OROUMIEH LAKE, Iran -- From a hillside, Kamal Saadat looked forlornly at hundreds of potential customers, knowing he could not take them for trips in his boat to enjoy a spring weekend on picturesque Oroumieh Lake, the third largest saltwater lake on earth.
"Look, the boat is stuck ... It cannot move anymore," said Saadat, gesturing to where it lay encased by solidifying salt and lamenting that he could not understand why the lake was fading away.
The long popular lake, home to migrating flamingos, pelicans and gulls, has shrunken by 60 percent and could disappear entirely in just a few years, experts say - drained by drought, misguided irrigation policies, development and the damming of rivers that feed it.
Until two years ago, Saadat supplemented his income from almond- and grape-growing by taking tourists on boat tours. But as the lake receded and its salinity rose, he found he had to stop the boat every 10 minutes to unfoul the propeller - and finally, he had to give up this second job that he'd used to support a five-member family.
"The visitors were not enjoying such a boring trip," he said, noting they had to cross hundreds of meters of salty lakebed just to reach the boat from the wharf.
In April, authorities stopped activities at the nearby jetty in Golmankhaneh harbor, due to lack of water in the lake, now only two meters deep at its deepest. Jetties in Sharafkhaneh and Eslami harbors faced the same fate.
The receding water has also weakened hotel business and tourism activities in the area, and planned hotel projects remain idle since investors are reluctant to continue.
Beyond tourism, the salt-saturated lake threatens agriculture nearby in northwest Iran, as storms sometimes carry the salt far afield. Many farmers worry about the future of their lands, which for centuries have been famous for apples, grapes, walnuts, almonds, onions, potatoes, as well as aromatic herbal drinks, candies and tasty sweet pastes.
"The salty winds not only will affect surrounding areas but also can damage farming in remote areas," said Masoud Mohammadian, an agriculture official in the eastern part of the lake, some 370 miles (600 kilometers) northwest of the capital Tehran.
Other officials echoed the dire forecast.
Salman Zaker, a parliament member for Oroumieh warned last month that, "with the current trend, the risk of a salt tsunami is increasing." Warning that the lake would dry out within three to five years - an assessment agreed to by the local environment department director, Hasan Abbasnejad - Zaker said eight to 10 billion tons of salt would jeopardize life for millions of people.
Masoud Pezeshkian, another lawmaker and representative for city of Tabriz in the eastern part of the lake said, "The lake has been drying but neither government nor local officials took any step, so far."
How did this disaster develop, and what can be done now?
Official reports blame the drying mainly on a decade-long drought, and peripherally on consumption of water of the feeding rivers for farming. They put 5 percent of the blame on construction of dams and 3 percent on other factors. Others disagree about the relative blame.
The first alarm over the lake's shrinking came in late 1990s amid a nagging drought.