The Middle East politicises water at its peril

The struggle for water in the region is becoming a matter of survival for millions

Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after Esfahan's river dried up due to drought and diversion. AFP
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Over the past few decades, people in Iran, Iraq and Syria have had plenty of reasons to protest. And on many occasions, at great risk to themselves, they have. Ongoing political oppression, incompetence and corruption has seen to that. But recent ones in the Iranian city of Esfahan are indicative of a new, deeply destabilising trend that will only get worse across all three countries: growing desperation over water scarcity.

The people of Iran, Iraq and Syria have proven resilient in the face of political oppression and economic hardship. But no one can survive without water. It takes just three days to die from dehydration. Even short droughts can devastate crops, livestock and livelihoods.

For years the world has known that the Middle East will be at the sharp end of the climate crisis, but in this corner of the region, there has been a lack of preparation. November's protests in Esfahan focussed on the drying up of the city's river, a historic symbol of its richness and vital to the surrounding environment. Today, the river's absence is a symbol of the government's disastrous water-management policies, based on building an unsustainably high number of hydroelectric dams and diverting flows to the country's religious centres.

The implications of this policy are being felt in Iraq, too. This week, Iraq is sending a technical delegation to Iran to negotiate the release of water across the border, critical to stopping the further desertification of Iraq's marshes and rivers. Earlier this month, the country's ministry of water resources completed procedures to file a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice against Tehran's water policy. While this particular problem starts in Iran, the Iraqi government has also failed to, for example, modernise irrigation methods, another significant drain on the country's supplies.

In Syria, prolonged conflict is aggravating an already water-stressed environment. This is hitting Idlib particularly hard, an area that has seen some of the fiercest fighting over the past decade. In 2019, eight water facilities in the south of the province were bombed in the space of two months, affecting 250,000 people. Millions are now drinking contaminated or disease-ridden water.

All this is happening in a region that is bearing the earliest brunt of rising global temperatures. The climate crisis might be here to stay, but governments can act to manage this difficult reality. These important regional discussions will take place in Abu Dhabi in March at a conference to address the demand gap for clean or desalinated water, and ensure sustainable solutions for water security.

In the meantime, even the simplest measures can relieve people in the most stressed parts of the region. Iran should listen to Iraqi concerns, and work on common approaches. There should be no nationalism in water management, and desperate protestors are not "counter revolutionaries". At this stage their concerns are more than political. They are increasingly about survival.

Published: December 23, 2021, 3:00 AM