'will disappear this century'
The Fertile Crescent is left dry as Turkish dams reduce the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to a trickle
Is it the final curtain for the Fertile Crescent? This summer, as Turkish dams reduce the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to a trickle, farmers abandon their desiccated fields across Iraq and Syria, and efforts to revive the Mesopotamian marshes appear to be abandoned, climate modellers are warning that the current drought is likely to become permanent. The Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation seems to be returning to desert.
Last week, Iraqi ministers called for urgent talks with upstream neighbours Turkey and Syria, after the combination of a second year of drought and dams in those countries cut flow on the Euphrates as it enters Iraq to below 250 cubic metres a second. That is less than a quarter the flow needed to maintain Iraqi agriculture.
Tensions have been growing since May, when the Iraqi parliament refused to approve a new much-needed trade deal with Turkey unless it contained binding clauses on river flows. But Turkey appears in no mood to compromise. In July, it announced the final go-ahead for yet another dam, the Ilisu on the Tigris.
Meanwhile, according to Hassan Partow at the UN Environment Programme, Iraq's hydrological misery is compounded by Iran, which is also building new dams on tributaries of the Tigris. "Some of these rivers have run completely dry," he told New Scientist. And Iraq itself is set to worsen the problem with its own dam building, he says. This year construction is set to begin on another Tigris tributary at Bekhme Gorge in Iraq's northern province of Kurdistan. At 230 metres it will be one of the world's tallest dams.
In ancient times, the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers through Iraq were bountiful - irrigating fields that sustained civilisations like Sumer and cities like Babylon. But the combination of drought, dams and Iraq's own desire to revive its agriculture is placing huge pressure on the last remnant of that bounty, the Mesopotamian marshes, which form where the Tigris and Euphrates meet and flow to the sea.
The marshes were deliberately drained by Saddam Hussein. But after 2003, there was an international effort to revive them.
The UN Environment Programme reported on progress until 2006, when the Iraqi water ministry took over monitoring. As concerns grew that the Iraqi government was once again diverting scarce water away from the marshes to maintain agriculture, reporting abruptly stopped. "The marshes are getting smaller," says Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American campaigner for their revival.
Drought has helped precipitate the crisis. The most detailed assessment of the Fertile Crescent's future under climate change suggests flow on the Euphrates could fall by 73 per cent. "The ancient Fertile Crescent will disappear in this century," forecasts Akio Kitoh of Japan's Meteorological Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan. "The process has already begun."