Efforts to stem the rapid drying up of Iran’s largest lake took a political turn this week after arrests were made in a local protest against the government’s inaction on the ecological disaster.
One of the largest salt lakes in the world and classified as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, Lake Orumiyeh has lost more than half of its surface over the last two decades due to drought and the damming of rivers feeding it.
The lake could be dried out in the next two to four years and lead to apocalyptic consequences if no urgent action is taken, according to local officials and environmental experts.
The lake’s disappearance would leave behind 10 billion tons of salt and jeopardise the lives of millions of people as well as the local agriculture, according to Orumiyeh lawmaker Javad Jahangirzadeh.
The parliament refused in mid-August to fast-track a rescue plan presented by local lawmakers to save the lake, which is situated between East and West Azarbaijan provinces in the northwest.
The refusal provoked Orumiyeh residents to demonstrate on August 27, only to be repressed by force, according to several Iranian news websites.
The confrontation was criticised by Jahangirzadeh, who warned officials against politicising “an environmental issue.”
Lake Orumiyeh “should neither become a security issue nor should it be politicised. It is a social and environmental issue that should be solved,” he said at a meeting of experts on Friday carried by the conservative website Khabaronline.ir.
“We should not confront the protests. Instead, we should better think of a solution,” he said, while acknowledging that the demonstration was “illegal.”
Jahangirzadeh said 99 percent of his constituents considered the lake to be a sensitive issue.
The city’s Friday prayers leader also called on officials to heed the people’s demands, the Tehran Times reported Saturday.
“People are rightfully calling for measures (by the government) to save the lake and the officials should respond to the people’s demands,” Hojatoleslam Gholamreza Hassani said.
Another Orumiyeh lawmaker, Nader Qazipour, echoed the remarks, saying the citizens “have the right to pursue their social and environmental demands” but urged them to use “legal channels,” the paper reported.
Several opposition websites said the authorities were concerned about nationalist slogans in the August 27 protest and other smaller scale gatherings that preceded it.
Orumiyeh lies in a region close to Turkey and Azerbaijan and its inhabitants are mainly Azeri — the largest minority in Iran representing 20 percent of the total population.
Neither the authorities nor the state media have yet taken a stance on the issue.
The disappearance of Lake Orumiyeh could lead to the displacement of 14 million people, Jahangirzadeh warned, adding that the salt dust would endanger the ecosystem of all surrounding areas, whose economy relies on agriculture and tourism.
Hojatoleslam Hassani meanwhile said salt storms could make life difficult for neighbouring provinces, including Tehran, as well as neighbouring countries Iraq and Turkey.
“So far, the government has taken no action to resolve the issue,” Jahangirzadeh said. “Thus, I ask the people to continue this trend. (The protests) should not stop until they achieve their goal.”
The proposal rejected by the parliament envisaged feeding the lake with water from the River Arax, located on Iran’s border with Armenia and Azerbaijan some 70 kilometres (45 miles) to the north.