Water for peace?

Via the International Water Law Project blog hosted by Prof. Gabriel Eckstein (Professor of Water Law and Director, Center for Water Law and Policy Texas Tech University), we direct you to an NY Times editorial by Stanley Weiss addressing the central role water will play in the Middle East’s future.

Weiss is a former mining company exec and is the founder of the ominously titled Business Executives for National Security (BENS), described on its site as “a  nonpartisan organization of senior executives who use the best practices of business to strengthen the nation’s security.”

No time now to go into why we’re not as skeptical as usual about business executives as policy advisors. Check out his site and the many essays and op-eds he’s penned on a variety of topics.

Water distribution could be leveraged as a way to peace in the Middle East, Weiss believes. That would be nice, says Eckstein, but he believes that the political obstacles are likely insurmountable:

Weiss, however, also offers a prescription for averting the tragedy. Among his recommendations, water-rich Turkey should become a purveyor for the parched nations of the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan, Syria, the future Palestine, and possibly others. While such solutions have been proffered in the past, couched in the language of “peace pipeline” and “water plan for peace,” the politics of the region have always thwarted their realization. My sense is that they will continue to do so into the future.

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Hello Golden Age Lake

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow's name has eleven syllables.

Turkmenistan's President (digging) Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow's name is really long.

Yesterday we posted an elegiac farewell to the venerable Euphrates River, or at least the Iraqi portion. Today it is our happier task to welcome the nascent  man-made Golden Age Lake into the family of planetary bodies of water. (See the essential WaterWired on the same topic, but proper netiquette requires that you read this first, of course. More resources below.)

Central Asia's Turkmenistan is 80 percent desert. Its western border is defined by the saline southern portion of the Caspian Sea

Central Asia's Turkmenistan is 80 percent desert. Its western border is defined by the saline southern portion of the Caspian Sea

Recently conceived in the central Asian republic of Turkmenistan (you can locate it with the très cool Platial map in the right column), the lacustrine fetus is now in a lengthy period of gestation–to be slowly nourished by a intricate system of umbilical canals–in the sandy womb of the Karashor depression. (And with that, we drop the ridiculously overwrought birth metaphor.)

Eighty percent of Turkmenistan–which is roughly the size of California–is the black-sand Karakum desert. It’s understandable that the former Soviet republic would both want to “bring life” to the sand-covered immensity and to carry out what the AP article accurately calls “a Soviet-style engineering feat” to accomplish the transformation. What’s puzzling is why they think it will work.

You can read the article and the resources listed below for details. Broadly speaking, the Turkmen plan to create the lake by transferring excess water from the country’s soggy cotton fields to the northern Karashor depression via an enormous network of irrigation canals. Per the article:

Turkmen leaders say the massive lake will help drain water-logged cotton fields and encourage plant life and attract migratory birds to the desert.

And the hapless migratory birds will probably die, because, as critics of the project note, runoff from the cotton fields is heavily laced with toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

There is a long history of massive water transfers like this carried out by the Soviet Union that have devastated Central Asia’s water ecology. From the article:

For decades, Central Asia’s environment has suffered as a result of Soviet-era irrigation projects. The Aral Sea, which once lay on the border between the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was the world’s fourth-largest lake, but has since shrunk by almost 90 percent, devastating fisheries as salinity levels spiked.

Please see our two-part ranting and raving about the Aral Sea calamity here and here: a brief and bitter history of a beautiful lake-based ecological system teeming with life, now, despite current efforts at revivification, remain a wasteland of  brackish  lifeless “water” and sand.

See WaterWired for a more detailed explanation of the Turkmenistan project, written in a sardonic voice that rivals our own. It’s the work Michael E. ‘Aquadoc’ Campana–hydrogeologist and Professor of Geosciences at Oregon State University–who writes on 6/9/09 that the project may be shelved due to almost unanimous global dismay and scorn, but it looks like the bulldozers and shovels are up and running at this point.

Resources:

Michael provides this link to an excellent comprehensive Science magazine article on the project.

A four-page report that looks to have been done by a French organization tied to UNESCO. Maps and charts.

Other articles:

Turkmenistan to create desert sea

Turkmenistan tries to green its desert with manmade lake

Giant Turkmen Lake Sets Off Environmental Alarms

Goodbye Euphrates

Turkey and Syria get first dibs on the Euphrates

Turkey and Syria get first dibs on the Euphrates

The New York Times recently published an article and an accompanying slideshow on the two-year drought–and unconscionable water-hogging by neighboring Turkey and Syria–that is decimating the country and drying up the  main artery of its life blood, the Euphrates River*. The article notes also that the current crisis is partially due to Iraq’s misuse of water over recent decades.

By the way, I found the link to the Times‘s story at what looks to me to be a very valuable news aggregator, GlobalPost. It features quick hits on and links to stories about planet-wide goings-on. Actually there’s something posted about the Moon today, so we may be talking solar system-wide coverage. My quick description does not do justice to its robust content. Check it out.

