Long tucked away behind the mountains of northwest Iran, Lake Urmia is becoming a national symbol of environmental degradation that is eliciting public sensitivity and awareness. Launched at the end of August, the ‘I am Lake Urmia’ campaign is a grassroots effort to collect a million signatures to push the United Nations to discuss ways to revive this salt lake, which has lost 90% of its surface area since the 1970s.
The “I am Lake Urmia” hashtag (من_دریاچه_ارومیه_هستم#) is slowly trending across social media platforms. Actor Reza Kianian was one of the first to take up the call, using Instagram to ask fellow Iranians to take responsibility for the lake. In his post Kianian stressed, “If we save our lake, we will save ourselves”, reminding Iranians of their social responsibility for creating a more sustainable future. Kianian’s plea has echoed across popular apps like Instagram and on the newly formed “I am Lake Urmia” Telegram channel.
This is not the first effort to bring national and international attention to Lake Urmia. Iranian politicians including President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian parliamentary deputies, and even Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio have made Lake Urmia part of their public advocacy. DiCaprio’s Instagram post on the lake in May resulted in 328,000 likes and made him an overnight superhero among Iranians, illustrating the way social media can help collaboration on topics that defy borders.
Travel to the basin of Lake Urmia and you will find an area facing a high risk of salt storms. The shrinking of the lake has diminished a fragile ecosystem, with the gradual disappearance of native wildlife including the brine shrimp Artemia and migratory birds like flamingos and pelicans.
Such degradation threatens dire economic consequences. A once flourishing tourism industry, where visitors bathed in salty water rather like the Dead Sea, is curtailed. Many people living near the lake fear they may be forced to leave due to eye problems, respiratory diseases and other health problems caused by dust and salt particles blowing in the air.
Twenty years ago, some local farmers referred to the lake as a tumour, viewing the seeping of its uniquely saline water as a threat to their farmlands. Today, their wish is to revitalise this desiccating lake and prevent salt storms that are diminishing soil fertility and threatening their livelihoods. The shift in perspective highlights the co-dependency we all share with our environment, and shows all too clearly the repercussions of environmental neglect.
Iran suffers from “hydraulic mission” syndrome, a state of mind in which a country tries to manipulate domestic water resources to meet demand through short-sighted measures based on technology and large-scale engineering. The dream of human dominance over nature has led to a nightmare of unforeseen consequences, reminding us that we must learn to live in tune with nature to sustain ourselves.
Dams, in particular, have become idolised as symbols of development, political strength and international prowess. One of the main factors contributing to the state of Lake Urmia is the interference in the natural flow of water into the lake by over 50 dams. The damage has been compounded by unregulated withdrawal of water, water-intensive irrigation and the unsustainable use of fertilisers.
President Rouhani made promises about restoring Lake Urmia during his election campaign, and his administration has allocated $5 billion to improve infrastructure and water conservation in the area. Nevertheless, the major proposals under consideration are still structural. While dam construction is now prohibited, the government’s restoration task force has shown interest in transferring water from other river basins, upstream dredging, and connecting inflowing rivers to maximise the inflow. But without policy reforms and institutional changes – including phasing out water intensive crops, conservation methods in irrigation and wider changes in the behaviour of farmers and other water consumers – restoration efforts will be successful only with an unusually wet period in the years to come.
Collaborations with international partners to restore water levels in Lake Urmia are limited but underway. Most notably, the United Nations Development Programme, Iran’s Department of Environment and the Japanese government have established joint projects that involve educating local farmers on sustainable agriculture practices and reducing water consumption through improved efficiency; and supplying improved, safer fertilisers and pesticides. Over the past few months, the lake has shown some signs of recovery, but this is due more to more frequent rainfall rather than the restoration efforts.
Lake Urmia’s grim destiny unfortunately reflects a wider trend. Several bodies of water in Iran (including Gav-Khuni wetland near Isfahan, the Hamoun wetlands near Afghanistan, Bakhtegan lake in Fars province, and the Shadegan wetland and Hour-Al-Azim in Khuzestan) have been heavily impacted or dried up entirely in light of weak infrastructure, over-reliance on dams, extreme weather patterns, climatic changes, poor irrigation practices and unregulated use of water.
In the story of Lake Urmia lie invaluable lessons. Iranians have paid for their unsustainable development and have lost many invaluable ecosystems. On the positive side, however, awareness of our interdependence with nature has been sharpened by air pollution in major cities, dust storms, soil erosion, desertification and land subsidence due to extraction of groundwater.
Iran may now be reaching a tipping point. With the better understanding of our interconnectivity worldwide today, preserving the environment is a collective goal that everyone irrespective of age, race, or background can share. No matter where we are, or who we are, we can’t save ourselves if we don’t care for our environment. We are all Lake Urmia.
Shirin Hakim is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College, London, working on environmental issues in Iran. Kaveh Madani is a water management expert and reader of systems analysis and policy at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College, London