Last update:

Shrinkage and slow restoration of Lake Urmia, Iran

The shrinking of the great Lake Urmia after dam building and groundwater pumping reduced water inflow turning the lake into an immense desert of salt.


Located in Iran, Urmia was the largest lake in the Middle East and the 6th largest saltwater lake in the world. The water levels of the lake have been in decline since 1995. According to academics, it has been declining approximately 44.3 cm each year from 1995 to 2009. The lake surface area of 5,000 square km in 1997 shrunk to one tenth of that to 500 square km in 2013. By 2017 Lake Urmia had shrunk to only 10% of its original size (1972) due to multiple causes. Academics concluded that the shrinkage of Lake Urmia is anoutcome of human interventions rather than just a meteorological anomaly. Persistent drought (climate change) contributed to the shrinkage, while other causes were human interventions such as the construction of dams on the 13 rivers feeding the lake, or the pumping of groundwater from the areas adjacent the water body. Research has demonstrated that the crisis was not caused primarily by climate change, since the lake has survived many severe droughts in the past. Reduced river discharge is regarded as the main cause of the shrinkage of Lake Urmia. In the past three decades, Iran has profiled itself as the largest dam-constructor in the world. 70 dams were constructed on the rivers feeding Lake Urmia, diverting river water for irrigation to expand the Iranian agricultural industry, which saw an increase in demand. Irrigated areas in the Urmia Basin were 158 523 hectares in 1979, but had grown nearly three times and reached 450 000 hectares by 2011, supplied by the rivers of Zarrineh Rood, Mahabad and Shahr Chye, which feed the lake. Water was also transferred via pipeline from the river of Zarrineh Rood to Tabriz. These water infrastructures greatly diminished water flows to the lake. Additionally, more than 24,000 wells were illegally dug by villagers around the northwest region, further increasing the demise of Lake Urmia. The decline in water levels can be attributed as well to the construction of a 15km causeway crossing the lake, constructed in 2008. This embankment has only a small opening of 1.2km, which effectively divided the lake in northern and southern sub-basins and impeded the natural circulation of water and sediments. As a result, salinity levels were 60% higher in the northern basin.

See more
Basic Data
Name of conflict:Shrinkage and slow restoration of Lake Urmia, Iran
Country:Iran, Islamic Rep.
State or province:West Azerbaijan
Location of conflict:Urmia
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Specific commodities:Water
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The number of dams in the Lake Urmia basin remains unclear. Some sources indicate the existence of 48 dams, others report up to 70 dams. UNEP claims that in 2012 there were over 200 new dams and irrigation projects in the design or construction phase in Lake Urmia catchment basin.

See more
Project area:483,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:6 million people live in the Urmia Lake basin, of which for 1 million agriculture is the main source of income.
Start of the conflict:01/08/2011
End of the conflict:01/10/2011
Relevant government actors:Department of Environment of Iran
Ministry of Agriculture
Regional Water Authorities of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan and Kurdistan Provinces
Regional Department of Environment of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan and Kurdistan Provinces
Urmia Lake Restauration Program
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Hamiarane zist sabz hamyaraneh: This NGO has been active since 2003 in the Lake Urmia basin. The organisation has conducted plenty of awareness activities on the situation of the lake, in the Urmia area, particularly targeting schools. The NGO has also invested in relationship building with local farmers and communities.

Rof tegarane Tabiat: This NGO focused on environmental awareness, mainly water harvesting practices and responsible water use.

Sabz Andishan: Another NGO focusing on building awareness of the environmental crisis in the area, and collecting data on Lake Urmia.
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Powerless Kurdish ethnic minority compared to the Azeri.
Forms of mobilization:Development of alternative proposals
Street protest/marches
Demonstrations took place in the streets of Tabriz and Urmia in September and August 2011 (Right to protest publicly in Iran is absent, )
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Other Environmental impactsWnd wrosion. Salinization.
Health ImpactsVisible: Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsThe receding waters of Lake Urmia have resulted in the drying of shoreline wetlands. Dust and salt from this area is carried during wind storms and causes harm to surrounding vegetation and fauna, affecting visibility and public health concerns for residents.
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Proposal and development of alternatives:In recent years, the Iranian government has aimed to restore the lake, mostly focusing on increasing the inflow of the lake. Construction of further dams was halted, and water consumption is increasingly be regulated. The lake is being restored via water transfers, for instance from the Lesser Zab (a transboundary tributary of the Tigris River). Although this is the only option available to restore Lake Urmia, such water transfers produce harmful ecological and socio-economic side effects. Further sustainable practices are required to restore the lake, in particular the water demand will have to stabilize in all sectors. As a result of the Iranian government, international organizations and NGOs, Lake Urmia was restored to 3,080 square km in early 2020. UNDP reported in April 2020 that through engagement with local communities, the area of Lake Urmia saw a reduction of water use by 25% and increasing irrigation efficiency by almost 42%.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:In July 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani approved plans for a 14 trillion rial program (over $500 million) in the first year of a recovery plan for restoration of the lake and regulation of water consumption. Earlier in March 2014, Iran's Department of Environment and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) started working on the $1.3 billion restoration of Lake Urmia.
In 2016 the Urmia Lake Restoration Program (ULRP) signed up to a project funded by the Government of Japan entitled "An Integrated Programme for Sustainable Water Resources Management in the Lake Urmia Basin" which aimed to reform the management of the Lake Urmia basin and provide livelihoods for the local population.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Effect of Dam Construction on Lake Urmia: Time Series Analysis of Water Level via ARIMA
[click to view]

Environmental crisis in Lake Urmia, Iran: a systematic review of causes, negative consequences and possible solutions
[click to view]

"Hydro-social transformations in the Lake Urmia basin, Iran", Maja Zenko. Doctoral thesis, ICTA UAB 2020. Maja Ženko's research topics include the socio-natural interactions and in particular the social impacts that the contested alterations of water flows have on the disadvantaged water users. Drawing on the political ecology approach, she is also interested in the sources and manifestations of differential vulnerability of minorities to environmental hazards. Her research was carried out in the Lake Urmia basin in Iran.

1) Ženko M., Menga F. "Linking Water Scarcity to Mental Health: Hydro–Social Interruptions in the Lake Urmia Basin, Iran". Water. 2019, vol. 11, num. 5

2) Ženko M., Uležić S. "The unequal vulnerability of Kurdish and Azeri minorities in the case of the degradation of Lake Urmia, Iran". Journal of Political Ecology. 2019, vol. 26, num. 1

Lake Urmia: how Iran’s most famous lake is disappearing
[click to view]

Jalal Shamsazaran, Urmia Lake, located in the northwestern Iran was the second largest salt lake in the world and the largest in the Middle East. The lake was protected as a national park by Iranian Department of Environment and it was one of the most famous international wetlands registered in The Ramsar Convention in 1971. Urmia Lake was registered in the list of 50 Biosphere Reserves in the program run by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program.
[click to view]

UN Environment: Lake Urmia, Signs of Recovery
[click to view]

Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project - Phase II (Scale-up)
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Lake Urmia Time Lapse
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Toon Bijnens
Last update16/08/2020
Conflict ID:4932
Legal notice / Aviso legal
We use cookies for statistical purposes and to improve our services. By clicking "Accept cookies" you consent to place cookies when visiting the website. For more information, and to find out how to change the configuration of cookies, please read our cookie policy. Utilizamos cookies para realizar el análisis de la navegación de los usuarios y mejorar nuestros servicios. Al pulsar "Accept cookies" consiente dichas cookies. Puede obtener más información, o bien conocer cómo cambiar la configuración, pulsando en más información.