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Middle East risks ‘water wars’ as river basins dry up

Economic growth
By Paul Hodges on 20-Apr-2013

Tigris.pngThe Euphrates is the longest river in Western Asia at 3000km (1850 miles), and with the river Tigris (1850km) it has been supporting Middle Eastern agriculture for 450k years. But new research from the Water Resources Research academy confirms that both rivers are now losing water at an alarming rate. Kindly forwarded by Fernando Castro of Caiba, it uses satellite evidence from NASA to reveal the rate of depletion for the first time:

• Between 2003-9, the Tigris-Euphrates river basin (shown in the map, blue lines) lost 144 cubic kilometres of fresh water, and its water table sank 0.3m (1 foot)
• In terms of size, as The Economist notes, this is equal in volume to the Dead Sea
• The region is now suffering the 2nd fastest rate of water depletion in the world, after N India
• The Euphrates is now running at only 70% of previous volume at the Syrian/Iraq boundary

The reason for the loss is a vast increase in groundwater extraction, worsened by the drought that began in 2007. For example, Iraq has dug 1000 new wells, abstracting 80% of the groundwater reserves. Unlike surface water which can be quickly replaced by rainfall, groundwater accumulates over decades. Once used, it is gone for our lifetimes.

As we argued in chapter 9 of Boom, Gloom and the New Normal, improving water availability is one of the key megatrends for the future. The tools are all available today; what is lacking is simply the willingness to give this issue the priority it demands. And the risks of continued inaction are immense. As the study authors warn:

“Water scarcity in the Middle East, and the high frequency of conflict that emerges over what few resources do exist, is well established“.