Inequity creates a water crisis

Posted on December 18, 2015

Lake Urmia, in western Iran, is a Ramsar-listed Biosphere Reserve and one of the world’s most significant salt lakes. Until recent times it had a length of 140 km. However, its size has been reduced by 90% as a result of forest destruction and short-sighted water policies. A recently-published case study of Lake Urmia offers a salutary lesson on the pitfalls of poor aquatic management. Around 90% of the water loss in the lake is associated with reduced inflows and dam construction, and the other 10% with lowered rainfall caused by climate change. The loss of water has lowered the groundwater level by over 16 m in some places, and has increased the salt concentration to about 340 g/litre. The high salinity has depleted the biomass of resident brine shrimp (which prefer salt levels of around 200 g/litre) and the populations of waterfowl that they support. In addition, wind-blown salt from the exposed lake bed is responsible for a spike in serious human health problems. Historically, flows from rivers arising in the oak forests of Kurdistan have played a central role in maintaining water levels in Lake Urmia, but much forest has been lost to urban and agricultural development. A system of positive feedback has been created. The reduced water supply shrinks the lake, which weakens local climate control, and the resulting hotter, drier conditions further increase the demand for irrigation. In addition, since 1999 a pipeline has been used to transfer about three billion cubic metres of water per year to the north-eastern (Azeri Turkish) part of the watershed from the forested (Kurdish) areas in the south and west. This has benefitted the Azeris, who are Shi’a Moslems and occupy most of the influential government positions, at the expense of the Kurds, who follow the Sunni faith and inhabit relatively underdeveloped parts of the country. In 2011 and 2012 the growing ecological and economic crisis led to huge public demonstrations and demands for sustainable water management. The authors of the case study propose that, in the immediate term, the pipeline be abandoned, to reconnect the river’s headwaters to the lake and create a more equitable water supply. In the long-term, the focus should be on forest restoration, to maintain the lake’s water sources. The authors also recommend that all local communities be involved in decision-making for lake restoration and that national oil revenues be shared more evenly. Finally, agriculture should take advantage of more drought-tolerant crops and more efficient systems for the use and re-use of water.

Reference: Khalyani, A. H. et al. 2014. Water flows toward power:
socioecological degradation of Lake Urmia, Iran. Society and Natural Resources 27, 759–767.