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Impact of drought in the Middle East


According to a Reuters report from 7 March, United Nations (UN) agencies and water and agricultural authorities are preparing to declare a drought in the Middle East. Aside from the immediate impact of drought on crops, water scarcity is already a problem in parts of the Middle East, and some of the most affected countries are already struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The Reuters report referred to the initial findings of a joint technical study on Drought Risk Management by UN agencies, including the FAO, UNDP and UNESCO (scheduled for publication in late March), that shows drought has affected nearly two thirds of the farmable land in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, massively depleting food production. According to the report, the Middle East has just endured its driest winter in decades, and the Standard Precipitation Index shows the region has not had such low rainfall since at least 1970. Israel, although located in the same area, is largely unaffected due to its investment in desalination plants and water conservation measures.

In Jordan—already one of the world’s most water-scarce countries—rainfall this season was less than one third of the average amount, leaving dams only 43% full, and farmers struggling to grow crops such as wheat and barley.

The study argues the drought will lead to an increase in global food prices as these countries will now need to import certain foods, such as grains, in greater quantities. While increased global prices may be good news for Australian wheat farmers, as most Australian-grown wheat is exported, price rises could still be bad news for domestic consumers.

Drought will also impact on local livelihoods, particularly in Syria and Iraq where around 30% of people are at least partially reliant on agriculture. Syria is especially vulnerable as food production has already fallen significantly due to the conflict, and drought will deliver another blow to already struggling farmers. This should be of concern to Australia as it comes after millions of aid dollars have been spent in Iraq and Syria on development and humanitarian assistance. In Iraq this includes assistance specifically aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity. The $112.8 million in assistance that Australia has so far contributed to the Syrian response includes support for the provision of food and safe water to vulnerable people within Syria, as well as to refugees who have fled to nearby countries—though it seems likely drought will increase the existing needs.

The influx of Syrian refugees to some of the countries most impacted by the drought will also increase pressure on resources such as food and water. Lebanon now has 975,000 Syrian refugees registered or waiting to register, compared to a population of around 4.4 million. Jordan has 585,000 Syrian refugees registered, and Iraq has 225,000.

In parts of northern Jordan, average water consumption has dropped 25%—from 88 to 66 litres per person per day—since the arrival of Syrian refugees began placing additional demands on water supplies. In northern Jordan, 95,000 refugees live in Za’atari refugee camp, but while a borehole has been drilled for the camp, it currently only provides about one third of the water required and the rest is trucked in from nearby areas. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, has described the current emergency measures in Jordan as ‘not sufficient or sustainable’. 

Unsurprisingly, social tensions between refugees and local populations have already been reported in Lebanon and Jordan, partly due to the pressure on local resources and services. And if the drought continues—as the Drought Risk Management study predicts—these tensions could intensify.

Water scarcity in parts of the Middle East is also exacerbated by unsustainable use of groundwater. A NASA study found freshwater reserves in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins had lost 144 cubic kilometres of freshwater from 2003 to 2009. This was attributed mainly to pumping underground reservoirs for ground water (60%), as well as the impacts of drought (20%), and loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs (20%).

This suggests that investment from the international community in long-term solutions to provide water security to the Middle East may be necessary in order to mitigate consequences to the global market and regional security.