The waters of the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris, once the cradle of civilisation, are being hit by poor management and climate change
Amid growing populations and unprecedented high temperatures, there is a sense of impending trouble surrounding the region's environmental future
To coincide with Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week,
The National speaks to farmers and experts
to find out what is really taking place
For centuries, the Little Zab river in north Iraq has provided Kurdish farmers with vital arable land. A small tributary of the Tigris, the Zab snakes for 400 kilometres from its source in Iran, through the Zagros mountains into the Kurdistan Region and southwest toward the Iraqi town of Al Zab in Kirkuk, where it joins the historical Tigris.
Along its fertile banks, generations of farmers have grown tomatoes, peppers, okra, eggplants and green beans – staples of Kurdish cuisine. And while summer always brought about the natural ebb of the water, farmers were rarely completely parched.
But then, in the spring of 2017, residents in Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah governorate – through which the river runs – watched the water level drop. In the town of Qaladze, families complained of severe shortages in tap water, crops weren’t being irrigated, and thousands of fish were thought to have died.
As the stifling summer months dragged on, irrigation became a nightmare for Khudur, a middle-aged farmer from Qaladze.
“The river has given life to our families and the animals in the area for many generations,” said Khudur, recalling the loss of crops.
Unbeknown to him at the time, the cause was located just 40 kilometres east of Qaladze in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan – the Sadrdasht Dam. In 2009 the Iranian government begun work on the massive infrastructure project, an imposing structure of over 100 metres tall and 275 metres wide was being erected across the Little Zab.
In June 2017, just as Kurdistan’s temperatures were beginning to rise, Iran started storing water to fill the dam’s 545 million cubic metres. The downstream waterflow was reduced by 80 per cent.
“We never heard that the river would dry this much,” said Khudur. “When it happened for the first time we didn’t know what to do, we lost almost everything we planted in a couple of weeks.”
Stemming the flow
Sardasht is one of three dams that have been built on the Iran-Kurdistan border. Around 30 per cent of the Tigris’ water originates from Iran, leaving Iraq vulnerable to the actions of the Islamic republic.
But Iran is not the only neighbour investing in dams and Iraq is not the only regional power being hit by issues around cross border water flows. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates – once the natural borders of the historical region of Mesopotamia – are being dammed by Turkey.
Meanwhile, in North Africa, Egyptian politicians have been quick to sabre rattle in a bid to stop the construction of Ethiopia’s multibillion-dollar Nile River dam project.
Along the Nile, Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, some of history’s most important civilisations were born and raised, developed and flourished. From some of the earliest human agricultural communities, these rivers have sustained life in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa for millennia. It was along the banks and in part because of the steady supply of fresh water that three of the seven ancient wonders of the world are believed to have been build – the Great Pyramids at Giza, the Great Light House at Alexandria and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in modern day central Iraq.
But today, all three rivers are under threat.
From the proliferation of dams and poor management to climate change, these ancient waterways and their beneficiaries have for some time been at the mercy of a man-made crisis.
But who’s the real culprit in this crisis: climate change or damming?
According to Kira Walker – a writer focused on environmental security in the MENA region – they both play different but critical roles. “Each contributes to present and future shortage while also compounding the other,” Ms Walker told The National.
“Building dams is considered shortsighted… as it won’t actually address water shortages in the long-term, will worsen the impacts of climate change and cause havoc for the people up and downstream,” she explained. On the other hand, she added, “climate change will exacerbate existing water issues – many of which were caused by decades of water mismanagement, including the building of dams –and cause new water-related stresses.”
In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, where rivers once threatened to drown unsavvy swimmers, some tributaries are so depleted they can be crossed by foot – their murky waters barely lapping against the river flank.
With the ongoing work across Iraq’s borders in Turkey and Iran, officials in Baghdad last year said the percentage of annual flow through the Tigris-Euphrates river basin had decreased by more than 40 per cent.
And with around 70 per cent of Iraq’s river water resources coming through neighbouring countries, Iraqis cried foul. Between two and nine per cent of water in Iraq comes from the ground – making the country highly dependent on its rivers.
In addition, farmers using outdated techniques tend to over irrigate, wasting more water. Though reforms are needed, the country’s ongoing state of conflict has left little space for authorities and organisations to focus on proper management or education of more sustainable farming techniques.
Kurdistan region and the Little Zab river
While some of the impact of the damming is the direct cause of filling the large lakes above the structure, many affected by it believe there is also a political intent.
When the river ebbed in the summer of 2017, Kurds said Iran was using water to punish them ahead of their upcoming independence referendum. Tehran is against Kurdish secession from Iraq. However, in June 2018, more than a year after the controversial vote, the water-flow fell drastically again.
The Kurdistan Regional Government Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources accused Iran of deliberately cutting off the water flow to the Little Zab. The Iranians denied the dam had shut off waterflow, saying it was being used for hydro-electricity generation rather than as an agricultural store.
But some Kurds remain sceptical of their neighbour’s intentions. Qaladze’s governor, Bakr Bayiz, is adamant that Iran wants to hoard the shared resource to “put pressure and extend its influence on the Kurdish region and Iraq.”
“When the Sardasht dam starts to impound water, the area faces an extraordinary water crisis, tens of farms dry [up], thousands of fish die, and Qaladze faces a drinking water problem. We have to use extra filters to make the water drinkable,” Mr Bayiz told The National.
He joined a recent Kurdish delegation to Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province, where they discussed the water issue. Coming back, he didn’t sound upbeat about Iraq’s situation. “We don’t have a strong position against the Iranian government to enter negotiations,” he said.
Kurdish dissent has gone largely unanswered, in part because of the weak legal measures in place.
International law is still quite limited in this area, says Jan Selby, Professor of International Relations and author of Water, Power and Politics in the Middle East.
A country can take its concerns to the United Nations Security Council, as well as the International Court of Justice. If the “aggressor” does not accept the court’s jurisdiction, the “victimised” party can request that the Security Council forward the case to the international court, making the judge’s ruling binding. Enforcing this ruling, however, can prove challenging.
Some countries are bound by international water treaties. However, adds Mr Selby, “for a non-signatory there is nothing legally to stop it damming a river and limiting flow to other countries.”
In Turkey’s case, Ankara has opted out of signing most of the relevant international water agreements, meaning Iraq has little legal recourse other than bilateral talks.
Meanwhile, says Governor Bayiz, the government in Baghdad “is occupied with endless crises in the centre and the south of the country” after months of protests in the south against poor service provision and the long and ongoing battle to form a new government in Baghdad after elections in May 2018.
Basra and the Shatt Al Arab
Just under 1,000 kilometres south of Qaladze, in the city of Basra, the Tigris and the Euphrates join to form the Shatt Al Arab, the waterway’s last leg before it empties into the Arabian Gulf. But for a city that sits beside the confluence of two of the world’s most important rivers, water security – and indeed basic services – has proven a major challenge.
Last summer, the city residents rose in anger and took to the streets, as temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius, to demand water and electricity. Between June and September, 12 demonstrators were killed in the city of 2 million, mostly in clashes with security forces. The unrest spread to foreign installations, including the Iranian consulate, which rioters set alight.
For decades Basra and other southern towns have been largely overlooked by Baghdad. Faced with over a decade of chronic under-investment in service provisions, anger had been brewing under the surface for years. The end of the war on ISIS in 2017 and the return home of unemployed members of the Hashed Al Shaabi militia exacerbated the already tense atmosphere.
Then around 4,000 people were forced from their homes in the south in 2018 alone due to the water crisis, according to Iraqi officials, while the UN Environment Programme estimates that Iraq is losing about 250 km2 of arable land every year.
Water shortages “carry the potential to affect the stability [and] security of communities, states, and regions relying on shared water resources,” said Ms Walker.
In addition to climate change and Baghdad’s water mismanagement, Iraq need only look 1,165km northwards to find another major source of the crisis that lies in Turkey.
The Ilisu dam is Turkey’s second largest and a central element of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a land development plan to boost the economy of the long-neglected region, through hydroelectric energy and irrigation. But for some, the dam will quite literally submerge their past.
The small town of Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, inhabited for 12,000 years, will disappear below the waves in the coming months. An artificial lake, part of the Ilisu hydroelectric dam project, will swallow it up.
"My grandchildren will not see where I grew up, where I lived. They will ask me, 'Grandpa, where do you come from? Where did you live?' What will I do? Show them the lake?" asks Ridvan Ayhan, looking out onto the Tigris – the river that supported his family's town for generations and will soon destroy it.
Engineers are still awaiting the green light from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to close the third floodgate and complete the retention of the water, a process launched last summer. After that, a three-month countdown will begin for Hasankeyf before it disappears beneath the waters. Downstream, cities like Basra will suffer more water shortages.
Iraqi officials in October last year estimated that the flow of the Tigris would be reduced by 55 per cent once the dam was filled. A terrible omen for Basra at the end of the river.
Livelihoods at stake
In addition to the Ilisu dam, Iran in 2015 began filling the Daryan dam, situated on the Sirwan River, another one of the Tigris’ major tributaries. It is expected to reduce the flow to the Shatt Al Arab by up to 18 per cent.
But while massive dams and government mismanagement have played key roles in water scarcity and the consequent social upheaval, climate change is also playing a major part. Iraq’s long, hot summers, are becoming increasingly unbearable.
However, Ms Walker warns that “framing climate change as the worst perpetrator risks absolving political leaders and governments of their responsibilities to deal with the actual causes of water shortages – which they often had a heavy hand in causing – through governance, management and policy.”
Indeed, some politicians are quick to point fingers. Former Iraqi water minister Hassan Al Janabi last year accused Ankara of using the resource as a bargaining chip. By June 2018 the rift between Baghdad and Ankara had widened. It wasn’t until October when Turkey agreed to release more water to ease Iraqi shortages, that an amicable relation was restored.
In another sign of reconciliation, Turkey last week appointed a former forestry and water affairs minister as the new special envoy to Iraq, Daily Sabah reported on Thursday. Veysel Eroglu will be tasked with taking the necessary steps to resolve the ongoing water dispute.
Mr Erdogan admitted during a press conference with Iraqi President Barham Salih last week that there were problems with water management between the two countries, but added that they could be solved in two years. The aim, said Mr Eroglu, is to ensure an equitable share of water from the Tigris and Euphrates.
Although water has been used to strong-arm more vulnerable nations, experts are wary of the term ‘water wars’.
“There’s often political hysteria over water,” says Mr Selby. “Water can be an easy nationalist rhetoric.”
For some, however, water is a more personal matter – their livelihoods depend on a functioning irrigation system.
On the Nile Delta north of Cairo, farmer Ragab Eissa says he has grown rice for years. “Two years ago, they restricted the land I can grow rice on. Of my five acres, I can only grow two with rice, and still the water is not enough,” says Mr Eissa.
“A government inspector is always coming to check, and he decides the watering schedule for me and others.” Most rice is grown by flooding the fields from planting to harvest, using up a lot of water – it is estimated to use about two and a half times the amount of water needed to grow wheat.
Since 2017, farmers in many parts of the country have been required to replace the method of watering by inundation to sprinklers. Last year, the ministry slashed the area of land that can be used for water-intensive growing of rice, imposing heavy fines of between 3,000 (Dh 615) and 20,000 (Dh 4,100) Egyptian pounds on violators and a possible six-month prison sentence.
Last year, Cairo decreed the area of land that can be used to 724,000 feddans – 750,000 acres – a sharp drop from the officially allotted 1.1 million feddans the year before and the 1.8 million feddans grains traders believe were actually grown.
The government also banned rice growing in the centre and south of the Nile Delta as well as in four provinces outside the delta. It allowed rice growing in regions close to the Mediterranean or salty lakes alongside its coast, with the intention of preventing the sea’s salty water from encroaching on the soil in the area.
Cairo, for years an exporter of rice, also began importing rice as production dropped.
“I no longer grow rice like I used to. Now, we grow crops that don’t consume so much water, like wheat,” explains the farmer. Wheat, however, has a lower market price than rice with the benchmark US wheat averaging at $232 per tonne versus $423 for rice, according UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates.
Although farmers lament the lack of water, Egypt – under agreements reached in 1929 and 1959 – receives more than 55 billion of the 88 billion cubic meters of water that flow down the river each year. That amount has been challenged by other Nile basin nations as unfair.
Despite a large quantity of water flow, Egypt’s government was quick to criticise Ethiopia’s self-financed dam project when they began building it in 2011.
But fast-forward eight years and Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water has yet to be affected by the under-construction Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, home of the source of the Blue Nile, which accounts for about 80 per cent of the river’s water going downstream to Sudan and then Egypt.
The mere prospect of a cut in the country’s share of the river’s water has created sufficient concern in Egypt to introduce the new agricultural policies that emphasize the conservation of water. This in turn has seen the Egyptian government take a rare proactive stance.
As parts of efforts to conserve water, authorities have also been investing in the cleansing of heavily polluted canals and recycling water. There has also been growing use of subterranean water across much of the country along with solar power in irrigation networks. Egypt has also been gradually lifting state subsidies on potable water, part of its ambitious economic reforms but also a step that forced Egyptian households to cut down on waste.
Construction of Ethiopia’s dam has been suspended over a corruption case and technical hiccups. This gives Egypt a little leeway to negotiate an agreement with their neighbour on how to proceed without subjecting mostly desert Egypt to a hugely damaging water shortage.
That agreement heavily depends on the management of the flow and how fast the Ethiopians fill the reservoir behind the dam, which can hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. A fast-fill would block more water from reaching Egypt and Sudan, while a slower one would mean less reduction downstream.
A study by a Cairo University agriculture professor estimated Egypt would lose a staggering 51 per cent of its farmland if the fill is completed within three years. A slower, six-year fill would cost Egypt 17 per cent of its cultivated land, the study claimed.
Curiously, Egypt also has one of the lowest per capita shares of water, less than 700 cubic meters a person, but with the population – which stands at 100 million now – expected to double in 50 years, shortages are forecast to be severe by 2025.
But some Egyptians are already feeling the effects. Mohammed Sayed, 48, is a farmer from Atfeeh, south of Cairo. Mr Sayed says he was forced to dig a well because his canal had dried up.
“We were accustomed to watering our farm fields from a Nile canal. The longest we used to stay without water was a month and that was always in January,” he said, referring to the month in which the Nile water-level is at its lowest. But the canal has disappeared.
“There is just no water…so we dug a well and we are now pumping out water. It’s expensive. We need either electricity or fuel to operate the pump. It’s about 100 [Egyptian] pounds every time we water our farm.”
So in the coming months and years, governments across the region are going to need to proactively tackle brewing and existing crises, but there is a precedence for bilateral solutions to the problem.
“Research shows that historically water issues have almost always been dealt with cooperatively,” says Ms Walker. Yet with trust dwindling between many of the nations concerned and differing priorities, hashing out agreements on the use of dams or pumping out for agriculture will be a challenge.
With political infighting, insecurity, major challenges for development in both Egypt and Iraq as well as Cairo’s ever-tightening budgets, the competing imperatives offer politicians the perfect opportunity to neglect the thorny process of finding solutions. But one thing is clear, populations along the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and others will not stand idly by and watch the historic resource dwindle.
* additional reporting by Youssef Hamza in Cairo and Mohammed Rasool in Erbil
The slow crawl towards water disaster
From drought to dam dramas, the Middle East continued its grim water trajectory in 2018,
writes Peter Schwartzstein
In 2018, it often seemed like every week brought a new and terrifying glimpse into the Middle East’s environmental future. Temperatures routinely hit unprecedented highs in parts of the region. Debilitating dust storms worsened. Amid a painfully chilly winter (by local standards), millions shivered through conditions that their homes were ill-equipped to handle.
None of this compared, however, to the seemingly endless water crises that struck throughout the year. Beginning with the severe shortages in Iran that contributed to deadly anti-government protests in January, and continuing through to a hot, dry summer of discontent across southern Iraq, water-related unrest was a fixture in 2018. So much so that policymakers, so often blind to environmental concerns, seemingly finally began to take notice.
With growing populations boosting water demand at the same time as climate change and government mismanagement are sapping rainfall and aquifers, it is tempting to see all this as a dangerous harbinger of possible chaos to come.
Indeed, it’s become a kind of aphorism that while some of the Middle East’s past wars were fought over oil, its future conflicts might boil down to water. And while experts counsel against sensational, simplistic, and often unhelpful ‘water wars’ rhetoric – pointing out that even the most contentious of trans-boundary water disputes have usually ended peacefully, events have done little to dispel the sense of impending trouble.
From international tensions over rivers to localized internal wrangles over irrigation and water shares, more and more disputes are springing up across the region.
In Iraq, the emotional high of rolling back ISIS largely dissipated amid a series of protests, at least some of which revolved around desperately poor water quality.
Southern governorates were at one another’s throats for much of the year, accusing upstream authorities of consuming more than their fair share of the rivers. Basra stagnated under piped water so filthy and saline that it was good for little more than cleaning cars.
At a time when Turkey and Iran show few signs of reining in their dam programmes in the Tigris and Euphrates watersheds, Baghdad might soon have no choice but to accustom itself to its new reduced water circumstances. Turkey’s Ilisu Dam on the Tigris became the latest in a long series of area mega-dams to go on-line in 2018.
In Egypt, the long-running Nile river saga, despite Ethiopia’s near-completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It is extremely rare for a trans-boundary project of this scale to reach this stage of construction without a water sharing agreement, hydrologists say.
As with the Euphrates and Tigris, there’s seemingly sufficient water to go around, if only relevant parties were willing or able to compromise. Instead, in an emotionally-charged game of geopolitical chicken, no one’s budging.
And from Iran to Morocco, severe drought rocked everyone from farmers to reservoir operators. Usually snow-capped mountains stayed green throughout the winter in parts of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey; rain-dependent harvests failed.
With higher temperatures, crops generally need more water, but instead they’re getting less in much of the Levant and some of North Africa. It’s all contributed to the slow death of many agricultural communities, driving many of their residents into already overburdened cities, and rendered some countries, like Egypt and Jordan, even more dependent on sometimes costly food imports.
Water doesn’t have to be a cause of tension, as the Jordan river has shown to a certain extent. If anything, it’s been a source of Israeli-Jordanian cooperation in recent years. And nor does the crisis need to be this grave.
Though water availability per capita has plunged to a sixth of the global average in the Middle East, some still treat it as a bountiful resource. By reducing water waste at every level – from fixing leaky pipes to fully phasing out flood irrigation techniques, the region could and should be in much less of a water bind.
But of late, regional politicians have seemingly seized any opportunity to miss an opportunity. There’s no reason to imagine the water situation will be any different.
The setting sun over the River Nile, the world's longest river. Alamy
The setting sun over the River Nile, the world's longest river. Alamy
The challenge of keeping it clean
We look at how the Middle East manages to source potable water and the strategies in the works to manage water poverty
Water scarcity is a challenge globally, with disputes around sharing of the resource becoming a key concern driving conflict in some parts of the world. The Middle East, rich in resources such as hydrocarbons is deficit in water and accounts for a mere 2 per cent of the world’s renewable water supply. The region meets its demand for water through large-scale multibillion dollar desalination plants and is working on a number of strategies to better manage this scarce resource. We look at what is being done regionally to manage water scarcity.
What is water desalination?
Water desalination is the process by which potable - water fit for consumption - is derived after removing salts and other minerals through processes using membranes or electrodialysis. This process is generally applied to provide clean drinking water from sources such as seawater, brackish as well as surface water, referring to rivers and streams.
What are the differences between membrane and electric desalination methods?
In membrane-based methods, such as reverse osmosis, water flows through a membrane, which separates heavier sediments and salts. Minerals are then added to the filtered water before packaging or transmitting it for consumption. In the electrodialysis method, ions driven by currents are passed through to separate water from the salts.
What regions around the world are highly dependent on water desalination?
The Middle East accounts for nearly half of all desalination capacity globally, simply because of its largely arid and desert landscape, with very minimal rainfall and depleting ground water resources. The water scarcity is particularly acute in the desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula, where desalination of saltwater is the perhaps the only way to access potable drinking water.
What is the global water desalination market worth?
The global water desalination market could reach $26.81bn by 2025 due to increasing demand from expanding populations, growing industrialisation as well as the fast rate of depletion of groundwater and freshwater bodies, according to Hexa Research. The Middle East will continue to remain a dominant geography for the water desalination market, accounting for 53 per cent of revenue sharing in 2016 and is expected to maintain its dominance over the next six years, because of the high deficiencies in supply of potable water.
What is the most common way of desalinating seawater in the Middle East?
The Gulf states of the region largely now use reverse osmosis, a membrane method of desalination, by which very high pressures are applied against a semi-permeable membrane to separate ions, molecules and heavier particles. The process consumes less energy compared with the thermal method, which had been deployed earlier, burning crude to generate clean water. In spite of the high adoption of reverse osmosis, the Middle East expends much of its fossil fuel resources towards desalination, a highly energy-intensive activity.
Where are some of the biggest desalination projects in the region?
Saudi Arabia, which has large industrial cities, as well as the UAE have some of the biggest projects in desalination. Saudi Arabia is looking to develop around $2.5 billion worth of desalination projects in the industrial cities Shuqaiq, Yanbu as well as Jubail, and has looked at the privatisation of the kingdom's water sector and distribution business as part of its Vision 2030 programme. Abu Dhabi announced last year that it was looking to develop a 200 million gallon water per day capacity desalination plant, the largest in the world. The scheme at Taweelah is estimated to cost as much as Dh2 billion, with a startup set for this year and completion aimed at 2021.
Have there been any efforts to reduce energy-intensity of water desalination projects in the region?
Abu Dhabi as well as leading water and utilities developers such as Saudi Arabia’s Abdul Latif Jameel Energy have plans to develop carbon-neutral desalination plants using renewable energy, wind and solar to power such facilities.
How are populous states such as Egypt managing supply and demand for water?
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous state, is reliant on water from the Nile, the world’s longest river as well as some groundwater resources in the desert. The country has put in place a 900 billion Egyptian pound ($50bn) water management strategy over the next two decades. The country, despite its fresh water resources, has a deficit of around 30 billion cubic metres and requires at least 90 billion cubic metres of water annually to meet growing demand, on the back of an expanding population. Rising sea levels, climate change as well as disputes with neighbouring Ethiopia, which shares the Nile are major concerns for the country.
Are there any ambitious water projects other than desalination to manage water resources more efficiently?
Jordan and Israel, which are both water-scarce countries have been working out a plan to direct water from the Red Sea to replenish the fast-depleting Dead Sea, which they both share. The project was recently approved by the Israeli parliament, with both countries pledging $40 million each for 25 years. Arid states like Israel have also used the drip adoption technique to manage their water deficits to grow vegetation.
* Jennifer Gnana
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Arab world's water scarcity alarms experts as region's population soars
Writing: Sofia Barbarani; Youssef Hamza; Mohammed Rasool; Peter Schwartzstein; Jennifer Gnana;
Photographs: AFP; Alamy; Getty Images
Producers: Ian Oxborrow
Editing: James Haines-Young
Graphics: Ramon Penas
Picture editor: Jake Badger
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