Mideast Water Issues


October 27, 2010 (New York Times)

Dubai Struggles With Environmental Issues After Growth

By LIZ ALDERMAN

DUBAI — Dubai’s skyline is the most sparkling in the Middle East. But down on the ground, the environmental problems of a quickly constructed city built on sand look a lot less alluring.

In the past year, tourists have swum amid raw sewage in Dubai’s slice of the Gulf. Purifying seawater to feed taps, lawns and fountains is raising salinity levels. And despite sitting on vast oil reserves, the region is running out of energy sources to support its rich lifestyle.

The simple basics of waste treatment and providing fresh water, on top of running massive industrial projects, require so much electricity that the region is turning to a nuclear future, raising further questions about the risks, both environmental and political, of relying in part on a technology vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attacks.

Dazzled by Dubai’s rapid urbanization, other countries in the Gulf are seeking to emulate it, especially as they prepare for a population boom in the coming decade. But beyond its skyscrapers and artificial ski slopes, Dubai offers a cautionary tale in the pitfalls of constructing metropolises in the parched desert.

“Growth has been so intense and enormous, but people forgot about the environment,” said Jean-François Seznec, a Middle East expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “The attitude was, business comes first. Now, they are seeing increased problems, and they realize they have to be careful.”

Like a Middle Eastern version of Las Vegas, Dubai’s biggest challenge is water, which may be everywhere in the Gulf but is undrinkable without immense desalination plants. These produce emissions of carbon dioxide that have helped give Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates one of the world’s largest carbon footprints. They also generate enormous amounts of heated sludge, which is pumped back into the sea.

To quench their thirst, the Emirates desalinate the equivalent of four billion bottles of water a day. But their backups are razor thin: at any given time, the region has, on average, only an estimated four-day supply of fresh water.

Those margins are pressured by the conspicuous consumption of icons like the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, which alone uses the equivalent of 20 Olympic-size pools of water a day to keep it cool in the desert heat.

Today, the Gulf’s salinity levels have risen to 47,000 parts per million from 32,000 about 30 years ago. That is enough, said Christophe Tourenq, a senior researcher at the World Wildlife Fund in Dubai, to threaten mangroves, local fauna and marine life.

Rapid growth has produced other environmental problems as well, including sewage treatment operations that have struggled to keep up with booming development.

Until last August, Dubai’s single waste treatment facility was forced to handle 480,000 cubic meters, or 17 million cubic feet, of sewage daily, nearly twice its 260,000-cubic-meter capacity, said Mohammed Abdulaziz Najem, the facility’s director.

Some drivers of the 4,000 tankers that carried raw waste daily from Dubai to the treatment plant would simply dump their load down drains that flowed to the posh Jumeriah suburb, he said, fouling businesses like the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, where dark stains on rocks in front of the marina still tell of sewage spills.

 

Meanwhile, hundreds of skyscrapers were thrown up with water and electricity as afterthoughts; environmental standards were rarely applied to construction.

 

Authorities acknowledge that the breakneck growth pace has stressed natural resources. Efforts to achieve developed status within the next 20 years have “magnified” the challenges to environmental protection, Majid Al Mansouri, the secretary general of the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, said in an e-mail. “While we have achieved a great deal, we recognize that much more work remains.”

 

Sustainability is now a big theme here, and Abu Dhabi is leading the charge in part by trying to learn from Dubai’s mistakes.

 

To tackle the water problem, Abu Dhabi has set up a groundwater monitoring system and is recycling by irrigating lawns and desert forests with residual waste. It has also started a public awareness campaign. Last month, the government awarded contracts to start building the U.A.E.’s first water storage facility, which could hold a month’s worth of backup.

 

The government has also started requiring new buildings to be designed using Western-style environmental impact standards that set targets for water and energy consumption, which Mr. Al Mansouri says his agency audits.

 

Raw sewage has become a lesser threat since Dubai opened part of a large new treatment facility this summer, doubling the emirate’s capacity. Moreover, after Dubai’s financial crisis hit, an estimated 400,000 laborers left, easing pressure on the treatment plants, which enjoy excess capacity for the first time, Mr. Najem said.

 

But even these solutions face hurdles. “A lot of good things are happening,” said Mohammed Raouf, the environmental director at the Gulf Research Center. “At the same time, even though we hear about a lot of environmental laws, strategy, sustainability plans, not all of them are really being applied.”

 

Environmentalists said there were still reports of raw sewage being dumped in the desert. And while the government is beginning to address water and waste issues, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are hoping a new wave of residents will come in the next decade, which would create further demands for fresh water, sewage treatment and electricity.

 

Meanwhile, major industrial projects like aluminum smelting and steel production, which require large and stable sources of electricity, are taxing the U.A.E.’s power grid. Many of these projects produce exports that supplement the U.A.E.’s oil business and are also used to build infrastructure.

 

But they are fueled by natural gas from Qatar, which limits supplies to the region. Alternates like solar energy and wind power are few and far between, while other solutions, like coal, are not viable because of transportation and supply challenges.

 

As a result, the U.A.E. are turning to nuclear power as a major new source of energy. The Emirates signed an accord in December with Washington allowing countries to build nuclear plants that do not enrich or reprocess uranium. Abu Dhabi plans to build four plants by 2017 and to generate about 23 percent of the Emirates’ power by 2020. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt are also studying nuclear power.

 

“We look at nuclear power as an important driver of the U.A.E.’s economic development and diversification strategy,” said Mohamed Al Hammadi, the chief executive of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. “Nuclear can supply power 24/7 all year long, so it’s a good match.”

 

While desalination plants use less energy than the big industrial projects, Abu Dhabi is already planning to power some water treatment facilities by electricity from the U.A.E.’s coming nuclear reactors.

 

The buildup is developing as the administration of President Barack Obama is trying to stop one of the U.A.E.’s neighbors, Iran, from developing nuclear power, out of fear that it intends to build a nuclear weapon. But U.S. officials say they see the U.A.E.’s nuclear ambitions as a positive that could prod Iran along the same path of accepting proper safeguards.

 

“The U.A.E. has demonstrated that this is how you would do it if you want nuclear power as a source of energy,” said a Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, adding that the U.A.E. program “calls the bluff” on the Iranian nuclear program.

 

But from a sustainability perspective, nuclear power makes little sense, Mr. Raouf, the environmental expert, argued. While it produces clean energy, “it’s not renewable, there’s a very big problem with waste, and uranium supplies are projected to run out in 40 to 50 years — around the same time as oil,” he said. “So there’s little logic unless you really want to develop it for political and security reasons.”

 

Mr. Al Hammadi, who has worked with authorities to study ways to augment the U.A.E.’s power needs, said the nuclear technology being implemented was “safe and peaceful by design.”

 

Still, environmentalists fear that the governments are pursuing economic development in a pell-mell manner. “What the U.A.E. has showed us,” Mr. Raouf said, “is that if you don’t deal with the sustainability of the environment, you’ll achieve a quick profit but face hazards.”

 

 

OCTOBER 25, 2010 (New York Times)

In Yemen, Water Grows Scarcer

By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF

 

Increasingly sharp water shortages could cost Yemen 750,000 jobs and slash incomes by as much as 25 percent over the next decade, warns a new report on Yemen, an increasingly troubled Middle Eastern nation.

 

The report was produced by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company at the request of the Yemeni government.

 

Groundwater depletion rates are so rapid in the capital, Sana, that the city could effectively run out of water by 2025, according to an estimate in the report by a hydrology expert who manages the city’s groundwater basins. A preliminary draft of the report was obtained by the Science and Development Network, a nonprofit information service.

 

Yemen is one of the most arid countries on Earth and relies almost exclusively on groundwater and rainfall for its water supply. Sana is located more than 100 miles inland and at roughly 7,400 feet elevation, and is seen as particularly vulnerable to water shortages in coming years, as its main groundwater source is being rapidly depleted by thousands of illegal wells.

 

“We expect many of the private wells to dry up soon,” Abdul Rahman Fadhl Iryani, Yemen’s minister of water resources, told a correspondent for The Los Angeles Times last year.  “After that, we will have to find a new source, or keep drilling deeper.”

 

Substantial population gains in recent decades, coupled with heavy water consumption tied to the production of khat — a mild narcotic extremely popular in Yemen — have strained the country’s water resources to near the breaking point. The country is now home to 23 million people, more than double its population in 1975.

 

With its economy already on the rocks, militancy in Yemen is on the rise: In late September, as our colleague Robert Worth reported, dozens of Qaeda militants clashed with government forces in a series of battles involving tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.

 

Water is not the only resource growing scarce in Yemen — the country’s oil reserves, already fairly meager by the standards of its Middle Eastern neighbors, are also believed to be in decline. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, oil accounts for about 25 percent of Yemen’s gross domestic product and roughly 70 percent of government revenues. As these revenues fall, the government’s ability to provide basic services to the people is weakening.

 

Picture caption: A farmer walked through the desert toward his family’s plot in the Hamden Province of Yemen. (Bryan Denton for The New York Times)

 

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

 

October 13, 2010 (New York Times)

Earth Is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived

By ROBERT F. WORTH

 

AR RAQQAH, Syria — The farmlands spreading north and east of this Euphrates River town were once the breadbasket of the region, a vast expanse of golden wheat fields and bucolic sheep herds.

 

Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent — including much of neighboring Iraq — appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.

 

“I had 400 acres of wheat, and now it’s all desert,” said Ahmed Abdullah, 48, a farmer who is living in a ragged burlap and plastic tent here with his wife and 12 children alongside many other migrants. “We were forced to flee. Now we are at less than zero — no money, no job, no hope.”

 

The collapse of farmlands here — which is as much a matter of human mismanagement as of drought — has become a dire economic challenge and a rising security concern for the Syrian and Iraqi governments, which are growing far more dependent on other countries for food and water. Syria, which once prided itself on its self-sufficiency and even exported wheat, is now quietly importing it in ever larger amounts. The country’s total water resources dropped by half between 2002 and 2008, partly through waste and overuse, scientists and water engineers say.

 

For Syria, which is running out of oil reserves and struggling to draw foreign investment, the farming crisis is an added vulnerability in part because it is taking place in the area where its restive Kurdish minority is centered. Iraq, devastated by war, is now facing a water crisis in both the north and the south that may be unprecedented in its history. Both countries have complained about reduced flow on the Euphrates, thanks to massive upriver dam projects in Turkey that are likely to generate more tension as the water crisis worsens.

 

The four-year drought in Syria has pushed two million to three million people into extreme poverty, according to a survey completed here this month by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. Herders in the country’s northeast have lost 85 percent of their livestock, and at least 1.3 million people have been affected, he reported.

 

An estimated 50,000 more families have migrated from rural areas this year, on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled in earlier years, Mr. De Schutter said. Syria, with a fast-growing population, has already strained to accommodate more than a million Iraqi refugees in the years since the 2003 invasion.

 

“It is ironic: this region is the origin of wheat and barley, and now it is among the biggest importers of these products,” said Rami Zurayk, a professor of agricultural and food science at the American University in Beirut who is writing a book on the farming crisis.

 

The drought has become a delicate subject for the Syrian government, which does not give foreign journalists official permission to write about it or grant access to officials in the Agriculture Ministry. On the road running south from Damascus, displaced farmers and herders can be seen living in tents, but the entrances are closely watched by Syrian security agents, who do not allow journalists in.

 

Droughts have always taken place here, but “the regional climate is changing in ways that are clearly observable,” said Jeannie Sowers, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written on Middle East climate issues. “Whether you call it human-induced climate change or not, much of the region is getting hotter and dryer, combined with more intense, erratic rainfall and flooding in some areas. You will have people migrating as a result, and governments are ill prepared.”

 

The Syrian government has begun to acknowledge the scale of the problem and has developed a national drought plan, though it has not yet been put in place, analysts say. Poor planning helped create the problem in the first place: Syria spent $15 billion on misguided irrigation projects between 1988 and 2000 with little result, said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born author who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. Syria continues to grow cotton and wheat in areas that lack sufficient water — making them more vulnerable to drought — because the government views the ability to produce those crops as part of its identity and a bulwark against foreign dependence, analysts say.

 

Illegal water drills can be seen across Syria and Iraq, and underground water tables are dropping at a rate that is “really frightening,” said Mr. De Schutter, the United Nations expert. There are no reliable nationwide statistics, and some analysts and Western diplomats say they believe the Syrian government is not measuring them.

 

As in other countries across the Arab world, corruption and failed administration are often to blame. “A lot of powerful people don’t abide by the regulations, and nobody can tame them,” said Nabil Sukkar, a Damascus-based economic analyst.

 

In Ar Raqqah, many displaced farmers talk about wells running dry, and turning polluted.

