April 2015 – MIDDLE EAST – Behind the escalating violence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as the epidemic of civil unrest across the wider region, is a growing shortage of water. New peer-reviewed research published by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) shows that water scarcity linked to climate change is now a global problem playing a direct role in aggravating major conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Numerous cities in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are facing “short and declining water supplies per capita,” which is impacting “worldwide” on food production, urban shortages, and even power generation. In this month’s issue of the Journal of the AWWA, US water management expert Roger Patrick assesses the state of the scientific literature on water scarcity in all the world’s main regions, finding that local water shortages are now having “more globalized impacts”. He highlights the examples of “political instability in the Middle East and the potential for the same in other countries” as illustrating the increasing “global interconnectedness” of water scarcity at local and regional levels.
In 2012, a US intelligence report based on a classified National Intelligence Estimate on water security, commissioned by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, concluded that after 2022, droughts, floods and freshwater depletion would increase the likelihood of water being used as a weapon or war, or a tool of terrorism. The new study in the Journal of the AWWA, however, shows that the US intelligence community is still playing catch-up with facts on the ground. Countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where US counter-terrorism operations are in full swing, are right now facing accelerating instability from terrorism due to the destabilizing impacts of unprecedented water shortages. The UN defines a region as water stressed if the amount of renewable fresh water available per person per year is below 1,700 cubic meters. Below 1,000, the region is defined as experiencing water scarcity, and below 500 amounts to “absolute water scarcity.” According to the AWWA study, countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States.
Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest. The AWWA is an international scientific association founded to improve water quality and supply, whose 50,000 strong membership includes water utilities, scientists, regulators, public health experts, among others. AWWA operates a partnership with the US government’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) for safe water, and has played a key role in developing industry standards. Study author Robert Patrick, formerly of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, is a government consultant and water management specialist who has worked on water scarcity issues in Jordan, Lebanon, New Mexico, California and Australia. His Journal of AWWA paper explains that the grain price spikes that contributed to Egypt’s 2011 uprising, were primarily caused by “droughts in major grain-exporting countries” like Australia, triggered by climate change. Patrick points out that such civil unrest could signal an Egyptian future of continuing unrest and conflict. He highlights the risk of war between Egypt and Ethiopia due to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, threatening to restrict Egypt’s access to the Nile River, which supplies 98% of Egypt’s water supply.
As Egypt’s population is forecast to double to 150 million by 2050, this could lead to “tremendous tension” between Ethiopia and Egypt over access to the Nile, especially since Ethiopia’s dam would reduce the capacity of Egypt’s hydroelectric plant at Aswan by 40%. The nexus of countries in the Middle East and North Africa where the United States is currently leading a multi-year military engagement against the “Islamic State” (IS) all happen to be drought-stricken. Before Syria erupted into ongoing civil war, Patrick reports, 60% of the country went through a devastating drought that led over a million mostly Sunni farmers to migrate to coastal cities dominated by the ruling Alawite sect, fuelling sectarian tensions that culminated in unrest and a cycle of violence.
A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has provided the most compelling research to date on how climate change amplified Syria’s drought conditions, which in turn had a “catalytic effect” on civil unrest. But Patrick’s concern is that the Syria crisis could be a taste of things to come. Citing the findings of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) sponsored by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, he notes that between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris-Euphrates basin comprising Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran “lost groundwater faster than any other place in the world except northern India.”
A total of 117 million acre-feet of stored freshwater was lost due to reduced rainfall and bad water management. If this trend continues, “trouble may be brewing” for the region. Yemen is also consuming water far faster than it is being replenished, Patrick observes, an issue that has been identified by numerous experts as playing a key background role in driving local inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are currently subjected to ongoing US military operations under the rubric of fighting Islamist terrorists, yet the new AWWA study suggests that the rise of Muslim extremist movements has been indirectly fuelled by regional water crises. The ravaging impact of climate change in these countries has devastated local agriculture, heightened community tensions, and stoked already entrenched political grievances. With huge quantities of money pouring into the region to Islamist militant networks from the Gulf states, this is an ideal recipe for violent radicalization. –Mint Press News