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4 December 2023

Iran: Lake Urmia is Drying Up, Ethnic Azerbaijanis Put Blame on the Government’s Discrimination

How Iran’s Lake Urmia is causing further divide between the ethnic Azerbaijani community in the country, and why the government needs to listen to them.

Iran: Lake Urmia is Drying Up, Ethnic Azerbaijanis Put Blame on the Government’s Discrimination

Image: Tolga Subasi/Shutterstock

Iran’s Lake Urmia is a crucial part of its ecosystem. Once known as the world’s second-largest salt lake, today it is nearly dried out. Moreover, it is vital for the local communities, mainly ethnic Azerbaijanis and Kurds, as it is located between West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan. Similar to the Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the mistakes of the Soviet plan of making its Central Asian countries leading cotton plantations—which it accomplished, causing the Aral Sea’s disappearance—Lake Urmia had shrunk due to the Iranian government’s poor agricultural planning along with the climate factors.   

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “one of the largest permanent hypersaline lakes in the world and the largest lake in the Middle East” started drying up in 1995. The reason is believed to be related to “mismanagement” and “drought.” Although residents fear that Lake Urmia will face a similar fate as the Aral Sea. However, unlike the Aral Sea, Lake Urmia’s crisis was caused by climate change more so than the the construction of dams, which accounts for just 25 percent of the decline. From 1997 to 2006, “annual rainfall was 40 mm less on average,” it is reported by UNEP.

The joint report by the Australian Macquarie University and South Azerbaijan Turkic Democratic Unity came to the same conclusion, adding that together with climate change, the drought of the lake is caused by “water consumption in agricultural fields,” as well as “roads building operation” and “dam construction programs.” 

The local community, worried about the future of Lake Urmia due to not only ecological but financial and even health consequences that can follow the lake’s complete evaporation, often organize protests. They demand the Islamic government to protect the lake from further draught and undo the damage caused by their, as the protestors believe, fault. The latest case of such a protest was reported back in July 2022, when at least 16 protesters were arrested. The officials justified these arrests, calling the protestors “evil and hostile elements” who were arrested for disturbing “the security of the population”. 

It is important to note that since the majority of those living in the area close to Lake Urmia are ethnic Azerbaijanis, many of them believe this to be another instance of the Iranian government’s mistreatment of them. It is estimated that there are around 15-20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran, which is even more than the number of Azerbaijanis in the Republic of Azerbaijan, making them the biggest ethnic minority group living in Iran today. Yet, they continuously face restrictions, such as not being allowed to name their children with Turkic names or study in their own language, as it is perceived as a threat of separatism by the Iranian government. 

Many South Azerbaijanis living abroad continuously speak for their community, who are restricted or silenced by the Iranian regime back home. One such representative is Babek Chalabi, a South Azerbaijani activist and founder of ArazNews.org, based in Washington, DC. In July this year, his article “The Urmia Lake Crisis: Environmental Degradation, Ethnic Tensions, and Water Politics in Iran” was published in The Geopolitics. In it, Chalabi expressed the viewpoint of Azerbaijanis and the reasons to believe that Iran’s response to Lake Urmia’s crisis is “evidence of ethnic favouritism”. He further compares the handling of this crisis to Iran’s project aimed “to transfer water from the Arab Gulf and the Sea of Oman to seven provinces in the semi-arid central plateau”. Pointing out that since it is Azerbaijanis who are affected by the Lake Urmia drying up, the response is weak and insignificant. 

Another South Azerbaijani voice abroad is Shervin Najafpour. Born in Norway to South Azerbaijani immigrants from Urmia city in Iran, she dedicated her life to representing the Azerbaijani diaspora in Norway. “The Iranian regime is behind the ecocide of Lake Urmia,” Najafpour says. “They know that drying up the lake will affect the health of the population living there, forcing them to become climate refugees. Agriculture and the economy will be affected. The neighbouring countries, such as Azerbaijan and Türkiye, will also suffer from the dust and salt storms, and the effects will affect them in many areas”.

Najafpour’s family history’s strong connection to Urmia Lake explains her devotion to raising awareness regarding this issue. Both of her parents were born and raised in Urmia city, and twelve generations on her father’s side lived next to the lake itself. “I’ve visited Urmia many times during my childhood, and even I have witnessed the disappearing landscape and the heartbreaking human ecocide taking place in my parents' beautiful hometown,” she explains. “Lake Urmia is like paradise for anyone from that area and used to be a heavily visited touristic area, especially [for] health tourism, as the mud there is known to be healing. Whenever I speak to my family members, they inform me about how the air quality has changed and that the salt storms are affecting the agriculture of the area”.

Due to Najafpour and her father, Atabey Najafpour’s, political activism promoting the voices of South Azerbaijanis and unveiling the discrimination their community faces in Iran, they are not allowed to travel to Iran. However, most of their relatives still live there, and although they support Najafpour’s views, she explains that “they are frightened” as they “have suffered enough from the Iranian government” due to their family ties. This explains why the Najafpours feel the need to raise awareness of the issues that ethnic Azerbaijanis face in Iran, one of them being this “ecocide,” as Najafpour puts it.

Despite the recent growing despair of those affected by the government’s negligence, it is not all so dire. UNDP has supported the Iranian government’s efforts to revive the lake and increase its size. In 2013, the Urmia Lake Restoration Program was approved by the government and cost $7 billion. Additionally, Japan donated almost $7 million to help the government restore Urmia Lake, Forbes reported back in 2020. That same year, UNDP noted the achievements of saving Lake Urmia. Among them were “reduction of water use by 25% and increasing irrigation efficiency by almost 42%,” as well as new jobs for 250 locals and collaborations with 42 local NGOs. 

The question then is—if everything is so great, why would locals risk their lives trying to raise awareness of the ongoing ecological disaster? Since the 2017 success that was reported, Lake Urmia has started shrinking yet again. As reported by NASA, on September 7, 2023, they captured the “desiccated lakebed”, which, when compared to the image from three years ago, shows a major change with “salt deposits” filling the perimeter of the lake. And so, with all the investments and reports of success, the local community must face the possible consequences of climate change and the government’s lack of actions, while all they have left is fear for their future.