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Middle East faces alarming water loss

March 15, 2013 at 3:32 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 15 (UPI) -- The Middle East, one of the most arid regions on Earth, is facing a critical water crisis because of poor management and a 2007 drought, the American Geophysical Union warns in a new report.

It published a NASA study that showed in 2003-09 the Middle East lost a volume of water equivalent to the needs of up to 100 million people in the region. That amount of fresh water is almost the size of the Dead Sea shared by Israel and Jordan.

The region has long grappled with several major disputes over water involving Israel, Jordan, the Palestinians, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Yemen, and these are getting more serious as water levels fall.

The latest report underlines concerns that the water crisis is worsening almost by the day at a time when the region is engulfed in political turmoil. This is largely due to the upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring in which four longtime dictators were toppled, triggering bloodshed and power struggles that show no sign of abating.

In this highly charged atmosphere, with a massive expectation of a new democratic era that has largely gone unfulfilled, the possibility of conflict over water resources must grow.

Despite fears over the years that nations would go to war over water, no such conflicts have broken out, although there have been heavy skirmishes caused by the quest for water security, most notably involving Israel and its Arab neighbors.

"However," Oxford Analytica observed Feb. 28, "groundwater depletion is now more serious than the contentious cross-border sharing of river flows. Associated conflicts will be on a community level rather than between nations."

That may be so. The incentive for cooperation rather than conflict on such a fundamental issue is considerable.

But the alarming rate at which water resources are shrinking could well ignite shooting wars among peoples cast adrift in the political maelstrom sweeping a region whose history is dominated by warfare.

The AGU study, published in its journal Water Resources Research Feb. 15, showed that freshwater reserves in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that rise in Turkey and flow southward into the Persian Gulf have lost 144 cubic kilometers of the total stored fresh water in 2003-09.

That, the study says, constitutes the second fastest loss of groundwater storage after India.

The main reasons for this loss of water were listed as increased demand, poor management -- a perennial problem in the Arab world -- and the impact of the devastating 2007 drought, whose effects are still being felt. Over pumping of ground water was the primary cause.

With water run-off in the region expected to decline 10 percent by 2050 and demand set to rise 60 percent by 2045, "these findings have heightened concerns of an impending regional water crisis," Oxford Analytica said.

The region's main rivers -- the Euphrates, Tigris and Nile -- are the focus of major water disputes, with little prospect any of them will be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Iraq and Syria, which rely heavily on the Euphrates and the Tigris for water supplies, have suffered greatly since Turkey cut the flow of these two rivers that rise on its northern highlands by building a series of huge hydroelectric dams designed, in part, to expand the country's agricultural sector.

For instance, the flow rate of the Euphrates through Iraq, after it reaches there from Syria, has fallen 70 percent, in part because of the drought.

Egypt depends on the Nile for almost all its water, and for food production in the fertile Nile basin but it and Sudan are in dispute with eight upstream African states that want a more equitable share of the great river's waters.

Under colonial-era agreements with Britain, Egypt gets the lion's share of the Nile's waters.

But that's in doubt because the African states are buildings massive dams for irrigation and hydro-electric schemes to meet domestic demands.

Even with the 2011 overthrow of longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring upheavals, Cairo remains at odds with Ethiopia, the main dam builder, and the other upstream states, and refuses to agree to any reduction in its water supplies.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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