I must confess I was so happy that tears were welling up in my eyes. The environmental problems we create can be fixed, I thought. And here is how it happened.
First, some numbers.
When lake Urmia was full, say 20 years ago, it was estimated to contain around 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water. At the worst point, 3 to 4 years ago, it accounted for a mere 0.5 bcm of salt water. The number now stands at 2.5 bcm. The deadly decline has been reversed. The amount of water now keeps increasing month on month.
Because the amount of annual precipitation in terms of rain and snow in the basin has not changed appreciably in the last few years, we must look elsewhere for an explanation of why the lake is now filling up.
There are three main reasons. The first is engineering works to help unblock and un-silt the feeder rivers. Second is the deliberate release of water from the dams in the surrounding hills. Third, and most difficult of all to accomplish, has been a change in the way water management in the basin happens – especially among farmers. Other approaches like banning illegal wells have also had an impact.
Here are some more numbers. Three to four years ago, when the water level was at its worst, only 500 of Lake Urmia’s 5,000 square kilometer surface was covered by any water at all. That figure has now risen to 2,300 square kilometers. Admittedly, much of that water is spread extremely thin, and some tends to evaporate easily. But it is there, offering a protective covering for the estimated 6 billion tons of salt and dust, which now no longer finds its way so easily into the air, into our eyes and lungs, and onto the farmers’ crops.
This third approach – better water management – took considerable time and effort to achieve. But it appears here to stay. While practicing new roles and partnership of local authorities and communities within LU restoration process, It took painstaking effort to get farmers to reconsider how they grow their crops by modifying their agricultural techniques when growing wheat, barley, rapeseed and fruit and vegetables.
The new techniques are astonishingly simple: changing farm dimensions to make for smaller plots which retain water better; not using flooding as a form of irrigation, but rather trickle-irrigation which is targeted at the crops and thus not wasted; avoiding deep tillage which causes unnecessary water loss; introducing drought-resistant crop strains; ploughing plant residue back into the soil rather than burning it.
Across the board, in some cases the crop yield – despite using less water – has also increased by 40 per cent.
Here is a final reassuring set of numbers. Considering the normal hydrological conditions, the lake has an average of 5.4 meters and Max. depth in northern part around 15 meters. When the lake was at its worst point, the lake’s average level had dropped to almost zero. When we compare the level of the lake taken now with what prevailed at exactly this time last year, we note a 6 centimeter rise. The monthly increases have been incremental, but sustained.
The project which has brought about the improved water management is being implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Based in West and East Azerbaijan provinces with a focus on Lake Urmia surrounding cities and villages, it works closely with local farmers, provincial and national governments and others to initiate an adaptation process by implementing the “ecosystem approach”.
Following a 7 year project to introduce ecosystem approach for saving Lake Urmia, with the generous financial support from the Japanese government in recent years, as well as an inflow from the Iranian government’s own resources at both the national and provincial levels, these techniques have been successfully implemented in 90 villages. But this number represents only about 10% of the irrigated farming area in the Urmia Basin. Nonetheless, in the areas where the sustainable agriculture is being practiced, there is a water saving of about one-third of the water that would otherwise have been wasted under the old inefficient practices. This saved water can flow back into the lake, thereby replenishing it.
UNDP’s interventions to save Iranian wetlands including Lake Urmia – starting 12 years ago, but intensifying significantly with the addition of 3 phases of Japanese funds – have focused on working with local farmers, cooperatives and government to support a new model of partnership among stakeholders and initiate an adaptation process by implementing sustainable agriculture techniques. It has also advocated alternative livelihoods for women using micro-credit and biodiversity conservation.
At present the project’s interventions cover sites all around the lake, and most affected, part of the lake basin. To boost coverage from 10%, the plan is to move towards significant upscaling of this important initiative in an emblematic effort which is being recognized at an international level.
As I got on the plane to return home to Tehran in the evening, three takeaway lessons occurred to me.
First, we face powerful environmental challenges in Iran. But we can fix what we have broken. And this is happening – right now – in Lake Urmia.
Second, the public must educate itself and speak out on the environment. The UN received a petition in 2016, containing 1.7 million signatures, requesting action on Lake Urmia. The pressure has been relentless. Such pressure must be welcomed and acted upon.
Third, in the final analysis, these environmental problems cannot be solved if we act alone. The Lake Urmia response shows that it takes leadership by public authorities, acting in collaboration with the affected communities, and sometimes with support from the international community (technical support from UNDP and financial support from a partner like Japan) to do the trick.
What has happened in Lake Urmia is an example to inspire us all – both within and beyond Iran.