An environmental alert – plus ways to solve current water challenges in Lake Urmia

Mar 22, 2016

  What once was Hamoun wetlands - now dried out

By: Gary Lewis, UNDP Resident Representative


Today, we face insecurity in the region, including what comes from the barrel of a gun.

But although the threats posed by the emergence of Da’esh and others are truly terrifying – and we must strongly condemn and countermand them – I believe that another form of insecurity will confront the Middle East in the near future. Indeed, it is already in our midst.

This security threat comes from an angry environment. This is threat to human security. And it will last much longer. This threat of an angry environment comes from two sources.

The first is the way we are managing (or in many cases mismanaging) our natural resources.

If we look elsewhere in the region, a scarcity of water combined with poor water management has already measurably contributed to conflict. In Syria, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now understood that both drought and poor farming practices drove farmers from their villages several years ago. This has, in part, led to the crisis which Syria has endured for half a decade with ex-farmers becoming swept up in that country’s conflict.

The second source is the relentless onrush of climate change.

I believe that the impact of climate change has not yet been fully appreciated by many countries in the region. In specific parts of the world – especially the semi-arid, hot and dry climates such as what characterizes Iran and the Middle East region generally – the impact of climate change will be especially harsh.

The overall global trend in climate change is that wet areas will become wetter and dry areas drier. In Iran’s semi-arid climate, projections are that the environment will become hotter and drier. Climate change will tend to magnify all other environmental challenges, including water scarcity, land degradation, soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

Both of these trends will conspire together to produce human insecurity.

I have often spoken of the need for statesmen and women to wake up and recognize that in the modern world security needs to be framed in “human” terms. And I do so again. We must direct our real security focus towards people’s wellbeing. Their ability to breathe clean air. Their ability to consume food which is both nutritious and sufficient. Their ability to access safe water. Their ability to have decent jobs and provide for their families. This is what the term “human security” – which was popularized by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) over two decades ago – really means.

There are around 7 elements of human security to consider, but I will choose to focus on environmental security for the present purpose.

Here in the Middle East, our focus must remain on water – the element which sustains all life on the planet. Water is the key to future human security concerns of the Middle East. People will tolerate many things. But if – without access to sufficient clean water – they lack even the basic ability to survive then tension will mount and competition over resources will produce conflict.

  NASA's latest picture of Lake Urmia

Water loss is tracked by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) which derives data from a pair of satellites operated by NASA and Germany’s aerospace center. GRACE measured groundwater usage between 2003-2009, and found that the Tigris-Euphrates Basin—comprising Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran—is losing water faster than any other place on the planet except northern India. Since the GRACE measurements, anecdotal evidence shows that the situation has only gotten worse.

While scientists have been able to record falling water levels, political analysts have simultaneously observed rising tensions. InIraq, the absence of a strong government combined with drought and rapidly-shrinking aquifers seem somehow related to a spate of assassinations of irrigation department officials and clashes between rural clans. Some observers say that these local feuds could easily escalate into full-scale armed conflicts in the future.

Iran also faces a precarious water future. Some trends are alarming. Lake Urmia and the Hamoun Basin in Sistan & Baluchistan are both under serious threat. Tens of thousands of local residents have left especially the Hamouns.  A similar situation is now emerging in other parts of the country including Isfahan and Khuzestan. Even in villages and small cities in central Iran, the ancient water is being over-pumped mainly for agriculture. Iran is quickly losing its crucial and limited water resources and its associated livelihoods and habitats.

Iran should learn from the mistakes made in the region and pay considerable attention to the impact of both water management and climate change in Iran. I believe that Iran should re-consider some of its ongoing older-style form of development planning for water which focuses on dam construction and massive agriculture projects, and a hyperactive approach to extracting underground water. This approach should be immediately re-considered because it has contributed to the problems we currently see in the country. It may well contribute, in future to increased involuntary in-country migration.

The Lake Urmia case requires special attention. Well-intentioned but hastily-developed plans to build dams in order to open up more land for agriculture has effectively destroyed the main water sources which used to feed Lake Urmia. This process is not unique to Iran. Some other countries, like those surrounding the Aral Sea, have witnessed similar environmental catastrophes. In 2013, President Rouhani correctly observed that an Aral Sea like situation is what awaits us in Iran if action is not taken. Here is what he said in 2013: “What happened to Lake Urmia, is not a common experience […] If we do not act in time, Lake Urmia will become like Aral sea.”

But solutions are possible. We can recover. But to do this we should learn from other countries and their mistakes.

Since 1966, UNDP has been on the ground working to support Iran. In recent times, one of our areas of focus has become conserving Iranian wetlands – particularly helping to save Lake Urmia. Building on the back of a project which started in 2005, during the past two years, and in close collaboration with the Department of Environment, East and West Azerbaijan governorate offices, Ministry of Agriculture Jihad as well as participatory cooperation with local communities and authorities, a UNDP project, supported by a grant from the Government of Japan, has been able to introduce and implement sustainable agricultural practices which consume less water and fewer chemicals without leading to a reduction in yield.

To date results show that an average of 35% water saving has been recorded in the project area. Farmers’ incomes have even increased due to the reduced cost of water, chemicals, and farming processes. These successes have grown out of lessons learned from our initial joint project which has been up-scaled.

One farsighted donor – the Government of Japan – has recognized that environmental problems do not stop at borders. They have sought to help and have provided US$ 2 million in the past two years towards the solution.

Our project’s expansion phase is now in its third year. We are now covering 10% of the Lake Urmia basin. This will hopefully save at least 188 million cubic meters of water which can feed back into Lake Urmia and restore the livelihoods and habitats of the lake and its residents.

But the effort needs to be up-scaled even more. Our contribution is one of many. But it is not enough. We invite everyone to get engaged in protecting Iran’s precious environment – in Lake Urmia, in the Hamouns and elsewhere – to ensure water access for everyone. All are welcome. All hands count.

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