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Cities Fall to Taliban as Government Forces Struggle; France Expands Use of COVID Health Pass; Summer Olympics Wrap Up After Yearlong Delay; Fires Raging in Greece Spurred on By Extreme; Drought Conditions Fuel Dozens of Wildfires Across 15 States; Iran Fights to Save Once-Historic Saltwater Lake; China Under Growing Pressure as Beijing 2022 Nears; The Olympics that Reshaped Mental Health Awareness; Business is Booming for Wedding Planners, Dating Apps. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired August 9, 2021 - 01:00   ET



MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us all around the world. I'm Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.

Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM:

Government forces being overwhelmed as the Taliban seized a string of cities in Afghanistan. One of the risks of regional instability, I'll discuss that and more with my guest.

Plus, after two weeks of competition and a long year of waiting, the Olympic flame in Tokyo is out. The 2020 Games over. We'll have more on the closing ceremony and where the torch is headed next.

An exclusive report on Iran's dying lake and the efforts to revive it, another example of the devastating effects of climate change impacting the world right now.


HOLMES: The Taliban, now controlling most of at least four provincial capitals in Afghanistan, underscoring how heavily Afghan government forces relied on Western military power to hold the militants back. The Taliban's relentless push kicked in to high gear when Western forces began their withdrawal in May. They seized rural areas first. But now, they're going after major cities.

A local official says that most of Kunduz, a significant city in Northern Afghanistan, fell on Sunday.

Taliban video, which can't be independently verified, purports to show a government compound after the militants took over.

Nick Paton Walsh has more on the string of major setbacks for Afghan forces.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: And unprecedentedly bad 72 hours for Afghan security forces and their government. Startling to see the first big city fall to the Taliban since the U.S. began their withdrawal. That's Kunduz. There is still fighting going on there. We understand Afghan security forces are trying to push the Taliban out of that major city. They have been successful twice in the last six years, when the insurgency overran it for a brief period of time.

But Kunduz fell after an awful 72 hours for the Afghan government. They lost their first provincial capital near the border with Iran on Friday. And two others appear to have fallen, possibly another as well, bringing a total of five that may be under threat for the Taliban, all falling to them in the last 72 hours. And, I think the concern is that this is the sign of the momentum the insurgency have.

The Taliban have been quite powerful in rural areas that are less populated. That is where they found themselves easy -- more easily able to gain territory. But it's been cities that the Afghan government to focus or security forces on and if we now, as we see in the last few days begin to see those cities fall to the Taliban, the concern, possibly, is that security forces will now feel overstretched, feel the efforts they put into some cities, and not rewarded to them being held by the government.

There is intense fighting going on in Lashkar Gar in the south, in the province in Helmand, the place where many American and NATO soldiers have lost their lives.

And so, the concern I think, possibly is the sense of Afghan security forces maybe being overstretched at some point in the days and months ahead. U.S. airstrikes in the past have successfully held the Taliban back when they move into urban areas. It is so much harder to use them when the Taliban and the fighting against them is happening in densely populated areas too.

The U.S. saying that they have been using airstrikes in the recent fighting. The Taliban whose track record themselves of civilian casualties is appalling accusing them of, in fact, possibly airstrikes having hit civilian targets. That's something the U.S. has not directly commented on.

But startling though, to see the pace in which these four, possibly five key cities, including Kunduz, the first major city, seemed to be falling to the Taliban. It is possibly reversible, but certainly, the sense of this momentum behind the insurgency something which is new, possibly unprecedented, for the last 20 years.

Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, London.


HOLMES: Now, as Nick just reported, the Taliban offensive has led to a troubling number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

[01:05:02] According to the United Nations, more than 1,600 civilians were killed in armed conflict in the first half of the year. That's the highest number of casualties since 2018, for the same time period.

And the United Nations warning that the number of deaths could rise even further, as the Taliban sets its sights on more Afghan cities.

Joining me now, from Brisbane, Australia, is Peter Layton. He is a visiting fellow with the Griffith Asia Institute.

Thanks you for being with us, Dr. Layton.

I want to show people a long war journal map of Taliban control, which shows the speed with which the Taliban have swept the country. And as we watch this map turn red, you can see exactly how quickly it's happened.

What is happening in this hugely significant city of Kunduz as well? When you see what is on folding, are you, in any way, surprised? Or was this entirely predictable after the West pulled out?

PETER LAYTON, VISITING FELLOW, GRIFFITH ASIA INSTITUTE: I was very surprised at the speed of it. I would suggest that the speed of it indicates that the Taliban has been planning this, probably, for around 12 months. And that they have received a reasonable amount of support from, say, Pakistan, in the terms of the provision of vehicles and weaponry. And the Taliban are, the present time, following a script if you like, and they're moving remarkably quickly.

