There is now hope for the sustained restoration of Lake Urmia.
Water – albeit thinly spread – is now covering a significant amount of the lake’s formerly dried-out surface. Much more than it was two years – or even one year – ago. And while the lake’s biosphere is still in critical condition, there have been sustained and relentless improvements in recent months to re-fill the lake. As a result, the destiny of the world’s once-second-largest saltwater body is much brighter than at any time in the past decade.
Situated in North West of Iran, Lake Urmia is part of a unique biodiversity rich ecosystem of also freshwater wetlands and rivers that are essential to the livelihoods of more than 5 million people living in the basin. This Ramsar Site – which is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a National Park – had been shrinking at an alarming rate. Three years ago the lake contained only 0.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water – down from the massive 30 bcm it used to contain when full. In terms of surface area covered, the lake’s 5000 square kilometer surface had dwindled to 500 km2 in 2013. Now it is back to 2,300 km2 - although much of this water is very thinly spread.
The reversal is due to the combined efforts of multiple actors at local, national and international level. The prospects for a restoration are now stronger than anytime since the lake started to be emptied – 20 years ago – as a result of intense dam construction and the diversion of water for agriculture.
The reasons for the replenishment are threefold: first the deliberate release of water from dams. Second, the canal drainage to un-silt the feeder rivers. Third, better water management among the farming communities nestled in the Lake Urmia basin. It is this latter effort which is likely to be the most impactful in the long run. And this is where the combination of local, national and international efforts has been concentrated.
The work is centred on a project undertaken by UNDP and funded by Japan which seeks to promote ecosystem management of the farming techniques and thereby save water. This project has just benefitted from another generously contribution of US$ 1 million from Japan. This brings the total funding from Japan to $4m in 4 years.
The signing ceremony for the 4th phase of the project took place on 9th April at the Department of Environment (DOE) in the presence of Vice-President and Head of DOE, Dr. Masoumeh Ebtekar, Deputy Ambassador of Japan to Iran, Mr. Hideo Suzuki and the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Iran, Mr. Gary Lewis.
The contribution is implemented as a component of UNDP’s ongoing Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project – a project in which UNDP is partnering with Iran’s Department of Environment.
The project has been active for many years, but engagement with communities to start the new farming practices started in earnest 4 years ago with the original Japanese grant.
Speaking at the ceremony. Mr. Lewis said: “I have been privileged to live in Iran for four years and during this period I have visited Lake Urmia multiple times and I have been able to witness the changing situation of the lake with my own eyes.”
He added: “The first time I visited the lake I was shocked. I saw dry, empty, white salt-bed. I heard wind howling. I saw it blowing the salt all around and dumping on the agriculture lands beyond the lake, all around the edges. But six weeks a when I went back, I saw something different. Returning to the barren landscape after almost four years, I was able to see water. Not nearly enough, but much more than last time. The lake is reviving. And this revival is the result of an immensely successful collaborative effort involving many players – some Iranian, some foreign. Life has returned to the dying Salt Lake and the effort to restore what had been broken is succeeding.”
Mr. Lewis then shared some data with the attendees and referred to the lake dimensions in the years 1997, 2013 and 2017 to illustrate the improving situation. Please see below table for facts and figures.
Mr. Suzuki also spoke at the event, stating: “Taking into consideration the critical situation of Lake Urmia and the importance of reviving the lake, in January 2017 the Government of Japan decided to renew its commitment to restoring Lake Urmia and support the efforts of the Government of Iran and UNDP.”
Mr. Suzuki added: “The restoration of the lake will not happen overnight, however we can see that the condition of Lake Urmia is better today than it was three years ago. This is the result of the efforts of all those who joined forces to revive Lake Urmia. We hope that the contribution from the Government of Japan can enhance the living conditions of those residing around Lake Urmia basin.”
“This new grant will enable the expansion of the project”, Mr. Suzuki said. The chart below outlines the project’s growth over the past 4 years. However, even with the expansion, it will still reach fewer than half of the basin’s farming communities. Expansion is therefore needed.
In terms of impact, the water-saving techniques are often extremely simple – such as improved irrigation techniques (instead of totally flooding a field, the water is targeted to the specific trees or shrubs) and planting crops which require less water. The combined effect, in the farming communities piloting the project has been to save one-third of the water which can re-enter the lake. Paradoxically, they have also improved yields across the board by 40 per cent on average.
Originally the project was initiated in 41 villages around the basin of the lake. This new contribution will expand the area covered with these techniques to cover a total of 110 villages.
The Ministry of Agriculture will now take over extension services for the original 41 villages.
In her concluding remarks, Dr. Ebtekar said: “Join cooperation between the Government of Japan and the DOE show that international cooperation in the field of environment is really important and much needed. International organizations such as the UN play a key role in the protection of environment and exchange of knowledge and best practices among nations.”
Dr. Ebtekar added: “What we have accomplished together through this trilateral cooperation can be used in other parts of the country as well.”