Lake Urmia - an Ongoing Environmental Tragedy in Iran’s Azerbaijan Region
Vahid Qarabagli & Mark Elliott
Image: Sebastian Castelier/Shutterstock
Many have heard of the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia as a global environmental catastrophe. Far fewer know of Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran, where a similar combination of climate change and human mismanagement has led to a cascade of problems and the near disappearance of what was once the world’s second-largest hypersaline lake. The issue has also proved a political touchstone amongst many ethnolinguistic Azerbaijani-Turks for whom the issue appears emblematic of wider spread governmental mismanagement along with a sense of marginalization of Iran’s non-Persian regions.
Until the mid-1990s, Lake Urmia (also written as Lake Orumiyeh) was the largest in the Middle East, covering some 6100 square km. However, it has since shrunk to barely 20% of that size and some fear it will disappear altogether. It’s a serious threat to the environmental, social, and economic well-being of millions of people in the surrounding provinces of East and West Azerbaijan and much further afield. The threat is not due to a collapse in fishing – indeed, fish do exist in the waters of one of the world’s saltiest major lakes. What is more worrisome is the desiccation of formerly rich wetlands on the lake’s periphery and the creation of gigantic salt-desert flats from which fine particles of mineral dust get swept into the atmosphere. The air pollution resulting from this causes lung problems for locals. The lake’s reduced surface area also means less evaporation which in turn reduces rainfall, causing a vicious cycle of water loss. A 2017 UNEP report quoted evidence of a 37mm decline in average annual precipitation since 1970 and nearly a 1-degree centigrade rise in average temperature across the wider area. This, in turn, has caused the water table in agricultural villages to drop significantly, with irrigation wells now often requiring depths of over 70m. As farmers struggle to raise their crops, understandably, there has been considerable anger against authorities who have appeared to do too little to solve the problem.
Increasing salinity and the threat to its wetlands threaten the Lake Urmia Basin’s status as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a world-class breeding sight for migratory birds, notably flamingos.
In recent weeks, thousands of people, mainly from Iran’s Azerbaijani Turk community, have once again expressed their deep concerns about the lake’s tragic dwindling. Discontent was initially shared through social media under the hashtag #SaveLakeUrmia. This was followed by a street protest on July 16, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the West Azerbaijan cities of Urmia, Sulduz (Naghadeh), and Qoshacha (Miandoab). Demonstrators chanted slogans such as "Lake Urmia is thirsty” and "Lake Urmia is dying, parliament ordered its killing.” Several people were reportedly arrested.
Such situations are by no means new. Indeed, the same slogans were shouted in August 2011 when similarly motivated demonstrations rocked Urmia City. Those ended in violent clashes with security forces, who used batons, tear gas, and plastic bullets to disperse protesters. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of demonstrators, were detained then, and a week later in follow-up demos in Urmia and Tabriz. Undoubtedly people were protesting what they perceived to be the central government in Tehran’s “indifference and lack of serious commitment” to addressing an urgent environmental crisis. Then as now, some prominent civil activists in Iran framed this neglect as part of the Iranian government’s “security and political approach” toward minoritized regions of the country, including the Azerbaijani provinces that enfold the lake. However, authorities tried to claim that the motivation for many demonstrators was “separatism,” a serious charge in Iran. Some even claimed that the lake’s demise was a purely natural climatic issue, even though experts are explicit that significant causes include groundwater extraction, unsustainable water use for agriculture and the construction of over 30 dams on feeder rivers.
A study has argued that the vulnerability to adverse impacts of Lake Urmia’s demise is even worse for the Kurdish minority than for Azerbaijani-Turks.
A possible spark to the 2011 protests was disappointment at the Iranian parliament, which had debated approaches to the Lake Urmia crisis at the behest of a group of local MPs. Parliament apparently decided that the best response was to recommend moving lakeside communities to new locations rather than fast-tracking more radical engineering approaches. The most dramatic of those possibilities had been to build a canal to divert water from the Araz River (on the Iran-Azerbaijan border) to the Urmia Basin. The idea, with ecological hazards of its own, had supposedly been approved in April 2011, but there were little signs of progress.
