Iran’s lost wetlands thirst for rehabilitation: World Wetlands Day 2015

Feb 2, 2015

Against a backdrop of baron mountains and desert, rusting boats sit marooned in the sand – anchor ropes still stretched from bows clinging to the dusty lake floor like hulks clutching to the memory of a watery past.

Today marks World Wetlands Day, and these images, in a new UNDP video above, on Iran’s Lake Urmia, the largest in the Middle East, offer a chilling reminder of how a man-made catastrophe can take such a toll on a once thriving ecosystem, teeming with fish, migratory birds and supporting agriculture and livelihoods for thousands of people.

Twenty years ago Lake Urmia was considered the sixth largest salt water lake in the world. Since then, over 90 percent of the lakes water has disappeared as a result of rapid development, unsustainable agriculture and impacts of climate change. This trend is being seen across many of Iran’s fragile wetlands.

“Many people are unaware of how much wetlands help to protect us,” said Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator in Iran.

“They help ensure fresh water for all of us. They purify and filter harmful waste from water. They serve as incubators for fish. Through fishing and fisheries they help provide livelihoods… Bursting with biodiversity, wetlands can bring us tourist revenue when they are managed sustainably,” he said.

Over 64 percent of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed since 1900 according to the Ramsar Convention, the treaty set out in the Iranian city of the same name in 1971 to conserve wetlands and their resources.

The impacts on wetlands go beyond the environment to include humanitarian and human security challenges. Gary Lewis said that when people’s livelihoods are threatened they are likely to move and they move to places where other people live. The consequences can be harsh, tensions can arise and conflicts can begin.

But while climatic and development threats remain for Iran’s wetlands, some progress is being made towards restoring them. During the past year, the Governments of Iran and Japan together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have joined forces to tackle this environmental challenge.

“By improving the way water is being managed in some of the agricultural fields in the Urmia Basin, the plan is to release more of this “saved” water back into the lake,” said Lewis. “The objective is – over time – to reallocate more water back into the lake in order to restore it to ecological sustainability.”

The Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project (CIWP), aims to help 10 important Iranian wetland areas with robust management plans, including working with villages around Lake Urmia to introduce water saving practices, which are hoped, to one day see the boats floating again the fish and birds return to abundance.

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