 

“My uncle’s well used to be 70 meters deep, now it’s 130 meters and now the water became salty, so we closed it down,” said Khalaf Ayed Tajim, a stocky sheep herder and farmer who heads a local collective for displaced northerners. He left his native village 60 miles from here when half of his herd died off and his fields dried up, and now lives in a concrete bunker with his 17 children, two wives, and his mother.

 

In Iraq, 100,000 people had been displaced as of a year ago, according to a United Nations report. More than 70 percent of the ancient underground aqueducts have dried up and been abandoned in the past five years, the report said. Since then, the situation has only worsened.

 

“We saw whole villages buried in sand,” said Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi-born lecturer at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris who returned in August from a survey of water and farm conditions in Kirkuk and Salahuddin Provinces, in northern Iraq. “Their situation is desperate.”

 

Southern Iraq has seen similar farming collapses, with reduced river flow from the Euphrates and the drying up of the once vast southern marshes.

 

Syrian officials say they expect to get help from water-rich Turkey, which has recently become a close ally after years of frosty relations. But it may be too late to save the abandoned villages of northern Syria and Iraq.

 

“At first, the migrations were temporary, but after three or four years, these people will not come back,” said Abdullah Yahia bin Tahir, the United Nations Food and Agriculture representative in Damascus.

 

“Back in the village, our houses are covered in dust; it’s as if they’d been destroyed,” said Mr. Tajim, the farmer who moved here two years ago. “We would love to go back, but how? There is no water, no electricity, nothing.”

 

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

 

 

September 25, 2010 (New York Times)

Egypt and Thirsty Neighbors Are at Odds Over Nile

By THANASSIS CAMBANIS

 

BATANDA, Egypt — One place to begin to understand why this parched country has nearly ruptured relations with its upstream neighbors on the Nile is ankle-deep in mud in the cotton and maize fields of Mohammed Abdallah Sharkawi. The price he pays for the precious resource flooding his farm? Nothing.

 

“Thanks be to God,” Mr. Sharkawi said of the Nile River water. He raised his hands to the sky, then gestured toward a state functionary visiting his farm. “Everything is from God, and from the ministry.”

 

But perhaps not for much longer. Upstream countries, looking to right what they say are historic wrongs, have joined in an attempt to break Egypt and Sudan’s near-monopoly on the water, threatening a crisis that Egyptian experts said could, at its most extreme, lead to war.

 

“Not only is Egypt the gift of the Nile, this is a country that is almost completely dependent on Nile water resources,” said a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hossam Zaki. “We have a growing population and growing needs. There is no way we can accept this kind of threat.”

 

Ever since civilization first sprang forth here, Egyptians have clustered along the Nile’s silt-rich banks. Almost all of the country’s 80 million people live within a few miles of the river, and farmers like Mr. Sharkawi have hardly changed their farming methods in four millenniums. Egypt’s population is growing briskly, however, and by the year 2017 at current rates of usage the Nile’s water will barely meet Egypt’s basic needs, according to the Ministry of Irrigation.

 

And that is assuming that the river’s flow is undiminished. Under British colonial rule, a 1929 treaty reserved 80 percent of the Nile’s entire flow for Egypt and Sudan, then ruled as a single country. That treaty was reaffirmed in 1959. Usually upstream countries dominate control of a river, like the Tigris and Euphrates, which are much reduced by the time they flow into Iraq from Turkey and Syria. The case of the Nile is reversed because the British colonials who controlled the region wanted to guarantee water for Egyptian agriculture.

 

The seven upstream countries — Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda — say the treaty is an unfair vestige of colonialism, while Egypt says those countries are awash in water resources, unlike arid Egypt, which depends on just one.

 

Today’s confrontation has unfolded in slow motion. In April, negotiations between the nine Nile countries broke down after Egypt and Sudan refused to give ground. The upstream countries quickly got together and in May came up with a formula that would free them to build their own irrigation projects and dams, reducing the flow to Lake Nasser, the vast man-made reservoir that straddles Egypt and Sudan.

 

So far Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda have signed the new Nile basin accord, which would require only a simple majority of member countries to approve new projects. Egypt wants to retain veto power over projects in any country, and with Sudan argues that the main provisions of the colonial-era treaty should be preserved.

 

Congo and Burundi have not yet taken sides. Egypt and Sudan have until May 2011 to resume negotiations, or else the upstream countries will activate the new agreement.

 

The threat of losing Nile water has animated Egypt, which until recently had virtually ignored the upstream countries. And Cairo received another jolt this spring, when Ethiopia inaugurated a $520 million hydroelectric dam on a Nile tributary, part of a decade-long project to create a modern electricity infrastructure. Italy, Ethiopia and the European Investment Bank financed the project, according to Ethiopian media reports.

 

Adding urgency, say diplomats and water experts in Egypt, investors from China and the Persian Gulf region have expressed interest in underwriting enormous agriculture projects in Uganda and Ethiopia, which would use Nile water.

 

Currently, several upstream nations, including Ethiopia and Uganda, are planning hydroelectric dams. If the upstream countries move slowly and fill the reservoirs over a period of 5 to 15 years, however, Egyptian officials concede that the hydroelectric plants will not significantly hurt Egyptian consumption.

 

Egyptian officials are also confident that the World Bank, the traditional donor for dams, would not approve them over Cairo’s objections, even if the officials remain concerned that governments and private investors might feel free to lend the money.

 

But agricultural projects, potentially far more damaging to Egypt, are another matter. Not only would they permanently reduce the amount of water that reaches Egypt’s border, but they have also already attracted the interest of wealthy Arab nations and the Chinese, who see an enormous profit potential in them.

 

Egyptian water experts said that the upstream countries wasted colossal amounts of water that run off unused into swamps. The upstream countries point to Egypt’s own wasteful practices, saying that 75 percent of Egypt’s water is used for agriculture, most of it wasted by inefficient, old-fashioned practices.

 

“I feel that we are all mad,” said Diaa el-Quosy, an American-trained water expert who advises Egypt’s irrigation minister. “Everyone wants to take his own share and then more.” He said that once political tensions cooled, the nine Nile basin countries could find “creative solutions” to manage the river’s flow effectively. “There is water enough for everyone,” he said.

 

In Egypt, however, decades of bellicose rhetoric about the Nile have made the river’s water an explosive issue. “Violating Egypt’s quota of Nile water is a genocidal war against 80 million people,” an Egyptian commentator, Hazem el-Beblawi, wrote this year in Al Masry Al Youm, an Egyptian daily.

 

Water experts say that Egypt has done little to curtail its own misuse of water.

 

Despite periodic government efforts to promote less wasteful practices, irrigation water still flows largely through dirt channels often choked with weeds. Much of it leaches into the ground before reaching crops. “Egypt doesn’t act like a country dying of thirst,” said Dan Morrison, author of “The Black Nile,” in which he chronicled his journey from the river’s origins to its mouth at the Mediterranean, and encountered the most pronounced waste in Egypt. So long as water is free for farmers, Mr. Morrison said, there is little incentive to conserve.

 

One solution Mr. Morrison proposed would entail Egypt’s importing food staples from upstream nations that can farm more efficiently with Nile water.

 

Isam Abdurahman, a Ministry of Agriculture farm supervisor, said the government was taking steps to try to conserve water, including paving some irrigation canals and managing farmers more strictly. This year, for instance, because of low river levels, rice cultivation was banned entirely in some areas, while the cotton quota was severely restricted. Mr. Sharkawi was permitted to plant only one field with cotton, rather than four.

 

And in a few desert areas like Toshka, near the Sudanese border, Egypt has experimented with large-scale modern drip irrigation. The vast majority of its farmers, however, are small land holders like Mr. Sharkawi, who cultivates maize, cotton and alfalfa in the Nile Delta.

 

He cannot afford to invest in drip irrigation or sprinkler systems that would lose less water to evaporation. Furthermore, like most Egyptian family farmers, he favors the most water-hogging crops, like rice, maize and cotton, rather than lower-intensity fruits and vegetables.

 

Upstream leaders like Ethiopia’s prime minister caution that Nile water use is “not a zero-sum game,” but in Egypt’s Delta that’s exactly how millions of farmers view it. If he had to pay for his water, Mr. Sharkawi said, he simply would lose his land. “Since the time of the ancient Egyptians,” he said, “we’ve always lived like this. It is the same for me, and it will be the same for my children.”

 

 

June 12, 2010 (New York Times)

A Vital River Is Withering, and Iraq Has No Answer

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

 

SIBA, Iraq — The Shatt al Arab, the river that flows from the biblical site of the Garden of Eden to the Persian Gulf, has turned into an environmental and economic disaster that Iraq’s newly democratic government is almost powerless to fix.

 

Withered by decades of dictatorial mismanagement and then neglect, by drought and the thirst of Iraq’s neighbors, the river formed by the convergence of the Tigris and the Euphrates no longer has the strength the keep the sea at bay.

 

The salt water of the gulf now pushes up the Faw peninsula. Last year, for the first time in memory, it extended beyond Basra, Iraq’s biggest port city, and even Qurna, where the two rivers meet. It has ravaged fresh-water fisheries, livestock, crops and groves of date palms that once made the area famous, forcing the migration of tens of thousands of farmers.

 

In a land of hardship and resignation and deep faith, the disaster along the Shatt al Arab appears to some as the work of a higher power. “We can’t control what God does,” said Rashid Thajil Mutashar, the deputy director of water resources in Basra.

 

But man has had a hand in the river’s decline. Turkey, Syria and Iran have all harnessed the headwaters that flow into the Tigris and Euphrates and ultimately into the Shatt al Arab, leaving Iraqi officials with little to do but plead for them to release more from their modern networks of dams.

 

The environment problem became particularly acute last year when Iran cut the flow entirely from the Karun River, which meets the Shatt south of Basra, for 10 months. The flow resumed after the winter rains, but at a fraction of earlier levels.

 

In the 1980s Iran and Iraq fought over the Shatt al Arab, which forms the southernmost border between the countries and is still littered with the rusting hulks of sunken ships from that war. Now, despite improved relations after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the river has once again become a source of diplomatic tension.

 

“The water is from God,” said Mohammed Sadoon, a farmer and fisherman in the village of Abu Khasib, who sold two water buffaloes last year because he could no longer provide them with potable water from the Shatt. “They shouldn’t seize it from us.”

 

Iraq’s minister of water resources, Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, said that the environmental problems and the disputes over water rights were a lingering legacy of dictatorship.

 

Mr. Hussein diverted the southerly flow of water into a trench during the war with Iran and drained the marshlands of southern Iraq in the 1990s. His belligerence toward Iraq’s neighbors also left the country isolated — and then weakened — when those countries built their dams, siphoning off what for millenniums flowed through Mesopotamia, the land of the two rivers.

 

“Iraq was in a position neither to reject nor to cooperate with them,” he said in an interview in his office in Baghdad. “They did what they wanted to do.”

 

In Basra and in the villages that cling to the Iraqi shore of the Shatt, the impact of the disaster has been profound. The fresh waters that once flushed the canals of Basra — the Venice of the Middle East, it was called, though long ago — are fetid and filled with garbage.

 

The encroaching salt has so polluted supplies of drinking water that the government has scrambled to dig canals from the north that bypass the Shatt — Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki inaugurated one ahead of this year’s national election — and to truck in fresh water to much of the region. Anyone who can afford it avoids tap water, which is salty enough to leave spots on a glass when it dries.

 

Mr. Mutashar said that Iraq’s acceptable level of salt in the Shatt’s fresh water was 1,500 parts per million; last year the level reached 12,000.

 

Faris Jassim al-Imara, a chemist at the University of Basra’s Marine Science Center, said he had recorded levels as high as 40,000 parts per million, as well as heavy metals and other pollutants flowing from the north and from Iran’s oil refinery at Abadan, where enormous pipes steadily discharge waste water.

 

“It’s killing the river and the people,” he said. Here in Siba, across the river from Abadan, the salt water is slowly destroying agriculture, the primary source of income other than oil.

 

Jalal Fakhir, who with his brothers farms a plot of land that has been in his family for decades, lost his grape vines, five apricot trees, and his entire crop of okra, cucumbers and eggplants. The new date palms he planted two years ago have died; the older ones have held on, but their branches are yellowing, while the annual crop of dates has become meager.

 

Walking in his emaciated groves, he said, “This used to be paradise.”

 

Iraq’s leaders, struggling first with the post-Saddam Hussein strife and now with a political impasse that has delayed the formation of a new government, have so far been unable to do much to avert the catastrophe unfolding here, let alone reverse it.

 

Efficient water management throughout the country remains more a goal than a reality. The government is drafting plans to build its own dam on the Shatt — to keep the sea water out — but the cost and complexity of the idea remains prohibitive, according to Mr. Mutashar.

 

Iraq has held repeated talks with neighboring countries to increase the river’s flow, resulting in pledges of cooperation, but with a drought hitting the region in recent years, not much more water.

