According to the local environmental office in Iran, only five percent of the water remains in the biggest lake in the Middle East.
Lake Urmia sits in the far northwest corner of Iran, and was once the sixth largest saltwater lake in the world — slightly bigger than Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It’s relatively shallow, so the water drop has exposed huge tracts of land. Hamid Ranaghadr, an Iranian environmental official, told the New York Times that areas of the lake that were once under 30 feet of water are now dry and dusty lake beds. “We just emptied it out,” he said.
Being saltwater, Lake Urmia was never fit for drinking water or agriculture. But its collapse is indicative of the way climate change and poor water management have driven Iran into a potentially catastrophic water shortage.
Dam construction recently increased throughout the country, to provide both badly needed electricity and water supplies for irrigation. But that’s also diverted massive amounts of the freshwater that formerly flowed into Lake Urmia. Other major rivers throughout the country have gone dry, and the dust from the riverbeds and the salt from Lake Urmia’s dried basin are now a form of pollution unto themselves. (Four of the world’s ten most polluted cities can be found in Iran.) Major cities around the country — including the capital of Tehran, home to 22 million — are making contingency plans for rationing. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently named water as a national security issue, and demonstrations and riots over water supplies have already erupted.
The collapse began in the mid-1990s. One local villager told the Times that he noticed the shoreline receding two decades ago, and now it’s no longer visible from his community. According to a 2012 study by the United Nations, 65 percent of the decline can be chalked up to climate change and the diversion of surface water cutting inflow to the lake. Another 25 percent was due to dams, and 10 percent was due to decreased rainfall over the lake itself.
A long drought in Iran ended two years ago, but the recent boost to rainfall has not been able to offset the other effects on the lake. Average temperatures around Lake Urmia rose three degrees in just the past ten years. In Pakistan, which sits along Iran’s southeast border, climate change has reduced snowmelt and river flow. That’s led to domestic political strife, and to a strained relationship with India over dams along the Indus River — Pakistan’s main source of freshwater. Research from the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany found water resources in northwest Iran could drop 50 percent should global warming increase by just 2°C.
The world is currently on track to blow past 2°C by the end of the century.
After the water Iran is diverted away from its natural flows, a lot of it is used recklessly. Ranaghadr and other experts point to inefficient irrigation techniques such as spraying, which allows most of the water to evaporate uselessly from the fields. His department calculated that around 90 percent of the water that should flow into Lake Urmia is sprayed instead, and President Rouhani has estimated that Iran’s uses 92 percent of its water for agriculture. The United States uses 80 percent.
“They turn open the tap, flood the land, without understanding that in our climate most of the water evaporates that way,” Ali Reza Seyed Ghoreishi, a member of the local water management council, told the Times. “We need to educate the farmers.”
The Iranian government also attempted to promote agriculture by breaking large landholdings into smaller properties. Most of the new owners promptly dug new wells to supply their crops, draining the groundwater. “There are around 30,000 legally dug wells and an equal amount of illegal wells,” said Seyed Ghoreishi. “As the water is becoming less, they have to dig deeper and deeper.”
Efficient water management generally requires either a working market where prices keep supply and demand tethered, or well-developed public institutions to manage the supply. Unfortunately, the developing world often has neither. In April of 2013, a coalition of groups under the United Nations tried to quantify, in dollar terms, water use around the globe. They determined that West Asia, where Iran can be found, was the third-most costly regional user of water in the world, right behind East Asia and North Africa.
Thanks to budget choices and international sanctions, Iran has not made any money available to restoration efforts for Lake Urmia. Iranian officials told the Times that the lake is, at this point, probably unsalvageable.