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In thirsty Iran, a hunt for solutions to a shrinking salt lake (+video)

Iran's largest salt lake has shrunk by 90 percent over the last decade, one of many endangered water resources. Iran is belatedly adopting modern drip irrigation. Mar 22 is International Water Day.

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    Iranians visit a salt-encrusted beach to observe a grounded ship on the lakebed of Iran's shrinking Lake Urmieh, which presents a risk of salt storms and future health and environmental problems in Urmieh, northwest Iran, on January 23. Once one of the largest salt lakes in the world, it has lost 90 percent of its volume in the past decade and symbolizes the scale of the water crisis facing Iran today. Decades of overuse, water mismanagement and drought nationwide have made water resources a key security issue for the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which has pledged to restore Lake Urmieh with a 10-year, $5 billion plan.
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On the fringes of Iran’s shriveled salt lake, once among the world's largest, are two competing visions of the future.

One is a desiccated apocalypse, where farmers with dirt-stained hands uproot dead trees from their parched land, and where wells that once flowed with sweet water are so salty that cows won’t touch it.

“Even if you are about to die, you can’t drink that water,” says farmer Askar Alizadeh, surrounded by the twisted remains of torn-out trees near the former shoreline. “It’s a catastrophe.”

Yet a few miles away, just inland from this basin-turned-salt flat in northwest Iran, is a more promising vision. A pilot project is reclaiming an endangered farm with an efficient and pressurized irrigation system – the black plastic piping woven among grape vines and plum trees in the late-winter sun – that over the last three years has slashed water usage by 80 percent and raised crop yields.

“They have become new again,” says Abdulali Aghabalazadeh, pointing in awe to new bark and stems on his farm. Other trees, just a few steps away but irrigated the old way, are stunted, have blotchy bark and are “ruined,” he adds.

Call it the perfect environmental storm that Iran is now trying to fix after decades of water mismanagement and wasteful practices that critically threaten agriculture and human health, and have now become a top security issue for President Hassan Rouhani’s administration.  

The salt-encrusted lakebed is only the most obvious example of a water crisis – yet hardly the worst – that is belatedly spurring Iran into action.

At Lake Urmia and elsewhere, Iran is adopting water technologies used widely for decades in other countries, including perennial foe Israel. Whether it succeeds in reversing the trend of water depletion could be a test case in an unstable, parched region where dams restrict cross-border water flows, and growing populations face a thirsty future.

“Historically water has led to the creation of civilizations, and to their destruction,” says Davoodreza Arab, a water expert from Sharif University and member of a commission tasked with tackling Urmia’s water crisis. “Preserving the water for us is preserving our identity.”

A thirsty nation

Even among thirsty countries Iran is in a category by itself, consuming almost twice as much of its renewable water (81 percent) as the next heaviest global user Egypt (46 percent). Lake Urmia, which the UN heralded as a biosphere in 1976, is now another Dead Sea that has shrunk in volume by 90 percent in the past decade.

Mr. Rouhani said last October that saving Lake Urmia was “very important” and warned that wind storms spreading exposed salt particles could “disrupt people’s breathing and destroy farming lands” in 10 of Iran’s 31 provinces. In December he said agriculture and food security was more important than “the range of our missiles” in measuring Iran’s national power.

But the challenge is formidable. Iran’s annual rainfall of 200mm is one-third the global average, while the evaporation rate is thrice the world norm. A rapidly growing population faces perennial drought, a threat that is heightened by a sharp 20 percent decrease in rainfall in the past two decades, the result of global warming that scientists say afflicts many of the Middle East’s already arid countries.

“We are facing a hotter, drier future in this region, and Iran is at the epicenter of this crisis,” says Gary Lewis, the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Iran.

For years, there has been fearful talk of summertime rationing of water in the capital, Tehran – an action that would signal the gravity of Iran’s water crisis. At least a dozen provinces will have to be evacuated in the next 20 years if trends are not reversed, a water official told the Financial Times last August. Thousands of villages in Iran already rely on water tankers, the paper reported. 

“Even if we have normal rainfall, we are going to face problems,” says Issa Kalantari, a former three-time agriculture minister who heads the commission to restore Lake Urmia.

The agricultural sector absorbs 90 percent of Iran’s water, but yields just 15 percent of the nation’s GDP. Iranian households, too, are known for wasteful practices such as leaving taps on and using fresh water to hose down dusty courtyards and baking streets.

The Lake Urmia test case

To restore Lake Urmia, Iran has drawn up an ambitious $5 billion plan to boost the volume of water over the next decade five-fold from the current 2.5 million cubic meters. It’s unclear where the money will be found in an economy hammered by sanctions, low oil prices, and mismanagement. But officials say the government has made the project a priority and that mitigation is a cost-effective response.

“The lake is a pilot study for our water policies around the whole country,” says Mr. Kalantari. “We should reduce water usage for agriculture to at least 50 percent of renewable resources, or the country will be destroyed for lack of water supplies.” 

Iran is studying examples of lake conservation from the Great Salt Lake in Utah to the Aral Sea in Central Asia, and tapping into global expertise. But efforts have so far been slow. Last March, a panel of experts convened jointly by the UN and Iran’s government concluded that since 2010 plans “have not yet delivered significant action on the ground.”

Under the 10-year plan, officials aim to cut water supplies for farmers by 40 percent, while maintaining their current output with smarter irrigation techniques. Some $1 billion is earmarked to compensate farmers; another $1 billion is to improve irrigation methods. Water-intensive crops like wheat that were once the norm are now being replaced by less thirsty ones.  

Then there are the 37 big and small dams built on waterways that feed the shriveled lake. Officials have suspended five new dams under construction. And a rash of illegal wells – nearly half of the 88,000 sunk in the region – are sucking dry aquifers that are hard to replenish.

