By Talib Murad Elam, Ph.D.
Water covers 71% of the Earth's surface and is vital for all known forms of life. On Earth, 96.5% of the planet's water is found in seas and oceans, 1.7% in groundwater, 1.7% in glaciers and the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland, a small fraction in other large water bodies, and 0.001% in the air as vapor, clouds formed of solid and liquid water particles suspended in air , and precipitation. Only 2.5% of the Earth's water is freshwater, and 98.8% of that water is in ice and groundwater. Less than 0.3% of all freshwater is in rivers, lakes, and the atmosphere, and an even smaller amount of the Earth's freshwater (0.003%) is contained within biological bodies and manufactured products.
Overuse of freshwater resources in the Gulf and North Africa.
Last autumn the ex-Amir of Qatar addressed the Food Security Summit in Rome last autumn and one wonders if our friends in Qatar believe that they are going to lead us in solving the region’s food security and water problems. If they could it would indeed be a miracle but the best that we could hope for is that they now recognize the damaging consequences caused by the Gulf States in some cash deprived countries.
The arid lands of the Gulf cannot be used for agriculture so these states have been busy grabbing all the available agricultural land and water in poor countries, mainly in Africa, and now they are eyeing the Kurdish region of Turkey, and while they offer to” help” the poorer countries ’‘develop their agriculture”’ they ensure that the food produced will go to feed the Gulf. In addition the populations of the Gulf States are swollen by foreigners working there and indeed there may be four to eight expatriates for every local inhabitant and these states would have less of a food security problem if they did not rely on excessive numbers of overseas workers.
Agricultural projects in the Gulf and many Arab countries have not met with great success as it is naturally difficult to raise crops in these hot, arid lands. When the Saudis embarked on producing their own wheat they relied on the country’s underground water reserves to irrigate the land. Such was the demand for water that they overused the country’s aquifers and the project failed but, when they could not grow wheat for bread, they turned to milk production and developed huge dairy farms. However the dairy cows in these farms are fed copious amounts of green fodder which naturally requires water to grow! Where does the water for this production of fodder plants come from when the aquifers have been depleted? Ironically the growing of green fodder needs much more water than growing cereals. Is the water produced by desalination plants? If so it is expensive fodder, but no doubt producing desalinated water for agriculture will be subsidized by the government.
The Gulf States started their agricultural development by relying on water from wells and there was a flurry of well digging by foreign workers in order to provide water for the farms that sprang up across the states. In addition the “farmers” of these Gulf States relied on foreign agricultural workers and I was told of many cases where the operation of pumps on well heads had been left to the whim of these workers who took little care to ensure water was not wasted. Most of these initial farming enterprises would prove to be no more than the “leisure activities” of the wealthy and no thought was given to the amount of water taken from the wells. I was in Qatar in the 1990s when the government proposed putting meters on the wells to monitor water usage and avoid waste of the precious commodity. However the proposal was met with such uproar from the land owners that it was never enforced.
At the same time the late Sheik Zaid of the United Arab Emirates, who wanted to see agricultural development in his arid country, encouraged the production of local food using underground water and foreign farm laborers. The main crop produced was tomatoes and truckloads of local tomatoes would be driven to the Abu Dhabi weighbridge where, depending on the weight of the truck’s cargo, large subsidies would be granted to the producer. Once the subsidy had been allocated the truck driver drove a short distance and dumped the load of unwanted vegetables! This was brought to notice when one of my colleagues in F.A.O. was sent to investigate a massive explosion of the fly population in Abu Dhabi only to find that the flies were thriving on the mountains of unwanted, subsidized, tomatoes, a crop that needs a lot of water to produce! The development of a canning or tomato puree plant to use this tomato crop would have avoided the fly problem and given some tangible result from the whole enterprise. However no one had given thought to the entire project and the consequences were a plague of flies and the waste of the country’s meager, irreplaceable, underground water reserves. It has to be said that whoever advised the U.A.E. to embark on this expensively, subsidized project decided to meet the wishes of the state’s ruler and turn a blind eye to the obvious outcome of wasting the limited water resources.
This story from Abu Dhabi is not the only case where a food production idea, put forward by a leader, political figure or prominent business man, was jumped at with no thought to the environmental impact or consequences of the enterprise. All too often the idea is grasped by those who are all too willing to please those in power, then bilateral or UN development agencies are called in to assist in the new project, and with blinkered eyes these specialists work to bring about the desired outcome. In such cases the environmental consequences may far outweigh any benefits of the venture not to mention the use of finances that could have been used to greater benefit elsewhere.
In Kuwait FAO financially supported a Technical Co-operation Programme, using funds that the donors regularly allocated to poorer countries. The project was based on the allocation of several thousands of small plots of land (recognized as smallholdings in Europe) to individuals for the purpose of livestock production. This was supposed to help with the country’s food security yet the majority of the animals kept by the owners of the plots of land were exotic birds and animals with very few small ruminants and camels. The result was a proliferation of what in effect were small zoological collections kept by wealthy people and little was contributed towards food production for the Kuwaiti population.
