The northwest corner of Iran is an undeniably breathtaking landscape rich in ancient human history. Perhaps the most prominent feature in the region is Lake Oroumieh (said ur-mia), which was mentioned as far back as the 9th century in records kept by the Assyrians, and has held a high degree of importance to the settlers of the region ever since.
Lake Oroumieh is situated near Iran’s Turkish border and lies just west of the southern tip of the Caspian Sea. With a surface area of around 2,000 miles, it is the third largest saltwater lake in the world. The lake’s ancient Persian name was Chichast – a word that translates to “glittering” and was a reference to shiny minerals that were suspended in its waters and strewn across its shores. In medieval times, it was known as Lake Kabuda, which translates to the color “azure”. In the 1930s, the lake’s name was changed to Lake Rezaiyeh, after the name of the Shah of Iran at the time; he was later forced to abdicate during the Anglo-Soviet invasion. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that it was given the name Lake Oroumieh, after the capitol city of Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province.
Lake Oroumieh is anything but an ordinary lake; it has distinct ecology and is home to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. The lake features hundreds of protruding rocks and islands that are inviting to wild bird life. Timed correctly, a visit to Lake Oroumieh could bring you into visual contact with flamingos, pelicans, sea gulls, spoonbills, storks and stilts. On the outskirts of the lake, you could be lucky enough to spot an Iranian yellow deer – a protected species that has experienced a reduction in population due to indiscriminate hunting and environmental degradation. In fact, for years Lake Oroumieh was one of Iran’s premier tourist destinations, however major environmental problems have changed that.
With the construction of dams on the lake and the incredibly damaging effects of prolonged drought in recent times, the region has experienced what you could call a “salt tsunami”. There has been a significant increase in Lake Oroumieh’s salinity, resulting in receding waters, and the result has been absolute misery for the region’s wildlife, tourism industry and people.
Lake of Misery
Behrouz is 40-year old man who lives just off the shores of Lake Oroumieh. He has a large family and until a few years ago, he was supporting them by growing nuts on his small farm and also giving boat rides to tourists who wanted to experience the lake and its wildlife. But nobody wants boat rides on Lake Oroumieh anymore.
When Behrouz was taking his clients out, it was getting to the point where the water level was so low that his boat’s propeller would get stuck in the mud every few minutes. Even at its deepest point, Lake Oroumieh only goes down about 7 feet. “It was a nuisance and a waste of time for my customers and it was an embarrassment for me,” said Behrouz. “Finally, I had to give up, but I’ve never been able to replace that income.” Behrouz is not alone; it only takes a glance at some of the houses in the area with “retired” boats sitting on their dry-to-the-bone land to realize how bad the situation is. Even activity at the Golmankhaneh Harbor – the main harbor of the lake – has stopped altogether. The hotel industry has been severely weakened by the receding waters and construction projects that had been in the works have been cancelled. Perhaps worst of all, the salt-saturated lake is a threat to the future of agriculture in the region as salt is often carried by storms for long distances. Much of the destruction to the lake and region could have been abated.
A devastating drought in the late 1990’s first created alarm that Lake Oroumieh could shrink, but that didn’t stop the Iranian government from building over 30 dams on rivers that feed the lake. Furthermore, a roadway was built between the cities of Oroumieh and Tabriz, which environmentalists believe acts as a barrier to the circulation of water. It is such acts of negligence that has Lake Oroumieh facing the same fate as Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea, which is now just a tiny fraction of its original size. Lake Oroumieh is a common topic of conversation in the teahouses and on the streets of Oroumieh; many discuss its eventual fate in a positive light, even citing an ancient myth about flowers: “Centuries ago, a beloved princess of Oroumieh was killed on this spot,” said Sahar, a local woman standing near a garden expanse. “Every year for 1000 years, wild purple gladiolas have grown on this exact spot, and every year, they have brought us hope. There is still hope for Lake Oroumieh.”
It’s true, there still may be hope for the lake, but gladiolas alone will not do the trick. There are numerous actions the government must consider – and they must do it swiftly – in order to return the water levels of Lake Oroumieh to sustainable levels.
The Great Caspian Hope
Environmentalists have predicted that if nothing is done to irrigate Lake Oroumieh, it will be completely dried up in 3 to 5 years. With the fate of the lake, its wildlife and local human populations hanging in the balance, the Iranian government has finally begun to take action with a multi-tiered plan.
First, a program of cloud seeding – a form of weather modification in which an attempt is made to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation – has been put into effect. This will hopefully increase rainfall and reduce the expenditure of water derived from irrigation systems for the purposes of agriculture. Second, a plan to open up to 20 percent of the dams to allow water to once again flow into Lake Oroumieh, is in the works. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, transferring water from the nearby Caspian Sea may serve as the greatest benefit to the lake; some researchers have even suggested that is the only method that may be able to save Lake Oroumieh. However, for a country that faces a mountain of social, political and environmental struggles, such a project, which would require water to be pumped for over 400 miles, remains ambitious, if not impossible.
For centuries, Lake Oroumieh has sustained civilizations and provided habitat to wildlife. Undoubtedly, the region is now at a critical juncture and if the correct decisions aren’t made and implemented, there will be dire consequences.
If you’re curious how governments in the Middle East, and possibly even worldwide, are going to react over the next several decades to all of the impending environmental disasters on the horizon, then pay close attention to the unfolding story of Lake Oroumieh; it’s a living, breathing, evolving case study on the topic. A short matter of time will tell how well the Iranian government’s plan to bring water to the lake has been implemented, if it worked, and if it will be monitored.