HOLMES: But from what you are seeing, what is the trajectory of events? Is there any way for the Taliban to be stopped? I mean, what happens if the north of the country is lost?

LAYTON: Of course, if we -- if we sort of go back sort of 20 years ago, when the West intervened in the Afghan civil war, the coalition forces intervened on behalf of the anti-Taliban forces, who occupied 10 percent of the northern part of the country. The Taliban, clearly, have tried to close off that loophole.

So, we are moving towards the situation where the Taliban versus the anti-Taliban forces, which will be the government and the warlords. So, bearing in mind, this is a civil war, so this is all for the people, if you like. It just depends on how many Afghans support the Afghan government or support the Taliban.

HOLMES: What is -- what is really concerning to is far from the Taliban separating themselves from al Qaeda, as they promised the U.S. they would do, they are, in many places, fighting shoulder to shoulder with al Qaeda. One of the risks you see of terror bases, al Qaeda, or for that matter, ISIS being reestablished, on Afghan soil?

LAYTON: I think very high. But the question is, who will the targets be? The trouble for Pakistan is that, now, Pakistan has really tied itself to the Taliban. If the Taliban start launching terrorist attacks out of Afghanistan, the world will be concerned. But, there's also not just Pakistan, but China, and Russia as well,

and providing support for the Taliban, and forums like the U.N. Security Council.

So, you have a difficult situation where you almost have a proxy army there if you like, although terrorist groups. It'd be interesting to see sort of what China, Pakistan, and, to a certain extent, Russia do about reining those separate teams (ph).

HOLMES: Well, also, I mean, you've got some of those countries who have supported the Taliban and encourage them and now might get blowback from them.

You raised an interesting point, the risk of regional instability with the Taliban takeover. You've got India and Pakistan competing for influence. You point out that China, and Iran, and Russia -- they've got their own interests.

Do they face risk of blowback with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan next door?

LAYTON: I assume the Pakistan will be trying to encourage the Taliban towards striking into India and, in particular, into Kashmir. So, certainly, there are dangers there, although a renewed Pakistan-India conflict, so downstream, say 12, 18 months time.

HOLMES: The U.S. has said before the Taliban want to rejoin the international community, travel freely and so on, and so, would negotiate and share power. Well, clearly, that's nonsense and was a pretty naive approach. There doesn't seem to be any sign of them doing that.

Do you think the Taliban care what the world thinks, the Western world in particular?

LAYTON: I don't think they care what the Western world thinks. But they will care to a certain degree what Pakistan thinks. The question is how much Pakistan can control the Taliban?



Yeah, one other thing I wanted to ask you, do you think that there's a risk for the Taliban domestically that having gotten their chief demand, which is the departure foreign forces, that they're continuing to fight and the killing of fellow Afghans might backfire on them in terms of whatever grassroots support they have? They're killing their own people.

LAYTON: That's the sort of great hope I would suppose, as I said, this is this is a civil war for the people and if a large enough number of Afghan people don't want the Taliban, then the Taliban might be able to quickly conquer the sergeant boots (ph) sort of approach, but then holding ground might get -- might get more and more difficult. Bear in mind, of course, nations like India and even the U.S. might do

as before (INAUDIBLE) anti-Taliban forces.

HOLMES: And will those groups attack within China, which has its own restive Muslim population as well?

Dr. Peter Layton, a lot to talk about, a lot unfolding as we speak. Really appreciate you joining us from Brisbane there.

LAYTON: Thank you very much, Michael. Always.

HOLMES: Well, French cafes, restaurants and long distance chains are now off limits to those without the controversial health pass. The government is expanding the list of restrictions to try to contain the 4th COVID wave. People must be fully vaccinated, have a recent negative test, or show that they have recovered from COVID in order to get their health pass.

But the measures continue to be met with anger and resistance from some.


HOLMES: For the fourth straight weekend, hundreds of thousands protested the health pass around the country, as well as a new mandate for caregivers to get vaccinated.

Across the Asia Pacific region, many people back in lockdown and health systems being pushed to their limits due to the delta variant.

Cities in China have rolled out mass testing and imposed some lockdowns with case numbers kicking up. The country reporting 125 new infections on Monday, most of them locally transmitted.

Vietnams saw a record number of new cases Sunday, almost 9,700 according to state-run news. All but six of those cases locally transmitted.

Also on Sunday, the Philippines posting its highest daily death toll since early April. New infections soaring there and Manila is under strict lockdown.

Let's get all the latest from Steven Jiang live in Beijing.

Where you are in China, there is zero tolerance policy on locally spread cases. But they're still getting some. What is the latest there and regionally?

STEVEN JIANG, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: That's right, Michael. You know, you mentioned the latest figure from the government, but, of course, there's one number local officials here are watching very closely and nervously is the number of locally transmitted cases because of that policy. And that number stood at 102 recorded on Sunday.

