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Why Iran's Lake Urmia disappeared — and may be coming back

Tucked in the northwest corner of Iran, Lake Urmia was once the second-largest saltwater lake in the world. At its peak, the lake once covered a surface area of 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 square miles), reports Iran’s Radio Farda. Its waters attracted migratory birds including flamingos, pelicans, ducks and egrets, according to The Guardian. Tourists came for its turquoise waters, boats and believed therapeutic properties.

But then the lake started to dry out. Over the past 30 years, Lake Urmia has been getting smaller. At one point its size had been reduced by as much as 80%.

Researchers blame a prolonged drought and hot summer temperatures, as well as overuse of water, new dams and irrigation projects that divert water away from the lake, points out NPR.

As the lake has shrunk, most of the birds and tourists have left. Typically, the waters are full of algae, bacteria and brine shrimp that thrive in the highly saline conditions. The water in Lake Urmia is now eight times as salty as the ocean, according to National Geographic, causing these organisms to flourish and turning the once-blue waters a pinkish-red.

Beached boats lie stranded in the muck and remnants of piers stand in the shallow waters that lead nowhere. Salt storms have harmed local villages and farmers, forcing many people to relocate.

“Just 10 years ago, waves splashed against the walls of the villages here, but now the turquoise water has been replaced by an almost endless desert,” wrote German photographer Maximillian Mann, describing his Lake Urmia photos in the 2020 Sony World Photography Awards.

“Salt, carried on the wind, covers nearby fields, causing crops to dry up. Robbed of their livelihood, the local population is fleeing to the surrounding towns, and the villages around the lake are dying out.”

Lake Urmia’s problems can be fixed

Remnants of a dilapidated dock on Lake Urmia after 2019 torrential rains have boosted hopes for the lake's survival. Remnants of a dilapidated dock on Lake Urmia after 2019 torrential rains have boosted hopes for the lake’s survival. (Photo: Solmaz Daryani [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

But there is some good news.

Torrential rains in the spring of 2019 helped the lake regain water level. According to NASA, the lake surface area reached roughly 3,000 square kilometers (1,200 square miles), nearly doubling its volume from just a year earlier.

Other factors contributing to the revival include engineering to help unblock and desilt feeder rivers, the deliberate release of water from dams in the surrounding hills and better water management, particularly among farmers, Erik Solheim, Head of United Nations Environment, and Gary Lewis, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Iran, write in Medium.

Although the water isn’t deep, the rising levels are starting to make a difference.

“It was an emotional experience,” Solheim and Lewis write. “Right before us was proof that the environmental problems we create can be fixed.”

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