Water crisis in the Middle East reaches new depths

Anne Hobson | Contributor

NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites detected a loss of groundwater the size of the Dead Sea. According to the Associated Press, the satellite images revealed the depletion of the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, two vital fresh water sources for the Middle East, supporting claims that the region faces a burgeoning water crisis.

The study, published in the journal Water Resources Research last week, predicts that the Middle East water crisis will worsen at a rate much faster than previously calculated. Most of the 117 million acre feet of water loss resulted from pumping from the underground reservoirs and wells, including 1,000 wells in Iraq. Loss of surface water and the effects of a 2007 drought in the region also contributed to the depletion.

The region examined by the study includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan. Yet the gulf states also face a water shortage tied to hyper-arid climate, competing regional demands for water, and poor water management in consumption and irrigation. Depletion of the shared water basins constitutes a “tragedy of the commons” wherein individual countries looking out for their own interests overuse a common resource despite long-term negative consequences.

Population in the Middle East is expected to double to more than 600 million in the next 40 years. And according to the United Nations, water use grows at more than twice the rate of population. Moreover, with increased rates of desertification and rising temperatures due to a changing climate, water scarcity is contributing to regional instability.

Over 80 percent of water resources in the Middle East go towards farming. Drying farmland in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and southeast Turkey results in “water refugees.” According to the UN, around 800,000 people have fled once-fertile land.  The World Bank has classified 22 countries worldwide as being below the water poverty line, 9 of which are in the Middle East.

According to a press release by NASA and the University of California, Irvine, the rate of fresh water depletion in the Middle East has been growing over the past seven years. Scott Rickards, president and CEO of Waterfund, views the water crisis as a “capital crisis.”  Rickards told The Daily Caller News Foundation that “[the problem] is not that water is disappearing from the planet earth, but that cheap abundant sources near population centers are dwindling.”

The total volume of water on earth never changes, though water does take varying forms. Because different countries use, value, and access water differently, inequalities and inefficiencies have led to resource scarcity. According to the UN, 41 percent of the world’s population lives in a water stressed area.

“Ninety percent of the water in the world is produced by government-owned companies,” Rickards stated, “so politicians determine what water rates are in most of the world.” He created Waterfund LLC to provide a financial solution to inequalities of investment and development in the politicized water industry. “We’re basically bringing financial risk management to water,” explained Rickards.

Waterfund is partnering with IBM to produce a Water Cost Index with the hope that benchmarking the price of fresh water will spur the growth of the water sector globally. Rickards acknowledges that Waterfund’s efforts will face the criticism of environmentalist and human rights organizations, who view attempts to commercialize water, or interfere with the free usage of water, as cruelty.


Rickards outlined solutions for countries dealing with the water crisis. By implementing a water mitigation strategy aimed at improving existing infrastructure and promoting a culture of conservation, countries can enhance public awareness of water scarcity, and increase the efficiency and longevity of physical water systems.

A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies revealed that the UAE spends $5 billion annually on water infrastructure and the energy costs of desalination. Water is an energy-intensive resource, with half of domestic energy in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council going to water production.

Rickards points out that while the richer Middle Eastern countries like the UAE have actively pursued solutions to their water scarcity problems, poorer countries like Jordan, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have been unable to attract investors and capital.

A longer-term solution for water-scarce countries includes finding a way to tap into different water sources, or to develop alternative sources of water. Alternative sources may include waste water systems like Singapore’s “toilet to tap” program, desalination plants, or programs to refill aquifers.  In January, the World Bank approved a plan to transmit brine water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel.  The water will pass through desalination and hydroelectric plants by means of canals and pipes.

Highlighting a long-term financial solution to the water crisis, Rickards argues that “we should let the market understand the real cost of water production and react accordingly.”

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