HA 003: The Eyes of Earth
The death of Lake Urmia
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This photography project began in 2014 and sits as a personal photo-documentary through which I try to show the impacts of the drying of Lake Urmia on my family, the ecosystem and others living around the lake. In doing so I hope to demonstrate the interconnectedness of humans and the environment.
Iran is facing severe water scarcity. Drought combined with increasing demand for and the degradation of water has put pressure on society, created wider injustices and a sociopolitical crisis not only inside Iran but also in neighbouring countries. The crisis has impacted few places more than Lake Urmia, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the northwest of Iran, which has seen its surface area shrink by around 88% in the last three decades. The combination of increasing temperatures, climate change, excessive damming, an overuse of aquifers by locals, and booming agriculture in the region has inflicted a man-made drought on Lake Urmia.
I grew up beside Lake Urmia, once the largest lake in the Middle East and the second-largest salt lake on the planet, along with the six million other people who live in the Urmia basin, most of whom have deep social and economic ties to the lake. The Turk-Azeri people, who live around the lake, treasure it as a symbol of their identity, referring to it as “the turquoise solitaire of Azerbaijan.”
Once a thriving tourist destination, Lake Urmia provided a livelihood to countless people, including my mother’s family. My grandfather ran a lakefront motel in the tourist destination and port city of Sharafkhaneh, where my grandparents still live today and where my uncles were based as sailors. Less than a decade ago, my grandfather hosted dozens of tourists each day during the summers. I spent all my childhood summers on the shores of the salt lake in my grandparents’ house.
When the lake was still a popular destination, it was common for bathers to immerse themselves in the saline water and smear their bodies with its health-restoring black mud. I cherish those memories and still remember the sound of the waves, the chatter of beachside holidaymakers, the sulphury smell of the mud, and the salty breeze in the mid-afternoon heat.
As Lake Urmia has dried up, local tourism and agriculture have suffered. Winds that whip across the lake blow salt dust onto farm fields, gradually rendering the soil infertile. Like so many others around the lake, my grandfather’s motel and gardens now lie in ruins. The port town is now a sparsely populated village that young people flee for nearby cities, and most of the residents who have stayed are elderly. Neither port town nor salt lake resembles the place of my childhood memories.
The vanishing of Lake Urmia is much more than just an environmental hazard; it is an emotional wound in peoples memories. For those of us who remember what this place once was, the lake is much more than a receding blue spot on the world map. It is a part of our identity, and we can only hope that it doesn’t vanish forever.
In the last few years, Lake Urmia has seen rising water levels driven by heavy rains and supportive government initiatives. While this has generated hope in local communities and across the country for the idea that the drying may be stoppable, question marks remain as to whether it’s the policies or the less manageable heavy rains that are making the difference.
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