The Middle East is home to some of the fastest growing, most resource-scarce, and conflict-affected countries in the world.
New Security Beat’s “Middle East at the Crossroads” series takes a look at the most challenging population, health, environment, and security issues facing the region.
Across the Middle East, sustained population growth has strained government institutions, natural resources, and the social fabric of entire societies. In Syria, these problems have been particularly acute. With a total fertility rate of 3.3 children per woman
and a population growth rate of 2.45 percent
, the country is slated to swell from 22.5 million people to 28.6 million by 2025, and upward to 36.9 million by mid-century, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
“We have a population problem, no question,” acknowledged Syrian economist and former World Bank official Nabil Sukkar in a recent interview with Reuters. “Unless we cope with it, it could be a burden to our development.”
One of the biggest population problems threatening to derail Syria’s continued development is the scarcity of clean fresh water, which has troubling implications for both the security of the country and the region, since Syria shares key transboundary waterways, like the Euphrates River, with neighbors Iraq and Turkey.
As Syria grows more crowded, can Damascus find a way to encourage more efficient management and sustainable use of the country’s water? Or is greater conflict over the resource at home and in the neighborhood inevitable?
From Water Rich to Water Scarce
Historically, Syria has enjoyed plentiful groundwater resources and water from a number of rivers. Even today, Syria typically receives more annual precipitation per capita than seven other Arab nations, placing Syria 13th on a list of 20 released by the UN Development Programme’s 2009 Arab Human Development Report.
However, rapid demographic change, coupled with a series of severe droughts since 2006, has made life considerably more difficult for many Syrians. According to the UN, erratic rainfall in recent years has reduced Syria’s surface water supplies, inducing crop failures and livestock losses, and nudging millions — especially those involved in subsistence farming — into “extreme poverty.” In particular, wheat production has been hit hard, weakening the country’s food security and pushing farmers to migrate to urban centers.
To cope with the drought, large- and small-scale farmers alike have increased their reliance on groundwater. But in a country where 90 percent of all water withdrawals are used for agriculture, Syria’s efforts are placing a huge strain on its aquifer health. And despite appearances, it’s not just the drought: Syria’s groundwater depletion problems have spanned decades, mirroring its population growth.
According to Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center (NAPC), the number of wells tapping aquifers nationwide is thought to have swelled from just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007. The rampant pumping — much of it illegal — has caused groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country, and raised significant concerns about the water quality in remaining aquifer stocks.
And demand continues to rise: NAPC reports that the amount of land irrigated by groundwater soared from roughly 650,000 hectares in 1985 to 1.4 million hectares in 2005, a trend that has only accelerated in the face of recent rainfall shortages.
Drawing down aquifers is worrisome as long as withdrawals outpace natural recharge. Some, known as “fossil aquifers,” lack natural inputs or outlets and will never refill — once drained, these aquifers are gone for good.
Avoiding the Hard Choices
For decades, Damascus did little to acknowledge or address the country’s growing problem of aquifer overuse. Government officials shied away from implementing robust policies that would have metered, taxed, or even simply monitored groundwater usage. In lieu of encouraging water-use conservation in the agricultural sector, Syria’s water managers instead focused on manipulating supply, by constructing dams or proposing plans to shuttle water between river basins. In doing so, they largely avoided imposing water austerity measures that almost certainly would have proven politically unpopular.
Belatedly, some efforts to mitigate Syria’s water issues are now underway. The country’s 2005 water-use code called for the licensing of all the country’s wells, threatening fines or prison terms for those caught illegally pumping groundwater. In 2008, Damascus took its campaign one step further, eliminating diesel subsidies that once facilitated groundwater removal.
But while these efforts have had some positive effect on groundwater-use trends nationwide, they could undermine stability in the short term. Illegal wells facilitate crop growth in many areas and help employ thousands in the agricultural sector, so shutting them down could heighten regional unemployment, and further weaken the country’s food security.
There Goes the Neighborhood?
With the future of Syria’s groundwater uncertain, there has been speculation that these internal water tensions might increase competition with neighboring countries for transboundary surface waters. The two countries most inextricably linked to Syria’s water crunch are Iraq and Turkey, who share the Euphrates with Syria.
Syria pulls roughly 85 percent of its water from the Euphrates, making the river a vital strategic resource. Yet water availability has historically been subject to the whims of Turkey, which controls the Euphrates’ headwaters.
Meanwhile, Iraq, which lies downstream of Syria, is also heavily dependant on the river. Understandably, as all three countries have seen their populations grow in recent decades, so too have tensions over controlling and sharing the Euphrates’ flow.
Despite Turkey’s long-standing resistance to international water-sharing pacts and penchant for large-scale hydroelectric projects, a new round of water diplomacy may help ease future tensions over the river. A recently created joint institute — backed by Iraq, Syria, and Turkey — is designed to provide a forum for the three countries to share data and policy ideas. Academics and water experts from the three countries will collaborate on efficient management, share best practices, and create a comprehensive map of the region’s water supplies.
The institute may be only a small step, but its emphasis on transparency is undoubtedly a move in the right direction. For Syria — sandwiched between two much larger countries — better communication with its neighbors is not only smart, but necessary to avoid conflict. But that won’t solve the country’s serious water scarcity problem. Leaders in Damascus should also continue to encourage conservation and more efficient use of water to stretch supplies to meet the needs of their growing population.
Sources: BBC, Global Arab Network, IRIN, Mideastnews.com, National Agricultural Policy Centre (Syria), Population Reference Bureau, Reuters, Syria Ministry of Agriculture, Syria Today
Photo Credit: “Euphrates and the Dig House Dura Europos,” courtesy of flickr user Verity Cridland.