Sep 05, 2011

A Lake of Salt Threatens to Destroy Communities in Southern Azerbaijan

The Iranian government has created an environmental disaster by diverting water from Lake Orumiyeh. The situation is now set to become a catastrophe.

The Southern Azerbaijani National Awakening Movement (SANAM) has written a letter calling for action from the Iranian government and the international community to address an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

SANAM is a group committed to the political and humanitarian rights of the Azerbaijani Turks within Iran and has been a strong voice against mass government arrests and detentions of Azerbaijani Turks during gatherings and protests.

Within the Caucasus and Iranian highlands and nestled in between East and West Azerbaijan, Orumiyeh salt water lake is an important body of water within Iran, the Middle East and the world. It is the largest lake in the Middle East, the third largest salt water lake in the world and a major ecological feature that attracts hundreds of species including birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1976, its environmental significance has been internationally recognized.

The Iranian government has built 29 dams shutting out water to the lake from some 21 rivers and 39 springs that feed it, resulting in a decline of the lake’s water levels by 60% since the 1970s. There is potential for this already critical environmental situation to turn into an extremely serious environmental catastrophe. As salt builds up on the exposed bed of the lake, it could potentially be blown by the winds into the surrounding  region, raining destruction on crops and spreading disease, a phenomena that has been referred to as a “salt tsunami.”  

Rather than addressing the issue, the Iranian government has begun the construction of additional dams and is reportedly designing 17 more. There have also been unconstructive suggestions from parliamentarians  to relocate the inhabitants surrounding Lake Orumiyeh .

The government’s active destruction of the lake has provoked protests of thousands of activists in Orumiyeh  and Tabriz. The protests were brutally crushed with several injured and 3 killed in violent clashes with riot police. On August 30th the Association for the Defence of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP) issued a statement condemning the brutal crackdown and calling for the release of 100 protesters who were detained as part of the protests.

The Aral Sea, which is located between Kazazkhstan and Uzbekstan, was the fourth largest lake in the world and underwent a similar transformation when the waters that fed it were diverted by the former Soviet Union. Within 40 years the Aral Sea shrunk by 90%, destroying the local ecology and those who depended on it to sustain their way of life.

The UNPO strongly urges the Iranian government and the international community to take immediate action and prevent an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. In addition, the UNPO joins the ADAPP in condemning the arrest of protestors and demanding their immediate release. 

For a digest of the media coverage of the protests, click here.