During my recent trip to Iran as part of an Aither-led WaterGuide dialogue, I was struck by the scale of the challenge and the parallels with the Australian experience. Lake Urmia, historically the largest lake in the Middle East at over 5,000 square kilometres has been given National Park status and designated as a Ramsar Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to its unique natural and ecological features. However, the lake has shrunk to less than 10% of its historical extent.
The decline in lake level and water availability is being driven by a combination of reduced rainfall and increased water demand. There have been two major stepped decreases in rainfall, compared with historical levels, since 1950. Just as in Australia, these rainfall declines have led to an approximately three-fold decrease in runoff and associated inflows to Lake Urmia. As surface water availability has plummeted, groundwater sources have been tapped at an increased rate with locals advising that most sources are falling at around 1.0m per year. The situation is dire, and communities and critical agricultural production are threatened in the very near term.
The Integrated Management Plan for Lake Urmia Basin published in 2010, articulates a vision, goal and objectives, and a target to restore the lake’s level to continue its normal ecological functions, including supporting biodiversity and Artemia (a brine shrimp) reproduction. While clearly important for ecological functioning and associated water quality, these targets do not capture all of the benefits of a healthy Lake Urmia. It is critical that the full range of beneficial values is defined in peak planning documents.
The Lake and its catchment supports a population of over 5 million and agriculture accounts for 94% of water use. Clear documentation of these existing social and economic values, combined with an articulation of their likely future state based upon the water availability trajectory described above, is fundamental if Lake Urmia is to have any chance of being placed on a sustainable footing. As Dr Kalantari, Special Assistant to the Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs on Water Diplomacy states, it is these aspects that will make people care about the problem and become part of the solution.
Pointing to the sensitivity of water scarcity in Iran and the main role of public in curbing the issue, Kalantari said the society will not care about the growing problem until they personally feel the effects of drought on their own and the next generation's lives.