The Fertile Crescent, highlighted here in green, was once the breadbasket of the Middle East. Now climate scientists say drought may render it barren. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Katie Horner
12.7.2010 at 2:57pm

This past October, the Levant Desalination Association and NOSSTIA, an organization of expat Syrian scientists, arranged a conference in the capital city of Damascus to discuss Syria’s water crisis. Hydrology experts and research scientists at the conference reported that between 2002 and 2008, the national water supply fell from 1,200 to less than 750 cubic meters per person per year, a decrease of over 35%.

At the conference, scientists and hydrological engineers expressed concern over not only the low water supply itself but also, the rapid rate of decline. Many were not surprised by the news, however, pointing to Syria’s notoriously inefficient water policies and supply systems. Consequently, many also pointed out that with some reform in these two areas, Syria could easily meet its water needs.

According to Fouad Abousamra, a United Nations scientist who spoke at the Damascus conference, decades of poor government water management have amplified the effects of a devastating four-year drought. According to Abousamra, over-extraction of groundwater in the northeast paired with climate change and decreased rainfall created a dire situation in a once-fertile region. The dried up Khabur River, once a major water source in the northeastern province of Hasika, is a reminder of the region’s bygone bounty.

The water shortage resulting from drought and mismanagement has predictably decreased agricultural productivity. In Syria, where until recently agriculture accounted for almost a quarter of GDP, this is raising real concerns regarding future economic stability. According to the USDA, Syria’s wheat harvest – historically the country’s largest crop – has fallen by half. In February, the US State Department reported that, “for the first time in two decades, Syria has moved from being a net exporter of wheat to a net importer”.

It isn’t just Syria that is suddenly importing grains and relying upon aid agencies to help feed its population. Climate scientists say that the entire Fertile Crescent – which encompasses all of Syria and much of neighbor Iraq – might be turning barren. Such a permanent, drastic decline in agriculture in the face of diminishing oil reserves and declining foreign investments would spell disaster for Syria. Iraq faces a similarly tenuous future: agriculture there has been all but decimated by years of warfare and drought.  The collapse of farming is presenting extreme economic challenges as well as safety concerns: both Syria and Iraq are becoming increasingly dependent on imported food and water, and both face growing numbers of displaced migrants no longer able to glean profit or sustenance from farming.

According to the UN, 800,000 people have left rural Syria because of water shortages, making this migration one of the largest internal displacements to occur in the Middle East’s recent past. Particularly worrisome is the fact that the farming crisis is most severe in the northeast, where a majority of the country’s fractious Kurdish population resides.

On top of internal displacement, Syria has also received over 1 million Iraqi refugees since 2003; while many Iraqis fled the war, others are true water refugees: more than 70% of Iraq’s underground aqueducts are depleted and the once-vast marshes in the south stand on the brink of destruction. In addition, the drought is also reported to have pushed between 2 and 3 million people into extreme poverty. Collectively, the effects of the drought are increasing the potential for civil unrest in Syria. …

Parched for Peace: The Fertile Crescent Might Be Barren via Apocadocs



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