What role can the Ramsar Convention play in protecting Lake Urmia in Iran?

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Lake Urmia

Written by Siavash Ostovar, Doctoral Student and a member of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Research Group

Lake Urmia located in the north-western part of Iran between the two provinces of East-Azerbaijan and West-Azerbaijan was declared a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in 1971 and designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve in 1976. It is also designated as a ‘National Park’ in Iran. The Lake is drying out and it is in its worst condition ever. Over the years, the water level has been declining continuously and there are different reasons causing such degradation.

The direct drivers (i.e., climate change, highway and dam constructions around the Lake, over-exploitation of water) and indirect drivers (i.e., growth of agriculture in the region and inefficient irrigation methods and poor water management) have been considered as the causes of wetlands’ degradation. The shrinking of Lake has also led to detrimental consequences such as climate change in the region, agricultural degradation, threats to human health, migration problems, threats to the tourism industry, threats to flora, fauna and habitats.

Accordingly, my research investigated the effectiveness of the legal regulations of the ecosystem of Lake Urmia. To study the effectiveness of the legal regulation around the Lake Urmia, a complex array of international and national legal provisions which to a large extent converges around the Ramsar Convention were scrutinised. This convention was signed in 1971, in Ramsar City, Iran. The Convention focuses on ‘wetlands’ and how States should ensure their management, conservation and stewardship. Lake Urmia is indeed 722 Km (448 mi) from Ramsar City.[1] The Ramsar Convention is considered the first global agreement to address the conservation and enhancement of wetlands as a particular part of the ecosystem.[2] The Ramsar Convention is the intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.[3] Since 1975, almost 90% of UN member states, from all the world’s geographic regions, have acceded to become ‘Contracting Parties’.[4] UNESCO is responsible for the adoption of the Ramasar Convention and performs secretariat functions.  

In my research, the drying up of Lake Urmia is used as an example to study the weaknesses of the international and national rules and regulations aiming at protecting the environment in general and wetlands in particular. In highlighting the local effects of such a crisis, the thesis argued that there is an urgent need for global action to preserve such essential environmental assets across the world. We all depend on the natural world for our survival, so every environmental degradation becomes a concern touching us all.

In order to investigate the opportunities and challenges to implement the Ramsar Convention in Iran, my research focused on the following concepts and provisions of the Ramsar Convention:

  • Definition of the wetlands (Articles 1 and 2)
  • Listing approach (Article 2)
  • Exclusive sovereign right (Article 2)
  • Wise use (Article 3)
  • Ecological character of wetlands (Article 3)
  • Information exchange (Article 4)
  • Financial resources (Article 6)
  • NGO participation (Articles 7 and 8)

The thesis showed that a successful plan for conservation and sustainable use of Lake Urmia and their resources and for the benefit of present and future generations needs a rigorous study of the current condition of the Lake in combination with an in-depth analysis of their feasibility concerning existing legal, political, administrative constraints. Hence, in Iran, it is crucial to regularly review the national laws on/related to wetlands management, share information between involved legal bodies, designate a competent body to wetlands management, and ensure political support for effective national laws and policies on wetlands.


[1] Behrah , ‘ Ramsar route to Urmia’ ( Behrah ) < http://behrah.com/direction.php?sid=473&did=28>

[2] Sands P and Peel J, ‘Principles of International Environmental Law’ (3rd end, Cambridge University Press 2018) 492-493.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ramsar Secretariat, ‘ About the Ramsar Convention’ ( Ramsar.org 2014) < https://www.ramsar.org/about-the-ramsar-convention>