The disappearance of Lake Urmia was rapid. Its area has more than halved – from 5,400 square kilometers (2,085 square miles) in the 1990s to just 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) today – according to the Department of Environmental Protection. from West Azerbaijan, one of the Iranian provinces. where the lake is. It is now feared that it will disappear completely.
Such problems are familiar in many parts of the Middle East, where the water simply runs out.
The region has experienced persistent drought and temperatures so high that they are barely suitable for human life. Add climate change to the mismanagement and overuse of water, and the projections for the future of water here are grim.
Some Middle Eastern countries including Iran, Iraq and Jordan are pumping huge amounts of water from the ground for irrigation as they seek to improve their food self-sufficiency, Charles Iceland, global director of water at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told CNN. This happens as they experience a decrease in precipitation.
“They use more water than is usually available in the rain. And so the groundwater levels drop as a result because you are removing the water faster than it is replenished by precipitation,” he said. -he declares.
This is happening in Iran, where a vast network of dams supports an agricultural sector that consumes around 90% of the water used by the country.
“Declining rainfall and increasing demand in these countries are causing many rivers, lakes and wetlands to dry up,” Iceland said.
The consequences of water scarcity are disastrous: areas could become uninhabitable; tensions over how to share and manage water resources such as rivers and lakes could increase; more political violence could erupt.
In Iran, Urmia has shrunk in large part because so many people have exploited it, and some of the dams built in its basin primarily for irrigation have reduced the flow of water to the lake.
The water problems in Iran are already a deadly problem. In a week in July, at least three protesters were killed in clashes with security guards during protests over water shortages in the southwest of the country.
The country is experiencing some of the driest conditions in five decades, according to the country’s weather service.
Winters in the Middle East are expected to become increasingly drier as the world warms, and while summers get wetter, the heat is expected to offset its water gains, according to the latest projections from scientists released earlier this month. this month by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Change report.
“The problem is, with all this temperature rise, all the precipitation is evaporating because it’s so hot,” Mansour Almazroui, director of the Center of Excellence for Research on Change, told CNN. climate change from King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia.
âThe other thing is, ‘This rain won’t necessarily be regular rain. There is going to be extreme rainfall, which means floods like the ones happening in China, Germany, Belgium, these floods will be a big problem for the Middle East. It really is a big problem with climate change. “
A study by Iran’s Energy Ministry found that over 30% of the lake’s disappearance was due to climate change.
These changes not only impact the amount of water available, they also affect the quality.
Lake Urmia is hypersaline, which means it is very salty. As it has decreased, the concentration of salt has increased and has become so extreme that its use for irrigation damages the crops of farmers.
Kiomars Poujebeli, who grows tomatoes, sunflowers, sugar beets, eggplants and walnuts near the lake, told CNN the salt water was disastrous.
“The day when the ground becomes unusable is not far away,” he said.
A vicious circle
In Jordan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, people have become accustomed to living with very little water.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that Jordanians will have to halve their per capita water consumption by the end of the century. Most low-income Jordanians will live on 40 liters a day, for all their needs – drinking, washing, and washing clothes and dishes, for example. The average American today uses about 10 times that amount.
In many Jordanian homes, water is not necessarily available every day, said Daniel Rosenfeld, professor in the atmospheric sciences program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
âJordan now suffers from a severe water shortage – water arrives in homes in Jordan once or twice a week, even in the capital Amman,â Daniel Rosenfeld, professor in the atmospheric sciences program of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The capital already has existential problems right now, âRosenfeld said.
Groundwater levels in parts of the country are dropping by more than a meter a year, studies show, and waves of refugees from many countries in the region have put additional pressure on the already strained resource.
Jordan Water Authority secretary general Bashar Batayneh told CNN the country needs more funding from the rest of the world to meet this increased demand for water.
âJordan has borne the heavy burden of the Syrian refugee crisis on behalf of the international community and has been deeply affected when it comes to water. Refugees cost the water sector over $ 600 million a year while Jordan has received a fraction of that amount from the international community, âhe said. .
He added that Jordan had significantly less rain in 2020 than the year before, putting more than a quarter of water resources at risk and halving sources of drinking water.
But it’s not just climate change. The country relies on the Jordan system, which also crosses Israel, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon, and the construction of dams along the rivers has significantly reduced the flow of water to Jordan. Jordan also uses canals to redirect water from the river to irrigation. Conflicts have erupted around the river system several times in the past.
Jordan, Israel and Syria have improved in coordinating the management of the river system on which they depend, but tensions often erupt. Experts have long warned that water scarcity exacerbated by climate change could lead to more conflict.
Jordan has no choice but to buy large amounts of water from Israel, which has a huge desalination program, in which it removes salt from seawater to make it safe for consumption. human. But desalination is energy intensive – using huge amounts of energy; an energy that is not yet green and renewable, and only adds to global warming, one of the main drivers of water scarcity.
As the climate continues to warm and water becomes scarce, part of the solution in the Middle East will have to be to reduce water use in agriculture. It can also mean changing the type of food that farmers grow and export, Rosenfeld said.
âIn Israel, for example, we were growing a lot of oranges, but at one point we realized that we were exporting water that we didn’t have,â he said, adding that the crops could also be designed to be stronger. to heat and dryness.
And Almazroui, of King Abdulaziz University, said dams could be better organized to consider changing rainfall patterns. The coordination of the management of the rivers which cross the countries must also improve.
But that’s not going to help a farmer whose family has owned land for generations and can’t necessarily move to more humid climates, or has little control over where a neighboring country might build a dam.
Raad al-Tamami, a 54-year-old father of five who lives in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, relies on the Diyal River, a tributary of the Tigris, for its water. The Diyal has been drying up for years and has forced al-Tamami to halve his fruit production on his three farms.
He and his fellow farmers work on a water rationing schedule, and he sometimes waits up to a month for the water to arrive.
This reliance on more water for food security could ironically endanger the availability of food – farmers will only continue to grow in these harsh conditions for so long.
This is what plagues the spirit of al-Tamami all the time.
âMany farmers, including me, are seriously considering quitting this job inherited from father and grandfather and looking for higher paying jobs that will ensure a better future for our children.
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.