The risk of a complete dry-up is looming over Lake Urmu, this precious 6000 Km2 wetland, once ranked as the second largest saline lake in the world and located within Azerbaijan, Northwest of Iran. Official statistics show that some 70% of the lake has dried up since 1995. If this manmade situation is not stopped immediately, it will disappear all together within the next two year, leaving behind 8 billion meter cube of salt. The impacts are alarming, as this newborn vast saline desert is in the process of instigating a new microclimate, the least of which is “saline storms” blowing over the region to undermine the very existence of a population of 14 million Azerbaijanis in its immediate vicinity. But the risk is equally grave within 500 Km radius with uncalculated impacts on the lives of the regional population, flora and fauna of the region, agriculture and the environment.
Let us remind ourselves of the past status of Lake Urmu. It was registered by UNESCO in 1976 as an exceptional Biosphere Reserves (also registered by the Ramsar Convention of the UN Treaty Series No. 14583 adopted in 1975) but this also includes a strategy for its preservation. The Iranian authorities breached all these conventions, neglected their responsibilities and failed to take notice of the warnings by international organizations. Instead, the Iranian authorities resorted to their iron fist policy against the protests orchestrated by Azerbaijanis demanding the reinstatement of Lake Urmu. As a result, the Iranian authorities repressed and imprisoned the protesting Azerbaijani environmentalists. The Iranian authorities have drawn their red line, within which they have assumed arbitrary powers:
- to breach any ecological/environmental norms and conventions;
- to impound all the rivers within the Lake Urmu basin without drawing up any basin management plans;
- Not to formulate any management policies on thousands of deep wells operating in the basin of the lake.
The outcome is a serious encroachment onto the hydrological cycle of the region ever since 1995, where Lake Urmu plays a critical role. As a result, the runoff from the rivers and watercourse of the basin into the lake reduced to trickles and this has stopped completely in the last three years. The past evaporation regime has been seriously upset by the massive shrinkage of the areal extent of the lake and by the fall of its vertical depth. This is likely to kick in a positive feedback process to bring the remaining water bulk to the point of a complete eradication. This means that re-priming the lake may not be feasible anymore. The core of the problem is that the Iranian monolithic approach during this episode has been a top-down process involving the Iranian Ministry of Energy, Iranian Ministry of Agriculture and The Iranian Department of the Environment. They have collectively masterminded a vast program of impounding every watercourse in the Lake Urmu basin. The outcome is frightening and evident from the current status of the lake, summarized as follows:
- Three quarters of the area of Lake Urmu has been transformed into saline wasteland from the ecologically precious wetland habitat
- It is the largest manmade desert in the 20th-21st century
- Already, the villages surrounding the lake have been depopulated
In 2012 a sum of $135 million was allocated by the United Nations Fund for Development to the authorities in Iran for saving Lake Urmu. Regrettably, this fund was not spent on saving Lake Urmu and so far no single step has been taken to this end. Instead, the Iranian authorities organize many meetings with no outcomes; they resort to megaphone populist ploys with no avail; and their empty promises to the vulnerable at-risk population defies any common sense.
This precious wetland of Lake Urmu is the heart of Azerbaijan in terms of its nature and economics. If remedial measures are not implemented immediately and now and if its hydrological cycle is not restored, the damage will be permanent and this environmental catastrophe will be transformed into a human catastrophe with incalculable damage.
We, human rights activists of Azerbaijan, appeal to the United Nations and international organizations safeguarding the environment to campaign for the urgency of saving Lake Urmu. Time is now to demand that the Iranian authorities stop breaching their obligations, as well as:
- Immediately stop impounding all the watercourses within the Lake Urmu basin and implement a controlled program of dewatering all the dams.
- Compensate the farmers for the damages they have sustained as a result of the basin management blunders of the Iranian authorities and at the same time rationalize water use of the region through a strategic plan with a holistic account of the water balance covering groundwater, surface water and river flows.
- With view of the ongoing Iranian blunders, the Iranian authorities must employ international expertise for saving Lake Urmu and allow for decision-making by participating of the 14 million at-risk population of Azerbaijanis exposed to the unfolding risk.
- Immediately release all the individuals and activists imprisoned or detained safeguarding the environmental integrity of Lake Urmu.
Arc-culture for Human Rights en Azerbaijan
NB: Current altitude is 1270.61 (this must be wrong) and 97% of its volume has been lost. With the crisis that faced the lake we must expect increased cancer and respiratory diseases in people who would be affected by the results of the Lake.