Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters

Rivers of Babylon

Iraq's Water Crisis—And What Turkey Should Do

In the early 1900s, the American journalist Alfred Henry Lewis famously wrote that there are only nine meals between men and revolution. As the water resources available for agricultural production decline precipitously across the Middle East, we ignore Lewis’ observation at our peril.

The Tigris-Euphrates river basin, which feeds Syria and Iraq, is rapidly drying up. This vast area already struggles to support at least ten million conflict-displaced people. And things could soon get worse; Iraq is reaching a crisis point.

jabbari_riversofbablyon_girl.jpg Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters

An Iraqi girl herds water buffaloes in the Euphrates river in Najaf, south of Baghdad, March 6, 2014.

An Iraqi girl herds water buffaloes in the Euphrates river in Najaf, south of Baghdad, March 6, 2014. An Iraqi girl herds water buffaloes in the Euphrates river in Najaf, south of Baghdad, March 6, 2014. To understand the consequences, look no further than Syria. Although water stress is certainly not the sole cause of the conflict there, it no doubt helped fuel the civil war. By 2011, drought-related crop failure had pushed up to 1.5 million displaced farmers to abandon their land; the displaced became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and al Qaeda. Testimonies gathered by reporters and activists in conflict zones suggest that the lack of government help during the drought was a central motivating factor in the antigovernment rebellion. Moreover, a 2011 study shows that today’s rebel strongholds of Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.

In other words, drought changed the economic, social, and political landscape of Syria. Iraq, already reeling from ISIS and sectarian tension, could be next.

THIRSTY IN SYRIA

Prior to the outbreak of antigovernment protests in Syria in 2011, observers were aware of the serious implications that the crop failures could have. In 2006, a leaked U.S. State Department cable forecast that Syria’s “emerging water crisis carries the potential for severe economic volatility and even socio-political unrest.” This cable serves as a clear warning.

By 2011, wheat yields had fallen by over 50 percent. Much of the country’s livestock had died, affecting hundreds of thousands of fieldworkers and farmers. Despite losing 1.6 million tons of grain to ISIS and consuming 2.5 million tons more than it can produce, Iraq plans to grain exporter by 2017. This closely mirrors Syria’s ambition at the time of the 2006 cable; in those years, Damascus hoped to dramatically increase agricultural production as a part of an economic diversification plan. Syria had already doubled its irrigated land in the preceding 15 years, and its 2006 five-year plan projected further increases. In the cable, embassy officials note that agriculture experts believed that Syria’s growing water demand was outstripping water availability.

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