How 'corruption and lucrative projects' are 'killing' the biggest lake in the Middle East

·6-min read
© Observers

Lake Urmia is the largest lake in the Middle East – or, at least, it was. Over the past twenty years, this saltwater lake has been drying up. In early September, Iranian activists began sharing photos and videos on social media that show the lake’s slow transition into a desert. While the Iranian government continues to post videos highlighting their efforts to save the lake, activists say that bad management and corruption have thwarted any real efforts.

Some Iranian media outlets and activists believe that it is too late – that Lake Urmia is already dead. The water levels have never been recorded this low.

For the past two decades, Iranian environmentalists have been holding strikes and protests in an attempt to raise awareness about the disappearance of Lake Urmia. The public pressure has forced the Iranian government to spend millions of euros on saving it. However, our Observers in Iran say that the money has been wasted – both a result of corruption and the lack of a long-term, sustainable strategy.

This lake, once the sixth biggest salt lake in the world, hit its maximum levels 20 years ago. Now, it is only 8.9% of its original size.

'Their efforts just make it worse'

Omid is an Iranian environmental activist. Omid isn’t his real name, but we are protecting his identity in a country that often cracks down on activists. He told us why this lake is slowly dying and why governmental efforts to save her have, thus far, been fruitless.

“In simple terms, Lake Urmia has a water deficit. The amount of water that evaporates is larger than the water brought into the lake by the rivers that flow into it.

The water consumption of agriculture in this region is so high that Mother Nature cannot compensate for it. Farmers in this region use old-fashioned methods of irrigation, which are extremely inefficient. In fact, efficiency is around 40%, according to official estimates, which means 60% of the water used by farmers is just wasted. Safe to say this rate of water waste is catastrophic – and those numbers are conservative estimates.

The water used for irrigation come from the more than 70 dams built on the rivers that flow into Lake Urmia."

Lucrative projects and corruption

The Iranian government claims that it has spent 3.5 billion euros on trying to save the lake, but says that its efforts are in vain when faced with “global climate change”. Experts, however, don’t buy this explanation.

Much of the money that the government claims went towards “saving the lake” was actually spent on building facilities such as tunnels and canals to divert water from other rivers or regions.

The Revolutionary Guards Corps is "obviously" in charge of these lucrative projects which, after all these years, are still not completed.

And even if these tunnels were operational, they don’t offer a long-term solution. They would just transfer the drought in this region to other regions.

The government has also spent a large percentage of this money giving loans to local farmers to modernise their irrigation methods, allowing them to reduce their water consumption. In theory, this is a very good idea, but the reality is quite different.

People want to get their hands on these loans, so they’ve actually expanded farming in the region, planting crops on land that once lay dormant. All of these new fields mean more water consumption – especially because, despite the stated purpose of these loans, most local farmers are still using the old, inefficient irrigation methods.

That’s because there is little to no oversight of these loans, mainly due to corruption, and so very little of the loan money is actually spent on modernising irrigation methods.

All of this means that there is less and less water for the lake to survive. All the government’s projects just make the situation worse.

'The already scarce water will soon disappear'

While Iranian activists, media and locals continue to lament the "death of the lake", Iranian state media and their supporters refute these reports and stress that the lake is alive. They blame the low water levels on the global drought that swept the planet in 2022.

Experts, however, don’t agree:

It is rare for a lake to disappear altogether, but when a lake declines to 10 percent of its normal amount, we consider it to be past the point of return. It is dead. And that is the case with Lake Urmia.

Today, the only water that remains is found in the areas that were once the deepest parts of the lake. The state media points to these areas when they claim that the lake is still alive and that activists are lying.

However, if this continues, even what little water there is in the deepest parts of the lake will also disappear sooner rather than later.

However, on September 6, the head of the wetlands division within the Ministry of Environment, Arezoo Ashrafizadeh, stated that the lake could dry up completely by the end of autumn.

On the same day, however, Iranian state media continued to claim that the reports of the lake dying were false and published a misleading video filmed in one of the few locations where there still is a bit of water.

Our team took a look at this video and figured out the exact location where it was filmed. And while it is true that you can now see the shore of the much-reduced lake from this vantage point, just a few years ago, this location was in the middle of the lake. According to satellite images taken on September 5, the lake – once the largest in the Middle East – is now a paltry 5 km in diameter.

What’s the role of climate breakdown in the death of the lake?

Omid, our Observer, believes that things could have been done differently.

Lake Urmia did not die because of climate change. That's a lie because there are other lakes in the region – in other neighbouring countries – that are still in good condition. Furthermore, scientists carried out a study that showed that climate change is only responsible for 15% of Lake Urmia's water shortage."

"Many animals and wildlife that have lost their habitat will also disappear alongside the lake. There are many life forms connected to the lake – algae, bacteria, micro-fungi, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Many of these are endemic to the region.

Moreover, the salt storms that will develop in the lake’s absence will destroy wildlife, plants and agriculture in a vast region of western Iran. Not only will people lose their jobs, but the air they breathe will become toxic from the amount of salt carried by the wind into the towns and villages. We are talking about a real humanitarian and environmental disaster.