In Libya in the early 70’s, at the insistence of Gaddafi, the ill-advised, Kufra agricultural development took place in the south east of the country. In 1976 I was a member of the organization committee of the Libya’s first veterinary conference in Benghazi and I accompanied a very large group of foreign visitors who were flown from Benghazi to Kufra to see the 250,000 sheep and the irrigated fields that were producing cereals and vegetables by the use of underground water. The desert had indeed become green and it was an unbelievable sight to see from the plane as we flew over the desert that was spotted with large circles of green! However the greening of the desert was short lived and a few years later the shifting dunes of sand reclaimed the land as the quantity of the available underground water had been grossly miscalculated. What a costly mistake!
The Alsarir project was a similar enterprise to the north of Kufra where one of my colleague, worked as part of a UN team and this suffered the same fate as Kufra. Following the failure of these endeavors, Gaddafi, following the advice he was given and determinate to secure water for drinking and food production, started to talk about developing a great man-made river to bring water from the south of the country to the more populated north. This project, costing US$ 25 billion, was executed by Korean companies over several years and consisted of producing 1,300 wells to take water from a fossil aquifer and pump it, in especially constructed pipes that were several metres in diameter, northwards. The original estimation was that there was sufficient water in the aquifer to meet the needs of Libya for thousands of years now that figure has been amended to 50 to 60 years and if the Libyan population and its demand for water continues to increase at the present rate the country will have no alternative other than to turn to the desalination of sea water to meet its needs. This is an expensive alternative costing 10 times more that the man-made river – if these estimates prove to be correct! In short Libya will spend all of its oil revenues on desalinating water and importing its food. This would prove Gadaffi to have been right when he repeatedly preached to the country, “If a nation does not produce its own food it will be a slave to the others.” In the 10 years I spent in Libya I heard this almost every day on the state’s radio and television.
The situation in Kurdistan
I am concerned that here in Kurdistan we are ignoring what happened in other countries of the region while agriculture is not given any priority by the leading elite as they are bedazzled by the newly acquired oil wealth. I had only been in the country a few weeks when I was told by a leading politician, “Agriculture is not important when we have oil!”, and sadly I have heard this view many times since. Just as I have seen in many other oil producing countries the majority of agricultural land in Kurdistan is now being used for other purposes. All too often agricultural land is now used for“leisure activities” or the construction of villas surrounded by several donums of land with barbed wire fencing and the obligatory wells, and the latter may or may not be legal.
An indication of how serious the depletion of our agricultural production (and land) is can be found on the KRG investment website which reveals how much land and money has been ‘invested’ in activities other than agriculture. Today the majority of people are ‘after a fast buck’ and both the government and most of the population are more interested in enterprises that offer a quick turnover while foreign investors are attracted to Kurdistan to provide service industries. At the same time we are faced with a surfeit of food and drink imports from the immediate neighbouring countries which are upstream from us and control the amount of water that flows into our lands. An indication of how little importance is attributed to agriculture in Kurdistan is that only one of the 16 Ministers of Agriculture appointed in the last 21 years (during separate or joint administrations) has been an agriculturist while the Director Generals were political appointees and only some of these had an agricultural background.
While the powers that be are dismissing the agricultural sector as being of little significance little attention is being paid to the continual reduction in the flow of rivers and streams entering the country or the increasing demand placed on our aquifers. The number of “authorized” wells in the KRG area at the end of 2012 stood at 18,000, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. More than half of these wells were identified as being used to supply water for industries, yet there is little evidence of industrial production. I have been informed by a reliable source that at some of these wells one can purchase a small tanker of water for 8 million ID and that this is the sole purpose of the well. In addition many of the new villas and small holdings that are springing up all over our countryside have their own well, with or without government approval. If government officials try to stop the construction of a well a telephone call from a member of the hierarchy will overturn any official decision, even at the ministerial level as most of the officials are political appointees.
The lack of concern paid to the loss prime agricultural land becomes less significant when compared to the unconcern over the diminishing levels of water in the rivers flowing into the country. Turkey and Iran are adamant that water in the rivers that flow across their borders into Kurdistan is treated as a ‘commodity’. It seems that our governments easily make trade agreements with our two neighbours to import all sorts of goods, including food and drink, into Iraq yet, apart from raising a verbal concern over the reduction of water in our rivers and aquifers, they have failed to take the matter further. Meanwhile our neighbours are taking full advantage of the weak Iraqi state and are making tens of billions of US $ from exports to Iraq and Kurdistan. Even Syria, suffering from civil unrest for 3 years, still manages to export its products to us!
Importing goods from Syria at the present time is an indication of how unconcerned we have become as to where our food comes from. Turkey, Iran and Syria are profiting from exporting food to us so obviously we should use this to our advantage in order to prevent them continuing to deprive us of water. No doubt there are those who would query this idea stating that we are buying the food that has been produced with the water we no longer receive but we are not only being denied water that could be used in agriculture but very soon we will not have enough for us all to drink!
