Lake Urmia – Reverse Engineering to Mitigate Salination of Land-Water Systems

Salination of land-water systems is an existing and accelerating threat especially in the arid and semi-arid MENA regions. The primary sources of such threats are increasing population growth, enhanced competition on water resources, random and uncoordinated management policies of coupled water-energy resources. Also, with the increasing impacts of climate changes on the functioning and metabolism of land-water systems ( such threats are likely to cause major large-scale and long-term disasters. 

A similar disaster of what happened to the Aral Sea, the so-called Aral Sea disaster (; took place in Lake Urmia in Iran where the whole lake, once was the second largest saltwater lake in the world, dried out. The lake simply dried out because of decades of man-made interferences, 60 years of dam building and massive overuse of the feeder rivers. This has diverted the natural flow of the fresh water from the surrounding basin, i.e. the catchment, into the salty lake thus causing major large-scale and long-term disasters in the catchment and regions around Lake Urmia.

The dead salt bed is what the exposed bottom of the lake had become after the water had gone. With the force of the wind the salt granules are blown into the face and the lungs of anyone near the lake, and onto the surrounding farmlands. Living day-in and day-out in such environments the residents and farmers are constantly exposed to poor quality of air. Also, the crops would die from the enhanced levels of salt in the soils. As farmers drilled wells deeper into the aquifers at the side of the lake, i.e. to satisfy their needs of water the groundwater would become more and more depleted, allowing saltwater to seep in. The situation gradually became just like the situation in the similarly dried out Aral Sea in Central Asia: people afflicted with allergies, respiratory defects, lung cancer, failing crops for farmers and severe degradation of land and water qualities. 

Years of systematic efforts to bring water back to Lake Urmia has eventually succeeded and the hard work to fix what had been broken for many decades is succeeding. There is water now in the lake, not nearly enough, but much more than before. It is a resurrection in the Middle East: life and vitality has returned to a dying salt lake, Lake Urmia, in northwest Iran.

The lake and a whole eco-system is coming back. This revival “a reverse engineering process” is the result of an immensely successful collaborative effort involving many players on different levels, some Iranian, some foreign. Such project to improve water management is being implemented by the United Nations, working closely with local farmers, provincial and national governments.

As the situation is on its way to the original normal conditions of healthy environments we have learned three lessons from this amazing success story:

(1) First, Iran faces great environmental and water-related challenges that reflect those faced by many countries in the MENA region. But mitigation can be carried out.

(2) Second, the public, including all stakeholders, must be educated, updated, speak out on existing threats and be aware of any ongoing environmental degradation. Indeed, large critical mass is needed to trigger mitigations. In this case, the UN received a petition containing 1.7 million signatures in 2016, requesting action on Lake Urmia. The pressure has been solid, huge and relentless. Such pressure must continue, be welcomed and acted upon without delay.

(3) Third, environmental problems of such scales cannot be solved if we act alone. Especially with the increasing complexity of the multi-layered threats of climate changes in arid and semi-arid regions. The Lake Urmia response shows that it is a team and collective efforts by public authorities, local communities, and sometimes support from the international community, such as the UN and donor nations, are all needed to do the trick.

Work remains to be done, but what has happened in Lake Urmia is an example to inspire us all, both inside and outside Iran.

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