Vol. 5, No. 23 (December 01, 2012)

Saving lake Urmia: Challenges for Azerbaijan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran, an area in which ethnic Azeris predominate, is dying, and Tehran wants to save it by diverting water from the Araz River, which forms the border between Iran and Azerbaijan.  That presents a serious foreign policy challenge for Baku.  On the one hand, Azerbaijani leaders do not want to see the environmental and human costs that the death of Lake Urmia would impose on both the ethnic Azeris of Iran and on the population of Azerbaijan itself.  But on the other, Baku does not want to see a reduction in the flow of the Araz, something that could harm its own population, or to have the Armenian government exploit this situation.

On November 19, Jabbar Vatanfada, the director of the Iranian energy ministry’s department for CIS countries and boundary rivers, said that Tehran wants to save Lake Urmia by seeking agreement with Azerbaijan concerning the transfer of part of the flow of the Araz River to that lake. [1] Huseyn Bagirov, Azerbaijan’s ecology and natural resources minister, responded two days later that if Iran wants to do that, it must in the first instance reach an agreement with Azerbaijan and that any agreement “can be reached only on the basis of existing agreements.” [2] 

“If the Iranian side officially appeals to us,” Bagirov continued, “all aspects of this issue, not only the environmental but also the political, economic and other aspects, must be thoroughly analyzed,” especially since they could affect existing agreements concerning the amount of water the two countries can take out of this border river.

Three other developments make this an especially sensitive issue.  First, the United Nations is involved, with its UNDP having allocated some 135 million US dollars to deal with the environmental consequences of the desiccation of Lake Urmia.  Consequently, any discussions will immediately involve more than just Azerbaijan and Iran.  And that, experience suggests, will make any negotiations even more difficult.

Second, the Iranians already have been talking to the Armenians about this issue.  In August, Mohammad Javad Mohammadzade, the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization, said that Yerevan has already agreed to the transfer of water from the Araz to address the falling water levels on Lake Urmia.  However, Armenia made this offer without reference to Azerbaijan, a downstream country whose ecology and economy could be profoundly compromised by the diversion of water to Iran.  That, too, is going to make it far more difficult for Baku to come to an agreement on this. [3]

And third—and this may be the most critical element in this story—the Azeris in Iran have been staging demonstrations in favor of diverting water to save Lake Urmia, demonstrations that have taken place throughout the last two years in northwestern Iran and have resulted in several deaths and a large number of arrests.  Those developments, in turn, have sparked protests by Azerbaijanis living in Turkey.  One participant in the Istanbul demonstrations said that Lake Urmia will die within a year or two, becoming a salt reservoir and destroying an ecosystem on which more than 13 million people rely. [4]
According to official statistics, 70 percent of Lake Urmia is at risk, with the water containing so much salt that there are no fish in the lake and few plants and animals around its shores. [5] In short, Urmia could quickly become the next Aral Sea, something that will put more pressure on Baku to reach agreement with Iran, talks that could also be complicated by the standoff between Tehran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program.


[1] See http://en.apa.az/news_iran_wants_azerbaijan___s_consent_for_wate_182762.html (accessed 29 November 2012).

[2] See http://en.trend.az/news/politics/2090546.html (accessed 29 November 2012).

[3] See http://www.payvand.com/news/12/aug/1010.html (accessed 29 November 2012).

[4] See http://www.todayszaman.com/news-255721-azeri-turks-in-ankara-protest-lake-urmia-drying-up.html (accessed 29 November 2012).

[5] See http://www.equities.com/news/headline-story?dt=2012-11-19&val=728625&cat=utility (accessed 29 November 2012).