For a vast majority of the past fifty years, oil and its abundance defined the Middle East. In coming years, however, that part of the world may well be defined by the dearth of a different natural resource: water.
Throughout the Mideast, water scarcity, which has always been a reality in this naturally arid region, is becoming an increasingly dire situation. According to a UN report released earlier this year, a severe drought beginning in 2007 has destroyed the livelihoods of 800,000 people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The result is a growing number of ‘water refugees’ who, as of yet, have not received the same kind of relief historically given to those displaced by war, genocide, and natural disasters.
The consequences of the water crisis, however, extend far beyond a growing population of migrants seeking asylum from the relentless siege of drought. Water shortages, paired with extreme pollution of remaining water sources, are seriously decreasing both the value and ecological health of land and are also posing serious health risks to communities throughout the Middle East. This, in turn, both creates and exacerbates pre-existing socio-political tensions in a region rife with conflict.
The causes of the water crisis, meanwhile, are often (perhaps paradoxically) similar to its consequences. While dwindling access to clean water can foment existing regional and cultural conflicts, such conflicts have also had a hand in the depletion and degradation of water sources. The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, has repeatedly prevented implementation of solutions to manage the water resources within and around Israel and Palestine; consequently, aquifers have been over-pumped, river flows diminished, lake levels lowered, and seas polluted. The disappearance of the Dead Sea, the pollution of the Jordan River, and the depletion of the Gaza coastal aquifer all demonstrate the ecological damage produced by regional conflicts in an arid area.
Ironically, the intensified competition for these vanishing and deteriorating water sources has in many cases furthered the very conflicts that stressed these resources to begin with, demonstrating that the water crisis is inextricably linked to unrest in the Middle East in a damaging positive feedback cycle.
This historic turbulence has long dominated foreign (especially American) perceptions of the Mideast. In recent decades, the area has garnered more international concern and press time than almost any other place in the world. Yet, for all of the attention and aid given to countries in the Mideast, the water crisis and its myriad consequences have received comparatively little consideration and media coverage. Now, as a result of the international credit crisis, water and sanitation projects are receiving even less notice and support. The timing couldn’t be worse: in 2008, countries in MENA experienced some of the worst droughts in recent history.
The countries that have been hit the hardest by this drought are also some of the most unstable and conflict-riddled: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. ‘Water stress’ refers to countries with less than 1700 cubic meters of fresh water per person, and ‘water shortage’ refers to countries with less than 1000 cubic meters of fresh water per person. According to a recent World Bank estimate, per person water availability in MENA averages out to 1200 cubic meters while in the countries mentioned above, it’s much lower; to put things in perspective, the worldwide average is 7000 cubic meters per person. Unpredictable and minimal precipitation paired with the pressures of population growth and development efforts, the threat of climate change, and inefficient (and usually unregulated) water use are all factors contributing to the water crisis in these countries.
Additionally, in many of the places mentioned above, mutual reliance on shared water resources not only results in the misuse of the resources but also, has made them a catalyst for confrontation. This does not bode well for future progress in either area, a prospect that is even more troubling when considered in light of a 2007 UN report, which states that some of the worst conflicts in the Eastern Hemisphere’s recent past were caused in part by ecological collapse, a possibility not far off for some of the most water scarce countries in the region. It is this connection, this apparent mutual causality, between the water crisis and regional conflict that will be the focus of this miniseries.
The impetus for this series was an article in The New York Times on Dubai’s water-related problems and the subsequent conversations I had about this piece with friends and family members. Upon reading this article, I was shocked to learn that Dubai, one of the wealthiest cities in not only the Mideast but the world, and which, consequently, is usually associated with excess instead of scarcity, has at any given time only a four day’s supply of drinking water stored up. In asking around, I found out that I was not alone: most people I spoke to (many of whom are very knowledgeable about global environmental issues) were also unaware of the troubling situation.
After my initial shock, however, I was then shocked that I had been shocked: I’ve studied environmental policy and issues related to natural resources for years so why wouldn’t I expect an extravagant city built in the middle of a desert to face problems of water scarcity? I came to the conclusion (as it is so often easy and convenient to do) that this oversight was not the result of a sudden lapse in my mental acuity or deductive capabilities (impossible!), but rather, was the fault of the media.
Regardless of what news channel you watch or periodical you read, the Middle East is almost always painted with the same palette comprised of oil, violent conflict, and unstable governments. The media, as it is wont to do, focuses on the most sensational stories: religious wars, coup d’états, or lifestyles so opulent they’re difficult for even privileged Americans to conceive. There is little coverage granted to issues in the Middle East that don’t deal with security, money, or oil. Yet it becomes clear after more holistic analysis that natural resources – specifically, water – are inextricably linked to regional conflicts and national economies. The question, then, is why, if water plays such a crucial role in the conflicts and development we hear and read so much about, do we rarely hear news of the water situation itself? Why is the media failing to bring attention to a grave crisis that carries the potential to wreak further and long-term havoc on an already troubled region?
Not only does this omission in media coverage seem to be a disservice to the Western public but also, it seems to be an implicit (and potentially catastrophic) support of the ecological status quo in the Mideast. The countries most affected by general water scarcity and recent droughts are also those least able to take action to ameliorate the problems that both cause and arise from dwindling and contaminated water resources. Further, if these problems continue unabated, they will likely contribute – in increasingly negative fashion – to the cycle of escalating violence, conflict and human suffering.
It would seem, then, that it is high time for the international community to begin to address, or at the very least acknowledge on a widespread scale, the Mideast water crisis. As always, however, the media plays a crucial role in mobilizing public awareness and action. Without increased coverage of water-related issues, the likelihood of increased foreign aid to address them seems slim. So over the coming weeks, I’ll do my (small) part to cover some of the most pressing water issues in the Mideast, giving just a fraction of the attention it deserves to a parched region that has long thirsted for water and for peace.