3.2 Disappearing lakes and wetlands

CORONA imagery shows the gradual disappearance of many lakes and wetlands that once were common across the Near East. Either the result of deliberate projects to drain wetlands and lakes for economic or political reasons, or as simply the unintended consequence of poor water management practices, many areas dominated by wetlands for millennia are today disappearing or have gone altogether, altering regional ecologies and affecting local communities.

3.2.1 Lake Urmia, Iran

Figure 13: Lake Urmia, northwest Iran [Static images | CORONA atlas]

A particularly striking example can be seen at Lake Urmia in north-western Iran. This hyper-saline lake was once the largest body of water in the Middle East and the third largest saline lake in the world. The expansive wetlands surrounding the lake have long provided a home to thousands of migratory bird species including flamingos, egrets and pelicans as well as supporting many other terrestrial species including wild sheep and fallow deer (Eimanifar and Mohebbi 2007). Beginning in the 1970s, numerous dam projects were begun to divert water from rivers flowing into the lake for agricultural purposes and today there are thirty-five dams in the basin, with at least ten more in planning or construction phases. A major causeway across the middle of the lake has also affected the circulation of water, causing changes in salinity and water level. These interventions, combined with domestic use of water in the lake's basin and a decade-long drought, have resulted in the lake shrinking by 60% of its size since the 1960s. Prospects for the future of the lake are uncertain, as without major changes in water management within the basin, it is on a course towards near total disappearance in the near future (Karimi 2011). The impact of the lake's shrinking on migratory bird species is already being felt, as the increased salinity of the lake has led to a rapid decline in aquatic species on which the birds once fed. The effects on local communities are also serious, as the once thriving tourist industry on the lakefront is now largely defunct. Even more worrisome for the future is the prospect that as the lake bed continues to dry, the evaporated salts within the former basin will be carried by winds to affect farmland and water resources for hundreds of miles surrounding the lake.

3.2.2 Lake of Antioch, southern Turkey

Figure 14: Lake of Antioch, southern Turkey [Static images | CORONA atlas]

In the Hatay region of southern Turkey, in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean, another lake can be seen slowly disappearing. In the low-lying valley known as the Amuq Plain, a large lake once covered much of the valley floor. Seasonally, the lake would expand to inundate large parts of the plain with shallow wetlands, and during the summer months, these wetlands would recede. This unique ecological zone supported a vast diversity of birds and aquatic species, and a culture developed on the edges of the lake that exploited this resource (Eger 2011). Unlike Lake Urmia however, the Amuq Lake, also known as the Lake of Antioch for its proximity with the nearby city, appears to have formed relatively recently. Both Robert Braidwood in his original survey of the plain and Sir Leonard Woolley inferred that the lake must have formed in the recent centuries, because during the 1930s it submerged numerous archaeological sites (Braidwood 1937; Woolley 1955). More recent geomorphological investigations concluded that while a lake did probably exist in the region during the early and mid-Holocene, it was restricted to a small area in the centre of the basin (Wilkinson 1997; 1999; Wilkinson et al. 2001). Not until some time during the Roman period did the lake begin to expand, reaching its largest extent in the late medieval or early modern periods.

When the Hatay region was subsumed by French authorities in the years following World War I and then under Turkish rule after 1937, the extensive wetlands in the plain were seen as a liability—a mosquito-infested, malarial marsh with little economic value. Beginning in the 1950s, attempts were made to drain marshlands to make way for expanded agriculture in the plain. In 1966, a major project was begun to divert inflow from rivers into the lake in order to fully drain it and convert its basin to agricultural purposes, a project ultimately completed in the mid-1970s. Drainage of the basin provided a large area for cultivation and substantially reduced problems with malaria that had once been endemic in the region, but have begun to create new problems including a negative impact on migratory bird species, increasing salinity of soils due to poor drainage, and a rapidly lowering water table resulting from a dramatic decline in recharge (Çalışkan 2007). The low-lying basin remains prone to flooding and has seen destructive floods destroy crops and homes in recent years, while the dropping water table has resulted in the collapse of buildings and roadways. A CORONA image from March 1969 shows the lake as drainage projects had begun and agriculture was making inroads on the edges of the lake and in areas of seasonal wetland to the north-east.

3.2.3 Marshlands of southern Iraq

Figure 15: Marshlands of southern Iraq [Static images | CORONA atlas]

One of the most notorious cases of ecological and cultural devastation wrought by the draining of wetlands is found in southern Mesopotamia, a region where extensive marshlands once thrived (Jones et al. 2008; UNEP 2009). Fed by drainage from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the far southern Mesopotamian Plains, the marshlands covered an area of more than 20,000 square kilometres, supported a diverse array of wildlife, and were home to a vibrant local culture of marsh Arabs who relied on a combination of fishing, raising water buffalo and limited farming for subsistence. These communities utilised a unique style of reed-based house construction, located on elevated areas within the marsh formed by ancient river levees or mounded archaeological sites, and many of these villages are clearly visible on CORONA imagery from the 1960s. Archaeologists have long understood the importance of this environment to the ancient societies that flourished in southern Mesopotamia (e.g. Algaze 2001), and some have even argued that the world's earliest complex societies grew up within these marshlands, relying largely on paludal resources rather than on irrigation-based agricultural economies as has been traditionally thought (Pournelle 2007). In the 20th century, the marshlands of southern Iraq were predominantly populated by Shi'ite Arabs who revolted against the rule of Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War. In retribution, the Iraqi government began a massive effort to drain the marshlands by diverting waters that sustained the wetlands and over the next decade, the vast majority of marshland was totally desiccated, transformed into parched desert interspersed by irrigated farmland. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced, many within Iraq and others to beyond its borders. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, efforts were begun to restore some marshland and today as much as 20% of the former marsh has been revitalised. Local communities have also been provided with other means of accessing clean drinking water. Nevertheless, the devastation of both the environment and communities in this area may never be fully repaired. As part of the United Nations-led effort to restore the marshlands and the communities who lived there, a remote sensing-based monitoring system was established, relying primarily on Landsat multispectral imagery from the early 1970s to establish a baseline against which recent interventions could be evaluated (UNEP 2009). Our CORONA imagery from the previous decade offers another potential dimension to this monitoring effort, providing much higher-resolution and older views of marshland in which individual houses can even be mapped.


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