Millions of people across the Middle East face a growing threat posed by drought. A recent report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs highlights a water crisis that is the result of both climate change and the policies of some governments.
For millennia, the history of the peoples of this region has 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 which flow in its heart. Dozens of civilizations and hundreds of millions of souls have fed on these waters which featured prominently in various religious texts. The crops were cultivated, the fish were caught, people drank there, bathed and washed their clothes. Streams were a constant – taken for granted, as they were always there and it was assumed they always would be. But this is no longer the case.
A combination of climate change and unilateral initiatives by three regional governments have had a dramatic impact on their neighbors’ water supplies. The three countries affected are the non-Arab states of Turkey, Israel and Ethiopia, while the affected populations are the predominantly Arab peoples of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan.
If these challenges are not met, it will devastate the livelihoods and survival of hundreds of millions of people. The resulting tensions could fuel even more serious conflicts than those we are currently seeing. With rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, several Arab countries have already experienced severe drought, the worst in 900 years. Climate change has resulted in increased evaporation, lower water levels and the spread of desertification. The consequences are reflected not only in the drying up of formerly irrigated agricultural land and the dislocation and impoverishment of small farmers, but also in the increase in the intensity of dust storms, the effects of which are felt until the end of the year. Arabian Peninsula.
There is ample evidence that drought was one of the triggers of the conflict in Syria. Several years of dangerously low rainfall, coupled with government mismanagement and a lack of forethought, have forced hundreds of thousands of Syrian farmers to leave their lands and flee to cities. The pressure they – and the influx of over a million Iraqi refugees – placed on resources set the stage for civil unrest and extremism that eventually erupted into mass protests.
The regime’s brutal response to these disturbances has only fueled the anger of the population at the dislocation and poverty they have suffered. The water problems in Syria were not only the result of the drought and the behavior of the regime; they were exacerbated by the Turkish dams on the Euphrates which reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40%.
The bottom line is this: Water shortages were a trigger for the long war in Syria. Not only that, the pressures created by those internally displaced by the war, coupled with the persistent lack of water – a result of Turkey’s expanding dam projects – threaten to create even greater difficulties for the country. Syrian people.
Iraq, which has also seen rising temperatures, declining rainfall and increasing desertification, has been hit even more dramatically by Turkey’s Tigris and Euphrates dams. The Euphrates dams are estimated to have caused an 80% drop in Iraq’s water supply. Much of the Iraqi date crop – once famous around the world, its citrus groves and rice fields have also dried up. Iraq loses an average of 100 square miles of arable land each year. In addition, the dangerously low level of fresh water in the rivers – a major source of drinking water in the country – has been compromised, as the ebbing saltwater from the Gulf seeps into the rivers and makes them unsuitable for use. consumption and irrigation.
With Turkey planning to build 22 more dams on the two rivers, the situation downstream will only get worse. It is estimated that the new dams on the Tigris will reduce the flow of water from the Tigris to Iraq by more than 50%.
Egypt and Sudan face similar water problems. They wonder how to deal with the threat of the new Ethiopian dam project – the largest on the African continent, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Egyptians depend on the Nile for 97 percent of their water and it is estimated that they will lose about 20 percent of its water because of the dam. Sudan estimates that it will lose nearly 50 percent of its supply. With water already scarce and both countries facing climate change-induced desertification, their rapidly growing populations and struggling economies are expected to soon face monumental challenges and growing unrest.
For its part, Israel has long diverted the waters of the Sea of Galilee to support its agriculture and people. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration not only opposed Israel’s unilateral actions, warning that it was increasing tensions with Syria and Jordan, but also made the decision to suspend American aid. Israel, however, did not give in. Some analysts see Israel’s water diversion plans as a trigger leading to the 1967 war.
In 1967, Israel invaded the West Bank, seizing Mandatory Palestine and the Golan Heights. This has enabled it to intensify its exploitation of the waters of the sea, the Jordan River and the waters of the West Bank aquifers. Today, the Israelis drain over 80% of the West Bank’s aquifers, and their diversion of waters from the Galilee and Jordan has reduced this historic river to 5% of its original volume. To add insult to injury, Palestinians and Jordanians are now forced to buy water from Israel at inflated prices.
All of these situations pose real threats to human life, as they create more poverty, dislocation and increase the possibility of greater conflict. Each could be resolved through negotiations. For decades, Syria and Iraq have sought compromise with the Turks. At a minimum, Egypt and Sudan have asked Ethiopia to extend the Renaissance Dam filling time to 10-15 years, so that they can make the necessary adjustments downstream. And water was one of the “final status issues” that Israel agreed in Oslo to refrain from impacting through unilateral actions. But Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel continued their own agendas and refused to act in a way that would promote regional cooperation and stability. The consequences of their actions could be felt in the short term.
For millennia, the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Jordan rivers have fueled the civilizations that flourished along their shores. Today, the selfish actions of a few states are more used to fuel conflicts because they threaten the lives of others.
Posted: Sep 21, 2021 9:06 AM