19.10.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Middle Eastern Water Crisis and Where Various Actors Stand


A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlights the increasingly grave threat posed by the water crisis and drought that endanger the future of millions of Arabs across the Middle East. This crisis is the result of both climate change and callous and self-serving policies adopted by several government.

For thousands of years, the history of the peoples in this region had been defined by its waterways, from the Tigris and Euphrates in the east to the Nile in the West and the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River flowing through its heart. Dozens of civilizations and hundreds of millions of people had been suckled by those waters. Crops were cultivated, fish were caught; people drank, bathed and washed their clothes in those waters, with the latter taking a prominent place in various religious texts. Waterways were permanent and taken for granted since they had always been and, ostensibly, would always be. But this is not the case anymore.

An increasingly severe fresh water shortage experienced by most Middle Eastern countries except, perhaps, Turkey is contingent not only on purely natural and environmental reasons and the need for constant irrigation of infertile lands and the reduction of land suitable for agriculture but also on emerging drastic trends in social and economic life in the region. One of them is the unparalleled population growth and the pace of urbanization, especially in the Arab Middle Eastern countries that make up the biggest part of this continent. As of late, the total population in the Arab world has increased threefold while water consumption per capita has surged by 4 times. The demographic explosion and changes in life quality of the Arabs drastically exacerbated the food problem in there.

It is worth noting that out of 17 countries that experience most acute problems with water 10 are situated in the Middle East. Water deficit is one of the most long-standing issues there. The reserves of this valuable resource are dwindling under the influence of droughts that become increasingly severe and the overexploitation of water reserves.  Climate change coupled with unilateral initiatives of three regional governments has had a significant impact on the water supply of their neighbors. If these issues are not addressed, the consequences will be devastating for the livelihood and survival of hundreds of millions of people while tensions stemming from these developments can entail even bigger conflicts than we are witnessing now. It is necessary to point out that the three involved countries are non-Arab states: Turkey, Israel and Ethiopia, while the affected population is the Arab peoples of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan.

Due to rising temperatures and lower precipitation, several Arab countries have already faced a severe drought, the worst one in the last 900 years. These climate changes led to increased evaporation, decreased water levels and desert advancing. The consequences include not only the drying up of once irrigated agricultural land, the displacement and impoverishment of small farmers, but also the increased intensity of dust storms, the impact of which can be felt even in the Arabian Peninsula. The water crisis is exacerbated by the destruction of statehood (Syria, Yemen), weak state institutions (Iraq, Lebanon), international spats over the distribution of resources of transboundary rivers (the resources of the Tigris and Euphrates are claimed both by Turkey and Iraq and Syria while Israel and Jordan wrestle over the waters of the Jordan river) and civil wars. In Syria and, until recently, in Iraq all major dams have been targeted, seized or used as a weapon to cut water supply or flood villages and farms.

There is ample evidence that the drought was one of the factors that triggered the Syrian conflict. A period of dangerously low precipitation that spanned several years combined with government mismanagement and poor judgement made hundreds of thousands of Syrian farmers leave their lands and flee to the cities. This pressure combined with the influx of a million of refugees from neighboring Iraq put a strain on resources paving the way for civil unrest and extremism, which eventually resulted in mass protests. The government’s brutal crackdown only fueled public outrage regarding the unrest and poverty. Syrian water problems were caused not only by drought and the regime’s policies. They were aggravated by the Turkish dams on the Euphrates River, which reduced the flow of water into the country by 40%. The bottom line is that not only water shortage spurred the protracted war in Syria. The point also is that the pressure exerted by internally displaced people during the war and the constant shortage of water caused by the expansion of dam construction projects in Turkey threatens to pose even greater difficulties and problems for the survival of the Syrian people in the future.

Iraq, which has also experienced rising temperature, a decrease in precipitation and desert advancing, was affected by the Turkish dams on the Tigris and Euphrates even to a greater extent. Dams on the Euphrates have diminished Iraq’s water supply by an estimated 80%. Most of Iraqi date harvest, once famous around the world, its citrus orchards and rice paddies have also dried up. Every year the country loses an average of 100 square miles of valuable arable land, which are gradually turning into a desert. In addition, a dangerously low level of fresh water in rivers, that are the main source of drinking water in Iraq, is currently in peril since the backflow of salt water from the Persian Gulf seeps into the rivers making them unsafe and unfit for consumption and irrigation.  Since Turkey intends to build 22 more dams on both rivers the situation in the downstream countries will only worsen. The new dams on the Tigris will reduce the water inflow from this river to Iraq by more than 50%, experts say.

Faced with the same water problems as their Arab counterparts, the Levant, Egypt and Sudan are now trying to decide how to counter these threats to their well-being that will arise as a result of a new Ethiopian dam project which is projected to be the largest one on the African continent. Egyptians are dependent on the Nile, a river where they take 97% of their water, and it is estimated that they will lose about 20% of their water supply due to the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. As for Sudan, it will lose an estimated 50% of its water supply. Since water is already a scarce commodity, and both countries are facing desertification due to climate change, their rapidly growing population and struggling economies will soon confront huge challenges and an uptick in popular unrest.

For its part, Israel has been diverting water from the Sea of Galilee for a long time to support its agricultural sector and population. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration not only protested these unilateral Israeli actions, warning that this would increase tensions with Syria and Jordan, but also took a step to suspend American aid. Since then Israel’s policies, however, have neither changed nor softened. Some analysts believe that Israel’s water diversion schemes contributed to the outbreak of the 1967 war. At the time Israel seized the Western Bank, occupying all of Palestine and the Golan Heights. This allowed Tel Aviv to ramp up its exploitation of sea waters, the Jordan River and the aquifers of the West Bank. Currently, the Israelis drain more than 80% of the aquifers of the West Bank while their efforts to divert water from the Galilee Sea and the Jordan resulted in reduction of this historic river to just 5% of its original size. On top of that, Palestinians and Jordanians now have to buy water in Israel at inflated prices.

All these situations pose a real threat to people’s lives due to the poverty and unrest they create. They are also dangerous in terms of conflict escalation. All these issues can be solved only through negotiations. Syria and Iraq have been seeking a compromise with the Turkish authorities for decades.  Egypt and Sudan asked Ethiopia to extend the deadline for filling GERD to 10-15 years so that they could proceed with the necessary adjustments downstream. Water was one of the “final status issues” that Israel agreed to in Oslo.

However, Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel pursued their own goals and refused to act in such a way that would promote regional cooperation and stability. The ripples of their short-sighted policies will be felt in the coming years.  For thousands of years the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Jordan rivers had been fostering the civilizations flourishing on their banks. But now the selfish actions of several states and their reckless leaders will instead incite hatred and conflicts over water resources threatening the lives and well-being of many other people.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.