Teaching About Water Scarcity in the Middle East and Worldwide
On June 4, 2019 the Middle East Studies Center conducted sessions on water scarcity and the role of water in the Middle East. Dr. Faisal Rifai, Executive Director of the Euphrates Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC), and retired Professor of Hydraulic Engineering, Aleppo University, presented on environmental, cultural, political dimensions of water management and transboundary water issues. Dr. Melinda McClimans, Assistant Director of the Middle East Studies Center, presented resources for translating the information into the classroom and facilitated a discussion session.
The Middle East conducted an intensive industrialization effort starting with the end of World War One and the Mandate System implemented by European countries in the region. Oil was also being discovered all over region at that time and the development of an energy production economy (often in coordination with European countries and/or the U.S.). Water infrastructure, and the building of dams in particular, central to that effort and the creation of national boundaries created tensions between the countries of the Middle East, and crises for many of the people in the Middle East which remain to this day. This page will provide resources for teaching about how global issues of industrial pollution, energy production, and water shortages affect the Middle East in particular. We also posit that in studying how these issues play out in the Middle East, solutions to these problems may be found which possess global application potential.
There is a stereotype the the Middle East is all desert and that’s why there’s scarcity, but countries like Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt have rivers and lakes to supply their water. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate in the Taurus mountains of southeastern Turkey where they are fed with alpine snows, lakes and rains. From there they diverge and run south through the arid plains of Syria and Iraq before converging again and flowing into the Persian Gulf, with some contribution from tributaries originating in Iran. The Tigris runs for 1,850 kilometers, or 1,150 miles, whereas the Euphrates river runs for 2,800 kilometers, or 1,740 miles. The Tigris-Euphrates river basin covers an area of some 35,600 square kilometers, or 13,700 square miles, and comprises the riparian countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. "Riparian" simply means that they are situated on the banks of the aforementioned rivers.
Image 2: The Karacaöen Reservoir in the Taurus mountains of Turkey.
Image of Karacaöen Reservoir.
Duesentrieb 17 November 2006. CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons
Image 3 Map of the Combined Tigris-Euphrates Drainage Basin.
The Tigris-Euphrates drainage basin shown in yellow.
Karl Musser 13 September 2005 CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikipedia
Each of the riparian nations provides a significant amount of water to the rivers, with Turkey being the dominant contributor. The Euphrates river has a mean annual discharge of nearly 32 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM), with 90% of this contribution coming from Turkey and 10% coming from Syria. The Tigris river has a mean annual discharge of nearly 52 BCM, with 51% of this contribution coming from Iraq, 40% from Turkey and 9% from Iran. The two rivers together have a combined annual discharge of nearly 84 BCM, of which Turkey provides 49 BCM, or 58%. Source: https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/etwr/front-matter/introduction
Increasingly now they also have the option of desalinating sea water. Some traditional water resources of the Middle East also include monsoon rains which are channeled into crops with intricate ditch systems, and oases. Just like in other countries around the world, however, water usage and pollution are actually the main reasons for water scarcity. River usage can be divided into 6 main categories:
Drinking water for the local population
Image 4: Glass Half-Full, by Jenny Downing, 11 May 2009, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
2. Domestic use for the local population
3. Irrigation for agricultural development
Image 6: Irrigation Canal in Osmaniye, Turkey, by Ozgurmulazimoglu,
4 July 2012, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
4. Industrial applications
Image 7: Piping, by Bitjungle, 7 April 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Image 8: River Rafting, by Sumita Roy Dutta, 26 August 2015,
CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
6. National power generation
Image 9: Hartwell Dam, by Albert Herring, 9 July 2013, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
One of the major wastes of water which needs to be addressed is industrial uses of water, and industrial pollution of water sources. We need to reduce large scale industrialization (and industrial agriculture), which wastes a great deal of water and causes pollution of lakes, streams and rivers. We also need to clean water sources through natural ways and technologies, or "green infrastructure."
Discussion question: What popped out at you?
A Global Look at Freshwater (3.5 minutes)
Discussion questions: Where is the freshwater in the world? Does the Middle East have enough freshwater? Do we have enough freshwater?
Water and the Global Ecosystem
The the cycle of evaporation and precipitation which causes freshwater sources to be replenished is critical for your students to understand as they begin their inquiries into the global water crisis.There are useful visuals here for teaching this foundational knowledge. As they research methods for water conservation and use management they should also understand the concept of an aquifer. In Yemen, ancient aquifers, sometimes referred to as "fossil water" are being tapped due to extreme water scarcity. Those poses the threat of permanent desertification.
Key Concepts: Freshwater, Water Cycle, Recharging Aquifers
Where do we get the water we need for daily life?
As learners do research on global water issues and their potential solutions it’s essential not to lose sight of the constraints on water resources, and the question "Where do we get the water we need for daily life?" While traditional "grey infrastructure" (i.e., dams, sewer systems, sanitation plants, etc) may get a bad rap (and "green infrastructure" is a central concept for sustainable water management), the most basic water resource management can also do damage to the environment. Any time we use water faster than in can replenish itself we risk making rivers go dry and killing wildlife.
*Parts of the Middle East experience monsoons.
Learning Activity:Water Scarcity in the Middle East
What news on water in the Middle East.
Use the site: syntax in google to search countries’ web sites for news on water.
Start with basic searches then scaffold to more sophisticated searches: water, desalination, green infrastructure
Look for the way people are _________ that impacts water resources and wildlife.
What local solutions did you find? Do we have a similar issue in the U.S.? What do you see as the primary obstacles for "here" and "there."
Approach: Use key concepts and topics above as analytical lenses. Show students how important critical thinking is for solving global issues: whenever the lens is pointed there, look for local activity related to it, then point the same lenses at the U.S. This prevents a deficit definition of the Other and and at the same time romanticized notions about their culture.
Suggested Readings and Bibliographies:
Suggested readings list.
Water Resources Textbook
A Regional and Historical Perspective on Water: The Middle East
World Religions and River Civilizations: Handout