We all know how sectarian, religious and political differences have thrown many Middle Eastern countries into chaos and armed conflict. But there is a deeper factor at play which deserves greater recognition: severe water scarcity.
This scarcity will not be addressed overnight, no matter who ends up prevailing in those conflicts. As such, the region will very likely continue to suffer from significant turmoil for many years to come.
Using satellite data, scientists from the University of California (Irvine), NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that large parts of the arid Middle East region saw a dramatic loss of freshwater reserves over a seven-year period starting in 2003. This is shown in the following map:
Parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost some 144 cubic kilometers of total stored freshwater – almost the total amount of water in the Dead Sea. The scientists attributed the majority of this loss to pumping from underground reservoirs.
Indeed, Syria and Iraq are facing severe water availability issues, compounded by the fact that the majority of their renewable water resources comes from other countries. As such, the Euphrates River – which has sustained Mesopotamian civilization from its very start – is critically important for them.
However, rampant demand, wasteful government policies, intensive agriculture, pesticides and industrial use have all substantially reduced both the quality and the quantity of water available. According to a Chatham House study, this overexploitation has curtailed the flow of the Euphrates from Turkey to downstream countries by at least 40% since 1972.
This is a major concern for the 27 million people across these three countries who depend on these water supplies directly, and many millions more reliant on the food and energy coming out of that region. All the wars since 2003 have only made matters worse.
It is not surprising then that the Islamic State is securing strongholds along the river and using them to exert pressure on their enemies. But there is one thing that the opposing factions in the brutal war raging across Syria and Iraq agree on, and that is accusing Turkey of further reducing their fair share of water supplies from the Euphrates. The latter will soon complete an ambitious US$35 billion dam and irrigation works program, which will put further pressure downstream.
Other countries in the region are facing even more severe water problems. Take Yemen for instance, a country with 24 million people and one of the lowest per capita water availability levels in the world. Critical water supply sources are being depleted so rapidly that they will become exhausted before the end of the decade. Dwindling oil production has hit the economy hard, at a time when big investments in infrastructure are needed to tackle the issue. And now there’s a conflict raging between Yemeni factions, internally and against Saudi Arabia.
So we can see another pattern emerging beyond the sectarian power play across the region... and arguably even more significant: where water supplies become acutely scarce, armed conflict rapidly follows.
An Explosive Mix
The population growth rate in the Middle East is one of the highest in the world. From 1990 to 2010, population in that region as a whole increased by 50% - 124 million people in absolute terms, more than four times the increase in the European Union over the same period. In some of the most parched countries that increase has been absolutely staggering, as shown in the following table:
Population (MM) and Military Expenditures (constant 2011 US$) in Selected Middle East Countries: 1990 – 2010
Source: World Bank, OECD, SIPRI.
(a) Yemen is from 1990 to 2008 and UAE from 1997 to 2010.
These are quite young populations as most of the growth has been organic. And it’s always the young who tend to get really agitated when a problem emerges. Military expenditures in most of these countries have increased at rates even higher than population. So not only there is a rapidly expanding number of people facing a dire water situation; they also have more weapons at their disposal.
Accordingly, the world and its superpowers should not be surprised by the expansion of armed conflict across the Middle East we have witnessed in recent years. And unfortunately things might get even worse from here.
There is no civilization without water. If current water trends persist, pardon the hyperbole but large parts of the Middle East may turn into one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has ever seen, particularly given the large size of those populations.
The immediate consequence is of course a continuation if not expansion of armed conflicts across the region, as people fight over the remaining drops of water.
Desperate civilians will try to get out any way they can. Italy and especially Greece are already overwhelmed by the flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Just imagine those flows increasing by many multiples over the coming years.
And it’s not only civilians who are looking to come across. The map above shows the ultimate territorial ambitions of the Islamic Caliphate. Seems farfetched particularly as many of those countries are NATO members or part of China, but this will not dissuade them from trying by any means. Time and demographics are on their side, with large pools of disillusioned young people at their disposal (with relatives and sympathizers already in Europe), as well as potential access to advanced weaponry manufactured in the West, Russia and China.
In light of all of this, the lack of a concrete strategy and response thus far by European Union leaders is truly baffling. It is becoming increasingly obvious that they will not be able to solve this problem just by throwing some money at it and moving a few refugees around; not when its scale can dramatically increase in magnitude.
What will this do to the Middle East’s main export, crude oil? Our guess is that producing countries will continue to expand production, even if prices in the world markets correct further. After all they have big bills to pay: fighting insurgents, ramping up their defenses, investing in infrastructure, importing food (to mitigate domestic production declines)... But if any slack in capacity is exhausted, or worse, conflict expands to the point where their upstream or logistical infrastructure is impaired, then supply could quickly go the other way.
While conventional, tar sands and tight oil producers in North America may get the last laugh, it is clear that the world economy needs the abundant reserves of the Middle East.
It is also curious to note how ill equipped Western central banks would be to deal with the inflationary consequences of an oil supply shock. Why? Because any material increase in interest rates would blow up government budgets in many developed countries, given the high debt loads that they have taken on since the 2008 financial crisis.
Rather than adding more fuel to the Middle Eastern fire, it seems that the world’s superpowers have a vested interest to negotiate and implement credible solutions to the unfolding catastrophe in the region.
Unfortunately, such vision and leadership seem to be in even shorter supply than water in the Middle East.