Iran’s president hopes lake’s revival will boost his votes

مصاحبه روزنامه فایننشیال تایمز با دکتر تجریشی

Iran’s president hopes lake’s revival will boost his votes

 

Officials claim Rouhani’s efforts to replenish Urmia lake averted ecological crisis

 

The last time Mehdi, a beetroot farmer in northwestern Iran, voted in a presidential election it was not economic or foreign policy issues that decided his vote.

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Instead, it was the decline in water levels at Lake Urmia, one of the world’s biggest saltwater lakes, that made him cast his ballot for Hassan Rouhani, the centrist politician who secured a surprise victory at Iran’s 2013 presidential poll.

“Hardliners and [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadi-Nejad did not care about the lake. Rouhani promised to do something and we had no choice but to trust him,” says Mehdi. For him, the lake is “more important than anything else”.

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   Fears of a looming social and environmental disaster in West Azerbaijan province and the surrounding regions prompted Mr Rouhani to put the lake’s revival among his top campaign pledges.

  He went on to secure three times more votes than his five rivals combined in the province, which is home to more than 3m people, mostly Azeris who account for about a third of Iran’s 80m population.

  Once in power, his government allocated up to $7bn to be spent on lake rehabilitation programmes in the 10 years until 2023. Thanks in part to these efforts, the lake has expanded to cover an area of 2,100 square kilometres, up from a record low of 700 square kilometres. An environmental disaster has been averted, officials say, and a precedent set for how to deal with the growing array of ecological challenges Iran faces.

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 Now, as Mr Rouhani gears up for what will be a fiercely contested presidential election on May 19, he will be hoping his efforts to replenish the lake will once more draw support from a region that has traditionally shared its votes between hardliners and moderates. “Some [hardline politicians] blame us for investing this much in the Urmia lake,” Mr Rouhani said this year. “If the Urmia lake had dried out . . . we would have had a salt storm across 14 provinces . . . what disasters could have happened to the people?”

This prioritisation of environmental issues could also pay dividends for Mr Rouhani elsewhere in Iran. Across the country, people are struggling to cope with dried out wetlands and lakes. Dust storms in the southern province of Khuzestan led to electricity blackouts and water shortages in February.

  Mr Rouhani’s backers cite the lake as an example of his administration’s capable managers, in sharp contrast, they say, to his hardliner predecessors, who were widely perceived as inefficient and corrupt and did not take environmental issues seriously.

 

 A view of Urmia lake in January 2015 © Getty

  His immediate predecessor Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, who has registered to contest May’s poll, responded to Azeri protests by locking up dozens of demonstrators. His government even set up an industrial complex on the parched bed of the lake.

  The manner in which Tehran deals with Urmia is a test of how the Islamic republic looks after its natural resources, officials say.

 “Public demands to save the Urmia lake are no longer considered a security threat while the revival of the lake has prevented a real crisis for the country,” says Taghi Kahourian, deputy governor of the province. “There are no demonstrations and no arrests.”

  Drought, an increase in farming that relied on its tributaries for irrigation and construction of new dams and wells all contributed to the lake’s decline. The government banned the extension of agricultural land, dredged rivers and curbed the flow of water into the dam. Farmers were also urged to plant less water intensive crops and use more efficient irrigation systems.

  “The Urmia lake project is a unique pilot model,” says Masoud Tajrishy, director of the Urmia lake restoration programme, part of a committee set up by Mr Rouhani. “If it fails, then people will not be ready to share their water resources and we will become very vulnerable.”

  With elections now looming, the government has eased the pressure on farmers to consume less water — a clear move not to antagonise voters before polling day.

  For all the claims of success by Mr Rouhani’s government, Mehdi, who relies on illegal wells to irrigate his beetroot, still thinks more should be done.

 He argues that while farmers are under pressure to use less water, the government has “not done enough for the lake”.

 “I’ll wait to see who else will run against him [Rouhani] and if his rival has better plans for the lake and the economy,” he says. “All my childhood memories are linked to this lake. I used to float with my friends, even sleep on the water under the sun.”

 

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