 

“If our government was good and strong, we would get our rights,” said Hassam Alwan Hamoud, the 71-year-old patriarch of a Bedouin family that lives in reed huts on the marshlands adjoining the Shatt near Abu Khasib. Instead, they move with their water buffaloes as the salt water dictates. “Our government just talks. They are weak.”

 

Mr. Rashid, the minister of water resources, said the problem was decades in the making and would take decades to address.

 

One benefit of the country’s democracy, he said, was that the problems had become public, something that did not happen under Mr. Hussein’s rule. “It has come to the surface now,” he said, “because Iraq is a free country.”

 

Zaid Thaker contributed reporting.

 

 

November 1, 2009 (New York Times)

Thirsty Plant Dries Out Yemen

By ROBERT F. WORTH

 

JAHILIYA, Yemen — More than half of this country’s scarce water is used to feed an addiction.

 

Even as drought kills off Yemen’s crops, farmers in villages like this one are turning increasingly to a thirsty plant called qat, the leaves of which are chewed every day by most Yemeni men (and some women) for their mild narcotic effect. The farmers have little choice: qat is the only way to make a profit.

 

Meanwhile, the water wells are running dry, and deep, ominous cracks have begun opening in the parched earth, some of them hundreds of yards long.

 

“They tell us it’s because the water table is sinking so fast,” said Muhammad Hamoud Amer, a worn-looking farmer who has lost two-thirds of his peach trees to drought in the past two years. “Every year we have to drill deeper and deeper to get water.”

 

Across Yemen, the underground water sources that sustain 24 million people are running out, and some areas could be depleted in just a few years. It is a crisis that threatens the very survival of this arid, overpopulated country, and one that could prove deadlier than the better known resurgence of Al Qaeda here.

 

Water scarcity afflicts much of the Middle East, but Yemen’s poverty and lawlessness make the problem more serious and harder to address, experts say. The government now supplies water once every 45 days in some urban areas, and in much of the country there is no public water supply at all. Meanwhile, the market price of water has quadrupled in the past four years, pushing more and more people to drill illegally into rapidly receding aquifers.

 

“It is a collapse with social, economic and environmental aspects,” said Abdul Rahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s minister of water and environment. “We are reaching a point where we don’t even know if the interventions we are proposing will save the situation.”

 

Making matters far worse is the proliferation of qat trees, which have replaced other crops across much of the country, taking up a vast and growing share of water, according to studies by the World Bank. The government has struggled to limit drilling by qat farmers, but to no effect. The state has little authority outside the capital, Sana.

 

Already, the lack of water is fueling tribal conflicts and insurgencies, Mr. Eryani said. Those conflicts, including a widening armed rebellion in the north and a violent separatist movement in the south, in turn make it more difficult to address the water crisis in an organized way. Many parts of the country are too dangerous for government engineers or hydrologists to venture into.

 

Climate change is deepening the problem, making seasonal rains less reliable and driving up average temperatures in some areas, said Jochen Renger, a water resources specialist with the German government’s technical assistance arm, who has been advising the water ministry for five years.

 

Unlike some other arid countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Yemen lacks the money to invest heavily in desalination plants. Even wastewater treatment has proved difficult in Yemen. The plants have been managed poorly, and some clerics have declared the reuse of wastewater to be a violation of Islamic principles.

 

At the root of the water crisis — as with so many of the ills affecting the Middle East — is rapid population growth, experts say. The number of Yemenis has quadrupled in the last half century, and is expected to triple again in the next 40 years, to about 60 million.

 

In rural areas, people can often be seen gathering drinking water from cloudy, stagnant cisterns where animals drink. Even in parts of Sana, the poor cluster to gather runoff from privately owned local wells as their wealthier neighbors pay the equivalent of $10 for a 3,000 liter-truckload of water.

 

“At least 1,000 people depend on this well,” said Hassan Yahya al-Khayari, 38, as he stood watching water pour from a black rubber tube into a tanker truck near his home in Sana. “But the number of people is rising, and the water is growing less and less.”

 

For millenniums, Yemen preserved traditions of careful water use. Farmers depended mostly on rainwater collection and shallow wells. In some areas they built dams, including the great Marib dam in northern Yemen, which lasted for more than 1,000 years until it collapsed in the sixth century A.D.

 

But traditional agriculture began to fall apart in the 1960s after Yemen was flooded with cheap foreign grain, which put many farmers out of business. Qat began replacing food crops, and in the late 1960s, motorized drills began to proliferate, allowing farmers and villagers to pump water from underground aquifers much faster than it could be replaced through natural processes. The number of drills has only grown since they were outlawed in 2002.

 

Despite the destructive effects of qat, the Yemeni government supports it, through diesel subsidies, loans and customs exemptions, Mr. Eryani said. It is illegal to import qat, and powerful growers known here as the “qat mafia” have threatened to shoot down any planes bringing in cheaper qat from abroad.

 

Still, the water crisis could be eased substantially through a return to rainwater collection and better management, Mr. Renger said. Between 20 and 30 percent of Yemen’s water is lost through waste, he said, compared with 7 to 9 percent in Europe.

 

In Jahiliya and other areas around the capital, the World Bank is leading a project to change wasteful irrigation patterns.

 

Mr. Amer, the farmer based here, proudly showed visitors his efforts to irrigate fruit and tomato fields using rubber tubes, instead of just funneling it through earthen ditches that allow most of the water to evaporate unused. Little hoses spray the crops with water instead of wastefully soaking them.

 

But he also pointed out two local wells where the water is dropping at the astonishing rate of almost 60 feet a year, causing the land to subside. Nearby, sinkholes in the arid soil of his property are growing longer and deeper every year.

 

“We have been suffering for years from this,” he said, gesturing at a cast-off drill rig that broke after going down too deep into the earth.

 

The Yemeni engineers working on the World Bank project concede they have had tremendous difficulty convincing other farmers — and even government agencies — to take their efforts seriously.

 

“There is no coordination with other parts of the government, even after we explain the dangers,” said Ali Hassan Awad. “Prosecutors don’t understand that drilling is a serious problem.”

 

Mr. Eryani, the water minister, takes the long view. Yemen has suffered ecological crises before and survived. The collapse of the Marib dam, for instance, led to a famine that pushed vast numbers of people to migrate abroad, and their descendants are now scattered across the Middle East.

 

“But that was before national borders were established,” Mr. Eryani added. “If we face a similar catastrophe now, who will allow us to move?”

 

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

 

July 27, 2009 (AP)

Nile nations discuss sharing their river

By SALAH NASRAWI, Associated Press Writer

 

CAIRO – Ministers from the 10 African countries on the Nile river began crucial discussions Monday over drafting a new water sharing agreement, which is hampered by Egypt’s refusal to reduce its share of world’s longest river.

 

In an opening address to the Nile Basin Initiative, held in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Egypt’s Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif urged for a “return of the cooperation and harmony” among the group’s members, describing the ongoing dispute as a “misunderstanding.”

 

In the two-day meeting, participants are hoping to conclude the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, which establishes a permanent body to oversee water allocation along the Nile.

 

During talks last month in Kinshasa, Congo, officials from the 10 countries of the Nile basin, failed to agree over a new system of water sharing desired by a majority of the members.

 

A 1929 agreement between Egypt and Britain, acting on behalf of its then east African colonies, set up the original sharing framework and gave Cairo the right to veto upstream projects.

 

In a 1959 agreement with Sudan, Egypt was awarded an annual 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water, the largest share of any country along the river.

 

The remaining eight riparian states resent Egypt’s quota and want to draft a new agreement.

 

Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohammed Nasreddin Allam has repeatedly said that his country will not accept any change to its quota.

 

Egypt’s cabinet issued a report last week that the country needed 86.2 billion cubic meters of water in 2017 and only has resources of 71.4 billion cubic meters.

 

A country of vast deserts, only around 6 percent of Egypt is arable, almost entirely due to the Nile.

 

Egypt’s water resources stood at 64 billion cubic meters in 2006, of which the River Nile provided or 86.7 percent, the report said. By 2017 the Nile is expected to supply only 80.5 percent of Egypt’s resources.

 

Due to the absence of any major dams or hydroelectric projects upstream of it, experts say Egypt can afford to be dismissive of the other states’ concerns since there is little they can do to impede the Nile’s flow.

 

Talks in Kinshasa ended with Egypt refusing to ratify the new pact without the other signatories explicitly agreeing to its original share of Nile water and a veto for Cairo over any future upstream projects.

 

The other Nile basin countries are Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi.

 

Copyright © 2009 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.

 

March 16, 2004

Side by Side, Arabs and Israelis Repair a Wreck of a River

By MARTIN ROSENBERG

 

YAD HANNAH, Israel — For years, the Alexander River, flowing through Jewish and Palestinian towns in Israel’s narrow midsection, carried an angry stew of human waste, stone-cutting debris and the detritus from olive and sesame production.

 

Now that is changing. The 20-mile-long river, really a stream that could be bounded in two or three leaps, is being restored.

 

The project has required Israelis and Palestinians to work together without fanfare at the local level, even as settlements, barriers and suicide bombings have divided their people and their national leaders. It signals a growing environmental consciousness in Israel, particularly when it comes to scarce water resources; many Israelis see it as a sign that the nation is growing more ready to care for its biblical homeland.

 

Recognition of the Alexander River cleanup has quickly spread. Last fall the project received the top prize in a leading Australian restoration competition, the Thiess Riverprize, beating out efforts in Europe, China, India and the United States.

 

“Two communities at each other’s throats in armed conflict,” said Stephen Nelson, who administers the competition, “somehow found a collective will to repair a damaged and poisoned river.”

 

The project’s guiding spirit has been Nahum Itzkovitz, the mayor of the Emek Hefer Regional Council, north of Tel Aviv. The council is the local government for 32,000 people living in 50 villages and kibbutzim in the rapidly developing region between Tel Aviv and Haifa.

 

Mr. Itzkovitz, 53, started planning the Alexander cleanup a decade ago, enlisting the help of Amos Brandeis, a young architect. “I tried to have some vision to keep it green,” the mayor said.

 

Mr. Brandeis, 38, who has a degree in regional planning from the Technion in Haifa, said the goal was to restore the river “in a very comprehensive and interdisciplinary way.”

 

The centerpiece of the cleanup is a $4 million complex of reservoirs and treatment plants completed in 2003 in Yad Hannah, just inside the barrier that Israel has been building on the West Bank to separate Israelis and Palestinians. It was financed mainly by the Jewish National Fund — an organization founded a century ago to buy land in the Palestine region, and now dedicated to environmental causes — and by the Israeli Ministry of the Environment.

 

Twenty yards past the so-called green line that separates Israel and the West Bank, a tributary of the Alexander, filled with human waste from the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Tulkarm and from 70 other sources of pollution, has been diverted into the Yad Hannah complex. There it is cleansed in settling ponds and purification equipment.

 

“Prior to the Yad Hannah plant,” Mr. Brandeis said, “the raw sewage simply flowed into the riverbed and contaminated the groundwater, the Nablus stream and the Alexander River.”

 

Still, the new plant is just the first stage, he said, adding, “The capacity of the existing plant is not enough for the long term.”

 

In Israel, wastes from dairy farms have been diverted from the Alexander. Since 1994, three large reservoirs have been built — at a cost of $4 million to $7 million each — to receive wastewater, which is treated and then reused for watering local citrus and avocado groves.

 

In some areas, the Alexander’s banks had collapsed over the years, leaving ugly scars. Those banks have been resculptured and native vegetation has been planted. Small riffles — drops in the river — have been created to give it an audible burble.

 

Parks, trails and picnic areas have been installed. Some attract crowds of families on weekends and holidays. Schoolchildren come to learn about the huge and rare Nile soft-shelled turtle, which grows as long as three feet and once inspired artists in ancient Egypt. At one time common around the Mediterranean, the turtle is rebounding in the Alexander, with perhaps 70 to 100 adults living there.

 

Palestinians plan to restore the sewage ponds in Tulkarm, where raw sewage flows into the river. They will have the help of the German government, which got involved after Mayor Itzkovitz got in touch with friends in the German Parliament in 1996.

 

Mr. Brandeis praised local Palestinians for their willingness to work on the restoration. “We had the good luck to find brave Palestinian leaders as our neighbors,” he said, adding: “The cooperation is not between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is between neighbors on the local level only, trying to avoid any political questions, trying to concentrate only on the problems that make the ecology and the people from both sides suffer.”

 

But chaos on the West Bank may impede progress. Edward Abington, a former United States consul general in Jerusalem who is now a political adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said that with the authority “almost in a state of disintegration,” local government was no longer effective. In late February, Ghassan W. Shakah, the mayor of Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city, resigned because of the collapse in government authority.

 

Still, as the river has begun to heal, other benefits are flowing. Israelis involved in the cleanup recently traveled to the small West African nation of Burkina Faso, to help that country begin a river restoration.

