Lake Urmia, Iran (CNN) – The ferries that used to take and bring tourists to the small islets of Lake Urmia in Iran are rusted, unable to move, in what is rapidly turning into a saline plain. Just two decades ago, Urmia was the largest lake in the Middle East, and its local economy a thriving resort of hotels and restaurants.
“People came here to swim and used the mud for therapeutic purposes. They stayed here for at least a few days,” said Ahad Ahmed, a journalist from the ancient port city of Sharafkhaneh, while showing CNN photos of people enjoying the lake in 1995.
The disappearance of Lake Urmia has been rapid. Its size has been reduced by more than half: from 5,400 square kilometers in the 1990s to just 2,500 square kilometers today, according to the Department of Environmental Protection of West Azerbaijan, one of the Iranian provinces where the lake is located. Now it is feared that it will disappear completely.
These types of problems are familiar in many parts of the Middle East, where the water is simply running low.
The region has seen persistent drought and temperatures so high that they are barely fit for human life. Adding climate change to mismanagement and overuse of water, the projections for the future of water here are grim.
Some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Jordan, are pumping huge amounts of groundwater for irrigation, while trying to improve their food self-sufficiency, Charles Iceland, world water director at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told CNN , for its acronym in English). This is happening as they experience a decrease in rainfall.
“They are using more water than is usually available through rain. So groundwater levels are going down because they are drawing water out faster than it is replenished by rain,” he said.
This is the case in Iran, where a vast network of dams supports an agricultural sector that consumes about 90% of the water used by the country.
“Both decreased rainfall and increased demand in these countries are causing many rivers, lakes and wetlands to dry up,” Iceland said.
The consequences of even more scarce water are dire: areas could become uninhabitable; tensions over how to share and manage water resources, such as rivers and lakes, could escalate; more political violence could erupt.
In Iran, the Urmia has been greatly reduced because many people have exploited it, and some of the dams built in its basin, mainly for irrigation, have reduced the flow of water into the lake.
Iran’s water problems are already a deadly problem. In a week in July, at least three protesters were killed in clashes with security agents at demonstrations against water shortages in the south-west of the country.
The country is experiencing one of the driest conditions in five decades, according to the country’s meteorological service.
Middle East winters are expected to be drier the warmer the world warms, and while summers will be wetter, the heat is expected to offset its water gains, according to the latest projections by scientists released earlier this month. for the report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“The problem is that, with all this rise in temperature, any rain that occurs will evaporate because it is very hot,” Mansour Almazroui, director of the Center of Excellence for Climate Change Research at King Abdulaziz University of the United States, told CNN. Saudi Arabia.
“The other thing is that this rain is not necessarily going to be a regular rain. It is going to be extreme rains, which means that floods like the ones that are happening in China, in Germany, in Belgium, these floods will be a big problem for the Middle East. This is really a big climate change problem. “
According to a study by the Ministry of Energy of Iran, the disappearance of the lake is attributable in more than 30% to climate change.
These changes not only affect the amount of water available, but also affect the quality.
Lake Urmia is hypersaline, that is, very salty. As it has been reduced, the concentration of salt has increased and has become so extreme that its use for irrigation is damaging farmers’ crops.
Kiomars Poujebeli, who grows tomatoes, sunflowers, beets, eggplants and walnuts near the lake, told CNN that the salt water has been disastrous.
“The day the soil is unusable is not far off,” he said.
A vicious circle
In Jordan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, people have become used to living with very little water.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that Jordanians will have to cut their water consumption per capita in half by the end of the century. Most lower-income Jordanians will live on 40 liters a day, for all their needs: drinking, bathing, and washing clothes and dishes, for example. The average American today consumes about 10 times that amount.
In many Jordanian homes, water is not necessarily available every day, said Daniel Rosenfeld, a professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Jordan now has a critical water shortage: water reaches Jordanian homes once or twice a week, including in the capital Amman,” Daniel Rosenfeld, professor in the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The capital has existential problems right now, “Rosenfeld said.
The Middle East is at the center of a world with less and less water
Water stress, which occurs when demand for water exceeds available supply, is already more acute in the Middle East and its neighboring countries, and is expected to worsen in the next decade.
The groundwater level in some areas of the country is 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 this already stressed resource.
The secretary general of the Jordanian Water Authority, Bashar Batayneh, told CNN that the country needs more funds from the rest of the world to meet this increased demand for water.
“Jordan bore the heavy burden of the Syrian refugee crisis on behalf of the international community and was deeply affected when it came to water. The refugees cost the water sector more than US $ 600 million a year, while Jordan received a fraction of this amount from the international community, “he said.
He added that in 2020 Jordan rained much less than the previous year, putting more than a quarter of water resources at risk and cutting drinking water sources in half.
But it’s not just about climate change. The country relies on the Jordan River system, which also runs through Israel, the West Bank of the Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and the construction of dams along the rivers has severely curtailed the flow of water reaching Jordan. Jordan also uses canals to redirect river waters for irrigation. In the past there have been several conflicts around the river system.
It is a transboundary problem that is also observed in other parts of the region along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as well as in the North Africa along the Nile.
Jordan, Israel and Syria have improved the coordination of the management of the river system on which they depend, but tensions often arise.
Experts have long warned that water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could lead to further 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 fit for human consumption. But desalination consumes a lot of energy, energy that is not yet green or renewable and that simply contributes 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 the use of water in agriculture. That can also mean changing the kinds of food farmers grow and export, Rosenfeld said.
“In Israel, for example, we used to grow a lot of oranges, but at some point we realized that we are exporting water that we don’t have,” he said, adding that the crops could also be designed to be more resistant to heat and lack of Water.
And Almazroui, from King Abdulaziz University, said the dams could be better organized to account for changes in rainfall patterns. Coordination in the management of the rivers that flow through the countries also needs to improve.
But that’s not going to help a farmer whose family has owned land for generations and can’t necessarily move to wetter climates, or has little control over where a neighboring country might build a dam.
Raad al-Tamami, 54, a father of five, who lives in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, relies on the Diyal River, a tributary of the Tigris, for water. El Diyal has been drying for years and has forced al-Tamami to halve its fruit production on its three farms.
He and his colleagues work with a water rationing program, sometimes waiting up to a month for the water to arrive.
This dependence on more water to ensure food security could, ironically, jeopardize food availability: farmers are going to continue farming in these difficult conditions for only a while.
That is what torments al-Tamami at all times.
“Many farmers, including myself, are seriously considering leaving this profession, inherited from father, grandfather, and start looking for more profitable jobs that guarantee a better future for our children.”
– CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.