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Story Publication logo August 23, 2018

In Black and White: How Climate Change Is Affecting Iran

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The river near our city had a special connection to my teenage mind. I shot my first photos there...

The salty wind around the Lake Bakhtegan contributes to the poor health of many who live in the vicinity. Image by Ako Salemi. Iran, 2016.
The salty wind around the Lake Bakhtegan contributes to the poor health of many who live in the vicinity. Image by Ako Salemi. Iran, 2016.

Across Iran, government mismanagement, drought, and climate change are devastating some of the country’s most beautiful bodies of water. To those who have yet to feel the impact of climate change first-hand, it may seem like a distant problem with little effect on their daily lives. But to the people whose way of life depends on those disappearing lakes, climate change feels far from distant. In 2016, Pulitzer Center grantee and Persephone Miel Fellow Ako Salemi traveled across Iran to document how climate change is impacting his country with his stark black and white photographs.

Lake Bakhtegan in southern Iran used to be the country’s second largest lake. It was a gathering point for over 20,000 migratory birds during the winter, and for many other species during their breeding seasons. It was also the backbone of the surrounding communities’ way of life because they depended on it to irrigate their farmland. Now, an intractable drought caused by climate change has completely dried up the lake. Winds pick up the salt that is left over from the dried lake and sweep over the region causing disease and making the land infertile. The environment has become so inhospitable that there isn’t enough pastureland to support livestock, so many have been forced to leave their homes behind and rebuild their lives in large cities.  

Northwestern Iran is undergoing a similar transformation. It used to be home to the second largest saltwater body of water in the Middle East, Lake Urmia. Only the Caspian Sea was larger. It supported a rare species of brine shrimp which attracted migratory birds like flamingos and pelicans in large numbers. For decades, the lake supported a thriving tourist industry because it was a destination for people who wanted to swim and see the colorful birds. The region’s other key industries, agriculture and fishing, also depended on the lake. Then, beginning in the 1970s, the lake began to disappear. Deforestation depleted the forest streams that used to replenish it each year, weak regulations did nothing to stop over-irrigation, nearby dams diminished its water supply, and the same persistent drought that dried up Lake Bakhtegan struck the region. Now, Lake Urmia’s surface area is only about 10 percent of what it was in the 1970s.

Most of the lake that used to be brimming over with life is now a cracked, salty desert. The salinity of the remaining water is so high that the brine shrimp population is struggling to survive, which means that few migratory birds stop at the lake anymore. The tourism, agriculture, and fishing industries left with the water. Dangerous salt winds sweep across the region destroying pastureland and causing serious health problems including lung cancer. With no way to make a living or to protect themselves from the salt winds, people whose families have lived by the lake for generations are being forced to move away. The villages are mostly empty except for the elderly who have chosen to stay behind.  

Wetlands have also fallen victim to climate change in Iran. In central Iran, the Zayandeh River used to flow through Esfahan, a city of over 1.5 million, and from there into the Gavkhouni Marsh. Climate change together with over-irrigation began to deplete the river and the marsh it filled. As this happened, the toxic pesticides and fertilizers used by farmers in the region flowed into the marsh and further harmed the already at-risk species who lived in it. Now the Zayandeh River is dry before it even reaches the city, and the marsh is completely gone. All that is left of it is a large, salty desert whose dangerous winds are posing serious health hazards to the region. Without its main water source or any relief from the drought, more and more of the surrounding region is becoming desert. 

Hamoon Lake—which at 1,600 square miles was once the seventh largest wetland in the world—is also quickly disappearing. It depended on Afghanistan’s Helmand River to replenish its water supply, but large Afghan dams are now preventing that. Because of the dams and a 10-year drought caused by climate change, the wetland is shrinking. The local economy, which was built on agriculture and fishing from the wetland, has collapsed. The strong winds pick up the sand from the dried lake and turn into violent sandstorms which bury villages and destroy farms. Each year fewer of the 3,000 families who used to live around the lake remain as it becomes more and more difficult for them to find work. 

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