Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @Newsweek, @bbc etc


published on The National on Jan 16, 2019

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The slow crawl towards water disaster

From drought to dam dramas, the Middle East continued its grim water trajectory in 2018

​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 continues, 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.