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Lake Urmia in Iran's far Northwest, close to the border with Turkey, is the largest lake in the Middle East and the third largest salt lake on earth. Much like the much more famous Aral Sea, however, it has been shrinking over the past three decades, its diminishing waters becoming ever more saline. Designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1976, most of the lake has been declared a national park by the Iranian government. Yet recent droughts and increased water usage by local agriculture have both contributed to the lake's diminishing water level, in turn causing salt levels in the water to rise to 300 grams per litre, or 8 times the level of regular sea water. Environmental groups are now warning of potentially devastating consequences.
The lake is at the centre of a complex ecosystem that supports numerous species of reptiles and amphibians and is a vital stopover for migratory birds. The only creature that is actually able to survive in the briny waters of the lake is the Artemia urmiana, commonly known as a brine shrimp, which was first recorded here in 982 AD. This creature is also an important link in the lake's food chain, consuming algea in the water and being in turn consumed by birds, including migratory flamingo. Rising salt levels are now beginning to threaten the existence of one of the lake's most ancient creatures.Policymakers are slowly starting to wake up to the seriousness of the threat to Urmia's survival, having seen what happened and continues to happen to the Aral Sea which was deprived of its water sources during Soviet times in a headlong race to cultivate thirsty cotton in one of the driest parts of the Union. In 2011, thousands of people took to the streets of Urmia, the eponymous nearby town, and Tabriz, one of Iran's major cities 100 km east of the lake, calling on the government to take the problem seriously.
The Aral Sea's demise is blamed for a catalogue of ecological problems and has left a legacy of health problems among local populations. Campaigners in Iran worry that a similar disaster could befall Urmia, with ever lower water levels exposing large deposits of raw salt that in turn could be swept along by the wind, ruining local agriculture and upsetting regional weather patterns. While the area around the Aral Sea, straddling the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is relatively sparsely populated, Lake Urmia is close to Tabriz, Iran's fourth largest city and it is estimated that up to 10 million people could be directly affected by the lake's demise.Despite the gloom, Iranians are fond of taking mud baths along the lake's shores and the saline waters are said to be therapeutic for skin conditions, muscle aches and other complaints. Hossein Fatemi explored the lake's surrealist landscapes and met some of the day trippers in search of a free treatment.