Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental and societal issues. Our student, Erin Jackson, makes this connection here…

On January 30, 2014, The New York Times published an article entitled, “It’s Great Lake Shriveled, Iran Confronts Crisis of Water Supply”. The WRE issue involves both hydrology and hydraulics. It focuses on the specific issue of water supply. In summary, as a result of wasteful irrigation, the construction of numerous dams, and the depletion of ground water supplies, Iran’s Lake Urmia has all but dried up. According to the local environmental office, only five percent of its water remains. At one time Lake Urmia was 90 miles long and 35 miles wide, one of the largest lakes in the world. The water was always salty, and never fit to drink, but the loss of the lake indicates broader environmental issues. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, six major dams were constructed along fresh water rivers that supplied the lake. The Chahchai Dam now has a lake of its own, used almost entirely for irrigation. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the water that should be flowing into Lake Urmia is sprayed on crop fields. Iranians are growing grapes and sugar beets, particularly water intensive, in semiarid region. Around Lake Urmia, temperatures have risen 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last decade.

Based on my engineering education, the WRE facts presented in the news article appear accurate.  An article published in Wiley InterScience Hydrological Processes confirms Iran’s water usage for irrigation as being inefficient, with large negative impact on the hydrological balance of river basins and lakes (Faramarzi et al. 2009). In addition, the United Nations lists Iran as having 1,704 m3 of freshwater per capita per year (World Bank). This places Iran just above the level of water stress, 1,700 m3 per capita per year according to the United Nations definition of water stress.

The New York Times article could have been improved by discussing other areas around the world facing similar problems. The Aral Sea, between Uzbekistan and Kazikhstan, Lake Chad surrounded by Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria and Owens Lake in the United States are all drying up. Identifying these locations would have given the reader a better understanding of the global scope of such water resources issues.

This Water Resources Engineering issue involves the larger context of society and economics. It influences the relationship between people and their government as well as business and local livelihoods. According the article, the government is drawing up plans for water rationing in the greater Tehran area, home to 22 million people. Disputes over water rights and riots have already begun. A UNEP article concerning the environmental consequences of the lake drying confirms the political strife. In 2011 protesters gathered in the streets of Urmia and the city of Tabriz saying that authorities had done too little to save the lake (Pengras, 2012). Iran has not set aside any money to restore the lake or address the broader water resources problems. In addition to the societal stresses, economics are also impacted. Around the lake, businesses are suffering from a loss of tourism. People from all over Iran and the world used to come to see the lake’s flamingos, water ski, and cover themselves in the lake’s black mud, said to have healing powers. Therefore, wasteful irrigation, overzealous dam projects and climate change have caused a water shortage leading to political unrest and loss of economic opportunities.

An abandoned ship rusts in the mud on the south shore of Lake Urmia (The New York Times)

An abandoned ship rusts in the mud on the south shore of Lake Urmia (The New York Times)

Lake Urmia’s shoreline in 1998 and 2011

Lake Urmia’s shoreline in 1998 and 2011

Works Cited

Erdbrink, T. (2014). It’s Great Lake Shriveled, Iran Confronts Crisis of Water Suply. The New York Times.

Faramarzi, M., Abbaspour, K. C., Schulin, R. and Yang, H. (2009), Modelling blue and green water resources availability in Iran. Hydrol. Process., 23: 486–501. doi: 10.1002/hyp.7160

World Bank (2014). Renewable internal freshwater resources (per capita, cubic meters). Data retrieved February 19, 2014, from World DataBank:World Development Indicators database.