Iran sees ‘revival’ of imperiled Lake Urmia

Lake Urmia has been shrinking since 1995. (AFP)
Updated 30 December 2018

Iran sees ‘revival’ of imperiled Lake Urmia

  • The lake has been shrinking since 1995
  • Lake Urmia is fed by 13 rivers and designated as a site of international importance under the UN Convention on Wetlands

MIANDOAB, Iran: It is one of the worst ecological disasters of recent decades, but the shrinking of Iran’s great Lake Urmia finally appears to be stabilizing and officials see the start of a revival.

A rusty cargo ship and a row of colorful pedal boats lying untouched on the bone-dry basin are a sign of the devastating loss of water in what was once the largest lake in the Middle East.

Situated in the mountains of northwest Iran, Lake Urmia is fed by 13 rivers and designated as a site of international importance under the UN Convention on Wetlands that was signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971.

The lake has been shrinking since 1995, according to the UN Environment Program, due to a combination of prolonged drought, over-farming and dams.

By August 2011 the lake’s surface was 2,366 sq. km. and shrank drastically to just 700 km2 in 2013, according to the UN.

The catastrophe has threatened the habitat of shrimp, flamingos, deers and wild sheep and caused salt storms that pollute nearby cities and farms.

That finally triggered a coordinated effort to save the lake in 2013 — with a joint program between Iran and the UN Development Program (UNDP) funded by the Japanese government.

The project became a priority for the incoming administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

“One of my promises was to revive Urmia lake, and I am still committed to that promise,” Rouhani said during a recent visit to the region.

Some positive results are finally emerging and the lake’s surface area reached 2,300 km2 last year, according to UNDP figures.

“This is the beginning of the lake’s revival,” said Abolfazl Abesht, who heads the wetlands unit of Iran’s environment department.

He warned it would take “decades” to return to the 5,000 km2 it once covered, but at least “now the trend has stopped.”

Rising temperatures and reduced rainfall have been a major factor in the lake’s decline, experts say.

So, too, was the construction of a causeway in 2008 to shorten driving times between Urmia and the nearby city of Tabriz that cut the lake in two.

But people were also a major part of the problem due to a rapid rise in the population and farming around the lake, which provides a livelihood to some 6 million people.

The rejuvenation effort therefore focused on redirecting rivers to irrigate farmland, thus avoiding use of water from the lake, and the promotion of more sustainable farming methods.

“Almost 85 percent of the water is used for agriculture, and we are trying to help farmers reduce usage through cheap and effective techniques,” said Abesht.

Measures such as using natural instead of chemical fertilizers, or levelling the land to avoid runoff, have shown major improvements for local farmer Afshin Medadi.

The 47-year-old had to invest in new equipment, but says “things are more cost-effective now,” with his farm using a tenth of the water.

There has also been a noticeable reduction in the salt and dust pollution whipped up from the desiccated lake floor during storms, he added.

Others have launched their own green initiatives.

One group of 20 women set up a collective to raise awareness among lakeside communities about water waste, and encourage the production of handicrafts to boost sustainable employment.

One of the organizers, 39-year-old Kobra Asghari from the village of Gharehgozlou, hopes industries such as carpet and doll-making can gradually overtake traditional farming.

They are also encouraging women to plant less thirsty crops such as saffron and olives.

“We gradually managed to encourage the men to do the same,” she said.

“People are paying more attention to their environment and the dying ecosystem.”

Jordan to host Yemen talks on prisoner exchange

Updated 16 January 2019

Jordan to host Yemen talks on prisoner exchange

  • A follow-up committee will discuss implementing the deal agreed in UN-brokered peace talks last month in Sweden

AMMAN: The next stage of the fragile Yemen peace process will take place in Jordan.

The government in Amman agreed on Tuesday to a UN request to host a meeting between the Yemeni government and Iran-backed Houthi militias to discuss a prisoner swap deal that would allow thousands of families to be reunited.

A follow-up committee will discuss implementing the deal agreed in UN-brokered peace talks last month in Sweden. 

The agreement to free prisoners simultaneously was part of confidence-building measures that included a plan to withdraw from the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The two sides exchanged lists of about 15,000 prisoners for a swap agreed at the start of the Sweden talks and delegates said it would be conducted via the Houthi-held Sanaa airport in north Yemen and the government-held Sayun airport in the south.

The process would be overseen by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The operation will require the Saudi-led military coalition to guarantee that air space is secure for flights, the ICRC said.

The warring parties in Yemen have so far refused to talk face-to-face during two meetings to discuss the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, the head of the monitoring team, had to shuttle between government and Houthi representatives in different rooms.

Dujarric said Cammaert was trying to find “a mutually acceptable way forward” to redeploy forces from Hodeidah and the smaller ports of Salif and Ras Isa.

“Recent discussions have been constructive” and Cammaert “continues to encourage the parties to resume the joint meetings in order to finalize a mutually agreed redeployment plan,” Dujarric said.

UN envoy Martin Griffiths said last week there would be a new round of talks in January but diplomats said he was now looking to February.