Lake Urmia – a treasure to see and save

Lake Urmia in Iran

Bathers of summertime wade into red waters, coloured by salt-loving algae and bacteria. Since time immemorial, Iranian tourists have come here, however, the number of visitors has taken a nose dive by as much as 80 percent since the 1980s thus drawing attention to the thought that this might just be the last generation to play in these waters.

Distinguished as “the turquoise solitaire of Azerbaijan,” by the Azeris, the Lake Urmia is the second largest salt-water lake in the Middle East, second only to the Caspian Sea Lake. This gem tucked away in North-western Iran has seen nature and humans chip away up to 80% of this lake with the last 30 years. This UNESCO biosphere had the flamingos, the ducks, the egrets and the pelicans feasting on brine shrimps, however, they are mostly gone. Even the tourists that used to make the lake a location for therapeutic baths in its warm hypersaline waters no longer come around.

What is left of it amounts to nothing useful – with sites of barren landscapes of exposed salts with carcasses of half-buried rusting ships in silt. It even gets worse, the wind that blows from the lakebed to nearby farmlands render the soil infertile because the wind brings salt dust along, which can be very harmful to plants and soil. People who live even as far away as Tabriz, a city located over 60 miles away, containing 1.5 million inhabitants – are also a serious health risk. The health hazards arise from the noxious; slat tinged dust storms capable of inflaming the eyes, lungs and skin. The algae and bacteria that have found a suitable home in Lake Urmia have given it a blood-red stain. This lake is up to 8 times saltier than the ocean and when sunlight penetrates the shallows, they turn colour.
So where did it all go wrong? What happened to this lake? Scientists claim that the major cause is climate change. They say it has deepened droughts and raised summer temperatures that enhance rapid evaporation. While this might be true, it’s not the complete story; there are other key factors that played significant roles in reducing this lake into nothing. Water experts and engineers are of the opinion that the fact that the water is in a semiarid region means it will suffer from numerous illegal wells as well as dam and irrigation projects. These projects result in divergence of the water from its tributaries. They have gone a step further to call on the Iranian government to intervene before the “Aral Sea syndrome,” occurs.

It seems their voices have been heard. The President of Iran, President Hassan Rouhani has pledged to spend 5 billion dollars to revive this Lake. Despite these promises, it appears the allocated funds have also dried up hence the numerous petitions that have been brought to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to either seek international assistance or renew efforts to solve the problem internally.

Professor Amir AghaKouchak, an engineering professor at the University of California noted that both regions have both felt the impact of the drought, however, the real problem occurs when renewable water available can no longer meet the demands of humans – then, we will have a very serious problem on our hands.

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