamouns situated in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, who said as a result of the environmental catastrophe “some of us are migrating to other parts of the country.” About 10 years ago things were very different. “Boats were bobbing in the water and fishermen were making their daily catches.  As far as the eye could see, there was water and greenery. The Hamouns were alive.”

Sadly, today the Hamouns face a different situation. “Gone are glittering waters that were once home to migrating birds and an abundance of fish,” was Hassan’s lament.

“When we listen to people like Hassan, we are forced to accept our collective responsibility for protecting these essential and often under-recognized environmental treasures,” Lewis said.

The UN official said one of the first places he travelled to after he arrived in Iran was Qeshm – a beautiful Persian Gulf island in the Straits of Hormuz.  Qeshm is a popular tourist destination.  It boasts of wetlands, warm sea breezes and the geological wonderland of the Chahkouh Valley.  But, it too, has problems related to water. In April 2014, he visited the Shadegan wetland in Khuzestan province, now a wetland-under-threat.

The degradation of Iran’s wetlands has created immense damage – to both biodiversity and to people’s lives. For when agriculture and fishing are threatened, livelihoods are threatened.  When people cannot sustain themselves economically, they move – if they can.  And they move to places where other people already live.  The consequences can be harsh.  Those who are displaced are vulnerable.  Tension arises among the communities into which these newly displaced people move.  There is more pressure on the environment.  A vicious cycle ensues.

What is most concerning “are the humanitarian and human security challenges which may also be heading our way; maybe decades from now. But maybe also just years from now.”

 Success Stories

However, amid the anxiety, there are real stories of success and encouragement.  For example, in October 2013, when visiting Lake Urumia for the first time, he said he was devastated “by my first vision of the lake.”  What used to be a thriving salt-water lake – the largest of its kind in the Middle East – had been replaced by dry, empty salt-beds.  The winds were blowing the salt on to the agricultural lands at the rim of the lake, irreparably damaging this agricultural land.  It was another sad story.  Yet, for Lake Urumia, hope has also emerged.

During the past year, the governments of Iran and Japan together with the United Nations have joined forces to tackle this environmental challenge. By improving the way water is being managed in some of the agricultural fields in the Urumia basin, the plan is to release more of this “saved” water back into the lake.  The objective is – over time – to reallocate more water back into the lake in order to restore it to ecological sustainability.

The damage to these wetlands did not happen overnight.  It was many years in the making.  It occurred for many different reasons.  It will take us a long time to rebuild.  

“Already we can see change happening through the words and actions of President Hassan Rouhani and Vice-President Masumeh Ebtekhar.  They – and other leaders – have spoken out about the threats to (and from) the environment.  They correctly speak of these challenges as matters of national priority.”

Lewis concluded that training and education are the key concepts to recovering the wetlands.  It is important to educate the youth to conserve and preserve the environment and in this the United Nations “is here to partner Iran in finding solutions. And to work with Iranians to help implement them.”