Image: researchgate.net/LandSat imagery
By 2013 Lake Urmia had become pitifully small – barely 500 square kilometres. The area south of the 2008 causeway-bridge had almost disappeared altogether. The average lake level was now 7m lower than in the 1990s – around 1271m above mean sea level rather than 1278m at its 1995 peak. A plan to restore lake levels by 2021 was one of the manifesto pledges of Hassan Rouhani, who succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian president that year. To work towards that goal, the ambitious Urmia Lake Restoration Programme (ULRP) was established, with a whopping US$5-7 billion budget, according to some reports. The idea of an Araz link canal was re-considered with potential German sponsors, but academic analysis suggested that shifting water resources was only a short-term fix. Thus the primary approach was to rethink the region’s agricultural economy, substituting existing water-intensive crops like sugar beet and apple orchards with less thirsty alternatives like saffron and medicinal herbs. The aim was to cut water usage by around 40 percent.
Belatedly in 2016, news about Lake Urmia’s plight finally gained a little international traction, not because of new data but due to a celebrity Instagram post from Leonardo di Caprio, showing a stranded boat rusting beside the ruins of a salt-crusted former pier.
However, by this stage, the situation appeared to have stabilized. In fact, things improved considerably after the floods of 2017, which caused chaos in much of Iran but substantially replenished Lake Urmia. Journalists from Forbes and the BBC started to write cautiously of the lake’s rejuvenation, and in 2020 the Tehran Times declared that the lake was in its best condition for a decade (though at 1271.70m AMSL, the level remained 2.3m short of the ULRP target).
However, 2022 has proved such hopes to have been false. Iran has been hit with droughts and water shortages this spring/summer, part of which it has blamed on dam-building projects in neighbouring Turkiye. The knock-on effect on Lake Urmia is that the water levels are again reaching all-time lows. According to the latest statistics released by Iran’s Ministry of Energy, the volume of Lake Urmia has decreased by 36 percent over the last year alone. On June 8, it was reported that the water level was 1270.74m AMSL, some 55cm less than the corresponding period of 2021 and a metre less than 2020. At 3.02 billion cubic meters, the lake’s volume has fallen by an astonishing 1.8 billion metres square in one year. “Over the past two decades… 95% of the lake has dried up,” lamented Amir Abbas Jafari, Director General of West Azerbaijan Province Crisis Management, on July 13, 2022.
Meanwhile, the salt-pan catastrophe is already happening. West and East Azerbaijan provinces recently witnessed dust, fog, and salt storms. Once again, there are demonstrations from those who demand more effective action on the environment. And, once again, the authorities have been writing off such outbursts of dissent as anti-government nihilism rather than as frustration against perceived inaction.
For local civil and environmental activists, it remains clear that the only way to save the lake from complete extinction is to find a new, more inclusive long-term approach to its replenishing. Urmia is not the only flashpoint in Iran for protests about short-sighted policies toward water resources. Going forward, a discourse is needed to envision regional and multi-dimensional realities, making local people part of the planning and decision-making on issues and projects concerning their needs, desires, and concerns.
 The lake’s salinity is well over 300g/l which makes it more than eight times saltier than the sea.
 Isa Kalantari, ex-head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization and now secretary of the Lake Urmia Restoration Committee gave a curiously precise analysis in August 2018 apportioning 18% of the causes of Lake Urmia’s drying up to climatic conditions versus 82% to human mismanagement.
 The degree to which Iran’s longest bridge-causeway has affected the lake’s salinity is a source of considerable debate.
 The plan envisaged a level of 1274.1m above mean sea level as an “ecological” target rather than 1278m which was unusually high in historical terms. It was believed that 1274.1m would reduce salinity to levels that would help restore a healthy population of artemia (brine shrimp) which are an important food source for transitory populations of flamingos