In a paper published in the Journal of Water Resources Research (February 2013) researchers from NASA and others published their findings on the water situation in the Tigris-Euphrates River basin. These researchers have provided a disturbing figure for the total loss of fresh water from the basin from 2003 to 2009 of 144 billion m3. A few points must be taken into consideration with this figure of total water loss. The researchers were concerned with the water loss in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin and not the water loss in a specific country. Therefore the 144 billion cubic meters of water loss is from an area of 753,960Km2 covering the South West of Iran, South East of Turkey, North West Syria and Northern and Central Iraq.The total water loss is over 7 years from 2003-2009, and consists of 3 main parts, 20% was lost by evaporation in the soil, 20% from lakes and reservoirs, 60% loss by the decline in the groundwater where humans have pumped water from the ground (wells, boreholes) for usage.
The river Nile receives 55 billion cubic meters annually and we can see that in 7 years the water loss in the Tigris Euphrates basin is equivalent to three times the water in the Nile in any one year!
The researchers highlighted several issues of MAJOR concern to Iraq:
· When there is a water shortage, the rivers supply less water to Iraq, so that Iraq relies on boreholes which then decrease the groundwater levels (this groundwater can be considered non-renewable).
· The water loss is accelerating, especially after 2007.
· The areas with the greatest water loss and most likely to be affected in the future are the areas furthest downstream i.e. Iraq (including South Iraq).
· The water loss is exasperated by poor local water management.
· The water loss is considerably exasperated by a lack of cooperation in water management between the countries concerned.
· Turkey’s construction of dams means that Iraq therefore has less water supplied by the rivers and must then rely even more on its depleting groundwater. This situation will be exacerbated by any drought.
The lack of international cooperation water management in the region is already affecting will the lives of the people who depend on the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris.
The threat posed by Turkey’s actions
The increasing utilization of water from the Tigris and Euphrates by upstream countries is also of concern to nations outside of the region. A roundtable meeting for delegates from the nations concerned was organized by Blue Peace in the Houses of Parliament, London in December 2012 and this was followed by another meeting in Istanbul, in March 2013. I participated in both meetings but so far the only outcome has been that delegates from outside the region are even more concerned over the developing situation. Their concern was raised by Turkey’s representative making it very clear that they regard water as a commodity that they can sell. In addition they did not deny that they plan to sell agricultural land, irrigated by the water from the 22 dams constructed so far under the Turkish Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi,GAP) project and those that they plan to construct, to other countries with limited agricultural land such as the Gulf States.
The lake behind the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates alone is more than 40km3 in volume yet there has been no significant discussion on management of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates that has involved leaders of the countries of the Tigris and Euphrates. It appears that those outside the countries dependant on these rivers for water recognize the severity of the consequences of Turkey’s actions and are more concerned while, within Turkey itself, there have been protests over the flooding of land and the forced relocation of thousands of Turkish Kurds from their homes and villages and the loss of World Heritage sites. Within Iraq the fall in river levels has had repercussions on water supplies and a significant impact on the marshlands of the south.
Loss of rivers and streams flowing across the border with Iran
In addition to Turkey’s depletion of Iraq’s major rivers Iran has dammed more than 24 small rivers and streams that also supply Kurdistan and Iraq. Some of these rivers have completely dried up such as the Alwand removing the drinking water supply for almost 1.5 million people. Photographs of the Alwand in full flow and as it now is, a dry road for cars, were met with disbelief from members of the Blue Peace meeting in London in 2012. Until then the impact on Kurdistan and Iraq of Iran’s utilisation of water for irrigation had not been brought to public attention yet its actions are having a great impact. Iran is using the water for irrigation producing crops for its use and to export to its neighbor while we appear raise little objection to deprivation of water from our once fertile lands and happily buy Iran’s produce.
The views of KRG’s General Director of Water Resources
The General Director of Water Resources, Kurdistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, has said that drought, construction of legal and illegal wells and the demand for water drinking and irrigation is having a major impact on Kurdistan’s underground water reserves and they are rapidly depleting.
He said that over the last 11 years the level of the underground water in some areas has dropped by 100 meters. In order to reach underground water one has to dig down 350m in Erbil and 250m in both Suliemaniah, and Duhok while 11 years ago one could reach underground water at only a depth of 180m to 220m in Erbil, 90 to 150m in Suliemaniah and 150m in Duhok. The Director General said that the depth at which water is found is increasing at a dangerous rate. He further illustrated the problem by saying that in the Mala Omar district of Erbil the level at which ground water was found had increased by 18m but in the same area three years later the level had dropped a further 45m. Similarly over the past three years in Akre, and Halabja the underground water level has dropped 12m and 7m respectively and that while water usage has increased the snow and rainfall levels are decreasing annually.
In addition the DG was especially concerned about the digging of wells, especially illegally. He said there are 4,800, 7,828, and 2,034 legal wells in Erbil, Suli and Duhok, respectively, but there are also 2,000, 17,000 and 40 illegal wells in the three respective provinces. Most of these wells have been dug with Syrian-made equipment that has been banned in Syria in order to preserve that country’s underground water reserves. He has advised the government to take steps to provide water for drinking and irrigation from the rivers "…or one day the underground water will mix with other components and it cannot be used… the wells will also get dry … then a disaster will happen."