This is still obviously a small number compared to what we are seeing in many parts of the world, but here, it's unacceptable because of that policy and increasingly, we are seeing local officials being punished or even sacked whenever a new cluster of local cases emerge in their jurisdictions. That's why we are seeing local authorities across the country adopt ever more stringent measures.

You are seeing more rounds of mass testing, more extensive contact- racing and increasing draconian lockdown measures, as well as travel restrictions being applied to ever larger population, especially in and out of Beijing, which, of course, is the host city of the upcoming Winter Olympics, and we are actually just six months away from the start of those games.

But there have been some questions or even subtle suggestions from Chinese experts that the government may want to rethink its approach, and try to adopt policy to coexist with the virus. But that notion has now been very harshly rejected with a series of state media editorials and commentaries over the weekend with one former health minister lashing out at any suggestion that China should actually take a page from Western governments' approach, pointing to what he calls their utter failures and also telling the government to not only stick to its current policy but strengthen its measures, including border closures.

So with these upcoming games, Michael, at this stage, do not expect to see any international spectators and even athletes or reporters coming in should expect to go through very stringent quarantine requirements, as well as complying with the bubble requirements -- Michael.

HOLMES: Yeah, it's not long now.

Steven Jiang in Beijing, thanks so much, Steven.

An alarming reality here in the U.S. where COVID numbers are skyrocketing, erasing months of progress in containing the virus. According to John Hopkins University, the U.S. averaging more than 100,000 cases a day, largely driven by that delta variant and the unvaccinated. Those are the highest numbers in nearly six months.


And while vaccinations have been ticking up recently, only a little more than half the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

And health experts say it's taking a heavy toll.


DR. FRANCIS COLLINS, DIRECTOR, U.S. NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH: We would not be in a place we are right now with this delta surge if we've been more effective in getting everybody to take advantage of these immunizations. And now, we're paying a terrible price as the cases go up quickly.


HOLMES: As of just over an hour ago, people in the U.S. who are fully vaccinated now have one more option when it comes to leaving their country, but as Paula Newton explains, it doesn't work both ways.


PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's official now. And despite the rising incidents of the coronavirus in the United States, Canada has now reopened its border to fully vaccinated Americans and U.S. residents. That is the first time in more than 16 months and there are family reunions and Americans who have not seen their Canadian properties in months. They can now cross at the land border.

But what's interesting here is that the Biden ministration has not reciprocated. If you are Canadian and you are traveling for nonessential reasons, you can't cross at the land border, although in what is -- functions more like a loophole, Canadians have been able to go to the United States by air since the pandemic started.

Canada itself is now dealing with what Canada's top doctor, Theresa Tam, says the beginning of a fourth wave. But the level of vaccination in Canada is now so high that many public health officials say it is time to safely reopen the border and that begins with fully vaccinated Americans. Fully vaccinated international visitors should be able to enter Canada in September.

Paula Newton, CNN, Ottawa.


HOLMES: Quick break here on the program.

When we come back, Tokyo wraps the Summer Olympics after facing a number of challenges and a raging pandemic. We'll take a closer look.

Also, CNN sports analyst Christine Brennan shares her views of these Olympic Games and what the athletes told her about their experience.

We'll be right back.


HOLMES: Tokyo has now put out the Olympic flame, as it wraps a challenging, and one of a kind event.

You can see there, fireworks marking the official end of the Summer Games, which were postponed, of course, last, year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With safety protocols in place, athletes competed for two weeks, without spectators.

In the end, Team USA topping the gold and overall medal count for the third straight summer games.

CNN's Blake Essig with more from Tokyo.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BLAKE ESSIG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The competition is over, and the curtain has dropped. Last night, Tokyo 2020 took its final bow inside the national stadium, bringing an end to an Olympic Games like no other. I spent all day yesterday, outside of a national stadium, as one of the lucky few to be inside to witness the closing ceremony in person.

Like every event I attended throughout these games, it was a surreal experience to sit inside the 68,000 seat stadium, seemingly all alone, and watch the celebration of sport, the fireworks, the parade of nations, the athletes, was strange -- it was strange watch the thousands of athletes come out into the field waving to essentially a couple hundred journalists. That being said, it is an amazing experience, something I'll never forget.

But throughout the night, I couldn't help but imagine what it would've been like to experience that celebration alongside the people of Japan. Honestly, it is heartbreaking. This is not the Olympic Games anyone wanted, and definitely not the Olympics of people of Japan have observed.

At the same time the celebration was taking place inside, on the outside of the stadium, protest was being held calling for the Olympics and Paralympics to be canceled primarily because of health and safety concerns. In fact, you could hear chance of cancel the Olympics from the outskirts of the stadium.

While it wasn't a big protest, it was a reminder of the fierce opposition towards these games, felt by a majority of the Japanese people. Many could get these Olympic Games were held against the will of the people.

