The 2023-2024 water year, which started on October 1, was hardly four weeks old when Iran’s Lake Urmia, once the Middle East’s largest lake and the sixth-largest saltwater lake on Earth, was reported to have gone dry. Studies show such an occurrence had not happened in 12,000 years.
On October 9, as secretary of the Headquarters to Revive Lake Urmia, Mohammad Sadegh Motamediyan, governor of West Azerbaijan province, where part of the late sits, went on the Tehran TV network to claim that the lake still contained a certain volume of water. But satellite images and aerial footage later captured at the lake, on October 16, belie those claims.
Motamedivan also claimed that President Ebrahim Raisi’s government has allocated 3.3 trillion tomans (close to $66 million) to revive Lake Urmia. Hydrologists and environmental experts criticized him after his appearance and asked how the water level of the lake had fallen to 85 centimeters – entirely desiccated for all practical purposes?
Before Raisi’s administration came to power, in 2021, Lake Urmia’s water levels had increased by 96 centimeters after 5.1 trillion tomans (over $102 billion) had been spent on lake restoration.
According to a report presented on October 17 by Masoud Tajrishi, a professor at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology and a former member of the Headquarters to Revive Lake Urmia, to the International Congress of Development Engineering, Urmia’s water level has fallen by eight meters between 1995 and the present. The fall has coincided with the building of new dams over rivers that flow into the lake and changes in agriculture in the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution when grape cultivation was switched to apples.
A review of statements made by the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Agency Ali Salajegheh, meanwhile, regarding Lake Urmia, shows that none of his promises for saving and restoring this ecosystem have been kept. On August 28, Salajegheh said the wetlands around Lake Urmia were in good shape and “right now, Lake Urmia has 700 million cubic meters of water.”
He also announced that “by September 22, the water behind a number of dams would be released and the lake is not going to die.” Twenty days later, Governor Motamediyan promised “the release of water into Lake Urmia would start soon.” And, once again on October 10, Salajegheh who was attending the National Environmental Awards ceremonies, said: “We are expecting that soon, perhaps this week or the next, releasing of water to Lake Urmia will start in the presence of the president himself or his first vice president.”
Agricultural and hydrology experts say, however, that releasing water into the lake at the same time as the start of the water year and farming season will not add to efforts to save Lake Urmia if the process is not supervised and if farmers are prevented from using lake waters for their planting.
A day after Salajegheh’s statement, Majid Rastegari, CEO of West Azerbaijan Regional Water Company, reported that 44 million cubic meters of water had been released from Silveh Dam into Lake Urmia. Water released from Silveh into Urmia goes through 7,300 hectares of agricultural land; at the same time, Lake Urmia needs 2.5 billion cubic meters of water to recover from its drought, and the released water, much of which will not make it past the farmlands, is only 1.6 percent of what is needed.
Iranian government officials and media outlets affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, meanwhile, such as Fars News Agency in an August 29, 2023 report, have tried to pin the blame for Lake Urmia’s desiccation on climate change rather than environmental mismanagement.
And in the past, such as on September 15, 2012, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic at the time, claimed that Lake Urmia goes dry every 500 years. Fars News Agency published this claim. On August 9, 2023, Ramezan Sharif, the official in charge of the Revolutionary Guards’ public relations, said climate change has resulted in the desiccation of 800 lakes and that the uproar over Lake Urmia was being used as an excuse to challenge the authority of the Islamic Republic.
According to a study by Morteza Jamali at the French Mediterranean Institute of Marine and Terrestrial Biodiversity and Ecology, meanwhile, hydrological fluctuations of Lake Urmia in the past 200,000 years show the lake has never experienced desiccation as severe as the present day. Other studies on Lake Urmia have also shown that is has never gone completely dry in at least 12,000 years and human beings have played a deciding role in the lake’s demise.
Ali Mirchi, Associate Professor at the Department of Biosystems at Oklahoma State University, has previous told IranWire that “we have witnessed no such thing [as total desiccation] in historical records and climate change is a secondary factor compared to what humans have done to this drainage basin, putting the lake in such a condition.”
Most independent experts say Lake Urmia must be saved through its own water resources, within its drainage basin. But a number of members of Iran’s parliament have called for transferring water from the Caspian Sea and even from Turkey’s Lake Van. The idea was even promoted by Hassan Rouhani during his presidential campaign in West and East Azerbaijan provinces – but the idea was dropped after studies by the University of Tehran and a university in Sweden showed the chemical composition of Lake Urmia and the other water bodies did not match.
And yet Salman Zaker, member of parliament from the city of Urmia, has campaigned for transferring water to replenish Lake Urmia. On September 12, he once again insisted on this solution and said: “We must use fundamental solutions such as transferring water from the Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman and Turkey’s Lake Van, and drip irrigation, and follow the [right] cultivation patterns in order to do something essential for the lake.”
Mohammad Reza Mir-Tajoddini, a member of parliament from Tabriz, provincial capital of East Azerbaijan, has also promoted the idea. On the same day that Mir-Tajoddini was promoting the plan in parliament, West Azerbaijan’s Governor Motamediyan, who was attending a ceremony to sign an Iranian-Turkish economic cooperation agreement, said: “Considering the conditions of Lake Urmia, we are ready for scientific and administrative cooperation with Turkey to improve [it].”
But the core solution, according to experts, is to change the way agriculture and environmental management have affected the lake. “It is enough for human interventions to stop for the nature to recover by itself,” Professor Ali Mirchi told IranWire.
“The lost water must be returned to Lake Urmia and the government is not ready to do something serious about it because it must spend a lot of money to do this,” Shadnaz Azizi, an environmental expert, told IranWire in an interview.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second administration, from 2009 to 2013, and the Iranian parliament of 2012-2016, issued permits to hundreds of illegal water wells, including those in Lake Urmia’s drainage basin. The growth of horticulture after the 1979 Revolution also led to a considerable growth in the number of apple orchards in West Azerbaijan – using more water from the lake.
The Headquarters to Revive Lake Urmia’s plan is for 40 percent of the water needed to replenish the lake should come from implementing reforms in cultivation patterns, irrigation methods and changes in when some crops are cultivated. Khosrow Shahbazi, head of West Azerbaijan’s Department of Agricultural Jihad, has, however, reported that 1.2 million tons of apples have been harvested in the province. Isa Bozorgzadeh, spokesman for Iran Water Resources Management Company, contends that, “producing apple in Lake Urmia’s basin is not something to be proud of.”
Bozorgzadeh said that 57 percent of agricultural water in Lake Urmia’s basin us used to cultivate three non-strategic products of apple, sugar beet and alfalfa and called for changes in how the water is used.
West Azerbaijan’s Department of Agriculture also took pride in announcing this summer that the tomatoe harvest had increased to 310,000 tons. Guidelines for the 2022-2023 agricultural year had called for only 1,600 hectares in the province to be used for tomatoes – meaning that 3,851 hectares should have been removed from tomato cultivation.
Farmers will lose in the long term if Lake Urmia dies: so why do they not adapt their farming to save the lake? As environmental activist Azam Bahrami tells IranWire: “Does the infrastructure exist for the farmers of West Azerbaijan to decide to choose less water-thirsty products? Farmers must make a living and they must afford to pay for loan repayment instalments and many other expenses.”