Middle East


From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In the Middle East, oil was the resource that defined the last century. Water and its scarcity may define this one. The Middle East is facing the worst water crisis in many decades. For three summers, the annual rains have failed to come. We have the first story now in a two-part series on water in the Middle East and the phenomenon of water refugees.

NPR's Deborah Amos begins her report in Syria.

(Soundbite of rain)

DEBORAH AMOS: This winter rain barely settles on the hard, cracked farmland in northern Syria. There was a time when these fields were green, but the summer droughts have taken a toll. Driving further east is the Badia, a vast rangeland, where thousands of people tend herds of sheep.

(Soundbite of village)

AMOS: Addami is a traditional village. The houses are white domes of baked clay. This summer, Addami was completely abandoned during the driest months. There was no water and too much sand.

Ms. NOFA HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: It got into everything, even the kitchen, says Nofa Hamid.

Sand got in your kitchen?

Ms. HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Yeah, it was crazy. The sand was everywhere this summer, she says.

Ms. HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Life has never been easy here. But Ismar Mohammed, a 43-year-old shepherd, who's wrapped in a black, wool robe against the cold, says he was wealthy by local standards. He owns the largest herd. He had to drive his flock more than 150 miles for water. With no luck and no grass, he had to buy feed for his sheep.

Mr. ISMAR MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Two-hundred seventy-five heads.

AMOS: And did you have to sell some to feed them?

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) No question. I had to do this, otherwise they would die. And, also, I need to feed my kids. Before the drought, I'm talking about - I used to have 400 heads.

AMOS: So, at one moment you were actually doing well at this business?

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) No question. We were doing fine, just except for this drought has affected us very badly.

(Soundbite of village)

AMOS: In Syria, more than a 160 villages are abandoned now. According to a United Nations report, 800,000 people have lost their livelihoods. Hundreds of thousands of them walked off once fertile land that turned to dust and pitched tents near the big cities looking for any kind of work.

Mr. NABIL SUKKAR (Syrian Economist): Until now, it's an emergency. Until now, it's an emergency. If we have two more years of drought, I'm sure, then we can say we do have a crisis.

AMOS: Syrian economist Nabil Sukkar, formerly with the World Bank, now heads a private consulting firm for development and investment. He has been researching the emergency, including its economic and social costs.

Mr. SUKKAR: I've gone out and I saw some people in the tents. I told them, where you are coming from? How do you manage? They said, we find short-term work, but this is not sustainable.

AMOS: The mass migration to the cities has created a new community of displaced people across Syria and Iraq.

Professor HUSSEIN AMERY (Colorado School of Mines): So, yes, water scarcity is forcing people off the land. And therefore, these refugees are very much water refugees or water - they are products of water scarcity of the region.

AMOS: That's Hussein Amery, an expert on Middle East water management and the policy failures that have made the emergency worse. On a visit to the region, this professor at the Colorado School of Mines, says the water crisis has been building for years.

Prof. AMERY: The water refugees are a product of climate change, mismanaged water resources. It's a product of population explosion. It's a lot of things. It's a perfect storm of sorts that is wreaking havoc in the rural farming sector in Syria and Iraq.

(Soundbite of crowd)

AMOS: The Syrian city of Palmyra, due east to the capital, is a tourist destination. The Roman ruins are a draw for these Japanese visitors and one livelihood for the locals.

(Soundbite of crowd)

AMOS: But, Palmyra, hit hard by the drought, is also a headquarters for the government response. Emergency measures include food aid for families, low-cost loans for farmers. At the office for development, Mohsan Nahas says Palmyra is experimenting with new water-saving techniques.

Mr. MOHSAN NAHAS: (Through translator) Yes, yes. I have talked about the oasis we've been setting up here. That's being done with drip irrigation, only drip irrigation.

AMOS: Nahas shuttles through a slideshow to explain what he's up against � a dust storm so large, it could be seen from space on Google. Conditions on the ground were intolerable.

Mr. NAHAS: You see the sand?

AMOS: It's a ball of sand that's coming towards the tents.

Mr. NAHAS: (Through translator) Yes, it is coming to their houses, it's coming to the tents. It's even melting and mixing with the food that's affecting their eyes. You see this kid? He can't see because of the sand.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

AMOS: And with the widespread drought, a food crisis is looming. For the first time, Syria had to import wheat. Economist Nabil Sukkar says things won't get better unless the country changes a history of wasteful water management and outdated farming techniques.

Mr. SUKKAR: Unfortunately, we have not introduced modern technology, and so we are dependent on rainfall, period.

AMOS: But rainfall, or lack of it, is not the only culprit, he says. Syria and Iraq blame Turkey's huge network of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates river for reducing water supplies by 50 percent. Turkey is the site of the headwaters of the rivers that that Syria and Iraq depend on. An informal agreement determines the flow downstream.

Mr. SUKKAR: When we had bad relationships with Turkey, they reduced the flow of water, despite the agreement. And now, thank god, we have excellent relations with Turkey, and hopefully, we will not see any cutoff of water.

AMOS: Turkey says there is enough water for everyone, but Syria and Iraq waste their share. Hussein Amery says the Turks are partly right.

Prof. AMERY: The issue is water, but it actually goes far beyond water.

AMOS: Amery says the key to head off a water crisis is more efficient management of a scarce resource. But he adds politics, not climate, is the problem.

Prof. AMERY: That a lot of Arabs believe that Turkey is trying to assert itself as a regional superpower and water is being used as a tool to advance that interest.

AMOS: In the second part of our series on water, Turkey's plans for the Euphrates river basin and growing tensions as the fertile crescent becomes drier and warmer.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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