Blake Essig, CNN, Tokyo.


HOLMES: CNN sports analyst, Christine Brennan, joins me now from Tokyo. She is also a sports columnist for "USA Today".

Great to see you.

Look, we spoke at the start of these games, so it seems fitting to book end it with another -- a chat. So, obviously, the atmosphere was always going to be different at these games, perhaps even problematic. Was it as you expected, more, or less so?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: I think as we expected, Michael, there weren't really surprises in the sense that we knew that there would be no fans, and there were no fans. Some arenas were and stadiums, or more cavernous feeling than others. I spent the first week at the swimming venue.

And then, with all of the teams, you know, so you have the Australian team, the U.S. team, the Chinese, team, et cetera, cheering on their swimmers. There actually was some sound in the arena and you did have a sense that there were people there. And also, when the performances are excellent, when the races are

great, really, the only people who could save these games for the athletes. And time and time again, they really did, in terms of on the field of play. And in that sense, it did seem like a real Olympics.


BRENNAN: And most other ways, it wasn't. But, certainly, there was that sense that the athletes trying to save the day.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I know you talk to him, but what did the athletes tell you about their experience? When it meant to them? And how different it was? Could it be a special was a normal Olympics?

BRENNAN: You know, almost to a woman and man, Michael, they were so appreciative of having the opportunity at all that they would take whatever they got. So many athletes, from Katie Ledecky, to Caeleb Dressel, to Lilly King, the American swimmers, the Australian swimmers, Ariarne Titmus, they had no idea this would even happen. They've lived a last year and, what, almost a year and a half, as we all have. But this is their dream, and they had no clue if this long wait would end in an Olympic Games.

And so, to have that happen, which they knew obviously a few months going on, they knew what's going to happen, I think that was the overriding thought, and that they left is as appreciative as any other group of athletes I've ever seen.

HOLMES: Athletic highlights for you?

BRENNAN: Certainly swimming just because I was there in that first week and it's nothing but races and medals, and anthems, and, Katie Ledecky, as I mentioned, is coming back at 24, two gold, two silver, Caeleb Dressel, five gold for the Americans, and the Australian women were just amazing in the pool.

Certainly, Allyson Felix comes to mind, the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete ever, at 35, who also thought for working moms and equal pay. Allyson Felix, the American runner, getting that gold in the women's 4x400 relay.

I would say also the Simone Biles story. I mean, who would've thought that she would leave the silver, and a bronze, and we would be talking about her in such glowing terms. But the way she brought that mental health conversation to the front and to the fore was remarkable and will be, obviously, remembered for generations to come.

HOLMES: Yeah, I want to ask, though. Despite the pandemic, too, I mean, for Japan, they did so well. I mean, they really outperformed expectations. Wouldn't you agree?

BRENNAN: Oh, absolutely. They had a Great Olympics.


BRENNAN: It happened in the pool. It happened all over. They were just -- they really. They had a great Games. Often this does happen with the host nation, because once you get the games seven or eight years beforehand, usually, the host country will ramp up. They will throw money into youth sports.


They will -- we saw it with Canada, in Vancouver 2010. We saw it with Russia in Sochi in 2014. We've seen over even Seoul, Korea, back in 1988. Over and over again, nations decide that they really want to have a great Games, and the government, or whoever, will throw went to money to try to develop those young athletes in time.

And that happened in Japan, and they were great. There is some real pressure on the Japanese swimmers, and runners, and, you know, all of the karate, and judo. There was pressure because they knew the eyes of their nation were on them. Surveys have said that 90 percent of the Japanese population launched at least some of the Olympic Games.

They couldn't buy in. They couldn't buy tickets. They couldn't be there, but they still, launched and I think they lost with pride, as their country, men and women, really, hadn't an excellent Olympics.

HOLMES: Yeah, yeah. I think I will always remember the skateboarding 13-year-old, who are the happiest competitors I've ever seen, and the two high jumpers. The Italian, and I think the Qatari who shared the gold. They were my little highlights.

I wish we had more time, but we don't. They're cutting us off here.

Christine Brennan, always a pleasure. Great to see you there in Tokyo. You did a great job.

BRENNAN: Michael, my pleasure. Thank you.

HOLMES: Football superstar Lionel Messi wants his Barcelona fans to know just how hard it is for him to lead the club. He got emotional farewell on Sunday from the place he's called home for the past two decades.

Messi himself was the most emotional as he tried to articulate the end of one of the greatest careers in Barcelona football history. He is not saying what comes next, though, it's bee reported that the French super club Paris Saint-Germain has offered the star striker a two-year deal. Messi says nothing is official.


