FEATURE: THE WHITE MEADOWS, a Symbolic Manifestation of the Lake Urmia Crisis

Aref Najafi, Co- Chair of the Lake Urmia Conservation Institute, on quenching a drying lake’s thirst with the tears of its people 

A scene from THE WHITE MEADOWS (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)

Lake Urmia is situated between the East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces in Iran, where the majority of the action in THE WHITE MEADOWS takes place. It is the largest lake in the Middle East and the third largest salt water lakein the world. It is registered as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and listed as a wetland of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, and holds one of the world’s richest bio-diversity. More than 210 species of birds such as flamingos, pelicans, spoonbills, and gulls, as well as many species of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals such as yellow deer inhabit the lake and surrounding area.

During the last decade, however, Lake Urmia has shrunk significantly and its depth has fallen by almost 7 meters (23 feet). Surface flow diversions, groundwater extraction, and the lack of efficient water management are the main factors to blame. Lake Urmia holds 8 billion cubic metric tons of salt. According to experts, if the lake completely dries up, a vast amount of salt will be released into the region resulting in an ecological, agricultural, and social catastrophe, not only in Azerbaijani cities of Iran but also in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Iraq and Azerbaijan. It will force many people to abandon their villages and towns around the lake and a vast majority of the flora and fauna will be lost permanently.

The UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) in their February 2012 Global Environmental Alert Services bulletin states:

The unfolding ecological disaster threatens to leave much of the lake bed a salt-covered wasteland. Scientists have warned that continued decline would lead to increased salinity, collapse of the lake’s food chain and ecosystem, loss of wetland habitat, wind blown “salt-storms,” alteration of local climate and serious negative impacts on local agriculture and livelihoods as well as regional health.

A scene from the August 2011 environmental protest in Urmia city (Photo: Radio Koocheh)

According to the UNEP report, drying the Urmia Lake will impact lives of 76 million people in 5 countries because of salt tsunamis.

Last year there was a peaceful protest by environmental groups in Urmia and Tabriz, which was brutally cracked down by the government. Anti-riot police forces on motorbikes attacked marchers and used pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the crowds. One of the slogans of the people was: “Let’s get together and cry to fill up the Lake Urmia with our tears.”

THE WHITE MEADOWS, with its story of a boatman who navigates the drying coast of the lake collecting the stories of heartaches and tears of its inhabitants, beautifully symbolizes what is currently happening in the vicinity of Lake Urmia. It is a story of vulnerability, a story of a society trying to find an explanation for the loss they’ve experienced. It is also a great demonstration of the complexity of socio-environmental problems: As the boatman witnesses people’s helpless attempts to soothe the gods’ anger by offering a bride to the sea or penalizing a painter who sees the world from a different perspective, he remains powerless.

The Urmia Lake Conservation Institute admires Mr. Rasoulof and Panahi’s work, and we hope to see a positive outcome for both the fate of the filmmakers and Lake Urmia crisis.

On June 4th at the Plaza Theatre in Calgary, the Global Film Initiative and the Lake Urmia Conservation Institute will co-present THE WHITE MEADOWS to raise awareness on World Environment Day. For more information, visit: http://www.saveurmia.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Calgary_event_TheWhiteMeadows.pdf. The film will also be shown on June 5th at the University of Waterloo, and on June 12th at the Ottawa Public Library.

Aref Najafi was born in Urmia city, and currently is living in Alberta, Canada. He holds Ph.D. degree from University of Alberta and upon his graduation from University of Alberta he joined the Government of Alberta. During that time he participated in development of the first regulation on oil sands. At present, Aref works in a private sector of oil sands industry.

Print Friendly
Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply