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Parched for Peace: The Fertile Crescent Might Be Barren

This past October, the Levant Desalination Association and NOSSTIA, an organization of expat Syrian scientists, arranged a conference in the capital city of Damascus to discuss Syria’s water crisis. Hydrology experts and research scientists at the conference reported that between 2002 and 2008, the national water supply fell from 1,200 to less than 750 cubic meters per person per year, a decrease of over 35%.

The Fertile Crescent, highlighted here in green, was once the breadbasket of the Middle East. Now climate scientists say drought may render it barren. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the conference, scientists and hydrological engineers expressed concern over not only the low water supply itself but also, the rapid rate of decline. Many were not surprised by the news, however, pointing to Syria’s notoriously inefficient water policies and supply systems. Consequently, many also pointed out that with some reform in these two areas, Syria could easily meet its water needs.

A key aspect to such efficiency reforms will be changing agricultural practices. Crop irrigation currently constitutes 80% of Syria’s water consumption and due to the continued application of outdated techniques (such as flood irrigation), more than 70% of this water is wasted through evaporation and runoff. Many feel that the government’s failure to adopt more efficient, conservation-enhancing policies is one of the primary anthropogenic causes of the nation’s water crisis. In response to such claims, on October 4th of this year, George Malaki Sawmi, a Syrian water authority, was appointed the new irrigation minister. He inherited a daunting mandate: to create, pass, and implement a modernization scheme to decrease the amount of water wasted in the agricultural sector.

A woman with children outside of Ar Raqqah, one of the many tent villages that are now home to hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by drought. (Source: The New York Times)

According to Fouad Abousamra, a United Nations scientist who spoke at the Damascus conference, decades of poor government water management have amplified the effects of a devastating four-year drought. According to Abousamra, over-extraction of groundwater in the northeast paired with climate change and decreased rainfall created a dire situation in a once-fertile region. The dried up Khabur River, once a major water source in the northeastern province of Hasika, is a reminder of the region’s bygone bounty.

The water shortage resulting from drought and mismanagement has predictably decreased agricultural productivity. In Syria, where until recently agriculture accounted for almost a quarter of GDP, this is raising real concerns regarding future economic stability. According to the USDA, Syria’s wheat harvest – historically the country’s largest crop – has fallen by half. In February, the US State Department reported that, “for the first time in two decades, Syria has moved from being a net exporter of wheat to a net importer”.

A woman in Iraq inspects her once-fertile, now-parched land. Drought is decimating agriculture in Iraq and making it impossible for many farmers to remain on their land (Source: Hadi Mizban, AP.)

It isn’t just Syria that is suddenly importing grains and relying upon aid agencies to help feed its population. Climate scientists say that the entire Fertile Crescent – which encompasses all of Syria and much of neighbor Iraq – might be turning barren. Such a permanent, drastic decline in agriculture in the face of diminishing oil reserves and declining foreign investments would spell disaster for Syria. Iraq faces a similarly tenuous future: agriculture there has been all but decimated by years of warfare and drought.  The collapse of farming is presenting extreme economic challenges as well as safety concerns: both Syria and Iraq are becoming increasingly dependent on imported food and water, and both face growing numbers of displaced migrants no longer able to glean profit or sustenance from farming.

According to the UN, 800,000 people have left rural Syria because of water shortages, making this migration one of the largest internal displacements to occur in the Middle East’s recent past. Particularly worrisome is the fact that the farming crisis is most severe in the northeast, where a majority of the country’s fractious Kurdish population resides.

On top of internal displacement, Syria has also received over 1 million Iraqi refugees since 2003; while many Iraqis fled the war, others are true water refugees: more than 70% of Iraq’s underground aqueducts are depleted and the once-vast marshes in the south stand on the brink of destruction. In addition, the drought is also reported to have pushed between 2 and 3 million people into extreme poverty. Collectively, the effects of the drought are increasing the potential for civil unrest in Syria.

Perhaps more pressing, however, is the potential for international conflict over water resources. As Syria seeks to expand its political influence, it will have to compete with Turkey, Iraq, and Israel for river resources that the four nations share access to; previous water shortages contributed to disputes between Syria and Israel regarding the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered in 1967 and which Syria now wants back.

Disputes over shared water resources led Syria to support Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan during his violent campaign of terror in Turkey. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In addition, the current drought may reignite old tensions between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.  Many Syrians and Iraqis blame Turkey’s massive network of dams for diminished flows on the Euphrates and feel that Turkey is using water as a tool to assert its power in the region. Tensions surrounding shared water resources between the three nations have been high since the 1980s, when Turkey proceeded with its Southeastern Anatolia Project without consulting its downstream neighbors. This led Syria to support the infamous terrorist Abdullah Ocalan – who worked to destabilize the Turkish state – throughout the 1990s. While in the years since Ocalan’s 1999 capture, relations between Syria and Turkey have improved greatly, there is clearly a precedent for conflict over water, and unless conditions in Iraq and Syria improve, it’s conceivable that history could repeat itself.

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