Supreme National Security Council to weigh up agriculture around Lake Urmia

September 28, 2018

TEHRAN — The Lake Urmia restoration program has taken over the issue of agricultural development around the lake into the Supreme National Security Council, deputy environment chief Masoud Tajrishi has said.

Everywhere you looked, light was sparkling and sunlight glittering on the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, which was once home to flamingos, pelicans and an abundance of fish and everything is almost gone now. Since the early 1970s nature and humanity have chipped away at this gem tucked in northwestern Iran, reducing its size by about 80 percent over the past 30 years. 

“We have raised the issue of agricultural development in the catchment basin of Lake Urmia to the Supreme National Security Council,” ISNA quoted Tajrishi as saying on Wednesday.

The Lake Urmia restoration program is not tasked with the restoration of the Lake, he said, adding “it is a supervisory body that should keep track on the performance of related organization assigned with restoring the lake.”

Following the continuous drying process of Lake Urmia, a national committee for the restoration of the Lake, namely ‘Lake Urmia Restoration Program’ has been formed by President Hassan Rouhani’s order in July 2013.

This year we submitted a 12 trillion rials (nearly $285 million) budget for the lake restoration program but the cabinet allocated 5 trillion rials (nearly $120 million) budget to revive the Lake.Lake Urmia restoration program committee is tasked with developing a roadmap and action plan for the Lake’s restoration by establishing a Planning and Resource Mobilization Unit at Sharif University of Technology and in collaboration with Tabriz and Urmia universities and professionals from other universities. 

Agricultural lands increased by 220,000 ha 

Alireza Shari’at, head of monitoring and supervision department of the Lake Urmia restoration program, for his part said that currently, some 220,000 hectares have been added to the agricultural lands in the Lake’s basin [increasing the pressure on water resources in the region], while the Ministry of Agriculture rejected the claims saying that some of them had already been agricultural lands before the Lake dryness.

So, a working group has been formed to investigate the issue in order to determine the amount of land seized illegally, Shari’at said.

He went on to say that “we also stated that no more than 1.5 million tons of beet [a water-intensive product] should be planted in the catchment basin of the Lake, however, currently over 2.5 million tons have been planted and harvested, and this is while Minister of Agriculture has been informed that cultivation of over 1.5 million tons of beet is illegal.”

Cabinet allots $120m to Lake Urmia restoration

“This year we submitted a 12 trillion rials (nearly $285 million) budget for the lake restoration program but the cabinet allocated 5 trillion rials (nearly $120 million) budget to revive the Lake,” Shari’at said.

In order to maintain the Lake Urmia ecological balance of 14 billion cubic meters over the next 10 years, an annual amount of 3.3 billion cubic meters of water is required, while this year, 1.2 billion cubic meters of water have flown to the Lake, which indicates a lack of nearly 2 billion cubic meters of water, Shari’at stated.

“The volume of water was measured at 500 million cubic meters when we first started restoration programs in 2013, the first three years of the program was successful,” he said, regretting, but the next phase which was aimed at increasing the surface water was not much successful.

He went on to explain that initially, the Lake was scheduled to reach its ecological balance of 14 billion cubic meters of water over the next 10 years, but regarding the current problems, it is planned to increase the water level to one meter, meaning that the water cover the whole Lake surface area, which requires an amount of 7 billion cubic meters of water.

Water transfer, dam water releasing, flow of wastewater as well as sustainable use of water in agriculture sector are among the alternative solutions to save the Lake, which have been underway so far, however, the lack of funding has slowed down the progress, he also added. 

Meanwhile, failure to comply with some of the regulations imposed by the Lake Urmia restoration program also have been barriers on the way of its restoration, he stated. 

Pointing to the dams leading to the current condition of the Lake, he noted that “we must admit our mistakes including building dams which have contributed to the Lake disappearance, and we are now trying to put right some of the mistakes we made.”

Shari’at also said that in 1974 the Lake was filled with some 32 billion cubic meters of water, which gradually decreased since past 30 years.

 Salt extraction 

Farhad Sarkhosh, head of the provincial department for the Lake Urmia restoration program at West Azarbaijan also said that “if we let go of the Lake, it will become a major sand and dust storm hotspot giving rise to salt, so that residents of the two provinces of East and West Azarbaijan must evacuate the area within two or three days due to the severity of the situation in which no living creature can breathe and live.”

A working group has been set up by the Lake Urmia restoration program and the Geological Survey and Mineral Explorations of Iran, to identify areas of the Lake where extracting salt is possible without causing damages to the Lake, he explained.

Salt extraction from the Lake bed was banned since last year, but this year extraction permit will be issued by the Department of Environment and the working group confirmation, he said, adding, the reason behind banning salt extraction was that the we needed to identify spots were salt mining didn’t pose any environmental threats by conducting studies to avoid further complications.”

“Salt concentration varies in different parts of the Lake; in some parts it reaches 40 centimeters, and in other is 80 to 1 meter, while in the middle of the Lake has been measured at over 1 meter.

Referring to the permit issued on salt extraction being strictly limited to those approved by the aforesaid working group, Sarkhosh added that only parts of the Lake which are still moist could be mined.

As per the working group decision, the area is planned to be divided into areas of approximately 20 hectares, and investors will be able to mine salt under the supervision of the DOE and the Ministry of Industry, Mining and Trade, he highlighted.

The Lake Urmia is naturally salty being located near the salt mountains. In April, when the surface water has been over 2.1 billion cubic meters, the analysis showed a salt content of 220-250 gram per liter, which has currently reached 380-400 grams per liter. If the Lake reaches its previous ecological balance of 14 billion cubic meters of water, its salt content will reach 150-160 gram per liter.

6 mcm of water saved through modern irrigation 

A pressure sprinkler irrigation expert Ahmad Nabati also said that as per another article of the Lake Urmia restoration program, sustainable use of water in agriculture must increase by 40 percent, accordingly, projects such as pressure sprinkler irrigation are being implemented in the Lake Urmia basin.

The project covers an area of approximately 350 hectares, in case the project is fully implemented it leads to saving some 6 million cubic meters of water, Nabati said.

He also explained that “so far the project we have spent some 40 billion rials (nearly $1 million) on the project, and another 4 billion rials is required.”

“We are in the early stages of the project which will be completed by the next [Iranian calendar] year (March 2019- March 2020).

A pressure irrigation system is a network installation consisting of pipes, fittings and other devices properly designed and installed to supply water under pressure from the source of the water to the irrigable area. The water is delivered in the form of raindrops precipitated over the entire area. 

Saving 25 mcm of water through micro-irrigation

Eskandar Alizadeh, head of the agricultural department of Urmia county also explained that since the beginning of micro-irrigation projects, some 5,600 hectares of the lands have been irrigated by this method, which will save 25 million cubic meters of water per year.

Also, 900 hectares of the lands are undergoing micro-irrigation, which will save about 4 million cubic meters per year, and some 2,000 hectares are under study to be irrigated by the same method in case of receiving the required budget, he further explained.

The total land area under cultivation in Urmia county is about 97,000 hectares, he said. 

In micro-irrigation (localized irrigation) by drippers, sprayers, bubblers, microjets, etc. water is delivered to the plants without being spread over the entire area but by being applied in low rates to a limited soil surface area around the plants.

 Will the Lake go back to its former glory?

No one can answer that with any degree of certainty, but it is crystal clear that the Lake’s disappearance is largely blamed on unsustainable agricultural practices and shoestring budget which are both interfering with Lake’s full restoration. 

FB/MQ/MG

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