An abandoned ship is stuck in the solidified salts of the Oroumieh Lake, some 600 kilometres northwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 29, 2011. AP Photo / Vahid Salemi

OROUMIEH LAKE, Iran, May 25 (AP) – From a hillside, Kamal Saadat looked forlornly at hundreds of potential customers, knowing he could not take them for trips in his boat to enjoy a spring weekend on picturesque Oroumieh Lake, the third largest saltwater lake on earth.

"Look, the boat is stuck. It cannot move anymore," said Saadat, gesturing to where it lay encased by solidifying salt and lamenting that he could not understand why the lake was fading away.

The long popular lake, home to migrating flamingos, pelicans and gulls, has shrunken by 60 per cent and could disappear entirely in just a few years, experts say -- drained by drought, misguided irrigation policies, development and the damming of rivers that feed it.

Until two years ago, Saadat supplemented his income from almond- and grape-growing by taking tourists on boat tours. But as the lake receded and its salinity rose, he found he had to stop the boat every 10 minutes to unfoul the propeller -- and finally, he had to give up this second job that he'd used to support a five-member family.

"The visitors were not enjoying such a boring trip," he said, noting they had to cross hundreds of meters of salty lakebed just to reach the boat from the wharf.

Other boatmen, too, have parked their vessels by their houses, where they stand as sad reminders of the deep-water days. And the lake's ebbing affects an ever-widening circle. …

Beyond tourism, the salt-saturated lake threatens agriculture nearby in northwest Iran, as storms sometimes carry the salt far afield. Many farmers worry about the future of their lands, which for centuries have been famous for apples, grapes, walnuts, almonds, onions, potatoes, as well as aromatic herbal drinks, candies and tasty sweet pastes.

"The salty winds not only will affect surrounding areas but also can damage farming in remote areas," said Masoud Mohammadian, an agriculture official in the eastern part of the lake, some 600 kilometres northwest of the capital Tehran.

Other officials echoed the dire forecast.

Salman Zaker, a parliament member for Oroumieh warned last month that, "with the current trend, the risk of a salt tsunami is increasing." Warning that the lake would dry out within three to five years -- an assessment agreed to by the local environment department director, Hasan Abbasnejad -- Zaker said eight to 10 billion tons of salt would jeopardize life for millions of people. …

Official reports blame the drying mainly on a decade-long drought, and peripherally on consumption of water of the feeding rivers for farming. They put 5 per cent of the blame on construction of dams and 3 per cent on other factors. Others disagree about the relative blame. …

Nasser Agh, who teaches at Tabriz Sahand University, suggested miscalculations led to late reaction to save the lake. "Experts believed it would be a 10-year rotating drought, at first," he said. But long afterward, the drought still persists, with devastating effects.

In the early 2000s, academic research concluded that the lake could face the same destiny as the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has been steadily shrinking since rivers that feed it were diverted by Soviet Union irrigation projects in 1960s. It is now less than one-tenth of its original size. …

"The lake is in such a misery because of the dams," Ismail Kahram, a professor in Tehran Azad University and a prominent environmentalist, told The Associated Press. Three-fifths of the lake has dried up and salt saturation has reached some 350 milligrams per litre from 80 milligrams in 1970s, he said. …

However, Eskandar Khanjari, a local journalist in Oroumieh, called the cloud-seeding plan "a show." He said recent rainfall was only seasonal, as predicted by meteorologists.

Scoffing at the promises of officials and what he called "non-expert views," he said of efforts to save the lake: "It seems that people have only one way; to pray for rain." …

Iran's largest lake turning to salt



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