Iran’s Environmental Ticking Bomb

(Zaman, Turkey)

Many experts describe the Iran’s nuclear program as a ticking bomb. They might be correct, but the Islamic Regime’s nuclear program is not the only bomb ticking in Iran. Virtually unnoticed by the international community, Iran’s environmental policies could be just as devastating as its nuclear program.

Last month, Iran’s Parliament rejected an emergency bill to divert water from the Aras River to Lake Urmia in northwest Iran. Covering an area of 2200 square miles, Lake Urmia is the largest lake in the Middle East. The lake is rare pearl and, until recently, it was home to 212 species of birds, 41 reptiles, 7 amphibians, and no less 27 species of mammals. However, the construction of dams on 13 rivers that feed the lake has significantly decreased the annual amount of water Urmia receives. This has increased the salinity of Urmia’s water, causing the lake to lose its significance as home to thousands of migratory birds and many of its own inhabitants.

The plight of Lake Urmia dates to the 1979 revolution when the new industrious Islamic government ordered the construction of a road cutting through the middle of the Lake. Even then, environmentalists warned that since most of the rivers that pour into the lake are on the north side, the part on the south side of the road would be choked and dry up. But the revolutionary government knew better. Soon the southern part started to shrink.

The sad story of Lake Urmia is similar to that of the Aral Sea where the disastrous development plans of the all knowing Soviet Union in 1940s created irrigation canals that diverted 70% of the water that used to pour into it. By the 1960’s the Aral Sea began to shrink. Yet instead of changing course the Soviet planners decided that the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the northeast, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, grains , and cotton. This brilliant idea effectively signed theAral Sea’s death sentence. Today there is very little left of the once glorious Aral Sea: the sea has shrunk to two-fifths of its original size, its basin has turned into a salt desert; all 20 known fish species in the Aral Sea are now extinct, unable to survive the toxic, salty sludge.

Just as in the Soviet Union, rather than fixing the problem, the Iranian government made it worse. A decade after the construction of the road, the Islamic government decided to build dams on the rivers that feed Lake Urmia in order to improve agriculture in the area. Despite repeated warnings and opposition of experts, 50 such dams were built over the past 20 years, blocking the rivers that used to feed the lake. The dam construction industry did well. Billions of dollars were spent on government contracts given to Iranian officials. But this was also the death sentence given to the lake and a devastating blow to over 5 million people who live in its vicinity.

The rejection of the bill – which itself was a half baked measures with unknown consequences – nonetheless angered the local population. A week after the vote, on Aug 24th, security forces attacked and arrested 30 environmental activists who were apparently organizing a peaceful protest in an attempt to draw a halt to the seemingly inevitable environmental catastrophe.

The crackdown, however, did not have its desired effect. Last Saturday protesters poured on to the streets of Urmia in the thousands voicing their anger and frustration at the government’s policies and lack of a plan to save the lake. Citizens of Other cities in the region quickly joined the protest. Video clips of street fights between protesters in Urmia and Tabirz and security forces quickly surfaced.

As sad as Lake Urmia’s story is, it is unfortunately not the only pending environmental catastrophe in Iran that is caused by the greed and indifference of the Islamic officials to the warnings of experts. The Upper Gotvand Dam, an embankment dam on Karun River in Khuzestan Provence is another example. Experts say the location of the dam was poorly chosen since the vast area behind the dam has billions of metric tons of salt. The lake behind the dam will gradually dissolve the salt and will turn it into a salt water lake that will have a devastating effect on the ecosystem of Karun River.

It remains to be seen if the small group of the Environmental activists will succeed in convincing the Iranian government to act. In the mean time, as dozens of them remain detained, the lake continues to dry out. This sad story is just another reminder that we need to push the Islamic regime a little harder…

Nir BOMS and Shayan ARYA – Strategic Outlook

Nir Boms is a co-founder of Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran (Liberal Democrat). Both are members of the “Iran: all rights reserve? Coalition.”

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