Iran will spend half a billion dollars just in the first year in a bid to revive the once-enormous Lake Urmia, which has shrunk almost to nothing in the last two decades.
The money will mostly go to water management, reducing farmers’ water use, and restoring the local environment, says Naser Agh of Urmia University, who is a member of the steering committee of the Lake Urmia restoration programme.
In March, Iran’s Department of Environment and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) issued a plan to save the lake and the nearby wetland.
Now a recovery plan has been approved at a special meeting headed by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani. “President Rouhani accepted the programmes and ordered immediate action plans,” says Agh. The budget approved for the first year is 14 trillion Iranian rials – over $500 million. That goes well beyond an earlier Iran-UNDP plan, which called for spending $225 million in the first year of a $1.3 billion restoration.
Lake Urmia was one of the largest lakes in the Middle East, and is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. But in just 14 years it has almost vanished. Once covering 5000 square kilometres, by October last year it covered just 20 per cent of that. Its volume has shrunk nearly 95 per cent from its original 32 cubic kilometres.
The southern half of the lake has been left largely dry, and wildlife has suffered. Flamingos largely abandoned islands in the lake where they bred, and numbers of migratory ducks, shorebirds and gulls declined.
The problem is that Lake Urmia is highly vulnerable to water loss. Like the shrunken Aral Sea in central Asia, it is shallow and sits in a closed, semi-arid basin. Every year about 3 billion cubic metres of water evaporates from the lake.
Two factors have drained the lake, according to the Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project. First, a major drought began in 1998. At the same time, people have been using too much water. The number of wells pumping groundwater increased from a few thousand in 1973 to over 70,000 in 2005. There has also been lots of dam-building, so little water now flows into the lake.
It looks like that situation could now change.