Don't blame climate change entirely for the water crisis in the Middle East

With Turkey planning to construct 22 more dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the situation downstream will only worsen

Millions of people across the Middle East face a growing threat posed by drought. A recent report published by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs highlights a water crisis that is the result of both climate change and the policies pursued by 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 Jordan River flowing through its heart. Dozens of civilizations and hundreds of millions of souls have been nourished by these waters that figured prominently in various religious texts. Crops were grown, fish was caught, people drank, bathed and washed clothes in them. The waterways were a constant – taken for granted, because they were always there and it was assumed they would always be there. 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 the supply of water available to their neighbours. The three countries involved 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 addressed, it will devastate livelihoods and the survival of hundreds of millions. The resultant tensions could fuel even greater conflicts than we see at present. With rising temperatures and reduced rainfall, several Arab countries have already experienced severe drought – the worst in 900 years. Climate change has led to increased evaporation, lower water levels and spreading desertification. The consequences can be seen not only in the drying of once irrigated farmlands and the dislocation and impoverishment of small farmers, but also in the increased intensity of dust storms whose effects are felt as far away as the Arabian Peninsula.

There is ample evidence that drought was one of the precipitators of the conflict in Syria. Several years of dangerously low levels of rain coupled with government mismanagement and lack of foresight resulted in hundreds of thousands of Syrian farmers being forced to leave their lands and flee to cities. The pressure that they – and the influx of over a million Iraqi refugees – placed on resources prepared the ground for civil strife and extremism that ultimately erupted in to mass protests.

The regime's brutal response to this unrest only fueled the population's anger at the dislocation and poverty they experienced. Syria's water problems were not only the result of drought and the regime's behaviour; they were exacerbated by the Turkish dams on the Euphrates River that reduced the flow of water into Syria by 40 per cent.

The bottom line is this: water shortages have been a precipitating factor in Syria's long war. Not only that, the pressures created by people internally displaced by war, coupled with the persistent lack of water – a result of Turkey's expanding dam projects – threaten to create even greater hardships for Syrian people.

Iraq, which has also experienced rising temperatures, lower levels of rainfall and spreading desertification, has been even more dramatically impacted by the Turkish dams of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is estimated that the Euphrates’ dams have resulted in an 80 per cent decline in Iraq's water supply. Much of Iraq's date crop – once famous world-wide, its citrus orchards and rice fields have also dried up. Iraq is losing 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 back flow of salt water from the Gulf is seeping into the rivers and rendering them unsafe for consumption and irrigation.

Palestinians and Jordanians are now forced to buy water from Israel at inflated prices

With Turkey planning to construct 22 more dams on both rivers, the situation downstream will only worsen. It is estimated that the new dams on the Tigris will reduce the water flowing from the Tigris into Iraq by more than 50 per cent.

Egypt and Sudan are facing similar water problems. They are struggling with how to confront the threat from from Ethiopia's new dam project – the largest on the African continent, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egyptians depend on the Nile for 97 per cent of their water and it is estimated that they will lose about 20 per cent of its waters to the dam. Sudan estimates that it will lose almost 50 per cent of its supply. With water already scarce and with both countries confronted by climate change-induced desertification, their rapidly growing populations and struggling economies are likely to soon face monumental challenges and growing unrest.

For its part, Israel has long been diverting the waters from the Sea of Galilee to support its agriculture and population. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration not only objected to Israel's unilateral actions, warning that it was increasing tensions with Syria and Jordan, it also took the step of suspending US aid. Israel, however, did not relent. Some analysts see Israel's water diversion schemes as a precipitating factor leading to the 1967 war.

In 1967, Israel overran the West Bank, seizing Mandatory Palestine and the Golan Heights. This enabled it to intensify its exploitation of the waters of the sea, the Jordan River and the waters of the West Banks' aquifers. Today, Israelis drain more than 80 per cent of the West Bank's aquifers and their diversion of Galilee and Jordan River's waters have resulted in shrinking that historic river to 5 per cent 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, because 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 appealed to Ethiopia to stretch out the time for the filling of the Renaissance Dam to 10-15 years, so that they could make needed adjustments downstream. And water was one of the "final status issues" that Israel agreed at Oslo they would refrain from impacting through unilateral actions. But Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel have pursued their own agendas and refused to act in a manner that would promote regional co-operation and stability. The consequences of their actions could be felt in the near term.

For millennia the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Jordan Rivers fed civilizations that flourished along their banks. Now the self-serving actions of a few states are serving instead to fuel conflict because they are threatening the lives of others.

Published: September 21st 2021, 9:06 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National