LIONEL MESSI, FORMER BARCELONA FOOTBALLER (through translator): Well, that's honestly one possibility to reach those heights, at the minute. I have nothing confirmed with anybody. Honestly, when the press release was published, I had a lot of calls, a lot of clubs who are interested. At the minute, I have not got anything closed, but we're talking a lot of things.


HOLMES: A quick break here on the program.

Coming up on CNN NEWSROOM: wildfires in Greece forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. And there's no guarantee they'll have homes to come back to.

And, on the U.S. West Coast, the evidence of just how devastating wildfires can be, as the Dixie Fire rages out of control in California. Why one state leader says it's the sign we need to tackle climate change now.

Plus, lakes drying up, water is scarce, people on edge in Iran, which is facing its worst drought in 50 years. How the country is trying to fight back against climate change, when we come back.



HOLMES: And welcome back to our viewers all around the world.

I'm Michael Holmes. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Firefighters are struggling to put out wildfires in Greece. These pictures are from the island of Evia where uncontrolled flames have forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One evacuee says it is quote, "like a horror movie".

Greece has been battling major wildfires since early August spurred on by the country's worst heat wave in three decades. At least one person has died, dozens of homes and businesses have been destroyed.

In Turkey fire crews have been battling wild fires for 12 straight days now. They've had success containing some of the fires in the country's southern coastal provinces. But the fires have been some of the worst in the country's history and the heat and dry air are just making things worse.

All right. Let's talk more about the extreme heat driving these fires with meteorologist Pedram Javaheri, Pedram.

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Michael, you know, I was looking at this in the data showing that 200 plus locations scattered about Greece seeing temperatures in the past week exceeding 40 degrees Celsius -- really incredible heat wave that is not just into the interior portion or central region, but you get toward these coastal communities and the temperatures equally or even in some cases warmer than spots you'd otherwise see be the hotspots.

But here's what's happening. These are images and you noted across Evia, this island which is the second largest island in all of Greece. And you notice, the incredible amount of hectares consumed here, the incredible amount of evacuations all in place.

And Evia is just about 80 kilometers north of Athens. Of course, very densely forested region. One of the most beautiful areas in all of Greece, if you've ever visited this portion of the world. And unfortunately now it has become kind of a global effort here for countries such as Poland, Romania, Sweden, Germany, Italy, on into the United States that have all sent help and efforts with not only just firefighters on the ground but also aircraft to be able to help our friends in Greece battle these fires.

But you'll notice the thermal signature of the fires in recent across Europe is not just isolated for Greece, Italy or Turkey, but really scattered largely across the southern periphery of Europe, even northern portions of Africa.

And the concern, of course, is we've seen extended periods of drought. We've seen excessive heat. When you look at that data since the 19th century earth's average air temperature has risen by generally, just a rough point or so degrees. One degree above average. And then you'll notice 0.8 degrees increase in its sea surface temperatures.

And it's really important, because warmer oceans they absorb less CO2. They absorb less of our air temperatures and heat. So of course, that kind of creates a feedback loop where we have drier conditions that lead to additional fire activity and that has been precisely the case in 2021.

Notice some 222,000 hectares of land consumed versus what is normal for this time of year, Michael. And that is over 150 percent of what is normal here for an average year.

So if you think we're talking a lot more about fires every single year, every single year that number increases beyond the previous year. And unfortunately that is happening again here in 2021, Michael.

HOLMES: Some pretty stark warnings out there for all to see.

Pedram Javaheri showery. Thanks so much. Appreciate it. Now severe drought conditions in the western U.S. fueling devastating wildfires there. There are now more than a hundred active wildfires burning across 15 states.

The largest by far, the Dixie fire in northern California. It is now the second largest fire in state history, scorching nearly 2,000 square kilometers. That's larger than all of greater London. Right now, the fire is just 21 percent contained and still growing.

CNN Camila Bernal is in the town of Paradise.


CAMILA BERNAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The smoke is thick and it's unhealthy. If you look here behind me you're normally supposed to see a canyon, instead you're seeing it filled with smoke.

That smoke coming south from the Dixie fire. And it's not only flooding this canyon, but also the communities nearby. The Dixie fire has been burning for almost a month. And we are seeing it growing, but we're not seeing much progress on containment.

We are also seeing the number of structures destroyed by this fire increasing. It's now at about 400 structures destroyed by this fire.

Governor Gavin Newsom using this weekend to visit the town and using the visit to talk about climate change.



GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM (D-CA): The extreme weather conditions, extreme droughts leading to extreme conditions and wildfire challenges the likes of which we've never seen in our history.

And as a consequence we need to acknowledge straight-up, these are climate-induced wildfires. And we have to acknowledge we have the capacity in this country not just the state, to solve this.


BERNAL: And Governor Gavin Newsom did point to prevention, talked about things like managing the forest. But made it very clear that more needs to be done.

He also thanked the 8,500 men and women who are working to stop this fire.

