By: Angelo Calianno and John Devine

Image Source: World Resource Institute,

Water is a vital component of all life on the planet. Its importance is rarely overstressed. This is no truer than in the Middle East. The region, characterised by a hot and arid climate, has several major lakes and river systems supporting local agriculture. Unfortunately access to the water supply has often been a point of contention.

It has been reported that the Middle East is warming at twice the global average. Coupled with the World Resources Institute (WRI) listing 12 out of 17 of the world's most water-stressed countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, water access will only become more critical in the coming years and decades. This article will look at two different case studies—first, the actions of Iran in reversing the environmental degradation of Lake Urmia. Second, how a combination of infrastructure projects by neighboring countries and environmental changes have altered the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates River system in Iraq.

Lake Urmia:

Once the largest lake in the Middle East and the 6th largest saltwater lake on the planet Lake Urmia was both an ecological sight of interest that supported several different species and a popular tourist destination with a local economy tailored to it. Lake Urmia covered an area of over 5,200 square kilometres. But, a combination of policy decisions and poor weather saw the lake diminish in size to a mere 10% of its maximum capacity in 2014.

The desire to utilise natural resources led to the construction of several dams, for irrigation and hydropower, on the three rivers, which were the source of 90% of the water to the lake. There were also an estimated 40,000 illegal water wells were also in the surrounding area.

The effect of the shrinking lake affected the local wildlife and tourist industry and the local agriculture. In addition, the receding water exposed massive amounts of salt, which produced dust that affected the agriculture of the surrounding areas. The effects of the reducing lake were severe enough to cause several protests.

Efforts to reverse this trend have seen the creation of the Urmia Lake Restoration Program (URLP). Local press have reports $1 billion dollars have been spent to restore the size of the lake and wildlife habitats. In addition, the URLP has tried to wean farmers off thirstier crops and fill in the lake's illegal water wells. Also, higher than expected rainfall has contributed to the increase of the lake to 2,700 square kilometres in 2021.

Tigris and Euphrates: 

As the water source for one of the three major ancient river civilisations, the Tigris and Euphrates have always held a special place in the collective consciousness of historians. A bountiful river system that for generations provided fertile land for in the surrounding area. However, this is no longer the case in Iraq. Reports state over 7 million people in Iraq are directly affected by low water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates . In addition, UNICEF has reported that 3 out of 5 children have no access to safely managed water services. 

Both the Tigris and the Euphrates originate in Turkey before descending into Syria and Northern Iraq. The Tigris also has supporting tributaries originating from Iran. The rivers provide 98% of Iraq's water. Therefore, the policies enacted by Turkey, Syria, or Iran directly affect the flow of water into Iraq downstream.

The construction of major infrastructure projects, including over 20 major dams and numerous hydraulic power plants, in Turkey since the 1970's have significantly reduced the flow of water to Iraq. In the 1990s saw Turkey intentionally filled up its reservoirs that proved significantly detrimental to Iraq and Syria's water supply. Iraq's water supply issues were further exacerbated due to the infrastructure projects of Iran and Syria. This in turn, affected the agriculture of Iraq and the health of its growing population.

The three major conflicts in the past three decades in Iraq have also seen the destruction of much of Iraqi water infrastructure, including many water treatment centers. This has proven consequential. Due to the infrastructure of other countries further upstream, the reduced flow of water reaching Iraq affects the cleanliness of the water systems - as the water is unable to dilute much of the sewage and dirt that gets into the Tigris and Euphrates. Without the ability to treat the water in the country, it creates sanitary problems. As a result, whatever water can now reach Iraq is not a clean as it had been previously

The domestic political factors have contributed to the worsening water crisis. Successive divided national governments focused on insurgency of militia groups in the country have been unable to formulate an effective strategy to counter the effects of the looming humanitarian crisis.

The October 2021 elections, the sixth since Saddam Hussein's regime's fall, have seemed to produce little evidence that an effective coalition will be able to address the water crisis. If there is any hope to address the problem directly, the next Iraqi government will need to have a tangible power-sharing coalition and agree with their regional neighbours on managing the Tigris and Euphrates.


There is an imperative need for precise and effective action to counter the changing climate in the Middle East. To this end, collaboration and consultation over infrastructure projects between the neighboring countries is required to prevent sever disruption to the shared water resources, particularly as severe droughts are expected to exacerbate humanitarian conditions in the region. It will require not only the consensus within individual states to implement constructive change but also wider regional cooperation.