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Rivers of Dust: The Future of Water and the Middle East

It is written that “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,” slew “60 soldiers” from Umma. The battle between the two ancient city-states took place 4,500 years ago near where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together in what is today Iraq. The matter in dispute? Water.

More than four millennia have passed since
the two armies clashed over one city state’s attempt to steal water from
another. But while the instruments of war have changed, the issue is much the
same: whoever controls the rivers controls the land. And those rivers are
drying up, partly because of overuse and wastage, and partly because climate
change has pounded the region with punishing multi-year droughts. 

Syria and Iraq are at odds with Turkey over
the Tigris-Euphrates. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile
are tense. Jordan and the Palestinians accuse Israel of plundering river water
to irrigate the Negev Desert and hogging most of the three aquifers that
underlie the occupied West Bank.

According to satellites that monitor
climate, the Tigris-Euphrates basin, embracing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western
Iran, is losing water faster than any other area in the world, with the
exception of northern India.

Dammed Up Tensions

The Middle East’s water problems are hardly unique. South Asia — in particular, the Indian sub-continent — is also water-stressed, and Australia and much of southern Africa are experiencing severe droughts. Even Europe is struggling with some rivers dropping so low as to hinder shipping.

But the Middle East has been particularly
hard hit. According to the Water Stress Index, out of 37 countries in the world
facing “extremely high” water distress, 15 are in the Middle East, with Qatar,
Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia heading the list.

For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey
and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the
flow of water to Syria by 40% — and to Iraq by 80%.  According to the Iraqi Union
of Farming Associations,
 up to 50% of the country’s agricultural land
could be deprived of water, removing 124 million acres from production. 

Iran and Syria have also built dams that reduce the flow of rivers that feed the Tigris and Euphrates, allowing saltwater from the Persian Gulf to infiltrate the Shatt al-Arab waterway where the twin rivers converge. The salt has destroyed rich agricultural land in the south and wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was famous.

Half a century ago, Israel built the
National Water Carrier canal diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, which is
fed by the Jordan River. That turned the Jordan downstream of the Galilee into
a muddy stream, which Israel prevents the Palestinians from
using. Jordanian and Syrian dams on the river’s tributaries have added to
the problem, reducing the flow of the
Jordan by 90%. 

And according to the World Bank, Israel
also takes 87% of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13%.
The result is that Israeli settlers in the West Bank get access to 300 liters
of water a day, leaving the Palestinians only 75 liters a day. The World Health
Organization’s standard is 100 liters a day for each individual. 

Other conflicts loom in the Nile basin. At
4,184 miles in length, the Nile River is the world’s longest, traversing 10
African countries. It is Egypt’s lifeblood, providing both water and rich soil
for the country’s agriculture. But a combination of drought and dams has
reduced its flow over the past several decades. 

Ethiopia is currently building an enormous
dam for power and irrigation on the Blue Nile. The source of the Blue Nile is
Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands. The Egyptian Nile is formed where the
Blue Nile and the White Nile — sourced from Lake Victoria in Uganda — converge
in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were
initially tense over water, but have eased somewhat
with the two sides agreeing to talk about how to share it.

But with climate change accelerating, the
issue of water — or the lack thereof — is going to get worse, not better, and
resolving the problems will take more than bilateral treaties about sharing.
And there is hardly any agreement about how to proceed. 

Privatization and Its Discontents

One strategy has been privatization. Through its International Finance Corporation, the World Bank has been pushing privatizing, arguing that private capital will upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. In practice, however, privatization has generally resulted in poorer quality water at higher prices. Huge transnational companies like SUEZ and Veolia have snapped up resources in the Middle East and the global south. 

Increasingly, water has become a commodity, either by control of natural sources and distribution or by cornering the market on bottled water. Lebanon is a case in point. Historically the country has had sufficient water resources, but it’s been added to the list of 33 countries that will face severe water shortages by 2040. Part of the current crisis is homegrown. Some 60,000 illegal wells siphon off water from the aquifer that underlies the country, and dams have not solved the problem of chronic water shortages, particularly for the 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area. Increasingly people have turned to private water sources, especially bottled water.

Multinational corporations, like Nestle, drain water from California and Michigan and sell it in Lebanon. Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35% of Lebanon’s bottled water. Not only is bottled water expensive, and often inferior in quality to local water sources, the plastic it necessitates adds to a growing pollution problem. There are solutions out there, but they require a level of cooperation and investment that very few countries currently practice. Many countries simply don’t have the funds to fix or upgrade their water infrastructure. Pipes lose enormous amounts through leakage, and dams reduce river flow, creating salt pollution problems downstream in places like Iraq and Egypt. In any event, dams eventually silt in. 

Wells — legal and illegal — are rapidly
draining aquifers, forcing farmers and cities to dig deeper and deeper each
year. And, many times, those deep wells draw in pollution from the water table
that makes the water impossible to drink or use on crops. 

Again, there are solutions. California has made headway refilling
the vast aquifer that underlies its rich Central Valley by establishing ponds
and recharge basins during the rainy season, and letting water percolate back
into the ground. Drip agriculture is also an effective way to reduce water
usage, but it requires investment beyond the capacity of many countries, let
alone small farmers.

Desalinization is also a strategy, but an
expensive one that requires burning hydrocarbons, thus pumping more carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change.

We Need a Treaty

As the Middle East grows dryer and
populations in the region continue to increase, the situation will get
considerably worse in the coming decades.

The Middle East may be drying up, but so is
California, much of the American southwest, southern Africa, parts of Latin
America and virtually all of southern Europe. Since the crisis is global,
“beggar thy neighbor” strategies will eventually impoverish all of humanity.
The solution lies with the only international organization on the planet, the
United Nations.

In 1997, the UN adopted a Convention on International Watercourses that spells out procedures for sharing water and resolving disputes. However, several big countries like China and Turkey opposed it, and several others, like India and Pakistan, have abstained. The convention is also entirely voluntary, with no enforcement mechanisms like binding arbitration. 

It is, however, a start. Whether nations
will come together to confront the planet-wide crisis is an open question.
Otherwise, the Middle East will run out of water — and it will hardly be alone.
By 2030, according to the UN, four out of 10 people will not have access to

There is precedent for a solution, one that
is at least 4,500 years old. A cuneiform tablet in the Louvre chronicles a
water treaty that ended the war between Umma and Lagash. If our distant
ancestors could figure it out, it stands to reason we can.

*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]

The views expressed
in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair
Observer’s editorial policy.

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