HA 003: The Eyes of Earth

The death of Lake Urmia

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Images & Story by Solmaz Daryani | Instagram | Website

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.

My uncle (standing) steering his boat towards the shore with my grandfather (the old man with white hair) and some guests onboard. My uncle used to take guests of my grandmother out in the boat. leaving them with wonderful memories of Sharafkhaneh port and the lake. Sharafkhaneh, 1982.

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.

Children from a village beside Lake Urmia play on the dry lake. Sharafkhane port was once one of the most important and popular ports. Now it has shut down, the boats and ships now settled on the lakes dry surface. Sharafkhane, 2015.
This tea-house in Galgachi has lost nearly all its customers. The village’s population decreased from 150 to 35 households following the drying of the lake with most migrating to bigger towns or cities. Galgachi, 2016.
My grandfather had long made his living with a motel near the shores of Lake Urmia, renting rooms and offering swan boat rides to the tourists who flocked to the area. As the lake dried up, so did tourism, leaving the motel vacant and the swan boats unused. My uncles who had worked with my grandfather, leasing vessels to tourists, both left the lake for Tehran as people stopped visiting. Sharafkhaneh, 2015.
My grandfather’s motel, once never empty, now lies in ruins. Each summer he would fix the windows broken by the wind over the winter, always hopeful that those wonderful, busy days would return. He died in October 2018. Sharafkhaneh, 2015.
A shepherd returns to his home beside Lake Urmia after grazing his sheep. Agriculture around the lake is in danger as the ever-growing salt desert generates noxious dust, damaging crops, soil and air quality. Shahid Kalantari Bridge, 2016.
Workers gather salt for use in milk and glass factories. They dig and then pile up the salt so that it loses its water. They later transfer it, using heavy vehicles, to a company in Maragheh county, north-western East Azerbaijan Province. Urmia City, 2015.
Noah’s Ark” was the biggest passenger ship of Urmia lake. She ran aground in the middle of what used to be a deep portion of the lake. Some tourists now make the 5km walk from the coastline to see it. Sharafkhaneh, 2015.
As the lake has dried, residents have migrated to cities. The number of people living in those communities dropped dramatically, no longer making it economical for the old minibus drivers to travel between Urmia and the smaller villages. Residents must now walk, sometimes for hours, to reach the bus stop. Galgachi, 2016.
A desolate teahouse in the coastal village of "Sheikh-Wali", to the northeast of the lake. The water used to come right up to the teahouse. Sheikh-Wali, 2015.

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.

This ship has up until recently been stranded in salt, attracting tourists looking for an interesting photo. Now it’s in water but any recovery has a long way to go. Shahid Kalantari Bridge, 2016.

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