Urmia Lake’s current condition desirable; is it temporary?

July 26, 2019

TEHRAN – Heavy rainfall doused the country this year, made many of us to forget water scarcity and dying of Urmia Lake; many believe that the crisis has already been resolved, while deputy environment chief Masoud Tajrishi told Khabaronline on Wednesday that there is not much time left to resolve the issue and “we need to act as soon as possible.’”

Shared between West Azarbaijan and East Azarbaijan provinces in northwestern Iran, Lake Urmia, was once the largest salt-water lake in the Middle East. It was a home to many migratory and indigenous animals including flamingos, pelicans, egrets and ducks and attracted hundreds of tourists every year who had bathed in the water to take advantage of the therapeutic properties of the lake.

However, decades of long-standing drought spells and elevated hot summer temperatures that speed up evaporation as well as increased water demands in agriculture sector shrank the lake drastically. In 1999 the volume of water which was at 30 billion cubic meters drastically decreased to half a billion cubic meters in 2013. Moreover, the lake surface area of 5,000 square kilometers in 1997 shrunk to one tenth of that to 500 square kilometers in 2013.

The sharp rise in precipitations rates in the area has raised hopes for total restoration of the once glorious Lake Urmia.
Based on the latest data published by the National Drought Warning and Monitoring Center, since the current crop year (September 23, 2018), precipitation in the country considerably increased to 312 from 159.3 millimeters in the previous water year, demonstrating a 95.9 percent rise.

Rainfall revived Urmia Lake or restoration measures?

Referring to Urmia Lake as the most popular drought-ridden symbol in the country, Tajrishi said that precipitation’s effect on the lake’s revival is not negligible, but restoration measures should not be ruled out.

“To determine the restoration measures effectiveness, we can compare the lake’s condition in past years receiving above normal rainfall with this year and see how only rainfall can effect Urmia Lake water level,” he noted.

Over a water year in the Iranian calendar year 1385-1386 (September 2006- September 2007), it rained 416 millimeters over the lake but the water level did not raise even a millimeter, he said.

Moreover, during a water year in the Iranian calendar year 1388-1389 (September 2009- September 2010), the area received 409 millimeters of rain, while water level declined by 24 centimeters, he stated.

He went on to say that this year, the lake has experienced 458 millimeters of rain and the water level has risen to 110 centimeters, which shows that something effective has happened beyond above normal rainfall.

“This is while, we anticipated the lake’s level to increase by 83 centimeters due to the unprecedented rainfall the country received this year,” he highlighted.

This does not mean that rainfall was not the reason behind Urmia Lake coming back to life, but responsible bodies have taken measures that, unlike the previous years of high rainfall rates, which had even reduced the level of the lake, this year has risen the lake’s surface above 1 meter, he explained.

Pointing to the effort put into properly dredging and clearing of weed and vegetation in river beds as a way came efficient in the lake conservation, he added that some 113 and 140 kilometers in provinces of West and East Azarbaijan has undergone dredging, respectively.

So, it caused the rainwater to be absorbed by parts of the lake which could not absorb it earlier, he said, adding, it also reduced flood damages, so that the province did not face harsh devastations caused by floods.

“Another effective measure was granting the water right of the lake. We used to keep water behind the dams and use it for the agricultural sector, he lamented, noting, since 4 years ago, after many discussions we could convince the Ministry of Energy to grant the Urmia Lake’s water right.”

Last year, 360 million cubic meters of water behind the dams was released into the lake, then spring rainfall has increased the lake retaining water to 2,300 million cubic meters, he also noted.

Urmia Lake’s revival temporary?

The lake’s level will shrink faster than before due to evaporation and high temperatures but there will be water again, Tajrishi stated, explaining that 60 percent of Urmia Lake is retaining water less than 60 centimeters, while the annual evaporation of the lake is about 85 centimeters, so parts of the lake with a height of less than 85 centimeters will definitely redry.

He went on to highlight that “we will reach our goal of increasing the lake level by 30 centimeters.”

So far, a budget of 34 trillion rials (about $825 million) has been earmarked to the lake’s restoration measures, 60 percent of which will be spent on two projects of water transfer and not developing dams, and the rest will be allocated to waste water treatment, he explained.

If these two projects get in operation by the next year, 750 million cubic meters of water will flow in Urmia Lake annually, he also said.

In addition, if precipitation meets normal levels and these two projects are implemented, the lake will reach its ecological level by the Iranian calendar year 1404 (March 2025- March 2026), he further highlighted.

“In the world, countries seeking to revitalize their lakes have come to the conclusion that keep the lake level steady, so that sand and dust hotspots are moisturized and underwater. 

“On this basis, we have phased the restoration process; in the first phase, the lake's surface will increase by 1 meter, eliminating 95 percent of parts prone to dust generation, which

will be achieved by the next three years. We also came to an agreement with the Ministry of Energy to not implement any development plan in the dams until the lake is restored,” he explained.

“To achieve the goal, about 3 billion cubic meters of water is required, 1.3 billion cubic meters of which will be supplied by the dam project, and some 1.4 billion cubic meters will enter the lake through dredging measures. 

About 300 million cubic meters of water will be provided from reducing water consumption in agricultural sector, while the rest will be supplied with water transfer,” he also stated.

He added that agricultural water consumption has reduced by 29 percent using new irrigation and crop cultivation methods while agricultural products even has increased by 16 percent. “Therefore, we plan to decrease water use in farming by 40 percent.”

“Last year, we asked with the Ministry of Agriculture to provide us with medicinal plants which reduce water consumption and increase farmer's income, and the farmers were trained on new cultivation patterns, and each of whom employing new cultivation methods have been granted facilitation loans up to 1 billion rials (around $24,000),” he further explained.

Elsewhere in his remarks, Tajrishi referring to the water transferring projects, said that without water transfer measures, the revival of the lake is not certain.

Certainly, the environmental impact of no development plan is zero, but the environmental consequences of water transferring is not significant; for example, the scheme proposed for transferring water from the Caspian Sea to Urmia Lake, was rejected because of the Sea water was not compatible with lake ecosystem.

“A while ago, Turkey asked Swiss authorities to transfer water from Lake Van to the Urmia Lake because of the overflowing water in their lake; studies are being conducted in this regard, however, we agreed to transfer water from the Little Zab river which originates in Iran and joins the Tigris just south of Al Zab in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.”

What really happens to Iran being affected by drought? 

Tajrishi also said that Iran is the first country in the world to produce agricultural products using non-renewable water sources, if the process continues for next several years, Iran will face a condition similar to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s renewable water resources started shrinking in 1978, and in 2018 has ran out of water resources completely, the country that once produced wheat does not have even a land for farming, he lamented.

“Studies show that over 20 million hectares of the lands are susceptible to sand and dust storm generation in the country; if urgent measures are not taken to prevent the wetlands from dryness and curb the groundwater withdrawal, the country will gradually depopulate.

The decline in rainfall rates over the past decades and mismanagement of water resources has caused water shortage issues to increase at a faster pace. Now, water scarcity has haunted most parts of Iran, which is increasing day by day,” he regretted.

He concluded that all the country must take steps toward tackling water scarcity, otherwise everyone will face its dire consequences.

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