Water Crisis in the Middle East: A Case Study of Euphrates-Tigris River Basin


Water scarcity leads to insecurity and then conflict. The non-availability of water is an important commodity for the maintenance of livelihood leading to the disruption in international peace and security particularly in water-scarce areas like the middle east. This research work deals with the state of water scarcity at the global level and particularly middle eastern region. The second half of the work deals with the pattern of water scarcity correlated with that insecurity and conflicts, particularly in the middle eastern region. A case study of the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin is provided to analyze the growing water crisis and conflicts in transboundary water bodies.



Water shortages in Cape Town, droughts in Somalia, flooding in Jakarta, water rationing in Rome, Harvey-battered Houston, water wars in Bolivia, and conflicts in Syria; it doesn’t take much to realize that the world is experiencing a grave environmental issue in the face of an impending water crisis. 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, yet billions of people today, lack adequate access to clean water. Water, which is the lifeblood of the biosphere, is today heavily a subject of exploitation, in land, oceans, rivers, and aquifers (Hamdy&Lacirigona, 1998). This is a global crisis, looming above our heads, the roots of which lie in extensive climate change, demographic growth, disordered urbanization, political actions, poor governance, and water mismanagement, all jeopardizing water availability, making it essentially scarce and thus giving rise to water insecurity in multiple regions which eventually morphosis into a conflict, acting as a catalyst for a more significant crisis, posing horrifying calamitous whacks at various fronts. From the India-Pakistan tussle over water hegemony in the Indus basin to chronic water shortages in Africa, from unremitting water challenges in Nigeria to multifaceted water crisis in Iraq, from the water war in Bolivia to dam disputes in the Mekong, new horizons of conflicts over water are opening up. These conflicts reflect an image that the water crisis is now beyond an environmental crisis i.e., an environmental issue turning into an issue of security. It is now a strategic asset as much as it is an environmental asset. Just like oil, water is a tool of international conflicts over the resources of which military and political goals are set. Water has been used as a weapon of war through infrastructures and canals. It is a source of tension and dispute (Gleick, 2005).

Thus, from scarcity to insecurity and ultimately conflict, the global water crisis is an impeding environmental issue that is not just a planetary emergency but also of international security, manifesting itself in the face of transboundary water disputes in many areas across the globe, but particularly in the Middle East; a region being the contemporary theatre of water conflicts, where water has become the new oil. This paper aims to explore the very theme, by exploring the issue of water scarcity and its impending impacts on security, particularly in the Middle Eastern Region. For this, the Euphrates-Tigris dispute will be taken as a case study to provide an extended analysis of how water scarcity leads to water insecurity and eventually to water conflicts.



The world is heating up, the climate is getting dry, and processes like the greenhouse effect and global warming are increasingly making the rivers dry up. Such deteriorating environmental conditions combined with overpopulation and global military conflicts have led to a huge presented ecological crisis with the water crisis being at the front culminating in the wake of global water scarcity. The 21st century is hailed as the ‘century of global water crisis’ (Guppy & Anderson, 2017).

In literal terms, water scarcity refers to a condition of shortage of water in an area i.e., when water becomes scarce. Historically, such a condition was attributed to being witnessed in certain areas essentially arising as a result of conflicts but today, water scarcity is not merely a domestic or a regional phenomenon in one particular part of the world but rather can be seen throughout the globe, as the entire planet is at the brink of water shortage. A major reason for rapidly increasing water scarcity is the rapidly changing climate of the world, the roots of which lie in urbanization, industrialization, and increasing manufacturing and production.

Water is the basic need for human sustenance but in today’s world, it is becoming increasingly scarce. Today, around two billion people – that is one-quarter of the human population- are without any access to potable water, and three billion with limited access to sanitary water. It is estimated that by 2050, the world’s population will increase to 9.5 billion with about 40% of people living in water-stressed conditions. While the population is growing, water sources are shrinking. It is not just the population that is stressing water resources but also its evident excessive use; the global population tripled in the 20th century, but the use of water increased six-fold. By 2050, water demands are expected to be increased by 400% and 130% in manufacturing and household, respectively. Thus, water scarcity is something that is an undeniable picture, one that can already be seen in action.

The scarcity of water not only limits the access of the public to safe drinking water but also makes it expensive, so as to not be accessible to poor people in an area. As this water accessibility decreases, competition for its access increases, and thus, the boundaries of cooperation and conflict over water resources often get blurred. 60% of all freshwater resources are shared river basins while there exist 592 transboundary aquifers which get conflicted over for access in the face of increasing water uncertainty and scarcity.

While water scarcity is a global phenomenon but has strongholds in the Global South and in conflict-stricken areas of the Middle East, where poor climate conditions lead to scarcity which in turn leads to the humanitarian crisis in the face of failed sewage systems, contractible diseases, and ultimately conditions of drought. Such is the case in countries like Iraq and Syria, where the civil wars have caused significant climate change and water stress leading to huge amounts of water being scarce and also accelerating the transboundary water disputes.



Unlike the world average of 38 percent, the annual water resources of the Middle Eastern Region amount to only 6 percent of its annual precipitation average. The region inhabits about 6 percent of the world’s population and has only 1 percent of the world’s water resources, giving rise to situations where nearly two-thirds of this population have to live with a lack of sufficient water while 60 percent live in areas of increased water stress.

It is not that the region hasn’t been gifted with any potential water resources, given that it has rivers Nile, Jordan, and Euphrates-Tigris to its fortune, but despite having such remarkable transboundary freshwater resources and despite the recent advances in water technology and water supply management, there is an impending situation of extreme water scarcity in the region. Several rivers in the region have already dried up losing half of their annual flow. This is particularly the result of rapidly heating climate in hand with the lack of mutual concession on water allocation in shared rivers and aquifers, adding a layer of complexity and leading to potential conflictual dilemma over scarcity in the region. Poor governance, changing hydrology and unsustainable approaches in the face of already extra mounting scarcity, has led to overexploitation of the region water’s resources, undermining the threat that the situation poses.

The result is that Middle East Region is now among the first to face such plummeting environmental crisis in the face of the water crisis. It may be the one to reach point zero soon, given that the Middle Eastern region is currently submerged in a simultaneous crisis of security, climate change and water scarcity. The region is warming at a rate of twice the global average. In Oman, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, recorded summers have been witnessed with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees. Wildfires, heatwaves, and droughts are more common than ever. Water stress has become more frequent. It is almost Compellent that the Middle East is facing the most rigorous wave of climate change with water scarcity building up. The region suffers continuously from chronic disorders of conflicts thus making the water supply systems flawed. In such circumstances, water has become scarce.



From disputes over water in Nile Basin to water shortages and discontent in Yemen, from transboundary water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan and growing insecurity over water scarcity in Egypt to water disputes in Euphrates-Tigris Basin, conflicts can be seen unfolding in the face of insecurity in the wake of the rapid scarcity of water.

Today, water, in the face of growing scarcity, is no longer only an environmental asset but also a strategic asset. It is not only related to environmental issues and security but also plays a critical role in regional security arrangements, with states viewing it as a means for political leverage and a source of power. Thus, in the wake of the increasing water crisis and water scarcity, water as an asset is intertwined with national security, particularly in a region like the Middle East where increasing water scarcity is an issue culminating in conflicts.

Being a region with already conflict-ridden geopolitics, the Middle East is the shatter belt, an area of chronic insecurity in social, economic and political matters. The present scarcity of water in line with population growth and urbanization can be claimed as the most pressing environmental issue in the Middle East, leading to the yet further widening of this insecurity and thus paving for a situation of widespread insecurity, undermining not only environmental security but also human security and thus contributing to stakes of violence, fragility and conflicts, the potential causes of which have considerably increased over the past few decades. Such conflicts are frequent due to the fact that many rivers and lakes in the region are shared by two or more states and thus making it disputable to manage water and build dams. This in turn leads to poor governance of already scarce water sources and thus water disputes. Some transboundary water disputes can already be seen unfolding. This essay aims to explore the water conflict in Euphrates-Tigris River Basin, a conflict characterized by hydro-hegemony culminating in the wake of water scarcity between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.



