East Kurdistan (Rojhelat), or northwestern Iran, is rich in natural resources. Yet as a result of anti-Kurdish policies, exploitation, and mismanagement, ecosystems in this region are under threat. Today, environmental destruction in Kurdistan is severe enough to endanger the lives and well-being of the millions of people who live there.
Kurdish environmentalists have responded with demonstrations, awareness campaigns, and other tactics. While they have won some regional and international recognition, they are still subjected to state repression. As long as the Iranian state’s anti-Kurdish policies persist, the unique ecosystems and natural resources of the region will be in danger.
The Disappearance of Lake Urmia
Lake Urmia, located in West Azerbaijan (Urmia) and East Azerbaijan provinces, is the second-largest saltwater lake on the planet and the largest one in the Middle East, measuring more than 5,200 square kilometers. It is fed by 13 permanent rivers and several seasonal rivers, most of which originate in the Zagros mountains. The lake has a significant impact on the local climate.
In 1995, Lake Urmia began to shrink. As of September 2022, 95% of the lake had dried out. Experts believe that this has been caused in part by global warming and extreme droughts— but also by the irresponsible construction of dams on rivers feeding the lake, irregular water extraction, and construction of a highway and bridge in the middle of the lake that limited the natural flow of water.
Since the 1990s, the Iranian Ministry of Energy has conducted 231 research and implementation projects around Lake Urmia. 88 of these were reservoir dams. Prior to 2010, more than 44 dams and at least half of the water diversion and transfer facilities became operational.
Despite the continuous deterioration in the lake’s condition, the number of wells increased from 64,400 in 2006 to 88,900 in 2011. 48,000 of these wells are illegal and must be sealed because they have disrupted the natural flow of underground water to the lake.
The construction of the Urmia-Tabriz highway and a bridge over the lake also contributed to the problem. Although the Iranian authorities deny it, studies have proven that the construction of the bridge on the lake limited the hydraulic connection between the northern and southern parts of the lake and that the construction of the highway impacted its natural water circulation.
Decreasing water levels in the lake have increased its salt density, disturbed the trophic and biological cycle, and caused a massive disruption to the surrounding wetland environment. These disturbances have had negative impacts on agriculture, the livelihood for communities living around the lake, and on the health of these populations.
The area of cultivated land in the Lake Urmia basin has increased from 335 thousand hectares to 680 thousand hectares in the past three decades. The catchment area of Lake Urmia faces severe soil erosion due to population growth and excessive livestock grazing. This has resulted in the eruption of more than 300 thousand hectares of desert lands around the lake, of which more than 16 thousand hectares contain quicksand. People likely turn to irresponsible farming practices because of de-development and state-induced poverty.
These are some dimensions of Lake Urmia’s drought that are directly related to the Iranian government’s mismanagement of water resources, environment, farming, agriculture, healthcare, education, and deep-rooted corruption.
Lake Urmia’s complete drought will soon result in horrific humanitarian and environmental catastrophes in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and the wider Middle East. Rescuing the lake seems to be impossible now. However, with sufficient management, and enough international support, especially in finding logical, scientific, approaches and solutions to restore the lake within a period of ten to fifteen years, the lake could have another chance to thrive.
The Zagros Forests
The Zagros mountain range extends from the Strait of Hormuz to the Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Its diverse ecosystem is home to several animal and plant species, including wild mountain goats, striped hyenas, and Luristan’s Newt. Many common crops, like wheat, barley, lentils, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, apricots, plums, pomegranates, and grapes, grow wild throughout the region. The most important plant species in the Zagros mountains, the oak tree, covers more than 50% of forest area.
Most of the mountain range is located within the borders of Iran and is predominantly inhabited by Kurds. Its forests have faced a fate similar to that of Lake Urmia as a result of the Iranian government’s neglect, corruption, and mismanagement, as well as changes in land use, exploitation, and irregular livestock grazing facilitated by disproportionate poverty in these regions. The state has taken advantage of local resources for decades, causing irreparable damage to the environment and its inhabitants.