This from the Times’ slideshow:

Strangled by the water policies of its neighbors, Turkey and Syria, a two-year drought and years of misuse by Iraq and its farmers, the Euphrates River is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago, and some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now.

* Caveat: I often link to Wikipedia to offer background information. I don’t think that the site generally is even close to infallible, but I think we’re safe when it comes to geography, and to some extent, history.

Breaking news: Company that builds desalination plants defends desalination!

[Below, following this absurdly long note, is a comment on Waterblogged.info’s 3/16/09 post, Desalination: No silver bullet in the Middle East, which links to a National Geographic story that is essentially a skeptical–and reasonable–look at desalination as the solution to the constant droughts and the shortage and maldistribution of water in the Middle East. The email address of the person who left the comment indicates that he/she works for Water Consultants, Inc–a company that can hardly be considered a disinterested party when it comes to debating the pros and cons of industrial-scale desalination.

The editor in chief of Waterblogged.info realized that our response was so incisive, informative, wise, and witty–not to mention self-important, defensive, derogatory, snide, and judgmental–that it could easily be repurposed as a Waterblogged.info entry! Cut and paste and take the rest of the day off! See end of post for more exciting desal info!]

Thanks to the Pacific Institute, http://www.pacinst.org/

Thanks to the Pacific Institute, http://www.pacinst.org/

The corporate shill says:

Your link to the referenced NatGeo article is broken. Pity I would have loved to read who the so-called “experts” were that think that way about desalination plants. Most desalination plants are good environmental citizens, properly regulated and diligently operated where ever they are needed to be a valuable asset to a communities balanced portfolio of water supply options.

Thanks to the PR flak from Water Consultants International, Inc–a company whose business is, per its site, “planning, design and implementation of advanced water treatment (AWT), and membrane and thermal desalination projects”–for pointing out the broken link, which I fixed.

Thanks also for the breathtakingly perfect example of corporate-speak–marred only by garbled syntax, a misspelling, and at least one punctuation and one grammatical error. Not bad for 60 words.

It would be fair to take Waterblogged.info or any other blog to task for referring to “experts” without citing anyone specific. But, National Geographic? Cut me a break.

Hey dude, you want “experts” without the quotation marks? Well, I’ll give you experts without the quotation marks: the fine folk at the Pacific Institute (PI), headed up by Peter Gleick,  one of the nation’s foremost authorities on water. In the institute’s recent report, Desalination, With a Grain of Salt: A California Perspective, the researchers’ take a moderate and cautious position on desalination, one most likely held by the experts dismissed by our pen-pal from WCI. From PI’s site:

The potential benefits of ocean desalination are great, but the economic, cultural, and environmental costs of wide commercialization remain high. In many parts of the world, alternatives can provide the same freshwater benefits of ocean desalination at far lower economic and environmental costs. These alternatives include treating low-quality local water sources, encouraging regional water transfers, improving conservation and efficiency, accelerating wastewater recycling and reuse, and implementing smart land-use planning.

For a humongous amount of information on desal–both fer and agin’–go to Waterblogged.info’s page Getting serious with Waterblogged.info: desalination. There you will find links to papers, articles, videos, and pdfs, that will help you be the center of attention at the next beer-bash when desalination inevitably comes up. A good beginning is a mutimedia presentation by journalist and water expert, Cynthia Barnett, A Tour of Tampa Bay’s Desalination Plant.

Plenty of water in the Middle East?

tigris-euphratesThat’s the opinion of  Tunisian geographer and water expert Habib Ayeb. While other experts predict water wars fueled by accelerating scarcity in the region, Ayeb believes that there is plenty of water to go around, but “hydro-politics” stand in the way of equitable distribution. Says Ayeb:

“Water availability in the region is comfortable if we add underground water to rains and rivers,” Ayeb said. “The total quantity of water in the region exceeds 2,000 cubic metres per person per year, while the scarcity edge is around 500 cubic metres per person per year.”

Water wars won’t occur, according to Hayeb, because:

“. . .no country has any interest in launching them [water wars]. Israel, Turkey and Egypt, who gather [emphasis mine] the main available water resources in the region, did not have any interest in provoking wars that would not lead them anyway to increase their water resources. On the other hand, ‘victim countries’ like Palestine, Jordan or Iraq do not have the means to declare wars against Israel or Turkey.”

I highlighted the adroit use of the word “gather” because Israel, unlike Egypt and Turkey, does not have much water within its boundaries, but takes water from such water-rich areas as the occupied Golan Heights. The point is that, Israel, like Egypt and Turkey, are water powers whose policies lead to de facto scarcity in other countries in the region.

Turkey enjoys the enviable fact that both the Tigris and Euphrates originates within its boundaries. Although it has in the past agreed to share the bounteous waters with Iraq and Syria, it has failed to live up to agreements, and has built dams and other impediments to the free flow of water to Syria and Iraq. The good news, if true, is that the three countries are expected to announce a water-sharing agreement at the World Water Forum to start tomorrow, 3/16/09, which is being held in Istanbul.