Widespread Drought: The Middle East in 2008

agriculture, dam, drinking water, drought, economy, international, iraq, middle east, rivers, sustainability, water availability

The following words come to mind as I think of the Middle East – oil, Iraq, war, Palestine, Israel, and desert. Many of the words on my list are mere impressions of media-induced messages, but one word on my list is somewhat realistic – desert. The Middle East is an arid region known the world-over for sand, camels, heat, and more sand. So when I tell you in a few moments that many countries in the Middle East are facing severe drought conditions this year, you may not be surprised.

Yet contrary to my word list the Middle East isn’t entirely desert. Among the sand and heat, the region hosts fertile valleys and forests fed by one of two main rivers – the Tigris or Euphrates. This place was once so fruitful it was called “the fertile crescent,” “the cradle of civilization,” and “the birthplace of agriculture.” Today crops exported from the region include wheat, dates, olives, pistachios, raisins, eggplant, hazelnuts, and apricots. So when I tell you again that many countries in the Middle East are facing serious drought conditions this year, you may be dismayed.


Above Photo: Yale University

Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Iran and Iraq have each been dealing with decreased rainfall, reduced water storage, irrigation water shortages, and in some cases, declared drought. Drought in northeastern Syria over the past two years devastated wheat production in the region. Syria was forced to import wheat for the first time in fifteen years to compensate. Crops were also wiped out in Turkey after drought affected 35 out of 81 provinces. Iran is another nation importing extra wheat this season after a 20 percent decline in annual yield.

Palestine and Israel have been in a “regional drought” for over half a decade. Palestinians in the West Bank, facing especially difficult circumstances, are without water for hours or days at a time this summer. Israel controls 90 percent of the water distribution system for the West Bank, but claims to be unable to provide additional water to those in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, King Abdullah in Jordan has secured an Emergency Water Supply plan for next summer in case rains are less than predicted over winter. And, of course, the island of Cyprus is dealing with prolonged drought. Turkey is sending water by tankers to the Turkish half of the island, but the Greek half of the island refuses to accept water from Turkey. They are receiving water by tankers from Greece. A drought has been declared in Iraq after significantly less than the annual, average rainfall of six inches. Some say it is the worst drought in ten years. Both the Tigris and Euphrates flow through Iraq in less quantities from a lack of rainfall and dams constructed in Turkey and Syria. Barley and wheat yields, in this country, are expected to be reduced by half this year.

Widespread drought in the Middle East means many individuals are enduring severe hardship with little watery relief. Often forced to relocate or consume muddy or polluted water unfit for human consumption, people in this region have to test the limit of life with minimal water. Simultaneous drought in regions such as the Middle East and Australia further influences already soaring grain prices on the world market. In fact, wheat prices have risen by 40 percent over the last several months alone.

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Egypt Plans for Expansive Agriculture in the Sahara Desert

agriculture

This recent article from Reuters Canada details Egypt’s continued interest in expanding agriculture further into the Sahara Desert. Will Rasmussen, author of the article, calls it “greening of the sand.” There are many economic and societal reasons that Egypt is moving forward with widespread conversion of the desert ecosystem called “desert reclamation.

With only five percent of the country habitable, almost all of Egypt’s 74 million people live along the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. Already crowded living conditions — Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities on earth — will likely get worse as Egypt’s population is expected to double by 2050. So the government is keen to encourage people to move to the desert by pressing ahead with an estimated $70 billion plan to reclaim 3.4 million acres of desert over the next 10 years.

Concerns about Egypt’s desert reclamation plan for the Sahara Desert are many. Other Nile Basin countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia could become worried this expansion of agriculture will mean less equitable allocation of Nile River waters, according to Rasmussen.

Egypt’s project to reclaim deserts in the south, called “Toshka”, would expand Egypt’s farmland by about 40 percent by 2017, using about five billion cubic meters of water a year. That worries neighbors to the south who are already unhappy about Nile water sharing arrangements. Under a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt won rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters per year, more than half of the Nile’s total flow.

Environmentalists worry such transformations of the desert could erase fragile ecosystems supporting endemic plants and wildlife. And with the advent of increased climate fluctuations, it is questionable whether flow will be available to sustain Egypt’s plans for expanded agriculture into the future. Is agriculture a sustainable economy in a desert ecosystem? This is one of many questions that arise as countries with arid terrain utilize technology to divert, withdraw, and manipulate natural supplies of water such as aquifers and surface water sources.