WATER IN THE MIDDLE EAST HAS NEVER BEEN MORE VITAL
▶ Politics of water at centre stage as Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week begins
Once home to some of mankind’s earliest agricultural societies, the historic Tigris, Euphrates and Nile rivers raised the civilisations that built the Pyramids at Giza, the Great Light House at Alexandria and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But today protesters take to the streets over poor service provision, farmers lament as crops fail and politicians fume that neighbours are taking too much water.
Water levels on the Tigris and Euphrates have dropped to historic lows in recent years and water is becoming an increasingly contentious resource. Turkish and Iranian dams are blamed for the drop in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, but experts also say that poor farming techniques and overuse are also major contributors. Egypt has for years been worried about the looming Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam at the top of the Nile.
Between climate change and poor management, the region faces a worsening situation that threatens the lives of millions who live in the once fertile crescent or along the banks of the Nile.
But this man-made problem can be solved. Experts say agreements between neighbours over sharing resources provided by rivers is commonplace.
To coincide with Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, The National looked into water management and has spoken to farmers and experts to find out what is really taking place along the Tigris, Euphrates and the Nile.
Water is a key category of the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize, to be presented today to a project illustrating the best solution to improve water quality, sanitation and efficiency, while preserving water-related ecosystems will be given the highest award.
For centuries, the Little Zab river in northern Iraq 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 south-west to the Iraqi town of Al Zab in Kirkuk, where it joins the 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 resulted in lower flows, farmers were rarely completely parched.
But in the spring of 2017, residents in Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah Governorate, through which the Little Zab runs, watched the water level drop. In the town of Qaladze, families complained of severe shortages of tap water, crops were not 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,” Khudur said, recalling the loss of crops.
Unbeknown to him at the time, the cause was just 40 kilometres east of Qaladze in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan – the Sadrdasht Dam. In 2009 the Iranian government began work on the huge infrastructure project, a structure more than 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 blocking the flow to fill the dam capable of holding 545 million cubic metres of water. The downstream waterflow was reduced by 80 per cent.
“We never heard that the river would dry this much,” Khudur said. “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.”
Sardasht is one of three dams built on the Iran-Kurdistan border. About 30 per cent of the Tigris’s 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 troubled 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 rattle sabres in a bid to stop the construction of Ethiopia’s multibillion-dollar Nile River dam project.
Along the Nile, Tigris and 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 built – the Great Pyramids at Giza, the Great Light House at Alexandria and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in modern-day central Iraq.
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 manmade crisis. But what is the culprit in this crisis: climate change or damming?
According to Kira Walker – a writer on environmental security in the Mena region – both play different but critical roles. “Each contributes to present and future shortage while also compounding the other,” she told The National.
“Building dams is considered short-sighted ... because it won’t address water shortages in the long term, will worsen the effects of climate change and cause havoc for the people up and downstream,” she said. On the other hand, “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 fast flowing rivers once threatened to drown swimmers, some tributaries are so depleted they can be crossed on foot.
With the work continuing 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 about 70 per cent of Iraq’s river water resources coming through neighbouring countries, Iraqis cried foul.
Between 2 and 9 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. Although reforms are needed, the country’s continuing unrest has left little space for authorities and organisations to focus on proper management or education of more sustainable farming methods.
Many adversely affected by the damming believe there is also a political intent.
When the river shrank in the summer of 2017, Kurds said Iran was using water to punish them before the independence referendum. Tehran is against Kurdish secession from Iraq. But in June last year, more than a year after the vote, the flow of water plummeted again.
The Kurdistan Regional Government Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources accused Iran of deliberately cutting off waters to the Little Zab. Iran denied the dam had reduced the flow, 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 said.
In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, where rivers once threatened to drown swimmers, some tributaries are so depleted they can be crossed on foot
He joined a recent Kurdish delegation to Iran’s west Azerbaijan province, where they discussed the water issue. Coming back, he did not 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 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 complainant party can request that the Security Council forward the case to the international court, making the judge’s ruling binding. But enforcing this ruling can prove a challenge.
Some countries are bound by international water treaties but, Prof Selby said, “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, Mr Bayiz said, 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 continuing struggle to form a new government in Baghdad since elections in May last year.
Less than 1,000km 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 at the confluence of two of the region’s most important rivers, water security, and basic services, are major challenges.
Last summer, city residents took to the streets as temperatures hit 50°C, to demand water and electricity. Between June and September, 12 demonstrators were killed in the city of two million, mostly in clashes with security forces. The unrest spread to foreign offices, including the Iranian consulate, which rioters set alight.
For decades Basra and other southern towns have been largely overlooked by Baghdad. Faced with more than a decade of chronic underinvestment in service provision, anger had been brewing for years. The end of the war on ISIS in Iraq in 2017 and the return home of unemployed members of the Hashed Al Shaabi militia added to the tensions.
