The death of Iran's 'Dead Sea'

Story highlights

  • Iran's Lake Urmia used to be the largest lake in the Middle East
  • But the salt lake has shrunk by two-thirds since 1997
  • Meysam Mir Zendehdel recently documented the dying lake and its effect on the community

(CNN)Lake Urmia, in northwest Iran, once bore the weight of a ton of people. The extreme salinity of what used to be the largest lake in the Middle East allowed people to swim and relax without sinking.

Over the last 20 years, however, the salt lake has almost completely dried up along with the area's agriculture and economy.
According to the United Nations Development Program, the lake has shrunk by two-thirds since 1997 due to Iran's water crisis and detrimental agricultural policies.
    President Hassan Rouhani has pledged $5 billion to fix the problem over the next 10 years, but can this buoyant wetland rebound?
    Photographer Meysam Mir Zendehdel
    That's the hope of Meysam Mir Zendehdel, a documentary photographer from Tehran, Iran.
    In 2013, Zendehdel took a trip to the lake with some friends. At the time, he had heard stories of the lake's dissipation, but it was not until he witnessed it that he grasped the true devastation of the ecosystem.
    "After seeing it, I found it an environmental and social disaster," he said. "It was a tragedy."
    Zendehdel said it was a calling for him to document the dying lake and its effect on the community -- a photography project he said he will never finish.
    Abandoned ships and wooden planks are just some of the random remains that tell us water was once in abundance here.

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    The surrounding residential complexes and children's playgrounds are now full of salt and dust and memories of a once-bustling neighborhood.
    Bleak and austere, the atmosphere appears completely desolate. Some people still live there, according to Zendehdel, but most moved out to neighboring villages after their farms were depleted.
    "When you walk on dried crystal of salt, in the absolute silence, you hear just the sound of cracking salt crystal. You remember that the sound of water in this area had been people's life, and it's very disappointing that that silence of the lake has silenced the life," Zendehdel said.
    Like the washed-up boat in Urmia Lake, Zendehdel's passion to document the drought is strikingly clear.
    "I believe that it is my duty to show realities and facts, and the judge is up to audiences," he said.