"A lake is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."
Henry David Thoreau
I grew up beside Lake Urmia, which was once the largest lake in the Middle East and the second-largest salt lake on the planet. The nearly six million people who live in the Urmia basin have deep social and economic ties with this shrinking body of water. The Turk-Azeri people, who live around the lake, treasure it as a symbol of their identity, calling it "the turquoise solitaire of Azerbaijan."
Once a thriving tourist destination, Lake Urmia provided a livelihood to countless people, including my mother's family. My grandfather ran a lakefront motel in the touristy port city of Sharafkhaneh, and my uncles were sailors. I spent all my childhood summers on the shore of the salt lake in my grandparents' house. I cherish those memories and still remember the sound of the waves, the chatter of beachside vacationers, the sulfur smell of the dark mud, and the salty breeze in the mid-afternoon heat.
The (once) great salt lake
Salt lake Urmia remains a UNESCO biosphere reserve. However, the lake has lost 88% of its area and 80% of its volume since 1972 due to increasing temperatures, excessive dam constructions, water mismanagement, population growth, and agricultural sector expansion to ensure national food security after eight years of the Iran-Iraq war.
As Lake Urmia dried up, local tourism and agriculture suffered. Winds that whip across the lake blow salt dust to farm fields, slowly rendering the soil infertile. Like so many other people around the lake, my grandfather's motel and gardens now lie in ruins. The port town is now a sparsely populated village that young people flee for nearby cities. Most of the residents who have stayed are elderly. Neither port town nor Salt lake resembles the place of my childhood memories.
The vast consequences of this environmental catastrophe have finally triggered a coordinated effort to save the lake. Rescuing the lake has been an international effort and collaboration between Iranian government ministries, the Urmia Lake Restoration Program, and UNDP. Between 2018 and 2019, above-average precipitation has helped to turn the tide. however, there is still a long way to go for the lake, and it's far from its glory days.
In this long-term ongoing personal-environmental story that I started in 2014, I tried to demonstrate the impacts of the drying of Urmia Lake on my own family, ecosystem, and people living around it to reflect the interconnectedness of humans and the environment.
The vanishing of Lake Urmia is much more than an environmental hazard; it is an emotional wound in people's memory. For those who remember what this place once was, the lake is much more than a receding blue spot on the world map. It is a part of our identity, and we can only hope that it does not vanish forever.
Years of creation: 2014 to 2021 (ongoing)