A water crisis is creating nightmare conditions across the Middle East

Concrete global action is required to fix the problems people in the region face – starting with sanitation and hygiene programmes

Bel Trew
Sunday 25 July 2021 14:37
<p>People in Beirut – and across the rest of Lebanon – are facing a threat to their water supply </p>

People in Beirut – and across the rest of Lebanon – are facing a threat to their water supply

That the wars of the future will be fought over water rather than oil is an adage that feels like an increasingly terrifyingly reality as every year goes by. Especially across the Middle East and North Africa, regions that are on the frontline of the world’s climate crises.

This year in particular, water has been become a worryingly scarce resource as wars, crumbling infrastructure and, in some instances, unprecedented economic collapse, have led to rolling power outrages that have become disastrous when coupled with record high temperatures.

It has sparked unrest in countries from Sudan to Iran – and triggered cross-border conflict. It will only get worse as the summer and the miseries drag on.

And while The Independent has long sounded the alarm about this, with extreme climate events appearing across a world that is in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue is far more urgent, because if people lose access to safe water it will make halting the spread of the coronavirus even harder.

As second and third waves of the deadly virus take hold globally, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes can no longer be met with a disinterested shrug. In many countries, where vaccine roll-outs will only begin in 2022 or later, these programmes are often the only defence they have against the disease.

You may find it surprising that it is Lebanon, perched on the Mediterranean and rich with mountains, forests, lakes and streams, that is the latest nation dealing with a water crisis. On Friday, the United Nations’ children's fund, Unicef, warned that Lebanon’s water supply system is on the verge of complete collapse. In just a few weeks four million people, including one million refugees, are at risk of losing access to safe water, because water pumping will gradually cease across the country.

If the public water supply system collapses, Unicef estimates that water costs could skyrocket by 200 per cent a month, and families will be forced to find water from alternative or private water suppliers. For many of Lebanon’s extremely vulnerable households, this cost will be too much to bear – water will cost two and half times the monthly average income, which is staggering.

At the heart of the water crisis in Lebanon is a very man-made problem: the country’s economic collapse – which, according to the World Bank, is the among the world’s worst in the past 150 years.

It has bankrupted the state so much that swathes of the country do not have mains power. Even those who can afford to buy access to private generators have little power amid massive shortages of the diesel needed to run them. Piling further pressure on the water system is the lack of funding to fix Lebanon’s crumbling infrastructure, and the lack of essential supplies such as chlorine and spare parts.

But it’s not just Lebanon whose water system is on the brink. In Iran this week Amnesty International said they had verified footage proving eight protesters have been killed during a deadly crackdown against rallies over severe water shortages in the country’s southwest province of Khuzestan, home to Iran’s Arab minority. Iranian state media claims the total is lower, at three, and that “unknown people” are responsible.

Iranians had taken to the streets across dozens of towns due to the escalating drought, which environmentalists say the state has failed to handle, as temperatures have pushed towards 50C.

Across the border in Iraq, water shortages have also driven people to the streets, particularly in the south of the country – where the historic marshlands have been steadily drying out. Water shortages have also set Iran and Iraq frequently at odds. Iraq depends on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for nearly all of its water. But Iran is building dams to redivert some of that water, causing alarm and creating major water shortages for Iraq.

Similar issues have blown up between Iraq and Turkey over rivers. In Syria, the UN has also warned of severe droughts because water levels, in part due to the levels of Euphrates, are lowering. It has meant that war-blighted Syria currently ranks seventh on a global risk index of 191 countries most at risk of a “humanitarian or natural disaster event that could overwhelm response capacity”.

A comprehensive solution to scale back the impact of the climate crisis, to resolve conflicts and end corruption are, of course, the only ways out of this nightmare. But in the interim, with coronavirus still stalking the Earth, now more than ever we need to invest in WASH programmes before it’s too late.

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