Rouhani out of ideas, out of time to save Lake Urmia

Photo: Rouhani out of ideas, out of time to save Lake Urmia / Iran

Baku, Azerbaijan, August 1

By Umid Niayesh - Trend:

One of the main promises of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his presidential campaign was to save Lake Urmia, in northwest Iran, which has shrunk more than 90 percent to 1,000 square kilometers in the past decade.

"I promise you if I am elected as the head of the executive branch, I will start working to save Lake Urmia on the first day," Rouhani said last year addressing Iranian Azerbaijanis in Tabriz.

Officials have warned if serious steps are not taken, the lake will be turned into a swamp within few years, which will force millions of Iranians to migrate to greener pastures.

Previous reports said Lake Urmia needs 3.1 billion cubic meters of water per year to maintain its current level.

The president set up a working group for saving Lake Urmia in the first cabinet meeting, the "Committee for Urmia Lake Restoration."

The committee prepared a 9-year plan to restore the lake, with 2023 being the year when the lake would have been completely restored.

The proposal suggests some measures on reduction of water consumption in the agriculture sector as well as transferring water from other regions into the lake.

However some Iranian experts believe that the measures which maybe efficient in reviving the lake such as prohibiting unauthorized use of surface and groundwater, limiting groundwater use by local farmers and transferring water from other catchments including Araz River are impractical and will lead to serious social tensions.

Extending agricultural lands in the region, which swallow three billion cubic meters of water resources per annum is the main reason behind the drying of the lake, according the Iranian officials.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution agricultural lands in Urmia Lake catchments were about 150,000 hectares, which extended to 800,000 hectares based on aerial photos, Nasser Karami, an Iranian physical climatologist says.

Karami who is an associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway said in his interview to Trend on July 31 that "even if we accept the official figure which put the lands under cultivation at 450,000 hectares, the area of the agricultural lands around the lake has increased by more than three times in recent 30 years."

The story doesn't end there. Changing the cultivation model in the region is another problem.

"The local farmers gave up grape farming and started to grow apples, which require 12.5 times more water than local grape," Karami explained.

So the water consumption increased dramatically in recent decades.

Karami underlined that the agricultural activities should be halted in at least half of the agricultural lands in the lake's catchments as the first step to release three billion cubic meters of waters behind dams into the lake.

However he said that the administration is not able to take the necessary steps.

"More than 200,000 jobs should be cut in the region for the purpose, which is out of administration's ability," he explained.

President Rouhani does not have any tools to revive the lake, Karami said adding that the Urmia Lake Restoration Committee is only wasting time.

"The committee only makes positive, satisfactory statements to prevent social protests in the region," he noted.

It seems that the hand-folded Rouhani has decided to follow the previous administration's policy about one of the country's most sensitive socio-ecological issues with a symbolic exhibitive committee: making positive statements, satisfying local people without taking efficient but painful steps.

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