Then about 4,000 people were forced from their homes in the south last year alone because of the water crisis, according to Iraqi officials, while the UN Environment Programme estimates that Iraq is losing about 250 square kilometres 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”, Ms Walker said.
In addition to climate change and Baghdad’s water mismanagement, Iraq needs only look 1,165km north to find another major source of the crisis.
The Ilisu dam is Turkey’s second largest and a central element of the South-East Anatolia Project, 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 south-east, 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?” said Ridvan Ayhan, looking out on to the Tigris – the river that supported his family’s town for generations and will soon destroy it.
Engineers are still waiting for 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 drowns. Downstream, cities such as 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.
In addition to the Ilisu dam, Iran in 2015 began filling the Daryan dam, situated on the Sirwan River, another of the Tigris’s major tributaries. It is expected to reduce the flow to the Shatt Al Arab by as much as 18 per cent.
But while huge 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.
Yet Ms Walker said 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 last year the rift between Baghdad and Ankara had widened. But it was not until October when Turkey agreed to release more water to ease Iraqi shortages, that amicable relations were 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 responsible for taking the necessary steps to resolve the continuing 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 that they could be solved in two years. The aim, Mr Eroglu said, 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,” Mr Selby said. “Water can be an easy nationalist rhetoric.”
For some, however, water is a more personal matter – livelihoods often 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 grow only two with rice, and still the water is not enough,” Mr Eissa said. “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 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 the water-intensive growing of rice, imposing heavy fines of between 3,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh615) and 20,000 Egyptian pounds on offenders and a possible six-month prison sentence.
Last year, Cairo reduced the area of land that can be used to 724,000 feddans – 303,500 hectares – a sharp drop from the officially allotted 1.1 million feddans the year before and the 1.8 million feddans grain 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 near the coast, with the intention of preventing saltwater 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. Now, we grow crops that don’t consume so much water, like wheat,” the farmer said. Wheat, however, has a lower market price than rice with the benchmark US wheat averaging at $232 (Dh852) per tonne versus $423 for rice, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation 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 metres of water that flow down the river each year. That amount has been challenged by other Nile basin nations as unfair.
Despite that 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 emphasise water conservation. This, in turn, has led to the Egyptian government taking a rare proactive stance.
In efforts to conserve water, authorities have 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 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 difficulties. 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 metres 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 that 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 metres a person, but with the population – now at 100 million – 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 said 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 when the Nile 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 are many precedents for bilateral solutions to the problem.
“Research shows that historically water issues have almost always been dealt with co-operatively,” Ms Walker said.
Yet with trust dwindling between many of the nations concerned and differing priorities, coming to agreements on the use of dams or pumping out flows for agriculture will be a challenge.
With political infighting, insecurity, major challenges for development in 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.
Without food, a human being can live for weeks. But 65 per cent of the human body is water and without it we can survive for no more than a few days – even less, in a hot climate. It follows, therefore, that to restrict access to water as a weapon, or as a tool of political manipulation, is an intolerable crime against humanity. Yet throughout the region, increasing demand for water in the face of diminishing supplies is setting neighbour against neighbour, threatening to overturn international conventions and long-term agreements and bringing the prospect of water wars ever closer to reality.
There are many potential flashpoints around the world, with water scarcity threatening the security of millions of people in dozens of countries reliant upon, and competing for, the life-giving resources of rivers controlled by neighbouring states. But nowhere is the situation more critical than in the Middle East, as our special report today highlights. Egypt, as the last in line of 11 countries dependent upon the Nile, faces the existential threat of a massive hydroelectric dam being built upriver by Ethiopia, in defiance of long-term regional agreements. Afghanistan and Iran are increasingly at odds over fair access to the water of the Helmand river, a vital resource for farmers on both sides of the border, governed by a treaty that dates back 45 years. Iraq, meanwhile, is being deprived of water by its upstream neighbours Iran and Turkey, whose dams are parching the once-fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and which have been blamed for the freshwater shortage and sanitation crisis that led to violent protests last year in Basra. It is no coincidence that close by the banks of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, three of the seven ancient wonders of the world sprang up, providing a vital source of sustenance to workers and magnificent architectural projects. Yet those same three rivers are today under threat, thanks to the detrimental impact of man-made crises: dams and climate change.
No accident of geography gives one nation the right to deprive another of water. Equally, it is unthinkable that nations should go to war over this most vital resource. A report published in September by the United Nations identified “hydropolitical risk” as one of the greatest threats of the coming decades, likely to trigger widespread social unrest, regional instability and worse. Diplomacy is the only tenable solution to all of these potential crises. The international community must act with urgency to ensure fair agreements are struck and adhered to. It won’t be easy to balance the growing and competing needs of nations that, in many cases, have uneasy relationships, but it must be done. The alternative is too catastrophic to contemplate.
Far left, the Tigris in Baghdad; above, a boy watches as an Iraqi farmer dig in a stream to improve the flow of water in the village of Sayyed Dakhil, 300 kilometres south of Baghdad; left, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba