The Middle East is warming at twice the global average and this summer several countries like Kuwait, Oman, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia recorded temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius, as forests burn, and severe droughts become more and more frequent. There is compelling evidence that it will be the Middle East region that climate change will hit hardest.
Already several rivers in the Middle East have lost almost half of their annual flow in the last fifty years.
During the same period, the surface area of several lakes has shrunken considerably. A case in point is lake Urmia in Iran, which has halved in size - from 5,400 square kilometres in the 1990s to 2,500 square kilometres - partly due to the building of dams in its basin, which reduced the flow of water in the lake and partly due to climate change.
All over the Middle East the per capita amount of water every year becomes less and less, and many people fear that the old saying that "the wars of the future will be fought over water than oil" may soon become a frightening reality in this volatile region.
Amro Selim, Director of the Elmoustkbal Organization for Strategic Studies also points out "Most countries in the Middle East region share at least one underground water reservoir with their neighbours, which highlights the importance of cooperative management of shared water resources. This also indicates that control of water resources and access to water will be the principal cause of the conflicts and disputes that the region will likely experience in the near future."
Disputes over water are quite frequent in the Middle East, as many of the rivers and lakes in the region are shared by two or more countries. Building dams in one country significantly reduces the amount of water available to neighbouring countries, which see the area available for irrigated cultivation diminish, threatening the livelihood of their citizens.
An example of this is the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia on the Nile River, which reduced downstream flow to Egypt by more than 25 percent. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has threatened military action unless the ground rules for filling the dam are agreed upon. Sisi openly declared the dam is "a matter of life and death" for Egypt.
Also, the Damascus regime leveraged its support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered by Turkey as an implacable enemy, to force Ankara - which has built a number of dams on the Euphrates river - to share the river's waters with Syria.
It should be noted that some experts predict that, because of global warming, the Tigris and Euphrates will "disappear this century," making conflict over what remains even more tempting.
Sagatom Saha, an independent energy policy analyst, in an article, called attention to the fact that "Nearly every country in the Middle East from Morocco to Iran share water resources with a neighbor, and some have little freshwater of their own. What has played out between Egypt and Sudan and between Turkey and Syria could become a frequent feature of Middle Eastern politics as water becomes even more scarce.... More affordable desalination and less water-intensive agricultural practices can help divorce food and health outcomes from warming. Climate change will take place over decades, but policies adopted today will determine what role it will play in the Middle East. Policymakers need not leave it to fate."
The FAO reported that the water shortage will cause economic losses estimated at 6 to 14 percent of the GDP of Middle East countries by 2050 - the most significant estimated loss to GDP due to water scarcity in the world.
Hundreds of citizens in Southern Iran, particularly in the province of Khuzestan, where the temperature was close to 50 degrees Celsius, had taken to the streets protesting about severe water shortages that the government in Tehran has failed to tackle. In the ensuing violent clashes with security forces, eight protesters were killed. Protests for water shortages were also staged in southern Iraq, but no casualties were reported.
Water crises have been ranked in the top five of the World Economic Forum's Global Risks by Impact list nearly every year since 2012. The phenomenon of "water refugees" has made its appearance, as the population is displaced due to water shortages. In 2017, severe droughts contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, when 20 million people across Africa and the Middle East were forced to leave their homes due to the accompanying food shortages and conflicts that erupted.
As the climate crisis is becoming increasingly acute, the question that needs to be asked is if there are ways that conflicts between neighbouring countries over scarce water can be averted. Here are some suggestions:
Daniel Rosenfeld, a professor with the Program of Atmospheric Sciences at The Hebrew University says: " As the climate continues to warm and water runs scarce, part of the solution in the Middle East will have to involve reducing water use in agriculture. That can also mean changing the kind of food farmers grow and export. In Israel, for example, we used to grow a lot of oranges, but at some point, we realized that we are exporting water that we don't have." He also suggests that crops could be engineered to be more resilient to heat and dryness.
Journalist Sandy Milnein a recent article points out: "Much can be done by freeing up more water for use through techniques such as desalination of seawater. Saudi Arabia currently meets 50 percent of its water needs through the process. "Grey", or wastewater, recycling can also offer a low-cost, easy-to-implement alternative, which can help farming communities impacted by drought. One assessment of global desalination and wastewater treatment predicted that increased capacity of these could reduce the proportion of the global population under severe water scarcity from 40 percent to 14 percent."