By Maryam Qarehgozlou

Is inter-basin water transfer a cure for exhausted Lake Urmia?

April 12, 2018

TEHRAN — The “turquoise solitaire of Azarbaijan”, Lake Urmia, is meeting its end by turning into a barren field of exposed salt water and there are a few options available to restore the lake, most probably not to its former glory.

The lake, located in northwestern Iran, used to be the largest salt-water lake in the Middle East. It was a home to flamingos, pelicans, egrets and ducks and attracted hundreds of tourist every year who had taken a trip to take advantage of the therapeutic properties of the lake.

However, the lake started to shrink in 1990s and went down the pan. The dramatic decrease of the lake water level over the past 20 years has seriously affected the lake’s wildlife and human ecology. 

The volume of water which measured at 30 billion cubic meters dramatically decreased to half a billion cubic meters in 2013 and again rose to 2.5 billion cubic meters in 2017 and accordingly lake surface area of 5,000 square kilometers in 1997 shrunk to one tenth of that to 500 square kilometers in 2013. 

And now, as per the data published on Iran Environment and Wildlife Watch website on April 8, the lake is stretching over some 2,200 square kilometers of land area and the volume of water is measured at some 2 billion cubic meters. 

For some years now the inter-basin water transfer has become an option to save the lake from total disappearance. 

Over his trip to the lake on April 1 First Vice-President Es’haq Jahangiri has said that the administration would never overlook Lake Urmia restoration programs and spend “billions of dollar in foreign finance if necessary” to revive the lake. Jahangiri further ensured the local living in the lake basin that despite the hardships they don’t need to worry and the lake will be restored to an acceptable extent. 

Elsewhere in his remarks the vice president commented on the inter-basin water transfer from the Caspian Sea or even from other countries to help restore the lake. 

Inter-basin water transfer: workable or not?

Water transfers — massive engineering projects that divert water from rivers with perceived surpluses to those with shortages — have been promoted as a solution worldwide. 

“Not examining various aspects of water transfer can even worsen the lake current condition and aggravate the crisis,” Behrouz Behrouzi-Rad, a board member at Science and Research Branch of Azad University, told Hamshahri daily newspaper in an article published on April 9. 

“It doesn’t matter which lake or river we transfer water from,” he said, adding, it can be transferred from Caspian Sea or Lake Van, in Turkey, either way water transfer can have detrimental effects on the lake ecosystem.

Water transferred from a lake or river with surpluses should have identical characteristics to those of the Lake Urmia so that it can bring back the lake to its former state, he explained. 

Hossein Akhani, botanist and environmentalist, has also said that once Lake Urmia restoration program launched four years ago all research teams agreed that water transfer should be out of question. 

“As there are only certain blood types that can be used should anyone need a transfusion and there are factors determining the right type of blood for each person, we cannot transfer any water from anywhere to quench the lake,” Akhani underscored.

Each basin has its distinguished physical and biological characteristics and it is crystal clear that inter-basin water transfer can have unpredictable effects on the lake ecosystem, he warned. 

One of the catastrophic consequences of inter-basin water transfer is endangering the biodiversity of the region, for one water transfer can contribute to algal bloom which can result in total dryness of recipient basin, Akhani lamented. 

Algal bloom or marine bloom or water bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system. Harmful algal bloom are organisms that can severely lower oxygen levels in natural waters, killing marine life.

He further mentioned the high expenses of implementing such projects saying that the money can be spent on reforming irrigation patterns as well as agricultural practices and creating jobs other than farming. 

Mohammad Darvish, environmental activist and the board member at Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands, also explained that water transfer from Caspian Sea, Aras [a river flowing through Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran] and Zab river [a river in western Iran and joining the Tigris] can all have deleterious consequences, but transferring water from Lake Van in turkey can be less harmful environmentally. 

Nevertheless, he emphasized, the water transferred to Lake Urmia basin cannot be used in developing agricultural activities as many environmentalist have deep concerns about it. 

“So we expect officials to adopt strict laws in order to restrict agricultural practices had they decided to transfer water to Lake Urmia,” Darvish concluded. 

Water transfers aren’t always the answer

According to World Wildlife Fund water transfer schemes attempt to make up for water shortages by constructing elaborate systems of canals, pipes, and dredging over long distances to convey water from one river basin (the donor basin) to another (the recipient basin).

Nonetheless, water transfers drastically impact the environment of the donor basin. They create or escalate threats to critically endangered species, Ramsar-listed wetlands, and protected areas. Dams constructed on the river from which water is taken can devastate its ecology, disrupting environmental flows and blocking migrating fish.

Water transfer schemes negatively impact rivers’ ability to provide food and water. Even when "only" 10 to 15% of water is taken from one basin, it can lead to droughts in both basins in times of little rainfall.

Economic benefits generated in the recipient basin normally come at the cost of those living in the donor basin. Some projects have even displaced entire communities. People whose livelihoods depend on the donor basin have not always been consulted on how they will be affected. This can also create social conflicts between the donor and recipient basins and governments.

And while a water transfer scheme is designed for their benefit, residents of the recipient basin may also face negative consequences. Without massive government subsidies, farmers in areas receiving water could pay higher prices for the water making their produce more expensive locally than that available on world markets and threatening their livelihoods.

Unfortunately in many cases, water use in the recipient basin is not evaluated prior to the construction of a water transfer project. This results in the continuation of unsustainable water use practices and, over time, increases the thirst for more water.

For instance, agriculture — which accounts for 70% of the world's accessible water use — wastes 60%, or 1,500 trillion liters, of the water it uses each year.

MQ/MG

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