Oak forests have been subjected to mass destruction and deforestation by Iranian government-affiliated corporations and individuals. Over 500,000 cubic meters of wood is obtained from cutting the trees in the Zagros forests each year. Some of the wood is used in the paper industry. It is also used by local communities who cannot afford alternatives as a source of fuel and heat—another example of how economic exploitation of Kurdish regions fuels environmental exploitation.
Mass deforestation in Zagros has contributed to other natural disasters, such as destructive floods, drought, damage to water resources, harm to local wildlife, and changes in the region’s climate. .In March 2019, following the annual precipitation in Zagros, a flood hit the Luristan province, killing 15 civilians and damaging about 72,000 houses, 49 villages, tens of historical sites, 30,000 hectares of agricultural land, and 712 schools.
As usual, the Iranian government feared that this incident might turn into anti-government unrest. To control the situation and spread fear among the people, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces were deployed inside the Luristan province. The Iranian authorities claimed that these forces were deployed to aid the damaged citizens.
Wildfires are also a major threat to ecosystems in the Zagros mountains. Containing these fires is a major challenge for Kurdish populations in the region.
The Iranian security forces, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) often bomb the Zagros mountains under the pretext of fighting Kurdish parties. These attacks cause wildfires in the forests, which are not only destroying the ecosystem and the wildlife but also put people’s lives in danger.
As Iran escalates military attacks on Kurdish opposition parties as protest activity in Kurdish regions continues, it is possible that this type of damage will increase.
Environmental Activism As Kurdish Resistance
Local communities and international experts consider state exploitation of natural resources in East Kurdistan to be a form of colonialism. Defending the environment and wildlife in Kurdistan has become a form of resistance to the Iranian state’s historical destruction of Kurdistan and oppression of its people.
After the Iranian parliament rejected legislation to protect Lake Urmia in August 2011, the people of Urmia and Tabriz took to the streets in protest. The representative of Urmia in the parliament also criticized the outcome of the vote, stating that the drought endangers people’s livelihood and will create social and political problems. Iranian security forces responded to the protestors with tear gas and plastic bullets, injuring and arresting dozens.
The August 2018 bombing of Marivan, seen as a turning point in the history of the intentional destruction of Zagros forests, drew significant attention in Kurdistan, Iran, and the Middle East. 4 renowned Kurdish environmental activists—Sharif Bajoor, Omid Hosseinzadeh, Rahmat Hakimi Nia, and Mohammad Pazhoh—were killed by Iranian shelling while fighting wildfires in the region. Though Iranian authorities claimed that the environmentalists were killed by landmines remaining from the Iraq-Iran war, human rights organizations rejected this cover-up.
The funeral for the environmentalists turned into a mass demonstration. Thousands of people from different Kurdish cities gathered to protest the death of the activists and the destruction of nature in Kurdish regions. This marked beginning of an environmentalist movement in Kurdistan named ‘Zagrosana:’ people began to raise awareness of the ecological disasters in the Zagros. This movement also engaged in reforestation efforts, planting oak seeds in regions damaged by wildfires or other forms of destruction.
During the past decade, many Kurdish environmental activists have been arrested simply for defending Zagros’s environment. They are accused of “threatening national security” and have charged with crimes such as “Corruption on Earth,” which carries the death penalty.
A Green Future?
As long as the current regime is in power, these forms of exploitation, destruction, mismanagement, and disasters will continue. The conditions of Lake Urmia and the Zagros forests are likely to deteriorate. The Iranian government appears unwilling or unable to address deteriorating environmental conditions in Kurdistan or other parts of Iran, instead preferring to respond to resulting civil unrest by force.
The people of East Kurdistan will thus be on their own in their efforts to defend the environment. Recent protests have not been able to reverse state policies. Despite this, people try to compensate for at least a small part of the damage through local social and environmental campaigns such as “Zagrosana”, planting trees, protecting wildlife, educating residents and raising awareness on the situation, protecting nature, and using more responsible agricultural methods.