By 2050: Will the Middle East Be Engaged in Water Wars?

The nations of the Middle East and North Africa are grappling with formidable environmental challenges.

The nations of the Middle East and North Africa are grappling with formidable environmental challenges.

Nuha Yousef | a month ago




The nations of the Middle East and North Africa, a region that encompasses Iraq and the Gulf states, are grappling with formidable environmental challenges.

Among these is the scarcity and degradation of water resources — a crisis that looms over the economy, the environment, and the very sustenance of the region's populace.

This crisis is exacerbated by climate change, burgeoning populations, and escalating demands for water across various sectors, including agriculture, industry, and domestic use.

These factors compound the difficulties of water resource management within these nations.

Potential Conflict

A United Nations report released last March casts a stark light on the potential for conflict, even suggesting the possibility of "water wars" erupting by 2050 due to the worsening state of water resources and the surging demand.

The signs of this grim future are already manifesting, with many countries in the region experiencing heightened water stress — a testament to the immense environmental pressures that threaten the future of water security in the area.

Amid these dire warnings, the specter of conflict looms over nations vying for the dwindling water resources, underscoring the urgent need for sustainable solutions to forestall conflict and alleviate rising tensions.

In this context, the imperative for international collaboration and the sharing of knowledge and technological advancements in water resource management cannot be overstated.

Such cooperation is vital to ensure the sustainability of water resources and to preserve peace and stability in the region.

The environmental challenges facing the region are multifaceted, including severe drought, pollution, the spread of desertification, an increase in dust storms, and significant air pollution stemming from gas emissions and oil refineries.

Temperature increases have precipitated a marked decrease in annual precipitation levels, a trend projected to result in a 65% reduction by the year 2050.

The UNESCO report reveals that 25 countries are under high water stress, utilizing over 80% of their renewable water resources for irrigation, livestock, industry, and domestic needs. Even brief periods of drought place these areas at imminent risk of depleting their water supplies.

Threatened Region

The report further highlights that the Middle East and North Africa are among the regions most affected by water stress, with 83% of the population facing extremely high levels of water scarcity.

The countries most susceptible to water stress are Qatar, Lebanon, Bahrain, the Emirates, and Oman, all of which experience a significant shortfall in water supply, exacerbated by demands from domestic, agricultural, and industrial sectors.

Iraq and Algeria are ranked 12th and 13th, respectively, among the nations most at risk of water shortages by 2050. Conversely, Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti are listed among the countries least likely to face water shortages by that same year.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) underscores that climate change poses a significant threat to the global commons, with dire implications for water security worldwide.

The intensification of global warming, attributable to greenhouse gas emissions, is leading to more severe storms, floods, and droughts.

Indeed, the frequency and severity of floods and droughts have surged dramatically over the past two decades.

Droughts that historically occurred once every ten years are now 1.7 times more frequent, a direct consequence of human-induced climate alterations.

The financial burden of providing safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene for all in 140 low- and middle-income countries is estimated to reach approximately $1.7 trillion from 2016 to 2030, amounting to an annual cost of around $114 billion.

Fragile Communities

In the Middle East, the specter of drought looms large, posing a formidable challenge to the region's nations.

The arid conditions precipitate a cascade of environmental degradation and natural resource depletion, striking at the heart of agricultural, livestock, and wildlife sustenance.

The fragility of communities is exacerbated by these conditions, heightening the risk of disputes and conflicts over the scant resources, particularly water.

It is imperative, therefore, to engage in proactive risk management and capacity building to fortify the region against the impacts of drought, thereby safeguarding the sustainability of its communities and ecosystems.

The looming drought portends a grim future, with the potential to cripple agricultural yields, catalyze widespread famine, and inflate food prices.

Such a scenario could be the harbinger of social upheaval and political turbulence, alongside an uptick in forest fires and dust storms.

The ecological ramifications are profound, with drought threatening the very fabric of regional ecosystems and biodiversity. The potential extinction of plant species could unravel the food web, impacting not only flora but also the fauna reliant on these plants for sustenance and habitat.

Ramadan Hamza, a scholar specializing in water scarcity, underscores the immediacy of the drought's impact, citing the 2018 crisis in Iraq where Basra's hospitals grappled with a deluge of poisoning cases due to contaminated water. This incident serves as a stark warning of the drought's capacity to morph into a calamity that ravages the region.

In media statements, Hamza delineates the multifaceted causes of Iraq's water woes, ranging from the non-compliance of neighboring nations with water-sharing accords to internal mismanagement and the cumulative toll of wars, sanctions, regime shifts, and ongoing state dysfunction. These factors coalesce into a dire water crisis.

Global Crisis

In contrast, Gulf nations have charted a course of success in this domain through the adoption of desalination technologies, innovative water storage solutions, consumption rationalization via pricing strategies, leakage minimization, and investments in renewable energy, notably solar power, to diminish fossil fuel reliance and carbon emissions.

Additionally, these countries are pioneering water recycling and reuse initiatives to curtail wastage.

Amidst this backdrop of water scarcity and regional competition for this precious resource, the specter of a 'water war' emerges as a tangible threat to Middle Eastern stability and security.

The United Nations cautions that escalating water scarcity could ignite conflicts and water-centric wars globally, with the region being no exception.

The UN report sheds light on a sobering reality: approximately 2.2 billion individuals worldwide lack access to safely managed drinking water, while 3.5 billion are deprived of adequate sanitation services, underscoring the urgency of addressing this global water crisis.

Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, has issued a stark warning about the dire consequences of water shortages, which not only exacerbate geopolitical tensions but also threaten fundamental human rights.

She emphasized that half of the global population faces water scarcity for several months each year, a condition that has become a permanent fixture in certain regions of the world.

Water Wars

Water expert Hamza has observed that conflicts over water resources, which he refers to as "water wars," have been a reality since the first Gulf War, sparked by disputes such as the division of the Shatt al-Arab between Iraq and Iran and nearly led to a conflict between Iraq and Syria in 1975 over the Euphrates River's waters.

Hamza dismisses the likelihood of overt wars waged explicitly over water, suggesting that such conflicts will bear different names since the battle over water is already underway.

Hamza also pointed out Turkiye's strategic moves to dominate the areas east of the Euphrates River in Syria, extending its control up to the Iraqi border, a maneuver indicative of the underlying water conflict.

The United Nations has come under criticism from Hamza for its tepid response to the water crisis and its apparent lack of commitment to devising solutions and collaborating with regional countries to mitigate water-related conflicts.

Meanwhile, Engineer Abdul Rahman al-Mahmoud, Chairman of the Gulf Water Science and Technology Society, has echoed these concerns, highlighting the growing challenges to water resources in the Gulf region and beyond.

Al-Mahmoud has shed light on the Gulf's proactive approach to water resource management, referencing the national water strategy set forth by the Water Resources Council, which aims for sustainability by 2030.

He notes that water stress has become increasingly pronounced amidst escalating regional and international conflicts.

To conclude, experts are calling for the development of cooperative mechanisms and mutual understanding among the nations involved.

Such measures are deemed essential for maintaining regional peace and stability, preventing the intensification of current disputes, and forestalling the emergence of new conflicts centered around the precious resource of water.