Water in the Middle East Presentation for High School Students
This presentation focuses on the global water crisis and what that looks like in three Middle Eastern locations: Euphrates Tigris riparian nations; Yemen; Gaza. I will start with the universals of water usage worldwide, and then narrowed down to what they look like in the Middle East. I will build on what you learned in middle school* about world civilizations and their historical connection to rivers, and connects to the STEM fields. I will start with an overview of water resources in the Middle East, how they are used and what the issues are with sharing water resources. I will cover unique cultural practices and water resource features of the Middle East, such as wadis, oases and will also show you lush green areas of the Middle East.
Universals of Water
The diagrams in this unit on water created by the University of Wisconsin show how precious freshwater is, and the importance of the cycle of evaporation and precipitation which causes freshwater sources to be replenished.
Where do we get the water we need for daily life?
The main the uses of water for daily life are:
drinking, cooking (needs to be pure)
housekeeping (bathing, laundry, dishes, etc)
agriculture (food we eat every day)
electricity generation (some percent of the electricity consumed is generated by dams)
recreation (sports, boating, swimming)
industry (stuff we consume, food and otherwise)
Background information regarding the Tigris and Euphrates
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers define an area known as the historical "Mesopotamia" or the "Land Between Two Rivers" where great civilizations, such as the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Akkadians lived. These cultures are well-known from biblical stories, but the remain important influences on human society today because of key cultural institutions they initiated, such as written legal codes, large-scale agriculture, and monotheistic religions. Akkadian, one of the languages of Mesopotamia, was a Semitic language, like Hebrew and Arabic. It was the language of Abraham, and is also famous for its use of cuneiform, the earliest known writing system.
This area is also known as the "Fertile Crescent". The cultivation of wheat began there a little under 10,000 years ago. Around this time, seemingly miraculously, modern agriculture with large crops and grain storage started simultaneously around the world, and triggered major change in human economy and society (Price,1995). The fundamental economic change was the shift in wealth collection from community to household; while the fundamental shift in society was the shift from egalitarian leadership to hierarchical leadership. This change relied on the reliability and abundance of river water - the most significant of these civilizations grew up around rivers such as the Indus, or Sindh River, and the Yangze and Yellow rivers in China.
Not only are rivers of immense importance for understanding the history of settled civilization*, they are a major focus of water resource management systems. This is because dams, especially, are fundamental to modern industrial economies. The riparian nations of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers - Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, have conducted intense industrialization, and therefore dam-building, since the 1960’s. At the same time, rivers are very important to the history of agriculture, as a whole.
The history of the Fertile Crescent region, and the riparian nations of the Euphrates and Tigris are Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, is very much a history of water. This is a very diverse region, speaking Kurdish, Turkish, Persian, Arabic and others. It is both arid, as you would imagine, and incredibly green. The modern state of Turkey, provides 90% of the water in the Euphrates, has incredible water resources. This control over the source of the water supply has allowed Turkey to utilize this natural resource to its own benefit, while also creating tensions with its neighbors.
These are some important sources of water in the Middle East:
Blueprint Negev trees in the Israeli desert. by David Shankbone, CC.2.0 Source: Flickr
Example of the Euphrates Tigris, from Introduction of our book "Euphrates Tigris Water Resources: An Introduction"
Engineering Rivers: The Mosul Dam
Some of you may have heard of Ninawa, mentioned in the Torah, Bible and the Qur'an. It is near the current city of Mosul, which you may have heard of from headlines in the news about the Middle East. The U.S. and Iraqi allies have been battling the so-called Islamic State for control over it. Iraqi forces just retook the east side of Mosul. Once of the concerns looming over this battle, is the status of the Mosul Dam. This is because the dam was built a a foundation of gypsum, which is a very porous rock.
The Mosul dam is just one example of how water can be used as a weapon, or as a means to exert power, in the Middle East. So far, it appears that the so-called Islamic State allows the professionals who know these dams, to continue to do their work. The U.S. and Britain publish alarming articles, but the reality on the ground, fortunately, is that locals are cooperating to make sure impending disasters do not happen.
The Case of Yemen
Rooftop rain collection
We discussed rivers in the first part of this presentation because they are historically important to civilization, to modern industry and to each country’s development and ability to compete in the global economy. Not al countries contain rivers however. Yemen is a country in the Middle East which does not contain a major river. While it enjoys the temporary formation of rivers in natural canyons called wadis, these are dependent on seasonal rains.
Yemen relies on ground water. Sana’a, its capital, is located in a large basin where groundwater collects, but it has been exhausted from over-use and lack of replenishment. Yemen possesses a unique water geology in that it also contains a large paleocene aquifer, among its other aquifers. This "fossil water" or "paleowater", as it is often referred to, is a water pocket which formed in the paleocene era, millenia ago. Once it's tapped, it’s gone. This is because it was formed under very different physical conditions a long time ago, so there is no recharging of the reservoir.
During the rainy season the wadis fill. A river forms in a matter of minutes (Hehmeyer,2015). These provides a window of opportunity to capture this water and use it for crops. Yemenis have traditionally dug long narrow trenches, or sharij, in order to irrigate crops. This maximizes the water, as the pressure pushes the water deep into the soil, preventing salinization of the soil (Hehmeyer,2015). Native plants thrive under these conditions (Hehmeyer, 2015). Some crops are "thirsty", however, such as bannanas (for export to Saudi Arabia), or Qat for domestic consumption (Hehmeyer,2015).
Yemeni culture provides traditional, less technical methods of water management: sharij, terracing and other traditional water irrigation techniques, as well as rooftop rain collection (Hehmeyer,2015). These practices are impacted by modernization, however, and no longer make up a large part of how water is managed.
There is a lot more going on with regard to water management in the Middle East than is apparent in the media. Local professionals and citizens continue to maintain dams and other equipment, and even cooperate across borders with other countries despite their governments’ tensions and stalemates in political processes. For more on this see our e-book: "Euphrates Tigris Water Resources: An Introduction". At the same time traditional cultural practices could inform more sustainable solutions for water management in the future. The students and I discussed the ways in which modern technology, such as the latest desalinization processes developed in Israel, could be used in combination with simple solutions to create a more sustainable water usage plan. If you would like a recording of my lecture, please do not hesitate to get in contact.
Price, T. D., Gebauer, A. B., & School of American Research (Santa Fe, N. M. . (Eds.). (1995). Last hunters, first farmers: new perspectives on the prehistoric transition to agriculture. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press : Distributed by the University of Washington Press.
Hehmeyer, I. (2015). Hydraulic Engineering and Water Management Under Harsh Conditions: Ancient and Modern Lessons From Yemen. Public lecture.
*The major historical civilizations required by Ohio curriculum standards all grew up around major rivers: the Yangze, the Indus Valley, and the Euphrates-Tigris river basins.
January 18th, 2017