WA­TER IN THE MID­DLE EAST HAS NEVER BEEN MORE VI­TAL

▶ Pol­i­tics of wa­ter at cen­tre stage as Abu Dhabi Sus­tain­abil­ity Week be­gins

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SOFIA BARBARANI

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.

Getty; AFP; AP

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

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