The first cabinet decision made under
Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, wasn't about how to resolve his country's
nuclear dispute with world powers. It was about how to keep the nation's
largest lake from disappearing.
Lake Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater
lakes on Earth, has shrunk more than 80% to 1000 square kilometres (nearly 400
square miles) in the past decade, mainly because of climate change, expanded
irrigation for surrounding farms and the damming of rivers that feed the body
of water, experts say.
Experts fear the lake – famous in years
past as a tourist spot and a favourite stopping point for migrating flamingos,
pelicans and gulls – could disappear within two years if nothing is done.
Tourists and jobs gone
"The lake is gone. My job is gone. My
children are gone. Tourists, too," said Mozafar Cheraghi, 58, as he stood
on a dusty platform that was once his bustling teahouse.
Less than a decade ago, he recalled, he
hosted dozens of tourists a day, with his two sons taking them on boat tours.
His children have since left to pursue work elsewhere.
Read: Drought endangers 500,000 childrenSaving the lake
The president is putting an emphasis on
tackling long-neglected environmental problems critics say were made worse by
his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An engineer with an appetite for giant
populist projects, Ahmadinejad pursued policies that led to the expansion of
irrigation projects and construction of dams.
"Rouhani stands by his campaign
promise to revive the lake," Isa Kalantari, a popular scholar appointed by
Rouhani to lead the rescue team, said at an international conference in
Oroumieh this week.
The gathering brought experts from Iran and
around the world to discuss the best options for reversing the trend and saving
Iran from a major environmental and economic disaster.
"Don't blame nature and drought. Human
beings, not climate change, are responsible for this situation. We dried up the
lake because of our excessive demands and wrong methods. Now, we have to revive
it ourselves. Five million people will have to leave this region if the lake
dies," Kalantari said.
Read: Drought and global warming are killing off plants
Kalantari and his team are to come up with
a final rescue plan by May.
Twenty proposals are on the table for
saving the lake, including cloud-seeding to increase rainfall in the area and
the building of pipelines to bring in more water. Experts have also proposed
the creation of other industries to reduce reliance on agricultural water.
The government has already begun a project
to raise public awareness and encourage farmers to abandon wasteful practices
and adopt drip irrigation systems that save water. It is also urging farmers to
switch to less-thirsty crops. Wheat and pistachios, for example, use less water
than sugar beets.
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