Desert lake is mysteriously shrinking and in danger of disappearing

Desert lake is mysteriously shrinking and in danger of disappearing
·5 min read

The mysterious Lake Sawa in southern Iraq was once a very popular destination for tourists who came from far and wide to visit. They journeyed there with hopes of healing and for religious and spiritual reasons. Essential elements including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, chlorine and carbonates are plentiful in Lake Sawa's water; however, the source of its water has been a mystery for centuries.

However, now Lake Sawa is shrinking in size leaving some wondering whether it might disappear altogether. The weather could be a contributing factor to the lake's demise, but other theories abound.

"There are many people who suffer from skin diseases in this area and in the surrounding areas. They come and swim in the lake for [their condition] to improve diseases, skin diseases,'' Dr. Ali Hussein, head of the Research and Studies Centre in Samawah University, recently told Reuters.

Lake Sawa, which once boasted an estimated 7,000 tourists a year, is one of Iraq's most unique and natural lakes for even more reasons than its purported healing properties.

"It hosts a large presence in nature that is unique, rare, especially in regards to biodiversity," Dalal Ali Qais, world heritage officer at the Iraqi ministry of environment, told Ruptly in an interview. "It contains biodiverse species that are threatened with extinction on a global level. It also contains various geological activities which led to the ministry classifying it as a national heritage."

One of the most well-known lakes in Iraq, Lake Sawa, is a large closed body of saltwater situated in the desert between Baghdad and Basra. The lake is dubbed by some as "the Pearl of the South" for its beauty and unique composition, but is in danger of drying up. (REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen)

There is even a certain amount of mystery surrounding how the lake formed in the desert in the first place, but the more pressing mystery stumping locals is: Why does the lake seem to be disappearing?

Some speculate that shifting tectonic plates from earthquakes, along with drought and years of neglect following the Gulf War in 1990 and again in 2003, have turned the area into a ghost town, according to Reuters.

But no one, it seems, has been able to pinpoint what exactly is causing Lake Sawa to shrink as much as it has in recent years.

"There are many reasons for the lake drying up. There has been no main reason yet. Some reasons are linked to climate change, low rainfall, increased evaporation. Shifting tectonic plates and some earthquakes experienced by the region may have also demolished the main tributary feeding the lake," Qais said.

Earthquakes mark the shifting of two or more masses of rock, with respect to one another, along with breaks and cracks in the rock known as faults, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jim Andrews, who is also an expert in geology, explained.

"These faults can afford pathways for ground water to well up and spring forth, potentially feeding streams or lakes. However, faults can also form pathways by which near-surface water is drained back underground," Andrews said.

A given earthquake could disrupt an existing balance of flows sustaining a lake such as Sawa. Could the previous balance be restored? Andrews said such a scenario is at least plausible.

"An important aside is that Sawa is located in a harsh desert," Andrews said, noting the high evaporation and low rainfall that typifies such an environment, "and may not have existed at all were it not for the fault-related springs that are said to feed it."

Also, Andrews said it was worth pointing out, earthquakes do not cause droughts since drought is a meteorological phenomenon.

"The nearest plate boundary runs along the southern edge of Zagros Mountains -- Iran, Iraq, southeast Turkey. So the lake is not literally on a plate boundary, but any nearby earthquake faults could be related, at least indirectly, to the clashing plates," Andrews said.

According to Andrews, it is hardly unprecedented for the flow of surface and ground water to be disrupted by earthquakes, though the documented, earthquake-triggered draining of a lake may be unusual.

"It seems clear to me that the loss of surface water in a desert is potentially highly disruptive to the local ecosystem. However, as the lake is less than 3 miles long in its longest dimension, its loss should not change the regional climate meaningfully," Andrews said.

Raid Ali, Chief Engineer and Lake Sawa resident, is confident about what is causing the lake to dry up.

"The main reason is the shifting of tectonic plates underneath, which led to earthquakes in the north of the country. This caused the demolition of the oasis tributary, which, in turn, led to destroying of its feeding and exiting paths. This led to the water level decreasing. That is the main reason," Ali told Ruptly.

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Weather conditions could also be contributing factors, as rainfall at nearby places has been down over the last 18 months, AccuWeather Meteorologist Adam Douty said.

"With the overall drier conditions and whatever impact the tectonic movement had from the earthquakes, [that] could explain the drop in water," Douty said. Since a little before the start of 2020, areas not far from the lake have been experiencing drier-than-normal conditions.

Samawa, located 15 miles east of Sawa Lake as well as Najaf, which is 60 miles northwest of the lake, have both been down on rainfall over the past several years, with Samawa seeing the greater rainfall departures, Douty pointed out.

"To this end, the local government called on the Muthanna Investment Authority to look for investors to set up projects and request the Ministry of Health and Environment to assist in the revival of the lake and prevent the depletion of its water," Aamal al-Gharib, a member of the Muthanna provincial council, told Al-Monitor.

"There is a national solidarity movement to clarify the reasons for the drying up, and forming the necessary solutions and, God willing, it will get back to what it used to be," Qais said. "God willing."

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