Water and the Slippery Slope to Conflict in the Middle East

Matt Vasilogambros

Experts are drawing a connection between an important natural resource and tensions in the Middle East. In this case, it's water, not oil.

In an arid region, the availability of fresh water from rivers, lakes, and aquifers is crucial for agriculture. If the water runs out, it costs people their livelihood and it could even create a catalyst for a popular uprising against an oppressive regime. Middle East experts say water scarcity is playing at least some role in the Arab Spring upheaval.

That's why a new NASA study of the Tigris and Euphrates river basins is getting attention among these scholars. The study shows staggering depletion in the river basins over the last decade in a region that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The area has lost 117 million acre-feet of stored fresh water—nearly the amount of water in the Dead Sea.

The Science

Since aquifer levels are rarely tested in the region, nor shared with the outside world, NASA relied on data from its satellites. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites measure changes in Earth’s gravitational pull, which can fluctuate when the planet’s mass varies. In this case, the mass changes when water levels in aquifers underground increase or decrease over time.

NASA attributes the loss in ground water to a severe drought that hit the region in 2007. When lack of rain causes surface water in rivers and lakes to dry up, people turn to ground water in aquifers. Needing enough water to sustain their crops, people continue to pump water, often unchecked by government officials, and because of the lack of rain, the water in the ground is not refilled.

“The question is whether, given a few wet years, if they’d be able to bounce back or not,” said Matt Rodell, the chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Just because it’s a huge amount of water, doesn’t mean it couldn’t come back. But on the other hand, it could be completely gone. We just don’t know yet.”


For decades, the Middle East has had unsustainable agricultural programs that don’t take into account that the water that the region uses will eventually run out. For example, Saudi Arabia is a net milk exporter, even though it takes 2,300 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk, said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In the Middle East, starting in the 1970s, there was a huge effort to exploit water, create agriculture, and buy political prosperity,” said Alterman, who is the director of the group's Middle East Program. “And the water is running out.”

There are some countries in the Middle East, Alterman said, that have not tested their aquifers in 20 years because they’re terrified of what they might learn.

The problem is not unique to the Middle East. It has happened in several parts of the world, from the Central Valley of California to Kashmir. In fact, water scarcity has been one of the sources of tension between India and Pakistan. NASA says the Tigris and Euphrates region is losing fresh water at the second-highest pace in the world, right behind India.

The Political Implications

The political system in the Middle East is built on access to fresh water that will eventually run out. If that happens, it could spur huge migration flows, displace farmers, and add to frustration with governments.

Take one of the countries that the NASA study highlights: Syria. Farmers were hit hard by the 2007 drought and many people were forced to move from the countyside to big cities to earn their living. But what happens when you have displaced workers, watching the better-off thrive while they are struggling to survive? Alterman sees this as a factor in the Syrian uprising.

“That’s part of what feeds the hostility of young people,” said Alterman, who highlighted these issues in a 2010 study. “ 'I’ve been stripped of everything that I thought I deserved, and the government is not there to help me at all.’ ”

Not all experts, however, would go that far. Fred Wehrey, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agreed that water has been source a tension in certain regions, either through droughts or water territorial claim. But he wouldn't go as far as to connect it to larger uprisings in the Middle East. Instead, he said this latest study should more importantly serve as a wake-up call for leaders in the region.

“This again proves the imperative of strategic planning in this region, and governments often don’t do a good job of that,” said Wehrey, who is a senior associate for the organization’s Middle East Program. “This is scientific evidence and I would think governments are going to want to pay attention to it.”