Shared between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, with Iran comprising a few parts, the Euphrates-Tigris River basin, is among the world’s most fertile banks and home to some of the earliest civilizations in the world. However, today, it has become an area of extreme conflict in the face of constant environmental degradation and resource depletion, which have jeopardized the safety and sustainability of the basin. It is in the face of drastic climate change and environmental crisis that the Euphrates Tigris basin is now facing a water crisis. The natural conditions coupled with mismanagement by governance systems have continued to degrade the very region, leaving it in a state of extreme water crisis i.e., either droughts or flooding, which affect drinking capacity, irrigation, and hydropower and thus, has become an area of conflictual relationship patterns which has increased the water stress in the concerned states of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Baseline stress is high in the three states with all facing drought conditions. Iran, on the other hand, faces riverine flood risk, therefore making the basin an area of water insecurity leading to conflict. It is in a state of hydro-insecurity further straining the already fragile economic, political and social conditions, thus exacerbating both internal and transboundary unrest and conflict in a dangerous cycle.

The conflictual patterns began emerging in the 1960s when in the face of the rising water crisis, unilateral governmental steps by all three states, were initiated and taken into account for large-scale water management. Instead of leading regional cooperation, it rather began being perceived as a national threat to the others, and thus rather resulted in competition in the very area. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq all aimed for dam projects and unilateral irrigation plans, trying to harness and control the flow of the two rivers in order to refract flooding and droughts, but instead of cooperation, conflict began between the very states as an extension to the already on-going political skirmishes. The disputes prevented the three states from effectively co-manage the basin river and its water. The dispute continues to hinder the very progress of water cooperation today. Thus, the ET River Basin conflict is one apt example of how a water crisis leads to insecurity which often quickly transcends into a conflict.



Both Euphrates and Tigris originate in Turkey and make their flow towards Southern Iraq while crossing Syria, all three contributing significant water flow into both rivers and thus acting as co-riparian states (Kibaroglu&Scheumann, 2013). Iran also lies in the surroundings and acts as a co-riparian but it is not directly related to the Euphrates-Tigris river conflict. The conflict between the three states began in the 1960s as a result of tensions erupting over the water flow reaching their territory. At a national level, the conflict emerged over interests in the generation of hydropower and the provision of water for drinking and irrigation, while at the transboundary level, unilateral and uncoordinated water development projects by each state to manage the rapidly generating water crisis became the reason for conflict.

In the 1960s and 1990s, relations between these states have been punctuated by the conflict over water resources in the Euphrates-Tigris River basin experiencing simultaneous conflictual and cooperative patterns (Oregon State University, 2008). Until 1960 the water used was low and the relations were considered harmonious (Kibaroglu, 2014). In between the conflict, the resources experienced a further crisis. In addition, the prediction of the UN that the quantity of water in Euphrates and Tigris flowing through Syria and Iraq is likely to become even scarcer i.e. decreasing by 30% and 60% respectively by the end of the century, initiated the cooperative action in the area (Kibaroglu, 2015). But these cooperative measures between co-riparian states were short-lived. The renewal of conflict was reinvested in 2000 and by now, in the face of increasing water scarcity, it is likely for the ET basin to get its resources depleted, thus it is extremely crucial for an agreement to be formed between the mentioned states for the stability of the region.



There is an old saying that ‘the wars of the future will be fought over water than oil.’ This is the situation that many people fear today, given that the twenty-first century is the epitome of a global water crisis with shortage and scarcity leading to droughts in various areas simultaneously with flooding in others. It is a global phenomenon but particularly in the MENA region where water levels have witnessed a sudden drop with a simultaneous increase in temperatures, leading to major water scarcity. Water scarcity in the Middle East is an issue of environmental crisis but it goes beyond when it is largely perceived as an issue of national security, thus giving rise to conflicts and disputes over water sources and availability. Combined with poor management of transboundary freshwater, maldistribution of this water and growing population, urbanization and absence of rule in international law, all in the face of growing water scarcity, have given rise to many conflicts in the Middle Eastern region. Yemen today faces the largest water scarcity. Iraq is deeply infringed in the water crisis due to its internal conflicts. While there are many others but one most significant is the ET River Basin conflict. It is a semi-arid zone with conflict over water, perceived as the advent of hydro-hegemony war. It is a conflict characterized as a transboundary water conflict, the roots of which lie in environmental crisis, thus it is an issue representing a water crisis that is beyond an environmental crisis i.e., a security crisis with water not as an asset for life but also as a strategic asset, thus being weaponized as a tool to achieve relative strategic interests of relative states.


Maryam Yasmeen is an avid reader and writer. A student of International Relations, she has published multiple articles on various issues and topics. She aims to achieve excellence as a writer, researcher, and academic in the field of International Relations and Environmental politics.



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