The Middle East is a desert



Abello, Oscar

Across America’s heartland in 2006, there were an estimated 78 million acres of planted corn, and on average, each acre lost 4,000 gallons of water per day until it was harvested. Despite ethanol, tortillas and high fructose corn syrup, a majority of that corn still goes to feed the world’s largest consumer of corn: cows. Each of America’s 99.5 million head of cattle consumes about 100 pounds of feed per day and drinks 30 gallons of water. Ultimately, according to the International Bottled Water Association, 1,303 gallons of water will be used up to bring you just one juicy quarter-pound hamburger.

That’s just one example of the hidden water usage that goes into a typical American life, which on average accounts for 2,000 gallons of water usage per day.

Considering the massive amount of water that goes into supporting the average life in America, it might be easier to explain why it is hard to understand the life and people of places where lack of water is a way of life, such as the Middle East. It’s mostly a desert, after all, but it seems as if policymakers prefer to ignore that fact.

The Middle East is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but has less than 1 percent of the world’s freshwater resources with an estimated 45 million people without access to clean drinking water, according to the World Bank. The region also boasts some of the world’s fastest population growth rates, meaning access is likely to become more restricted unless drastic action is taken.

With water in such short supply, it should be easy to understand why the region is plagued with political tension. Water is something every human being absolutely needs, so it is something worth much more to fight for than say oil. Unfortunately, we like to be distracted by oil or ideology as justification for war.

We forget that when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, it had started as a battle over precious regional water access. When Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat pledged that Egypt would never go to war again, except for protection of its water resources.

Wars for religion or for oil tend to bring more headlines and more attention from factions outside the Middle East, but make no mistake – water rights are at the top of the priority list for leaders and politicians in the region.

Water scarcity was a pending crisis in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Nearly all of Iraq’s water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but it must be shared with Syria and Turkey, which are upstream from Iraq. Once the water gets to Iraq, many are prevented from getting the water they need because of the poor infrastructure – a legacy of repressive regimes and unintended consequences from international sanctions. Today, the situation has hardly changed.

In Baghdad, many residents are forced to illegally draw water from pressure-less taps using pumps powered by private electric generators. For the same reson – a fuel shortage – the city and the private generators are having trouble keeping the water coming. Living in desert or near-desert conditions, fortunate residents can bathe every two or three days, and often the water is boiled and re-used.

In another cruel entanglement of water access, a common rule of thumb in the oil industry is that it takes one barrel of water to extract one barrel of oil.

Political leaders must balance increasing demand for water from the oil industry against the growing needs of a thirsty population – and it’s a balancing act that must be coordinated with the continued foreign military presence in the region, which must dedicate resources toward hunting down insurgents and rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. Perhaps by focusing more on the latter, the former might be parched for recruits.