Last year I met with Imad Shaar, CEO for Middle East Agriculture Company in Saudi Arabia to discuss water shortages in Syria and other countries in the Middle East. He is passionate about water management and he described the water situation in Saudi Arabia as progressive, but under strain. He explained they literally have millions of acres of farm land growing wheat, feed, grapes and olives. The Saudi government is pro-active managing water, using mostly ground water for agricultural production and 30 desalinization plants for domestic water use. Almost all the domestic water used in Riyadh, the capitol of Saudi Arabia, is produced at a desalinization plant at the gulf and pumped over 400 kilometers from the gulf coast. Due to proactive thinking concerning water, Saudi Arabia moved from a developing country to modern nation within a 25 year span. During the late 80s and 90s the government moved from having no comprehensive water infrastructure or agricultural system to providing drinking water and food for nearly every citizen. Today if you want to drill a water well you expect to drill at least 2400 feet. I learned about a water well drilling project where oil was discovered at 800 feet and the oil was capped off and the drilling continued to find the more valuable commodity, water.
The Syrian Drought
Starting in 2006 Syria entered into a period of devastating drought. During the time from 2006 to 2010 almost 60% of Syria was turned into a desert. During this time Syria experienced the most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent. In addition to the drought the government was subsidizing water-intensive wheat and cotton farming and unsustainable irrigation techniques. The water shortage and drought caused tremendous unemployment in the rural areas and hundreds of thousands of farmers and farm workers migrated to the cities to find work. The cities were not solid economically to start with and were already dealing with refugees due to other conflicts in the Middle East. The combination of a slow economy coupled with the people movement grew tensions. Daraa was certainly a city in Syria dealing with the influx of farmers and farm workers in February 2011 when protesters decided to start writing protest slogans on walls which resulted in their arrest which many attribute to the spark of the unrest in Syria.
The Euphrates and the Tigris rivers supplqy Syria and Iraq with most of their water for agricultural production. This water comes from southern Turkey. Turkey created a powerful water infrastructure which includes 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants to supply water and power to agricultural areas and cities. In 1990 Turkey completed the Ataturk Dam. To fill the reservoir they withheld the Euphrates River for a month. Turkish officials notified Syria and Iraq about the hold of water and this was met with much protest. After a month the flow of water returned, but currently the dam has reduced the flow of water by about one third. Today Turkey has discussed sharing water with their downstream neighbors, but has yet to sign any rights away. Water pressure in Jordan is already low and many of the border towns are only running water for a few hours a week. There is no solution there for Syria. Lebanon, while not sanctioning any official refugee camps is probably viewed as the best solution for Syrian refugees. However, make shift refugee camps are sprouting up all over and there is fear by the end of this year 30% of Lebanon’s population will be made up of refugees. This will challenge water and sanitation resources. Sometimes when I look at my water bill and see I am paying less than a penny a gallon for my tap water or travel to speak to people about the importance of saving water I wonder about the value of what we are doing. I am not convinced the unrest in Syria was caused by a shortage of water, but I certainly believe the water situation contributed in a significant way. What we are doing to conserve water does have much larger ramifications than we sometimes see. The population is growing and we have no more water today than we had millions of years ago. Our attempts to manage landscape irrigation water today will shape the way live in the not to distant future. If you like this post please consider subscribing or following me on twitter @H2oTrends