Lake Urmia may be the poster child of Iran’s water shortage, but there are many others at greater risk. In the parched northeast, Khorasan province uses 130 percent of its renewable water, and the shrine city of Mashhad – where well water levels are dropping half a meter per year – is hostage to dams in nearby Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. 

Likewise, in Shiraz to the south, farmers struggle with increasingly salty water. In central Isfahan, the river that shapes that historic city has dried up, turning farms to desert and affecting 2 million people who depend on farming. The Hamoun wetlands shared with Afghanistan to the southeast have virtually dried up too, and residents are scoured by increasingly frequent dust storms.

“Other regions are facing a more difficult situation, but we don’t see it because they don’t have a salt lake,” says Kalantari. “This is a bigger threat to Iran than the US or Israel.”

The ghost town

Along a causeway that splits Lake Urmia in half, Iranians take a weekend drive to the salt-white shore to gawk at large boats moored in the mud, or to scrape off layers of salt to take home. Maryam, a housewife, says she used to swim here with her friends. “We come here less and less because we feel sad,” she says. “It’s like someone has passed away.”

On the western edge of the lake, a young Iranian couple holds hands as they walk along the salt-encrusted lakebed. A nearby resort is virtually deserted, its picnic and ping-pong tables, playground toys, showers and changing rooms, all bereft of customers. On this bright, clear winter day, the actual water’s edge can’t even be seen. 

Water activities have given way to Go Karts and flying model planes, in a bid to keep the lakefront resort alive. Up along the main road, paddleboats shaped like swans sit high and dry, and fade and crack in the sun.

“If this continues one or two more years, we can’t live here,” says farmhand Hashem Salehi, sitting at a teashop in the village of Imam Zadeh. “If the lake disappears and the salt comes up, life will be impossible.”

“Even if the president himself says it, I don’t believe it. It’s all air,” adds another unemployed farmhand at the teashop. “Every year they say the lake will come back, but nothing happens. Why should we believe them?”

The plan’s price tag for Lake Urmia may seem expensive, given Iran’s current economic woes. But the alternatives – salt storms wrecking agriculture, freshwater wells turned to saline, spiraling health costs and the evacuation of residents from uninhabitable areas – looks even worse.

At a rough estimate, officials suggest that the wholesale relocation of Tabriz city, which has 2 million residents, would cost $500 billion, far more than Iran’s entire annual economic output.

Unless improvements are made, residents face “living essentially in a salt bowl, where dust is blowing around like a whirlwind in a Martian landscape,” says the UN’s Mr. Lewis. “Then you can’t sell apples and crops – nobody will eat them because you don’t want to bite into salt.”

A revolutionary sucking sound

After seizing power in 1979, Iran’s clerics tried to become self-sufficient in agriculture, but had little technical know-how. Dams were built before distribution channels; wells were drilled everywhere. “We focused on getting water out of the ground, but not the best way to use it,” says Kalantari.

One result is that of Iran’s total 160 billion cubic meters of “sweet” water in ancient aquifers, already some 123 billion cubic meters has been used, most of it since 1979. Of that water, 75 billion was sucked away during the 8-year rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which ended in 2013.

Generous subsidies give farmers little incentive to conserve. While most Iranians pay 2.5 cents for a kilowatt of electricity, for example, a farmer pays just half a cent. Diesel is also heavily subsidized for agricultural users. Still, despite these cheap inputs, Iran grows just 65 percent of the food that it consumes. Nor is it clear how it could ever go it alone, since only 11 percent of its land is arable (the rest is mostly desert or mountains.)

Those facts mean that “there is not a lot of wiggle room here,” says Lewis. “I’m thinking 20 to 30 years down the line to a situation that’s hellish, and the fact that we can try to fix that now by doing sensible things.”

Conservation and farming

Iran’s success hinges of making fundamental changes, from learning to conserve and recognizing that Iran’s water resources are increasingly limited, to implementing cost-effective and workable government policies.

“The people of this region would really like to see the lake restored, but one reason it is dried up is because of the people themselves,” says Hadi Bahadori, the deputy governor of West Azerbaijan province, who has a PhD in engineering. It’s “very difficult to convince the people – some of them don’t believe us.”

Waiting for salvation is the Golezadeh clan, as they look at their uprooted trees and taste the brine. The nearest fresh water is half a mile away and comes from a single spigot that serves 24 families. For a decade they have shifted to less water-intensive crops like hot peppers, though Mohammad Golezadeh complains of poor returns. “We have to make ends meet. We were born here; we don’t leave,” he says.

Several pilot projects are underway here, working with the UN’s Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project, with $2 million in Japanese funding, to educate and lower water usage. The aim is to expand ten-fold to 10,000 hectares in the next year the amount of farmland using drip irrigation, part of the 10-year plan to save the lake. 

Iran’s late embrace of drip irrigation, pioneered in Israel half a century ago and widely copied in other agricultural countries, carries an ironic sting. In the early part of the 1st millennium BC, Persian rulers built a complex and extensive irrigation system that employed vertical shafts and sloping tunnels called qanats. Many are still in use today, but have largely been superseded by modern deep wells.  

“Now it seems that the people are believing us more, because we take them to the pilot villages, and they hear from the mouths of other farmers that this has solved their issues,” says Bahadori.

Among the true believers are those on the pilot farm, where the government paid 85 percent of the cost of installing new irrigation piping and pumps. “This is California!” says Mr. Aghabalazadeh, the farmer, pointing to the black plastic tubing on his farm. The process costs $5,000 per hectare, but it has revitalized his farm.

He says farmers now recognize that modern irrigation is the way forward. “It’s going to take time, [but] when I see other farmers, I beg them to do it. If everyone does the same thing, 90 percent of Lake Urmia will be saved.”

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