The Middle East is running out of water and some parts of it are becoming uninhabitable

The Middle East is running out of water and some parts of it are becoming uninhabitable
The Middle East is running out of water and some parts of it are becoming uninhabitable

Ferries that once carried tourists to and from small islets in Iran's Lake Urmia are rusty, unable to move, in a place that is rapidly turning into a salt plain.

Just two decades ago, Urmia was the largest lake in the Middle East, and its local economy was a thriving tourist destination with hotels and restaurants.

"People came here to swim and use the mud for medicinal purposes. They stayed here for at least a few days," says journalist Ahad Ahmed.

The dying of Lake Urmia was rapid. Its area has more than halved, from 5,400 square kilometers (2,085 sq mi) in the 1990s to 2,500 square kilometers (965 sq mi) today. Now there are fears that it will disappear altogether.

Running out of water

Similar problems are familiar to many parts of the Middle East, where water is simply running out.

The region experiences constant droughts and temperatures so high that they are hardly suitable for human life. Throw in the mismanagement and overuse of water, and forecasts for the future of water resources here are bleak.

Several countries in the Middle East, including Iran, Iraq and Jordan, are pumping vast amounts of water from the land for irrigation in an effort to increase their food self-sufficiency.

"They use more water than they regularly receive from the rain. And so the water table drops accordingly, because you are taking water away faster than it is replenished by rainfall," he said.

This is exactly what is happening in Iran, where an extensive network of dams supports the agricultural sector, which consumes about 90% of all the water used in the country.

"Reduced rainfall and increased demand in these countries are drying up many rivers, lakes and wetlands," Iceland said.

The consequences of even less water are dire: Areas can become uninhabitable; tensions over how to share and manage water resources such as rivers and lakes may heighten; political violence could break out."

In Iran, Urmia has shrunk mainly due to the fact that it is operated by so many people, and some dams built in its basin mainly for irrigation have reduced the flow of water into the lake.

Iran's water problems have already become deadly. In one week in July, at least three demonstrators were killed in clashes with security officials during demonstrations against water shortages in the southwest of the country.

According to the meteorological service, the country has experienced the driest conditions in the last five decades.

Winters in the Middle East are predicted to be drier as the world gets warmer, and while summers are wetter, the heat is expected to offset water gain.

"The problem is that with such a rise in temperature, all the precipitation that will fall out will evaporate, because it will be very hot," said Mansour Almazrui, director of King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia.

"Another thing is that this rain will not necessarily be regular rain. It will be extreme rains, which means that floods like those in China, Germany, Belgium, these floods will be a big problem in the Middle East."

Water quality is deteriorating

These changes affect not only the amount of water available, but also its quality.

Lake Urmia is hypersaline, that is, very salty. As it declined, the salt concentration in it increased and became so extreme that its use for irrigation damages farmers' crops.

Kiomars Pujebeli, who grows tomatoes, sunflowers, sugar beets, eggplants and walnuts near the lake, explains that the salt water has been destructive.

People are used to living with very little water

In Jordan, one of the world's most water-stressed countries, people are accustomed to living with very little water.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that by the end of the century, Jordanians will have to halve their per capita water consumption. Most low-income Jordanians will live on 40 liters a day to meet all of their needs, such as drinking, bathing, and washing clothes and dishes. The average American uses about 10 times as much today.

Many Jordanian homes don't have to have water every day, says Daniel Rosenfeld, professor of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Jordan is now experiencing a critical water shortage - water is supplied to homes in Jordan once or twice a week, even in the capital Amman," says Daniel Rosenfeld, professor of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The capital is actually having existential problems right now. said Rosenfeld.

Groundwater levels in parts of the country are dropping by more than a meter per year, studies show, and waves of refugees from many countries in the region are putting additional pressure on already strained resources.

Jordan Water Authority Secretary General Bashar Batain said the country needs more funding from the rest of the world to cope with the increased demand for water.

"Jordan has borne the heavy burden of the Syrian refugee crisis on behalf of the international community and has been deeply affected by water. Refugees cost the water sector more than $ 600 million a year, while Jordan receives only a fraction of this from the international community," - he said.

He added that there was much less rainfall in Jordan in 2020 than in the previous year, threatening more than a quarter of its water resources and cutting its drinking water supply in half.

Geopolitical chaos

The country relies on the Jordan River system, which also flows through Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon, and dams built along the rivers have severely reduced the flow of water to Jordan. Jordan also uses canals to redirect the river for irrigation. In the past, conflicts have flared up around the river system several times.

It is a transboundary problem that also occurs in other parts of the region along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and in northern Africa along the Nile.

Jordan, Israel and Syria have improved their coordination of the management of the river system on which they depend, but tensions often erupt. Experts have long warned that water shortages could lead to new conflicts.


The Middle East is at the center of an increasingly water-stressed world. Water stress, which occurs when demand for water exceeds available supply, is already most acutely felt in the Middle East and surrounding countries, and is projected to worsen over the next decade. Priya Krishnakumar, CNN

Jordan has no choice but to buy large volumes of water from Israel, which has a huge desalination program in which it removes salt from seawater to make it fit for human consumption. However, desalination is an energy intensive process that consumes a huge amount of energy; energy, which is not yet clean and renewable, only intensifies global warming, which is the main cause of water scarcity.

As the climate continues to warm and the water supply dwindles, part of the solution to the problem in the Middle East must come from reducing water use in agriculture. It could also mean a change in the type of food that farmers grow and export, Rosenfeld said.

"In Israel, for example, we grew a lot of oranges, but at some point we realized that we were exporting water that we don't have," he said, adding that crops can also be designed to be more sustainable. to heat and drought.

And Almazrui of King Abdulaziz University said dams could be better organized to accommodate the changing patterns of rainfall. There is also a need to improve coordination in the management of rivers flowing through countries.

But that will not help a farmer whose family has owned land for generations and cannot move to a more humid climate, or have no control over where a neighboring country can build a dam.

Raad al-Tamami, a 54-year-old father of five, who lives in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, relies on water from the Diyal River, a tributary of the Tigris River. The Diyal River has been drying up for several years, forcing al-Tamami to halve fruit production at three farms.

He and fellow farmers work on a water rationing schedule, and sometimes he waits up to a month for water.

This dependence on more water for food security can ironically jeopardize food availability - farmers can only continue to farm in such difficult conditions for a long time.

This is what al-Tamami is constantly tormenting.

"Many farmers, myself included, are seriously considering leaving this profession inherited from their father, from their grandfather, and start looking for more lucrative jobs that will guarantee a better future for our children."

Popular by topic