Camila Bernal, CNN -- Paradise, California.


HOLMES: In the coming hours the United Nations is set to deliver its first full update on climate science since 2015. The inter- governmental panel on climate change is expected to provide its most conclusive look yet at how human behavior is accelerating global warming.

The leader of this conference says continued failure to act on climate change will result in catastrophic consequences for the world.

Now, Iran is already seeing the effects that catastrophe. The country once boasted one of the world's largest saltwater lakes. Well now it's been reduced to a fraction of its former size with the surrounding ecosystem nearly destroyed.

As the Iranian government grapples with water shortages and the social unrest that has ensued, it is also fighting to revive this dying lake.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen with our exclusive report.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): From a lush, natural paradise to a dry salty desert, global warming is literally evaporating what once was the largest lake in the entire Middle East, Lake Urmia in Iran, the sixth largest salt lake in the world. (on camera): All around the Lake Urmia, you can see the impact of the global climate emergency on the communities here, on the people, their livelihoods and, of course, also their future.

(voice over): The authorities tell us today Lake Urmia is less than half the size of what it used to be.

The shrinkage is due in part to dam projects around here, but mostly due to years of severe drought as our planet gets hotter.

Ahad Amadi (ph) was a tourist photographer on the boardwalk in what used to be the beach resort, Sharat Hanei (ph).

"Believe it or not, this photo was only taken in 1995 when tourists still flock here," he says. "People would come here for swimming and would use the mud for therapeutic purposes. They would stay here for several days," he says.

The ferryboats many used to cross the lake now lay stranded on the salty crust, slowly rusting away. This Google Maps animation shows just how fast Lake Urmia has shrunk, going from 5,400 square kilometers in size to just 2,500 in about 30 years.

Lack of rain and water shortages are a problem all across Iran. Precipitation in Iran is down by more than 50 percent this year according to the country center for drought and crisis management.

Severe lack of water recently led to protests, some violent in the southwest of the country. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying he understands the protesters and that their issues must be addressed.

Iran's new president saying he has understood the message.

"The matters have been detected and assure the people that the solutions have been delineated. We've benefited from the views of experts and scholars, and this will urgently be dealt with," he said.

At Lake Urmia water shortages not the only problem. The dusty, salty ground left behind when the lake receded led to salt storms causing eye infections and respiratory problems for people around here.

The local environmental protection agency planted these bushes, which they say mostly succeeded in stopping the worst effects.

"As the bushes grow here, they have more leaves and the moving sand get trapped inside," he says. So it acts as a trap which keeps the sand underneath it.

Iranian authorities say they have made saving Lake Urmia a priority, and that a halt to new dam projects and diverting other water sources towards the lake have at least slowed its decline.

But farmer Kumar (INAUDIBLE) Jebeli (ph) shows me his main concern. The water he is able to get from his well is very salty, killing off many of the buds on his tomato vines and slowly causing his walnut trees to wither.

"The day the soil will become unfarmable is not far away," he says. "When you water the earth to a depth of 110 centimeters, it infiltrates the soil and the salt will stay there and it's level increases every year.


PLEITGEN: And the salt concentration in Lake Urmia is dramatically increasing as the water body shrinks. Micro organisms that flourish in salty water have dyed much of what is left of the lake in a reddish, pink color.

The deputy head of this province's environmental protection agency tells me he believes there are now about 6 billion tons of salt around the lake. Still he says he's confident they can stop the leak from drying up.

"Pausing all dam construction projects have been very effective," he says. "But some of the rivers that feed the lake were full of sediment, so the water did not reach all the way to here. We've cleaned up the river beds to increase the water inflow."

Those measures are making a big difference, the authorities say, but they are also under no illusion. What they urgently need here is more rain. To stop Lake Urmia, a natural treasure of this region from banishing into thin and salty air.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN -- Urmia, Iran.


HOLMES: Wow. Incredible story there.

Now, with the Tokyo games in the books, attention turning to the winter Olympics in Beijing. Yes, not far off.

Still to come, a look at the challenges China now faces with those games less than six months away.

Plus, the Tokyo Olympics put a spotlight not only on athletic achievement, but also mental health. When we come back, the insight we now have been into the toll competing at that level can take.


HOLMES: Welcome back.

Well, it may have been delayed a year but the Tokyo Olympics finally played out on the world stage though the games were not without their challenges. Of course, the largest of them all, the COVID pandemic, which continued to rage inside the host country.

Now that prompted protests and we saw those many across Japan opposing holding the games at all. The latest demonstration came Sunday just weeks ahead of the Paralympics.

Now, the weather also proved to be an issue. There were two tropical systems disrupting water related events including rowing. And then positive COVID tests, of course, they put the break on competitions for some. Officials say 19 athletes just could not compete due to COVID.

More than 400 cases have now been tied to the games. Now organizers did have safety restrictions and protocols in place. They of course gave us that. Empty stadiums kept fans from watching pretty much all the events in person.

Now, the pandemic is also one of the challenges facing China as it prepares to host the upcoming winter Olympic games. Less than six months from now, Beijing looking to improve its standing on the world stage.


HOLMES: But with that spotlight also comes renewed pressure, and scrutiny on the communist regime.

CNN's David Culver reports.


DAVID CULVER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): A surge of Chinese pride in Tokyo. China's athletes bringing home the second highest number of gold medals, just narrowly losing to the United States, but setting the world stage for a fierce competition in February's Winter Olympic games in Beijing.

China, hoping for a show stopping repeat of 2008 -- that was China's ceremonial stepping out onto the world stage, hosting the Summer Olympics in Beijing, and a moment many expected would lead to a further opening up of the country.

The games were a mesmerizing production, revealing China's potential to rival the west in both athletic competition and beyond.

BRIAN DEESE, DIRECTOR, U.S. NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: This competition is going to be one of the simple challenges of the century.

CULVER: But since 2008 under the ruling Communist Party and it's increasingly powerful leader, Xi Jinping, the Peoples' Republic has not only seen its economy soar, but also a rapid buildup and flexing of its military and cyber might, making countries like the U.S. increasingly uneasy.

In less than six months the Olympics are set to return to Beijing, and you can expect China to impress once again, starting with its hardware.

CNN was recently invited to visit some of the Olympic venues, China building big and fast well ahead of schedule. (on camera): Lok around, you've got the buildings up the branding is

up inside. They are pretty much done. The only thing they're waiting on are the athletes.

(voice over): Dramatic backdrops for the events with sweeping mountain views.

(on camera): Of course, as you look out, the venue is going to look a bit different come winter. This will all ideally be covered in white.

(voice over): Italian engineers working years in advance to bring the snowy alps to Asia.

We can control the quality of the snow. And China making a big environmental promise. These will be the first games in which all of the competition venues will be fueled 100 percent by green energy.

(on camera): We are on top of one of the slopes as you look out. You can pan across and you'd see dozens of windmills. Beyond that, solar panels.

(voice over): But there are chilling realities that threatened to overshadow these games. Chinese cities are quickly reimposing targeted lockdowns as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads.

Extreme containment measures while seemingly effective, aren't exactly welcoming to the rest of the world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will continue to press China --

CULVER: China is also facing mounting pressure over the investigation into the origins of the virus, which has claimed more than four million lives worldwide.

And then there are the growing calls for countries to boycott Beijing for alleged humans rights abuses. Specifically, its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the worsening tensions between China and the west coinciding with an intensified nationalism at home, which begs the question, even with all the expected pageantry and performance in the upcoming winter games, can China change how the world views the emerging superpower?

David Culver, CNN -- Beijing.


HOLMES: Now the Tokyo Olympics may be remembered for reshaping mental health awareness after multiple athletes spoke about it during the games.

CNN Sport's Coy Wire speaks to some Olympian's about how important their state of mind is.


COY WIRE, CNN SPORT CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Making the Olympics is difficult in normal times. Amid a pandemic even more so.

MICHAEL PHELPS, OLYMPIC MEDALIST: The mental preparation for these games, I can't even imagine what it was, like going through these heading into this, especially in the last year.

KATE LEDECKY, OLYMPIC SWIMMER: I hadn't been home in about a year and a half. So I've just been very dedicated to my training and going home would have meant a 10-day quarantine coming back to California to get back into training.

WIRE: A postponement, added protocols and the perpetual pressure to perform. It has been a rollercoaster just to reach these games. From the highs of qualifying to the uncertainty of whether they would even happen. By the time the cauldron was lit a wide range of emotions had already been sparked.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The breaking news this morning, Simone Biles.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: The world's greatest gymnast, Simone Biles.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Pulled out of the Olympic team gymnastics final to focus in on her mental health.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Simone Biles is a hero to many, maybe now more than ever.

WIRE: Then something no one saw coming. One of the greatest athletes of all time, Simone Biles removed herself in the middle of competing on her sports biggest stage saying her mental state wasn't where it should be.

SIMONE BILES, OLYMPIC GYMNAST: To bring the topic of mental health, I think it should be talked about a lot more, especially with athletes, because I know some of us are going through the same things. And we are always told to push through it, but we're all a little bit older now and we can kind of speak for ourselves.

But at the end of the day we are not just entertainment. We are humans, and there are things going on behind the scenes that we are also trying to juggle with as well on top of sports.


KANO IGARASHI, JAPANESE SURFING SILVER MEDALIST: The courage that that took is something that nobody will ever understand.

JORDAN CHILES, U.S. GYMNASTICS: She knows her body more than anybody else. We don't know what is going on in her head, so you know, it was probably the most devastating thing that happened to her.