 

“Ecology knows no political borders,” Mr. Brandeis said. “A river can be a bridge between people.”

 

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

 

December 9, 2002  (New York Times)

Grand Soviet Scheme for Sharing Water in Central Asia Is Foundering

By MICHAEL WINES

 

NUKUS, Uzbekistan — Forty years ago, when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin ordained a colossal task: to turn this heat-puckered land and four of its neighbors, a swath of desert and scrub as big as Western Europe, into an irrigated cotton plantation.

 

Improbably, it succeeded.

 

From the mountainous Chinese border to the Caspian Sea, the Soviet Union remade the two grand rivers of Central Asia, building 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams and more than 80 reservoirs. The government turned sand and dust into one of the world’s great cotton-growing regions.

 

But the Soviet Union is long dead. And here in western Uzbekistan and in areas of its four neighbors, one of socialism’s most grandiose schemes is being sundered by capitalism, nationalism and a legacy of waste.

 

Without a bigger supply of water — or better use of it — an economic and social crisis seems to be awaiting the region of 58 million people, already racked by Islamic insurgencies and tamed by oppressive rule.

 

On a dusty plain outside this regional capital, one farmer, Yerken Kharpov, unshaven and lean in blue nylon track pants, looked out at the 80 acres of state-owned farmland that he tends, and tallied the misery. In 2000, his entire crop died for lack of water. In 2001, again lacking water, he grew but 10 acres of cotton. This spring, he tried again, with 15 acres of cotton and sunflowers.

 

Mr. Kharpov could give up, as he did three years ago, when he was a 28-year-old millworker, but without water, it is much harder to start fresh. “There are no other jobs,” he said. “Where would I go?”

 

Mr. Kharpov’s question is Central Asia’s. “We talk about the developing world and the developed world,” said Sarah O’Hara, a geographer at the University of Nottingham, England, who has studied the water problems here. “This is the deteriorating world.”

 

The five nations at work here — Uzbekistan along with its arid neighbors, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and two mountainous ones, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — have drunk dry the natural flow of two great rivers, the Amu and the Syr.

 

Not Enough to Go Around

 

The craving for water has turned the Aral Sea, once the world’s sixth-largest inland ocean, into a shrunken, dust-shrouded necklace of lifeless brine lakes.

 

Still, the nations are thirsty. Their demand for water already exceeds the entire annual flow of the two rivers by 25 percent. Adding to the pressure, Afghanistan, whose right to river water was ignored during Taliban rule, is poised to reclaim a share of the bigger river, the Amu.

 

The five neighbors have swelling populations — growing 15 percent a decade, with a third of the residents 13 or younger. That presents their governments with the challenge of creating more jobs and growing more food, even as the water supply is divided ever more thinly.

 

They also are not keeping up the waterworks, causing more waste. In Soviet times, the Kremlin spent at least $60 an acre every year to keep the water systems in repair. Uzbekistan currently spends less than $25 an acre; Tajikistan, reeling from civil war, spends $4.

 

One result is an irrigation network beset by staggering waste. Now in disrepair, some parts waste more water than they deliver.

 

The Karakum Canal, an 837-mile man-made river in the Turkmenistan desert, appears from the air as a thin line fringed by a miles-wide band of weeds. The government admits that 28 percent of its water vanishes into the sands. Scientists put the figure closer to 60 percent.

 

The region grew used to free water, in profligate supply. One example is in the tiny village of Dzhalagash, along Kazakhstan’s shadeless southern border not far from the Syr’s banks. Here the rainfall averages just 5.9 inches a year, yet the preferred crop is rice.

 

Zhakhslyk Kabyrov, who runs a former Soviet collective farm, hired Korean advisers this year to help cut water consumption in his 250-acre rice plot. Still, he reckons he will use a stunning 740 million gallons, enough to fill 1,300 Olympic swimming pools, to flood paddies with ankle-deep water to produce the rice.

 

He can consume so much because rice is a profitable staple of local diets, and water, at about 65 cents per swimming pool, is ridiculously cheap. Arid Kazakhstan grows an astounding 160,000 acres of rice — 250 square miles of nothing but flooded paddies.

 

Uzbeks grow almost as much.

 

An obvious solution to such excess is to raise the price of water. But that could wipe out an entire class of small farmers who comprise a future capitalist class, while enriching the already wealthy. Moreover, controls over water use are so loose, thanks in part to ramshackle equipment, that fee dodging would probably be rampant. “If you were trying to save water, you wouldn’t grow rice,” said Philip Micklin, a retired University of Michigan geographer and a specialist on Central Asian water. “But look, it’s a management problem. Everyone makes choices. And sometimes it’s not even choices, it’s who grabs the most.”

 

A Regional Trade-Off

 

That is not how things were supposed to work. Instead, the Kremlin conceived an elegant trade-off, linking the mountains rich in wild rivers and glaciers with the arid plains, rich in gas, coal and oil.

 

And so, in the winter, the plains would send fuel to the mountains; in return, the mountains would hoard river water, then send it downstream for crops in the spring and summer.

 

The desert blossomed — and the Aral Sea became starved for water. A fishing industry that had employed 40,000 workers and supplied one-sixth of the Soviet catch also evaporated. So did a trapping industry that had netted a half million muskrat pelts a year from the lush Syr and Amu deltas.

 

Even so, central planners judged that the trade-off was a success, with its bounty from 10 million new acres of crops.

 

“It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo,” said Aleksandr Asarin, an expert at the Russian State Hydroproject Institute who angered his bosses by predicting, in 1964, that the sea was headed for catastrophe. “Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans,” he said, “even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

 

If one bought the notion that a sea as big as Lake Michigan was dispensable, then the trade-off worked — for a while. Cotton boomed, but over time overwatering and leaks left farmland too salty to support crops, and the river water, used and reused on its way downstream, became ever saltier and more laced with pesticides.

 

What ultimately caused trouble was the potent brew of independence, which collapsed the central control and socialist economics that underpinned the tradeoffs for so long.

 

One colossal hydroelectric power station, the Toktogul, in Kyrgyzstan, generated 10 billion kilowatt-hours of energy last year — enough to light the Seattle area.

 

Yet in the winter, and the winter before, Toktogul’s mighty turbines ran at idling speed, and rolling blackouts swept across Kyrgyzstan.

 

Toktogul’s operators were doing what they had done for decades: hoarding water for summertime farm needs in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, rather than generating power for Kyrgyz homes. The explanation is simple: they realize that failure to open their sluices in the summer would cause their neighbors economic chaos — and perhaps bring an army to their doorstep.

 

To forestall just such crises, the five nations signed an accord in the early 1990’s which essentially froze in place the water-distribution scheme of Soviet times.

 

For the Kyrgyz, however, the trade-off of free summer water for free winter fuel has been shattered. The plains states no longer return free fuel in the winter. They sell it at market prices, or trade it for a summer allotment of irrigation water based on a complex formula.

 

That leaves the Kyrgyz grumbling. In rainy years, when the plains states irrigate less, they are obliged to return less fuel in the winter, meaning that Kyrgyz citizens shiver. And in dry years, when the Kyrgyz are able to send less irrigation water downstream, the plains states also return less fuel in the winter. Again, Kyrgyz citizens shiver.

 

They also boil with resentment. “We’re losing more than $90 million a year, just from power losses,” said Dyushen Mamatkanov, director of the Institute of Water Problems in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. “Toktogul is the property of Kyrgyzstan. We should have the maximum economic effect from it.”

 

Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament agrees. Tired of enduring blackouts so Kazakh farmers could flood rice paddies, the legislators voted two years ago to authorize the government to charge outsiders for Kyrgyz water.

 

Kyrgyzstan’s government has yet to bill its neighbors. But it has pressed them to start picking up some of the cost of running hydroelectric dams and maintaining reservoirs that exist largely to serve farmers on foreign plains hundreds of miles away.

 

Tackling such troubles demands money — an estimated $40 billion for serious repairs to the five-nation waterworks — and what is more, agreement among five countries with very different notions of how the rivers’ bounty should be divided up.

 

For the moment, both are nearly as scarce as water itself.

 

Disputes rooted in disagreements over water rights in places like the Fergana Valley, a cotton-growing center, actually erupted into clashes that killed hundreds in the 1990’s.

 

But regional resentments and jealousies abound. Despite a pledge to curb the development of new irrigated farmland, Turkmenistan has proclaimed plans to irrigate 1.2 million new acres — and to create a “Lake of the Golden Turkmen,” equal to the annual flow of both the Syr and the Amu, to water them.

 

Kazakhstan is upset because the Syr is rife with salts and fertilizers by the time it has been channeled through the cotton fields of the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and dispatched downstream.

 

Uzbekistan was outraged in the mid-1990’s because Kyrgyzstan, home to the Syr’s headwaters, was sending too much water south in the winter, too little in the summer.

 

The Kyrgyz bridle at what they consider a near giveaway of river water flowing from their mountains to the fields of Uzbeks and Kazakhs. And tiny Tajikistan has submitted a proposal to increase its consumption of river water over the next two decades by an amount roughly equal to 10 percent of the two rivers’ combined flow.

 

In the charged atmosphere, water has yet to become a weapon. But it can easily become a blunt-edged bargaining tool.

 

Wielding Water as a Tool

 

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, for example, have a longstanding and often mangled accord to swap water for natural gas. In December 2000, the flow of Uzbek gas to Kyrgyzstan abruptly dwindled. Some say that Kyrgyzstan was in arrears, or that Uzbek gas pipes had frozen or, others suspect, because it was election eve, Uzbekistan was running short of heat in its capital, Tashkent.

 

Whatever the reason, Kyrgyzstan warned that if gas flows did not resume, it would open its reservoir sluices, flooding rich farmland downstream. Uzbekistan got the message. Gas deliveries resumed.

 

Officials in Central Asia’s labyrinthine water bureaucracy tend to argue that such tiffs are the exception. Leaders of the five ex-Soviet nations are united in their public commitment to divide the water equitably.

 

Mr. Asarin, the hydrologist who first predicted the Aral’s demise, has given up hope. The historic and economic pressures — to supply jobs and food; to make money from cotton exports; to trump one’s regional rivals — are just too great.

 

None of Central Asia’s water bureaucrats is savvier than Viktor Dukhovny, whose Interstate Commission on Water Coordination in Tashkent monitors the water uses of the five nations. Armed with a bank of computers, Mr. Dukhovny’s analysts can spit out plans by the dozens, factoring in endless variables.

 

He is a rare optimist. “We have enough water for the survival of all five states, even plus Afghanistan, if we will work together,” he said. Then he paused. “Of course, not forever,” he added. “Only up to 2025.”

 

October 16, 2002   (New York Times)

In Israel and Lebanon, Talk of War Over Water

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

 

KAFR KILA, Lebanon, Oct. 12 — To hear the soft gurgle of Wazzani Springs, stand knee-deep in the cool, rock-bottomed creek that meanders through the hills of Lebanon’s southern frontier.

 

On the river bank, workmen are busy putting the finishing touches on a pumping station, pounding hammers, drilling holes, carrying clattering buckets of concrete. Two royal blue pipes plunge into the water.

 

Starting on Oct. 16, when the pump is to be turned on, those pipes will slurp Wazzani water and carry it uphill to quench the considerable thirst of parched Lebanese villages like this one.

 

But here on the scarred frontier of enemy states, water is everything, and Lebanon’s plans to pump water from Wazzani Springs has set off a new round of tension with Israel. The springs feed the Hasbani River, a tributary of the Jordan, which is a major source of Israel’s scarce water. Israel contends that Lebanon must consult with it before pumping any water from the springs, a premise that Lebanon, as well as Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that dominates the southern swath of this country, angrily rejects.

 

So heated has the water war of words become that the United States, eager to avert yet another Middle East conflict as it prepares for potential military action against Iraq, has stepped in. The Americans have dispatched a State Department water expert to assess the situation and cool tempers. An embassy spokeswoman, Candace Putnam, said American officials were hopeful a diplomatic solution would be reached “that meets the water needs of both sides.”

 

The matter is likely to be on the agenda when the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, meets with Bush administration officials in Washington on Oct. 16.

 

Meanwhile, Lebanese are working around the clock to prepare the Wazzani project for its official unveiling. A podium was erected for the ceremony. A giant poster of the Lebanese president was ordered. A water tank was adorned with the freshly painted cedars of the Lebanese flag.

 

Lebanon says the project is the centerpiece of a redevelopment program for its impoverished, war-ravaged south. The country insists that it is planning to draw a limited amount of water from Wazzani Springs to supply villages in the south and that the amount — 300 million cubic feet a year — is well within its rights under quotas proposed by an American mediator in the 1950’s, but never officially agreed to. Lebanon currently draws about 7 million cubic feet a year.

 

Israel, however, is convinced that Lebanon eventually plans to pump far more than that.

 

The dispute first surfaced a year ago, when Lebanon began construction of the pumping station, roughly three miles north of the Israeli border. In August, Israel publicly accused Lebanon of violating international law, arguing that a country cannot unilaterally tap a river that runs through other countries. Israel has also argued that Lebanon could get all the water it needs from the Litani River, which flows through southern Lebanon.

 

The project comes at a time when Israel’s water reserves are the lowest in the nation’s modern history, a result of growing demand, overpumping, droughts and delays in building the desalination plants that experts have long viewed as the only long-term solution. Last month Mr. Sharon issued his most explicit threat. Should Lebanon start pumping water from the Wazzani, the Prime Minister said at a cabinet meeting, “we shall have to take measures.”

 

The Lebanese government fired back with truculent words of its own. “As if occupying the Arab lands and terrorizing their civilian populations were not enough,” Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammud declared in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, “Israeli greed prompts it to usurp our natural wealth and water resources in defiance of international law and instruments.”

 

Hezbollah, which waged a guerrilla war against Israel’s occupation of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon until the Israelis pulled out in May 2000, dared Israel to act.

 

“As Hezbollah protects Lebanese soil, we also protect Lebanese water,” said a spokesman for the group, Sheik Hassan Ezzeddin. A Hezbollah flag flies above the water pump, as it does from virtually every lamp post and rooftop in border villages like this one.

 

The road that snakes through these hills is lined with posters of Hezbollah “martyrs,” and battered Israeli tanks and army compounds are preserved as shrines commemorating Hezbollah’s struggle.

 

The residents of this hillside hamlet have long looked resentfully across the fence that divides Lebanon from Israel. On their side, olive trees cling to the dry earth. On the other side lie lush groves of apricot trees.

 

“Obviously you get upset when you see it,” said Mustafa Rashid, 63, a vegetable vendor here. “Everybody should have green. Water is for everybody.”

 

The people of this village buy their drinking water. For Jamila Yahya’s family of seven, that costs a precious 60,000 liras, or $40, each month. No water can be wasted. Dirty dishwater nurtures plants. Laundry water is used in the toilet.

 

“There’s so little that separates us,” said Ms. Yahya, 30. “What’s the reason for one area to have water and the other not?”

 

Besides, she said with a smirk, “the water is in our land — had the water been in their land, would they let us use it?”

 

Wednesday, October 16, 2002   (Ha’aretz)

Scraping the bottom of the cistern

By Amira Hass

 

Where will America and the EU succeed more: In their pressure on Yasser Arafat to lead governmental, financial and security reforms, or in their pleas with Israel to guarantee enough water of reasonable quality and price to 200,000 Palestinians?

 

Another delegation from the UN is in the country to monitor Israeli and Palestinian Authority promises to deal with the severe humanitarian crisis in the territories. The visit follows one in August by UN envoy Catherine Bertini. Her report noted that among other things, Israel promised to guarantee appropriate daily amounts of water to the Palestinians.

 

Behind her diplomatic language was hidden an intolerable reality well known to the security forces and the international community. There are 281 Palestinian communities that are not connected to water supply lines. According to various estimates, more than 200,000 people in the West Bank – and their herds and flocks – depend on water tankers for their daily supply of water. They must make their way several times a day between their villages to the main water sources, which are usually a nearby well.

 

In the last two years, because of the policies of closures and curfews, those 200,000 receive much less than the minimum amount required – 50 liters a day – and the water they do get is of a poor quality, unhealthy, and so costly that fewer and fewer are able to pay for it. Oxfam, the British-based international relief organization, devotes an entire chapter in its most recent report to the impact of the closures on Palestinian villages.

 

The IDF’s blockades around every village and the prohibitions on Palestinians traveling on most of the paved roads to the West Bank have doubled and tripled the distances the tankers have to travel from the water source to the villages, so instead of five to 10 trips a day, they can now only manage two or three.

 

Instead of seven kilometers, they have to travel as far as 55 – on unpaved roads. Sometimes they encounter mobile IDF and police checkpoints, which delay their trips for hours. Because of the difficulties on the roads, the drivers demand double payment and more for every cubic meter of water they transport.

 

Unemployed and impoverished, most residents are unable to pay the high prices. The water suppliers are no longer ready to sell on credit. People have sold their source of livelihood – sheep and goats – because they could not afford to keep them watered. In some areas, people have taken to using irrigation water for drinking and cooking. In others, they are scraping the bottoms of the cisterns for polluted water that could cause disease.

 

Everywhere, people are saving water, using much less than 50 liters a day. In some schools, pupils are told to bring their own water. There’s no need to describe the hygienic conditions in the schools.

 

More than a month after Bertini’s visit, Oxfam and B’Tselem sent a letter to the defense minister and representatives of the donor countries, detailing cases that prove no real steps were taken by Israel to meet its promises about water. The defense minister’s spokesman promised Ha’aretz that “the defense establishment is working to meet all needs of the broad Palestinian population uninvolved in terror… [and that] in the West Bank, there is a steady supply of water. When there are isolated problems regarding water supply, it is enabled through tankers and with the help of the army and the civil administration.” But there is no connection between those promises and reality.

 

Last week there was a flurry of activity between the Foreign Ministry, the government coordinator in the territories and representatives from the international community over “easing” conditions for the Palestinians in general, and regarding the water crisis specifically.

 

There were meetings, phone calls, complaints and new promises. Western sources reported that “Shimon Peres was furious when he heard the promises were not being kept” about the water. Maybe. In any case, it seems the international community knows very well that it is impossible to stand on the sidelines and continue the policies of internal closure and curfews in the West Bank and at the same time guarantee reasonable water supply to people imprisoned in their enclaves. But they don’t have the strength to deal with the contradiction.

 

Wednesday, October 16, 2002   (Ha aretz)

Lebanon begins pumping from new Wazzani water system

By Daniel Sobelman and Uri Ash, Ha’aretz Correspondents, and Agencies

 

Lebanon began pumping Wednesday from its new water source on the  Wazzani River in southern Lebanon. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud  made a surprise appearance at the inauguration ceremony for the pump.

 

Lahoud appeared alongside House Speaker Nabih Berri, ministers,  deputies and foreign as well as Arab diplomats.

 

Hand in hand Lahoud and Berri entered a large room accompanied by  Lebanese deputies and ministers and turned on the pumps at 16:45 local  time (13:45 GMT), announcing the project was officially inaugurated.

 

Dozens of red balloons were blown into the air as the pumps were turned  on.

 

This is not the end, this is just the beginning,” Berri told the crowd,  asserting Lebanon’s right to its water. He called for UN action to determine  Lebanon’s water rights and stressed that Lebanon “will not give up any drop  of its water.”

 

The U.S. charge d’affaires cancelled her attendance at the last minute  without giving any specific explanation, Lebanese security sources said.

 

But the sources said that “the Americans are siding by Israelis because  this project has angered… Ariel Sharon.”

 

Dozens of people gathered on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border to  watch the inauguration of the project.

 

On the Lebanese side, villagers toured the pump site, many accompanied  by children waving Lebanese flags.

 

On the Israeli side, dozens of residents from Ghajar village climbed to high  ground to observe the ceremony. Some 20 IDF officers attending an  educational tour of the area also observed the preparations for the first  pumping.

 

The Lebanese decision in August to begin pumping from a tributary of the  river sparked fresh tensions with its southern neighbor. Prime Minister Ariel  Sharon slammed the move, describing it as a cause for war.

 

American pressure recently led to a Lebanese decision to reduce the  amount of water pumped to supply drinking water for villages in the area,  rather than for irrigation purposes as well.

 

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Wednesday that the unilateral  Lebanese action was likely to bring “a great escalation” between Lebanon  and Israel.

 

“We won’t, can’t agree to such unilateral actions and we reserve the right to  protect our water according to law, to international law,” Peres told  parliament in Jerusalem.

 

Hezbollah on ‘highest alert’ for Wazzani project opening   Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah announced Tuesday evening  that the organization had been put on the highest alert in anticipation of an  Israeli attack during the inauguration.

 

Speaking Tuesday night, Nasrallah said that Hezbollah would respond to  any Israeli aggression “within minutes.” Whoever decides to attack the  pumping project will “open up the northern front and we are prepared for  that,” he said. He said his gunmen had already defined their targets inside  Israel. “All we need is one telephone call” to respond to any Israeli attack,  he said.

 

Observers say these are the toughest remarks the Hezbollah leader has  uttered on the subject of the Wazzani. Lebanese journalist Ibrahim al-Amin,  who is close to Nasrallah, said Tuesday in an interview with Hezbollah’s  Al-Manar TV station that the “inventory” of Israeli targets that the  organization has drawn up is even more varied than the list of Lebanese  targets that Israel has. Earlier, Nasrallah’s deputy, Naim Qassem, had said  that Israel is not able to act on its threats against Lebanon since “its hands  are tied.”

 

Thousands of villagers are due to participate in the project’s opening  ceremony Wednesday alongside such public figures as Nabih Beri, the  speaker of the Lebanese parliament and head of the Amal movement, who  was one of the project’s initiators.

 

Lebanon plans at this stage to pump between 9-11 million cubic meters of  water to about 25 villages in the south. Lebanon claims it is entitled to  pump 55 million cubic meters according to international law. A pre-1967  deal with Israel spoke of up to 10 million cubic meters per year.

 

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said at a Beirut press conference  Tuesday that his country is backing the Lebanese position.

 

September 10, 2002   (New York Times)

Israel Waits for Sea of Galilee’s Low Tide to Turn

By SERGE SCHMEMANN

 

TIBERIAS, Israel — These days, even the lowest sinner can walk out onto the Sea of Galilee.

 

It is hardly a feat of faith. The water is simply not there any more, at least along vast stretches of bottom laid bare by a precipitous drop in the water level in recent years.

 

To a visitor returning for the first time since 1998, when the storied sea — actually a freshwater lake, called Kinneret by Israelis — was still full, the sight is flabbergasting.

 

At one marina Yitzhak Gal, a senior official of the Lake Kinneret Authority, walks out onto a dock where old tires are still hung for mooring boats and signs ban diving and swimming from the pier. The precaution is wise because the water is now a couple of hundred yards off, and the marina has had to clear away thickets of weeds and trees and to pave a road across the former lake bottom so trailers can carry boats to the water.

 

At a lakeside promenade in Tiberias, the Roman capital of Galilee and a popular Israeli resort, a walled-in harbor is now little more than a puddle littered with debris. Piers for tourist ships stand high and dry, replaced by distant floating docks.

 

Since 1998, the last normal year, the sea has dropped almost 20 feet. Though it was always subject to considerable seasonal and periodic changes, the current average level is the lowest ever recorded. The reason is a combination of drought and overuse; the result is a crisis when officials speak in public, a catastrophe when they speak in private.

 

Though the 64-square-mile lake would hardly make a splash in Minnesota, it bears a name and an importance surpassing many a great lake. It is Israel’s only sizable body of fresh water, supplying 27 percent of the fresh water used by the arid country and a significant portion of neighboring Jordan’s.

 

For Christians throughout the world, it is the biblical sea on which Jesus walked, whose waves he calmed, on whose banks he preached and performed miracles, from whose fishermen he recruited disciples. Before the current violence dried up tourism, busloads of pilgrims came to visit the site of Capernaum, the tranquil Mount of Beatitudes, the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes at Tabha.

 

The immediate cause of the current situation was a drastic shortage of rainfall in the winter of 1998-99. But Dr. Doron Markel, the official in the state Water Commission responsible for coordinating the monitoring the lake, says Israel was already consuming more water than it had.

 

He said that “1998-99 was the worst winter in a century, but the crisis was long building.”

 

“We kept the consumption stable through the 1990’s by shifting from agriculture to the cities,” he said. “But in 1998-99, of the 400 million cubic meters were usually take from the Kinneret, only 95 million was restored.”

 

The crisis was not limited to the Sea of Galilee. The river Jordan, which flows into and out of it, slowed to a trickle in some stretches below the lake, all but drying up one source of the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

 

Worse, the aquifers that are the two other principal water sources for Israel also fell to new lows, finally compelling Water Commissioner Shimon Tal to authorize letting them drop below “red lines” that had been regarded as the lowest safe levels.

 

With the Sea of Galilee and the entire Jordan Valley below sea level, that meant the level was lowered to 699 feet below sea level from 695.5. But it reached 705 feet below sea level last year, after which it rebounded to 703. To put the figures in perspective, each foot amounts to about a tenth of Israel’s annual water consumption.

 

The crisis forced Mr. Tal to curtail water for Israeli agriculture by a third. Some products requiring considerable irrigation, like citrus fruits, were abandoned by many growers.

 

At the Sea of Galilee, Mr. Gal said, the drop also caused fear of ecological consequences — the major focus of his Lake Kinneret Authority. But those turned out to be less severe than feared. Contrary to expectations, the salinity of the lake decreased, because most of the salinity came from underground springs fed by runoff from the land, which diminished with the drought.

 

The other fear was deterioration of water quality. In fact, Mr. Gal said, there was an increase in blue-green algae, an unwelcome variety, but it remains below dangerous levels.

 

The most important consequence of the drop, however, has been to provide a severe prod for Israel to move quickly to develop alternate sources of fresh water.

 

Like all residents of this arid region, Israelis are raised to respect water. The slogan “haval al kol tipa” — regret for every drop — is instilled in every citizen, and water is expensive. But experts have warned for years that conservation and allocation would not be enough to meet the needs of a growing population.

 

“The water supplies of Israel have reached their gravest crisis ever,” Mr. Tal warned last year. “The crisis is the result of years of over-utilization of water resources as well as inadequate development of additional resources.”

 

With the current crisis, the message has taken hold. Israel has reached an agreement to import water from Turkey, and, more important, three major desalination plants are planned on the Mediterranean coast, with the capacity to meet a ninth of Israel’s current needs. The cost, however, is high, and they are not expected to be ready for two years.

 

“So it’s another two years before we get new oxygen into the water system,” Dr. Markel said. “But at least now I can be optimistic that the Kinneret will rise again.”

 

September 1, 2002  (New York Times)

Israel and Jordan Announce Plan to Save Dead Sea

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) — Israel and Jordan announced their largest joint project ever, a $800 million pipeline intended to save the shrinking Dead Sea from environmental devastation.

 

The level of the sea, shared between the two countries that signed a peace agreement in 1994, is sinking at the rate of nearly a yard a year and could disappear in a few decades, damaging tourism in both countries and indirectly draining scarce water supplies in the region, Cabinet ministers from both countries said Sunday at the World Summit. “It’s a catastrophe under way and it might be apocalyptic if we don’t challenge it as fast as we can,” Israeli Environment Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said.

 

The two governments said Sunday they hoped to work together to build a 190-mile-long pipeline from the Red Sea through both countries to halt the decrease in water level in the Dead Sea.

 

Israel and Jordan had hopes of close cooperation after signing a peace accord eight years ago. However, those plans never lived up to expectations and ties between the two have cooled since the second Palestinian intefadeh began two years ago.

 

“This sends a message that we do live in one area with a common destiny. The environment, ecology and nature know no boundaries and no political conflicts,” said Bassem Awadallah, Jordan’s minister of planning.

 

The Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth at 400 yards below sea level, is the saltiest large body of water in the world. It holds ancient sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It also houses a unique ecosystem, with leopards, ibexes and several threatened birds. Its unique minerals are used for health treatments, its potash fuels a major chemical industry and its beauty attracts thousands of tourists.

 

But the sea has been shrinking for decades because much of the water from the Jordan River, which ends in the Dead Sea, has been diverted for use in the region. The increasingly thirsty sea basin has begun sucking up vital sources of fresh groundwater, causing massive sinkholes to appear on both sides of the border. Jordanian officials said they had to evacuate 3,000 people because of the sinkholes.

 

The pipeline — which officials have nicknamed the “peace conduit” — would end the Dead Sea’s decline and slowly restore it to an ecologically appropriate level, officials said.

 

The country’s hope to complete preliminary plans this month and start a nine-month study of the project while both governments appeal for international donor assistance to fund it. The project itself will take three to five years to complete, officials said.

 

Both countries hope the pipeline will be the seed of a far more ambitious plan to build a canal and a desalination plant that will provide fresh water for Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians. That project, which would cost an estimated $3 billion, would take more than a decade to finish, Awadallah said.

 

Officials from both sides expressed hope that eventually the Palestinians could be brought into the deal as partners to share the water resources and protect the environment they all share.

 

“The quicker we end the occupation of the Palestinian areas, the quicker we reach a peace settlement that will guarantee justice for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis … the quicker we will all turn our attention, our resources, our time and effort toward construction and not destruction,” Awadallah said.

 

August 25, 2002  (New York Times)

 

In Race to Tap the Euphrates, the Upper Hand Is Upstream

 

By DOUGLAS JEHL

 

TELL AL-SAMEN, Syria — The Euphrates River is close by, but the water does not reach Abdelrazak al-Aween. Here at the heart of the fertile crescent, he stares at dry fields.

 

The Syrian government has promised water for Mr. Aween’s tiny village. But upstream, in Turkey, and downstream, in Iraq, similar promises are being made. They add up to more water than the Euphrates holds.

 

So instead of irrigating his cotton and sugar beets, Mr. Aween must siphon drinking and washing water from a ditch 40 minutes away by tractor ride. Just across the border, meanwhile, Ahmet Demir, a Turkish farmer, stands ankle deep in mud, his crops soaking up all the water they need.

 

It was here in ancient Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago, that the last all-out war over water was fought, between rival city-states in what is now southern Iraq. Now, across a widening swath of the world, more and more people are vying for less and less water, in conflicts more rancorous by the day.

 

From the searing plains of Mesopotamia to the steadily expanding deserts of northern China to the cotton fields of northwest Texas, the struggle for water is igniting social, economic and political tensions.

 

The World Bank has said dwindling water supplies will be a major factor inhibiting economic growth, a subject being discussed at a weeklong international conference in South Africa starting Monday about balancing use of the world’s resources against its economic needs.

 

Global warming, some experts suspect, may be adding to the strain. Droughts may be extended in already dry regions, including parts of the United States, even as wetter areas tend toward calamitous downpours and floods like those ravaging Europe and Asia this summer. In general, the world’s climate may be more prone to extremes, with too much water in some areas and far too little in others.

 

Both the United Nations and the National Intelligence Council, an advisory group to the Central Intelligence Agency, have warned that the competition for water is likely to worsen. “As countries press against the limits of available water between now and 2015, the possibility of conflict will increase,” the National Intelligence Council warned in a report last year.

 

By 2015, according to estimates from the United Nations and the United States government, at least 40 percent of the world’s population, or about three billion people, will live in countries where it is difficult or impossible to get enough water to satisfy basic needs.

 

“The signs of unsustainability are widespread and spreading,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass. “If we’re to have any hope of satisfying the food and water needs of the world’s people in the years ahead, we will need a fundamental shift in how we use and manage water.”

 

An inescapable fact about the world’s water supply is that it is finite. Less than 1 percent of it is fresh water that can be used for drinking or agriculture, and demand for that water is rising.

 

Over the last 70 years, the world’s population has tripled while water demand has increased sixfold, causing increasing strain especially in heavily populated areas where water is distant, is being depleted or is simply too polluted to use.

 

Already, a little more than half of the world’s available fresh water is being used each year, according to one rough but generally accepted estimate. That fraction could climb to 74 percent by 2025 based on population growth alone, and would hit 90 percent if people everywhere used as much water as the average American, one of the world’s most gluttonous water consumers.

 

Water tables are falling on every continent, and experts warn that the situation is expected to worsen significantly in years to come. On top of the shortages that already exist, the outlook adds to the tensions and uncertainty for countries that share water sources, like Turkey and Syria, where Mr. Aween is among those still waiting and hoping for the Euphrates to be brought to his door.

 

A Few Miles’ Difference

 

The stories of Mr. Aween and Mr. Demir illustrate how the growing fight for water can make or ruin lives.

 

Until last year, Mr. Demir, 42, a father of nine in Turkey, was living an itinerant life as a smuggler and a migrant laborer. But on a recent scorching afternoon, he stood sunburned and content, his striped pants rolled above his knees, bare feet squishing in Euphrates mud.

 

“It seems like we have all the water we need,” Mr. Demir said, leaning on his shovel and running a hand through his close-cropped hair. What has changed in this swath of southern Turkey is the arrival of irrigation. It is part of one of the world’s largest water projects, an audacious $30 billion plan by Turkey’s government to spread the Euphrates’ gifts across a vast and impoverished region of the country.

 

By now, Mr. Aween, the Syrian, might have been celebrating, too. Under Syria’s irrigation plan, ambitious in its own right, water from the Euphrates should have reached Mr. Aween’s door, less than 50 miles from Mr. Demir’s.

 

But strong doubts are emerging about whether the vast scope of Turkey’s project will leave enough water for its neighbors downstream — so much so that Syria appears to have put the brakes on its development plan.

 

“We’re still waiting,” Mr. Aween, 40, said on behalf of his 2 wives, 3 children, and 17 brothers and sisters, who all live in a hamlet that bears the family name. He wore a loose, Arab-style outer garment and cheap plastic sandals as he hitched a rusty tanker trailer to a sputtering tractor, his water bearers. “But the water hasn’t come.”

 

The trouble over the Euphrates can be expressed in a simple, untenable equation.

 

As best as anyone can determine, the river, in an average year, holds 35 billion cubic meters of water. But the separate plans drawn up by Turkey, Syria and Iraq for building dams and irrigating fields would, taken together, consume nearly half again more water than the river holds.

 

Each country has acknowledged the impossibility of marrying their schemes. But none has shown any willingness to scale back. Trying to accommodate fast-growing populations and to head off a migration to the cities, each country is still clinging to its irrigation dreams.

 

On both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border, snapshots of those dreams still unfold on summer dawns, in fields that used to be good for little but grazing, but where new irrigation canals are now delivering Euphrates water in regular supply.

 

Thirsty crops like cotton and sugar beets have begun to thrive. Farm incomes have tripled. Young women who turn out in sparkling dresses tend prized plants with special care, shepherding the water down each muddy row. Young boys cavort in irrigation ditches that provide relief from the intense midday heat.

 

Now that there is water, Mr. Demir said, it would not be such a bad thing if his four sons, ranging in age from 4 months to 22 years, decided to stay and work the land — something he could not have imagined only a year ago when farming was far harder.

 

But in a world in which so much depends on having water, he bristled at the idea of sharing it. “If I used any less, the others would use more,” he said. “I use what I need, and as for the rest, it’s their business.”

 

That kind of thinking has not helped Mr. Aween’s village, not far from Tell al-Samen, where the absence of water is almost equally on display. With his family, Mr. Aween raises scraggly goats and grows whatever barley and wheat he can coax from dry, unirrigated land. It is a far cry, he said, from the lush green crops he would grow with irrigation — the difference between sustenance and comfort.

 

Syria and Turkey have been at odds since the late 1980’s, when Turkey decided to proceed with its development project without consulting its neighbors.

 

To Turkey, the plan was an essential step in the country’s development, a means of transforming an area that is home to six million people, including many restive Kurds, into a zone of greater economic and political stability. But to Syria, which depends on the Euphrates for half its fresh water, it continues to be seen as a major threat. Iraq, the far downstream neighbor, has been mostly a bystander because of its international isolation.

 

The basic disputes between Turkey and Syria — over water rights and allocations — would be familiar to any landowner who has struggled over competing claims to a stream or a well. But the fact that the parties are nations, with large armies at their disposal and large populations at stake, has added to the weight of the clash.

 

Less powerful militarily than Turkey, Syria resorted through much of the 1990’s to indirect pressure, by giving support to the terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan, the No. 1 enemy of the Turkish government. In response, Turkish officials sometimes went so far as to warn that the flow of the Euphrates into Syria could be cut.

 

Such talk has cooled in the last three years since the arrest of Mr. Ocalan. But the potential for trouble lingers.

 

Over the last year, as Turkey has completed many dams and has begun to extend its irrigation, the flow of Euphrates water into Syria has grown consistently smaller. The flow has fallen below levels allowed under Turkey’s only existing commitment to Syria, an interim 1987 agreement intended for the period of dam construction.

 

Turkey has blamed drought and the overuse of the new, cheap water by farmers for the shortfall. The government says much of that can be reversed. But Turkish officials have also said they no longer see the 1987 deal as binding. The trend has raised deep concerns in Syria, which is already facing water shortages in Damascus, the capital.

 

Both countries say they are ready to strike a deal, but cannot imagine scaling back their development plans. “For half of Syria, the Euphrates is life,” said Abdel Aziz al-Masri, a top official at Syria’s Ministry of Irrigation.

 

Mumtaz Turfan, the director of Turkey’s department of hydraulic works, echoed the sentiment. “Without our dams, life in Turkey would be impossible,” he said.

 

Rising Tension, Dwindling Water

 

It has been a decade since Syria, Turkey and Iraq sat down to formal negotiations, and their positions remain as starkly opposed now as they were then.

 

Syria and Iraq want the water to be divided roughly in thirds. Turkey, on the other hand, claims more than half for itself. It says any sharing must take into account Turkey’s status as the source of most Euphrates water and the home to a population that is half again as big as Iraq’s and Syria’s put together.

 

“I am sure that if we forget about borders, we can solve the problem,” Mr. Turfan said. Over the last 30 years, he has presided over the construction of 700 dams in Turkey, and a map that stretches across his wall details plans for 500 more.

 

“I am providing water for 22 million people who take drinking water from our dams, and for 35 percent of our agriculture,” he said. It would be a mistake, he suggested, for Turkey to accept less than the lion’s share of the Euphrates. “Without irrigation, we can’t do anything,” he said. “We can’t give it up and destroy our people.”

 

Around the world, the question of water ownership has never seemed so divisive. Despite efforts by the United Nations and others, the world has yet to come up with an accepted formula on how shared waters should be divided. That situation applies to nearly 300 rivers, including the Nile, the Danube, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, all subject to major disputes.

 

In 1997, a United Nations convention declared that international waterways should be divided reasonably and equitably, without causing unnecessary harm. But Turkey, along with China and Burundi, refused to sign the agreement, a sign of reluctance on the part of major upstream countries to cede their dominant positions.

 

Beyond current water shortages, one reason for the tension is a lack of optimism that pressures on the world’s water supply might be eased.

 

Of course, some new technologies, including advanced irrigation techniques, innovative desalination methods and bold water-moving schemes, offer some hope.

 

But experts say the task of making fresh water available where there is none — from seawater, from icebergs or by moving surface water long distances — remains too costly to be widely adopted. Most easily accessible fresh water sources have already been tapped.

 

To those who would bend nature, there are many cautionary tales, including the Soviet-orchestrated drying up of the Aral Sea, an environmental catastrophe. Even for its project on the Euphrates, Turkey could not win World Bank support because of the plan’s significant costs, including the submerging of an important archaeological site.

 

But sometimes, as in Turkey’s case, the thirst for water is greater than any such opposition. Along the Euphrates, Turkey is paying its own way, despite the financial hardship and despite the uncertainty over how its plans will affect others.

 

In the dry heat of a Mesopotamian summer, how that tenacity is regarded depends on which way the water is flowing.

 

In an office in Al Raqqa, a Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates, Iliaz Dakal, a consultant to Syria’s land development agency, was studying a map of his own. It depicted, in vivid green, the land that Syria is already irrigating along the river. Much more land, though, like the fields that are home to Mr. Aween, was crosshatched to show uncertainty — its water and its fate now perhaps in Turkey’s hands.

 

“For now, thank God, we have enough to grow the wheat we need,” Mr. Dakal said. “But what about the future?”

 

Mr. Demir, in his muddy Turkish field, had an answer, saying he had come to see water as a byproduct of power. “If Turkey is stronger,” he said, “then I get to keep my water.”

 

January 14, 2002 (New York Times)

 

Scientists Find Dead Sea Is Sinking

 

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Dead Sea, already the lowest point on Earth, is sinking even lower.

 

Areas along the shores of the Dead Sea subsided by as much as 2.5 inches a year between 1992 and 1999, according to a new study. The region on the Israeli-Jordanian border lies about 1,360 feet below sea level.

 

The subsidence followed a drop in the water table around the Dead Sea, allowing the ground to settle and compact, according to scientists who published their findings in the January issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

 

Water that would normally flow into the Dead Sea has steadily been siphoned off for agricultural and other uses in the thirsty region. As a consequence, the level of the body of water, among the world’s saltiest, has fallen by about 20 feet over the past decade.

 

The study used seven years’ worth of data from a pair of European radar satellites to examine changes in the level of the ground along the southern and western shores of the Dead Sea.

 

By comparing high-resolution radar images of the same area taken at varying intervals, scientists could pinpoint movements of the Earth that otherwise would be nearly imperceptible, unless the area was peppered with expensive global positioning system receivers that can track the minute changes.

 

“You wouldn’t be able to detect these things any other way,” said David Sandwell, a co-author of the paper and a professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

 

The subsidence may be related, but only circumstantially, to the gigantic sinkholes that have begun to appear along the shores of the Dead Sea, a popular tourist destination, scientists said.

 

As the salt water of the Dead Sea recedes, in some cases by hundreds of yards, fresh ground water replaces it. That water then dissolves buried salt deposits, causing the ground to collapse and threatening the stability of resort hotels.

 

Scientists believe a different mechanism explains the larger-scale subsidence. They suspect that when the water table drops in the area, the matrix of soils, sands and gravels that held the water collapses behind it.

 

Gerald Bawden, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park who was not connected with the study, said the drop was hardly unusual given the dramatic drawdown of the water table.

 

However, the areas seen to subside in the radar images were just a mile or so in length, or smaller than he would have expected, Bawden said.

 

In a paper published in August in the journal Nature, Bawden reported that the pumping and recharging of ground water in the Los Angeles basin causes the ground to rise and fall by as much as four inches a year over an area 25 miles across.

 

Other studies have shown similar effects as groundwater is removed and replaced in locations such as Phoenix and Las Vegas. The radar technique used in the studies works best in looking at arid areas free of vegetation that can skew results.

 

“We’re just getting a first view of what the ground is doing,” Sandwell said.

 

March 3, 1999  (New York Times)

 

International Study on Water in Mideast Leads to a Warning

 

By WILLIAM A. ORME Jr.

 

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The drought this winter could be a portent of an even drier future unless Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians work together to conserve shared water resources, an international panel of scientists warned Tuesday.

 

With a population of 12 million in a region with as much rainfall as Phoenix, Ariz., water supplies “are barely sufficient to maintain a quality standard of living,” said Gilbert F. White, a geographer from the University of Colorado who was chairman of a research group from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and counterpart institutions from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority.

 

In what was described as the first major study of the long-term outlook for water supplies between the eastern border of Jordan and the Mediterranean Coast of Israel, the report said that even with strict management “the area’s inhabitants will almost assuredly live under conditions of significant water stress in the near future.”

 

Ancient underground aquifers are being drained dry, while scarce rains flow unused into desert gulches and rivers are diverted for water-intensive tropical agriculture, the researchers said. Watersheds cross political boundaries and can only be managed jointly, they said.

 

It is hardly news here that water is getting ever scarcer and the population steadily larger. Yet by drawing on data from disparate sources within and outside the region, the study provides what its authors believe is the first comprehensive analysis of regional patterns of water demands and supplies, while at the same time detailing feasible methods of conserving water and reducing consumption.

 

At least as significant as the content, participants said, was the political fact that this was the first serious study involving Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian experts, all of whom urged their governments to work together on recycling waste water, efficient irrigation and using brackish water for industry and agriculture.

 

The unusual regional collaboration and the prestige of the Academy of Sciences should help assure that the study will guide the World Bank and other Western aid donors whose support is crucial to all three governments, the authors said.

 

Left carefully unmentioned were the consequences of an regional battle over dwindling water resources. But the concern was implicit.

 

“This is a very dry region and a very tiny region, with an importance out of all proportion to its size,” said David Policansky, staff director of the project.

 

The 225-page study, which took more than two years, is itself rather arid, scrupulously avoiding any hint of national bias or ideological advocacy, and concentrating on regional research rather than policy prescriptions.

 

“While we were aware of many proposals for managing water supplies in the study area and neighboring areas, we explicitly refrained from making recommendations about these specific programs and political policies,” White said.

 

The scientists acknowledged that their hope was to galvanize policymakers into action and to remove the excuse that there is insufficient scientific information on which to base broad new water policies.

 

Members of the group met on Monday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities will be presenting its findings to the Israeli government, and the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan is advising the government in Amman about the research.

 

The principal scientific contribution of the panel, some suggested, was to collate and verify existing research from varied sources on regional industry, irrigation, meteorology and geology.

 

“There was a serious lack of regional information,” Policansky said, pointing to a map of regional rainfall patterns that was drawn from different official sources and research institutes. “This is quite basic. But until we did it there was nothing like it.”

 

The report stresses the limits of a landscape ranging from “sparse forest” to desert and “semidesert,” cleaved by the “temperate steppe” of the Jordan Valley, itself increasingly dried out by upstream irrigation. In 40 years, all fresh water in the region should be reserved for household use, with treated waste water and saline water used to supply agriculture and industry, the researchers said.

 

As the largest and by far the most prosperous of the three, Israel accounts for most of the consumption, the study confirmed. At 344 cubic meters, its per capita water use in 1994 was almost four times that of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, at 93 cubic meters a person.

 

Palestinian officials and Israeli environmentalists often point critically to this disparity and to California-style watered lawns and capacious bathtubs that they consider irresponsibly profligate. Yet the study showed that Israel’s use is only marginally greater than Jordan’s. Jordan is poorer than the West Bank, yet consumed 244 cubic meters a person.

 

In Jordan and Israel, the thirstiest consumers are not households, but farms, out of all proportion to their share of the economy and workforce. In Israel, agriculture accounts for 3 percent of the gross domestic product and 57 percent of water consumption. The Jordanian agricultural sector contributes 6 percent of the GDP, but uses 72 percent of the water. In the less developed West Bank and Gaza Strip, agriculture absorbs about the same share of water, 64 percent, yet accounts for fully a third of the local economy.

 

Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has been promoting plans for Mediterranean desalting plants that could supply Gaza and Israeli coastal communities. But the study noted that desalting sea water was extremely expensive — $1 or more for a cubic meter of potable water — and would not usually be considered feasible in a region without cheap and abundant fuel supplies.
February 28, 1999  (New York Times)

 

Water at Heart of Turkey’s Policies on Kurds and Mideast Neighbors

 

By STEPHEN KINZER

 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The recent capture of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan has focused new attention on the war he has waged against the Turkish army for 14 years. In recruiting fighters and supporters, Ocalan has fed on the resentment many Kurds feel for what they consider the government’s unjust discrimination against them. But he could never have built such a potent force without great amounts of help from other countries.

 

There are many reasons why Ocalan found foreign supporters for his bloody rebellion against Turkish rule, and why Turkey has resisted his rebellion so fiercely. Some are to be found in history, others in psychology, and still others in geopolitics.

 

Lurking behind them all, however, is water.

 

For more than a decade until last October, Ocalan lived semi-clandestinely in Syria, and the Syrian government gave him money, arms and political cover. Iraq also helped him, allowing him to build bases along the Iraqi-Turkish border. Neither Syria nor Iraq were embracing his cause out of any love for Kurds; on the contrary, governments in both countries have fiercely repressed their own Kurdish populations.

 

But Syria and Iraq want water from rivers that spring from Turkish soil. Turkey has given them what it considers ample amounts of water, but rejects what it calls their “unacceptable claims.” They have supported Ocalan’s fighters as a way of applying pressure on Turkey to give them more water.

 

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers created the “Fertile Crescent” where some of the first civilizations emerged. Today they are immensely important resources, politically as well as geographically. Through a system of dams in its southeastern provinces, Turkey controls their flow and is determined not to give up its control. That is one important reason that Turkish leaders have so resolutely refused to grant any autonomy to the Kurdish region, which straddles both rivers.

 

Few if any countries understand the growing importance of water as fully as Turkey does. In one of the world’s largest public works undertakings, Turkey is spending $32 billion for the huge Southeast Anatolia Project, a complex of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants. Its centerpiece, the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River, is already completed. In the reservoir that has built up behind the dam, sailing and swimming competitions are being held on a spot where for centuries there was little more than desert.

 

When the project is completed, perhaps in the next decade, it is expected to increase the amount of irrigated land in Turkey by 40 percent and provide one-fourth of the country’s electric power needs. Planners hope this can improve the standard of living of 6 million of Turkey’s poorest people, most of them Kurds, and thus undercut the appeal of revolutionary separatism. It will also deprive Syria and Iraq of resources those countries believe they need — resources that Turkey fears might ultimately be used in anti-Turkish causes.

 

The region of Turkey where Kurds predominate is more or less the same region covered by the Southeast Anatolia Project, encompassing an area about the size of Austria. Giving that region autonomy by placing it under Kurdish self-rule could weaken the central government’s control over the water resource that it recognizes as a keystone of its future power.

 

In other ways also, Turkish leaders are using their water as a tool of foreign as well as domestic policy. Among their most ambitious new projects is one to build a 50-mile undersea pipeline to carry water from Turkey to the parched Turkish enclave on northern Cyprus. The pipeline will carry more water than northern Cyprus can use, and foreign mediators like Richard Holbrooke, deeply frustrated by their inability to break the political deadlock on Cyprus, are hoping that the excess water can be sold to the ethnic Greek republic on the southern part of the island as a way of promoting peace.

 

It is no accident that Turkish President Suleyman Demirel is a water engineer by profession and entered public life as director of the State Waterworks Administration. His background and that of his classmate in engineering school, the late President Turgut Ozal, have done much to make Turkey so water conscious. Both men vigorously supported the Southeast Anatolia Project in the 1980s even though Western countries, including the United States, refused to provide loans or credits for it because they did not want to alienate Arab countries.

