Many of Iran’s once flourishing wetlands have dried dramatically in recent years. Lake Urmia in particular, the sixth largest salt lake in the world and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is dangerously receding and threatens to vanish entirelly. Spanning an area larger than the Dead Sea and the Great Salt Lake combined, the dwindling lake lies tucked in the Zagros Mountain range in northwest Iran near the Turkish border.
Hossein Akhani, a biologist at the University of Tehran, argues that Iran’s high water consumption and energy and agriculture demands put pressure on the lake. Disturbing photographs of the lake today compared to two decades ago show that now the southern half completely evaporates in summer. Plants, migrating birds like flamingos and pelicans, a unique species of brine shrimp, and other wildlife have begun to disappear.
Akhani, a longtime advocate on conservation issues, argues that people should take emergency actions to stop the lake from contracting further. Only then, he says, can Iran try to bring water back—from dams, river flow, and treated wastewater—to replenish, revive and restore the lake to its natural state. He believes efforts to save it will be more fruitful as the international community lifts sanctions, following successful negotiations involving Iran’s nuclear program last year. As restrictions ease, Akhani says, there should be more opportunities to collaborate among scientists, conservationists, and international organizations.
Akhani traveled to Washington, D.C. in February for his first meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In a symposium titled “Iran: Science Cooperation in a Post-Sanctions Era,” he spoke in English—his second language—about Lake Urmia’s plight. Afterward, he met with me to answer questions, often pausing to translate a word properly or to convert from the Iranian calendar...
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