WIRE: Her biggest supporters were met in equal force by critics who called her a quitter for prioritizing her mental health over her medal count. Biles raced against a long ingrained culture in sports to push forward no matter what.

DR. JESS BARTLEY, USOPCE DIRECTOR OF MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES: There is no data or science behind the tough it out, or rub some dirt on it and get back out there. There is nothing that says that they're going to have a good performance or getting out there and toughing through is going to make them a better athlete or even a good athlete.

WIRE: Directors of mental health services like Team U.S.A.'s Dr. Jess Bartley could become commonplace for national governing bodies. But high-profile athletes like Simone Biles shining a light on mental health while the whole world is watching could make a big difference.

KIRSTY COVENTRY, ZIMBABWE MINISTER OF YOUTH, SPORT, ART AND RECREATION: She is allowed for it to just be something that can be accepted by people, and I think that took a lot of bravery.

DR. BARTLEY: We have more notable athletes and even celebrities in broader culture starting to talk about that. I think it will start to break down barriers for anyone in the world to get access to mental health or to start to think about mental health differently.

WIRE: There is a movement happening before our eyes. Sport is helping to reshape the narrative of mental health.

DR. BARTLEY: I think that sport is really a vehicle for social change, and sport often kind of sets the stage for a number of things that shift in society.

NOAH LYLES, 200M SILVER MEDALIST: I'm a human being. I'm not a superhero, you know, I have feelings. I have emotions. Just because I go out there and run fast does not mean that I don't come home and hurt.

IGARASHI: We are in a generation now where we are able to speak our mind a little bit more than before as you like. And this is just another stepping stone for athletes. And I think we're going towards the right direction.


HOLMES: And we will be right back.


HOLMES: Well, thanks to COVID vaccines, business is booming and love blooming this summer in cities across the U.S. Wedding planners, jewelers and dating apps are all getting a piece of the action it seems.

CNN's Clare Sebastian reports from New York.


CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): For Shane Williams, months of COVID restrictions had been leading to this moment. And it didn't disappoint.

SHANE WILLIAMS, LAWYER: I originally had it planned for actually December of 2020 in Quebec. SEBASTIAN: When the pandemic prevented them from traveling, the lawyer from New Jersey used that setback to save up. He hired a proposal planning company and even added a few more diamonds to the ring.

WILLIAMS: COVID, that was such a rough year. It was just -- we were locked in the apartment the whole time, and I really wanted to spend some time and make it special. So I decided to wait until we could come to New York.


SEBASTIAN (on camera): Did he exceed your expectations?


SEBASTIAN (voice over): For professional proposal planner Tatiana Caicedo, it's been a busy summer and an emotional one.

TATIANA CAICEDO, PROPOSAL PLANNER: Very often, clients are saying that his partner went through a lot this year and they wanted to do something nice for them. So, yes.

SEBASTIAN (on camera): It's nice of you to be able to provide that.


SEBASTIAN (voice over): After months of fear and isolation, love it seems is back.

Jeweler report engagement ring sales are soaring and Google says search interest in dating hit a five-year-high in July.

(on camera): Here in New York, around two-thirds of adults are now fully vaccinated. So despite concerns about new variants, sunset brings daters flocking to Manhattan's waterfront.

(voice over) Many who we spoke to, couples who got together during the pandemic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It feels like we're just starting to date because we're just now getting to get out and get to know each other in other settings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We still have not seen our first movie together.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We met on Hinge (ph) in the middle of -- or beginning of May last year, so right in the middle of it all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She swiped left, I swiped right. We've been locked out for so many months now. Now, you've got to enjoy love.

SEBASTIAN: And for the dating apps that made this possible, the summer brings new marketing opportunities. Dating app BLK, which caters to the black community -- releasing this remake of a previous hit from rapper Juvenile. JONATHAN KIRKLAND, HEAD OF MARKETING AND BRAND, BLK: I will say since the release of Vax That Thing Up, we've definitely seen a spike in registrations, like 30 percent more registrations than like four-week prior trends.

SEBASTIAN: And like many dating apps, BLK now lets you filter for vaccination status with its Vaxified Badge.

KIRKLAND: To date, we've had over 180,000 BLK users add the badge to their profile. And we kind of (ph) over half of our users they want to know if their match is vaccinated or not.

SEBASTIAN: So while it's clear COVID changed the way people date, it also helped many realize what really matters is the people you love.

Clare Sebastian, CNN -- New York.


HOLMES: Thanks for spending part of your day with me. I'm Michael Holmes. Follow me on twitter and Instagram @HolmesCNN.

Do stay with us. My colleague Rosemary Church has more NEWSROOM in just a moment. Thankfully, she's just arrived and that means I can go home. Get over there, Rosemary.