 

One of the most important developments in the Middle East in the last 20 years has been the emergence of a strong partnership between Turkey and Israel. Both countries have much to gain from it; for Israel water is among the greatest potential benefits. Israel is thirsting for water, and Turkey is overflowing with it. Intensive studies are now under way to see whether tankers, pipelines or other means can be used to send Turkey’s water to its new Israeli friends.

 

Not coincidentally, the basis for the Turkey-Israel partnership was laid when Demirel headed the Turkish government and another water engineer, Yitzhak Rabin, was in power in Israel. “If we solve every other problem in the Middle East but do not satisfactorily resolve the water problem, our region will explode,” Rabin once said.

 

Other Middle Eastern leaders have agreed. The late King Hussein of Jordan asserted that conflicts over water “could drive nations of the region to war.”

 

Turkey may be the world’s most water-conscious country, and the Middle East the region where water issues are most urgent. But competition for water, and for the power that control of water represents, is intensifying from Africa and Central Asia to Los Angeles and the Everglades.

 

“The world’s population of 5.9 billion will double in the next 40 to 90 years,” former Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., has written in a new book titled “Tapped Out” that examines global water problems. “Our water supply, however, is constant,” he wrote, as “per capita water consumption is rising twice as fast as the world’s population. You do not have to be an Einstein to understand that we are headed toward a potential calamity.”

 

Countries that control water are likely to be the big winners of the future. Turkey is among them. Its policies have for years been shaped by a desire to use water to achieve political aims, and the policies are beginning to pay off.

 

“Water has been used as a means of pressure, for example the Syrians sponsoring Kurdish separatism because they want more water,” said Ishak Alaton, a visionary Turkish businessman whose company has won the contract to build the water pipeline to Cyprus and is conducting a feasibility study for a pipeline to Israel. “It can also be used for peace, as we are hoping in Cyprus. You can’t overstate its importance. I firmly believe that just as the 20th century was the century of oil, the 21st century will be the century of water.”

 

August 26, 1997  (NY Times)

 

Israel Decides to Build Dam on Land Claimed by Syria

 

By DOUGLAS JEHL

 

JERUSALEM — Israel has decided to build a dam just inside the boundary of land claimed by Syria, officials said on Monday, even though that step is bound to worsen prospects for peace between the two countries.

 

The site designated for the dam on the Yarmuk River is one mile upstream from one selected by Israel’s previous Labor Party government, the Israeli officials said. The original site was not in disputed territory.

 

The Israeli officials said the decision to choose another site was intended to underscore Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of Syria’s demands that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights to a line that divided the two countries at the outset of the 1967 war.

 

The new site still lies within Israeli territory as defined by international borders. But the decision, first reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is certain to be seen as provocative at a time of a deepening crisis in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, and of violence involving Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.

 

If Israel goes ahead with construction at the new site, it could provoke the kind of outcry that followed its decision in March to begin construction of a housing project on the East Jerusalem hilltop known to Jews as Har Homa.

 

Just as Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has accused Netanyahu of trying to create facts on the ground in Jerusalem that would be difficult to revise in the final peace settlement that is supposed to determine the status of the city, so President Hafez Assad of Syria could accuse the Israeli leader of beginning to create facts on the ground in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

 

Syria has condemned the plan, with a senior official telling Reuters that it “proves that Netanyahu does not want peace and wants only to escalate tensions in the region.”

 

And Jordan’s foreign minister, Fayez Tarawneh, said on Monday that to build the dam in territory claimed by Syria would be “totally against the spirit” of the peace accord that Israel and Jordan signed in 1994.

 

The pledge to build the dam at a point where Israel and Jordan meet was included in the treaty as a reward for Jordan, which after the structure is built would be able to divert river water for its own use.

 

Israel’s water commissioner, Meir Ben Meir, was quoted in Haaretz on Monday morning as saying Jordanian officials had “agreed unequivocally” on the new site, and it was unclear on Monday night what effect the new Jordanian objections might have. But if Israel insists on the new site, King Hussein and his government might then have to choose between alienating Syria and doing without the new and badly needed water supplies.

 

As its price for peace, Syria has insisted that Israel withdraw to the lines it held on June 4, 1967, just before the outbreak of the war that ended six days later.

 

That demand, stretching beyond the recognized international border, exceeds what even the previous Labor Party government appeared willing to concede as part of a peace deal. It includes the enclave of Al Hama, which for a few months after the state’s founding in 1948 was recognized as part of Israel, but which Syrian forces infiltrated beginning in 1949. At the outset of the 1967 war, it lay within a demilitarized zone respected by both countries.

 

In an effort to avoid provocation before an Israeli-Syrian peace accord could be reached, the plan endorsed by Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister at the time, had called for the dam to be built a half mile downstream from the old demilitarized zone. But Israeli officials said on Monday that the government felt it was important to use the dam to make clear that Israel rejected Syria’s most far-reaching land claim.

 

Meir, the commissioner, was quoted on Monday as saying: “The area is part of the state of Israel from the British Mandate period. It is not Syrian and never was.”

 

Israel and Syria are still technically in a state of war that goes back to 1948. They last held peace talks in January 1996, at a time when Shimon Peres was Israel’s prime minister, having filled the position after the assassination of Rabin. Netanyahu, who ousted Peres in the elections of May 1996, has said he would be willing to resume the talks “without preconditions.”

 

But because Netanyahu has repeatedly declared his opposition to handing back the Golan Heights as a price for peace, Syria has firmly rejected the offer to talk. It has said Netanyahu’s proposal is nothing more than shorthand for scrapping the land-for-peace principle that all sides agreed on at the Middle East peace conference of 1991 in Madrid.

 

Israeli officials said on Monday that the decision to build the dam had been made quietly last year by Ariel Sharon, the national infrastructures minister, and had been endorsed by the prime minister.

 

 

OCTOBER 25, 2010 (New York Times)

In Yemen, Water Grows Scarcer

By JOHN COLLINS RUDOLF

 

Increasingly sharp water shortages could cost Yemen 750,000 jobs and slash incomes by as much as 25 percent over the next decade, warns a new report on Yemen, an increasingly troubled Middle Eastern nation.

 

The report was produced by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company at the request of the Yemeni government.

 

Groundwater depletion rates are so rapid in the capital, Sana, that the city could effectively run out of water by 2025, according to an estimate in the report by a hydrology expert who manages the city’s groundwater basins. A preliminary draft of the report was obtained by the Science and Development Network, a nonprofit information service.

 

Yemen is one of the most arid countries on Earth and relies almost exclusively on groundwater and rainfall for its water supply. Sana is located more than 100 miles inland and at roughly 7,400 feet elevation, and is seen as particularly vulnerable to water shortages in coming years, as its main groundwater source is being rapidly depleted by thousands of illegal wells.

 

“We expect many of the private wells to dry up soon,” Abdul Rahman Fadhl Iryani, Yemen’s minister of water resources, told a correspondent for The Los Angeles Times last year.  “After that, we will have to find a new source, or keep drilling deeper.”

 

Substantial population gains in recent decades, coupled with heavy water consumption tied to the production of khat — a mild narcotic extremely popular in Yemen — have strained the country’s water resources to near the breaking point. The country is now home to 23 million people, more than double its population in 1975.

 

With its economy already on the rocks, militancy in Yemen is on the rise: In late September, as our colleague Robert Worth reported, dozens of Qaeda militants clashed with government forces in a series of battles involving tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.

 

Water is not the only resource growing scarce in Yemen — the country’s oil reserves, already fairly meager by the standards of its Middle Eastern neighbors, are also believed to be in decline. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, oil accounts for about 25 percent of Yemen’s gross domestic product and roughly 70 percent of government revenues. As these revenues fall, the government’s ability to provide basic services to the people is weakening.

 

Picture caption: A farmer walked through the desert toward his family’s plot in the Hamden Province of Yemen. (Bryan Denton for The New York Times)

 

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

 

June 12, 2010 (New York Times)

A Vital River Is Withering, and Iraq Has No Answer

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

 

SIBA, Iraq — The Shatt al Arab, the river that flows from the biblical site of the Garden of Eden to the Persian Gulf, has turned into an environmental and economic disaster that Iraq’s newly democratic government is almost powerless to fix.

 

Withered by decades of dictatorial mismanagement and then neglect, by drought and the thirst of Iraq’s neighbors, the river formed by the convergence of the Tigris and the Euphrates no longer has the strength the keep the sea at bay.

 

The salt water of the gulf now pushes up the Faw peninsula. Last year, for the first time in memory, it extended beyond Basra, Iraq’s biggest port city, and even Qurna, where the two rivers meet. It has ravaged fresh-water fisheries, livestock, crops and groves of date palms that once made the area famous, forcing the migration of tens of thousands of farmers.

 

In a land of hardship and resignation and deep faith, the disaster along the Shatt al Arab appears to some as the work of a higher power. “We can’t control what God does,” said Rashid Thajil Mutashar, the deputy director of water resources in Basra.

 

But man has had a hand in the river’s decline. Turkey, Syria and Iran have all harnessed the headwaters that flow into the Tigris and Euphrates and ultimately into the Shatt al Arab, leaving Iraqi officials with little to do but plead for them to release more from their modern networks of dams.

 

The environment problem became particularly acute last year when Iran cut the flow entirely from the Karun River, which meets the Shatt south of Basra, for 10 months. The flow resumed after the winter rains, but at a fraction of earlier levels.

 

In the 1980s Iran and Iraq fought over the Shatt al Arab, which forms the southernmost border between the countries and is still littered with the rusting hulks of sunken ships from that war. Now, despite improved relations after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the river has once again become a source of diplomatic tension.

 

“The water is from God,” said Mohammed Sadoon, a farmer and fisherman in the village of Abu Khasib, who sold two water buffaloes last year because he could no longer provide them with potable water from the Shatt. “They shouldn’t seize it from us.”

 

Iraq’s minister of water resources, Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, said that the environmental problems and the disputes over water rights were a lingering legacy of dictatorship.

Mr. Hussein diverted the southerly flow of water into a trench during the war with Iran and drained the marshlands of southern Iraq in the 1990s. His belligerence toward Iraq’s neighbors also left the country isolated — and then weakened — when those countries built their dams, siphoning off what for millenniums flowed through Mesopotamia, the land of the two rivers.

“Iraq was in a position neither to reject nor to cooperate with them,” he said in an interview in his office in Baghdad. “They did what they wanted to do.”

In Basra and in the villages that cling to the Iraqi shore of the Shatt, the impact of the disaster has been profound. The fresh waters that once flushed the canals of Basra — the Venice of the Middle East, it was called, though long ago — are fetid and filled with garbage.

The encroaching salt has so polluted supplies of drinking water that the government has scrambled to dig canals from the north that bypass the Shatt — Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki inaugurated one ahead of this year’s national election — and to truck in fresh water to much of the region. Anyone who can afford it avoids tap water, which is salty enough to leave spots on a glass when it dries.

Mr. Mutashar said that Iraq’s acceptable level of salt in the Shatt’s fresh water was 1,500 parts per million; last year the level reached 12,000.

Faris Jassim al-Imara, a chemist at the University of Basra’s Marine Science Center, said he had recorded levels as high as 40,000 parts per million, as well as heavy metals and other pollutants flowing from the north and from Iran’s oil refinery at Abadan, where enormous pipes steadily discharge waste water.

“It’s killing the river and the people,” he said. Here in Siba, across the river from Abadan, the salt water is slowly destroying agriculture, the primary source of income other than oil.

Jalal Fakhir, who with his brothers farms a plot of land that has been in his family for decades, lost his grape vines, five apricot trees, and his entire crop of okra, cucumbers and eggplants. The new date palms he planted two years ago have died; the older ones have held on, but their branches are yellowing, while the annual crop of dates has become meager.

Walking in his emaciated groves, he said, “This used to be paradise.”

Iraq’s leaders, struggling first with the post-Saddam Hussein strife and now with a political impasse that has delayed the formation of a new government, have so far been unable to do much to avert the catastrophe unfolding here, let alone reverse it.

Efficient water management throughout the country remains more a goal than a reality. The government is drafting plans to build its own dam on the Shatt — to keep the sea water out — but the cost and complexity of the idea remains prohibitive, according to Mr. Mutashar.

 

Iraq has held repeated talks with neighboring countries to increase the river’s flow, resulting in pledges of cooperation, but with a drought hitting the region in recent years, not much more water.

“If our government was good and strong, we would get our rights,” said Hassam Alwan Hamoud, the 71-year-old patriarch of a Bedouin family that lives in reed huts on the marshlands adjoining the Shatt near Abu Khasib. Instead, they move with their water buffaloes as the salt water dictates. “Our government just talks. They are weak.”

Mr. Rashid, the minister of water resources, said the problem was decades in the making and would take decades to address.

One benefit of the country’s democracy, he said, was that the problems had become public, something that did not happen under Mr. Hussein’s rule. “It has come to the surface now,” he said, “because Iraq is a free country.”

Zaid Thaker contributed reporting.