The ongoing conflict between the United States and Iraqi insurgents isn’t the only bad news coming out of Iraq these days. The Guardian reports that the once-bountiful Euphrates River has dropped to dangerously low levels, creating a severe water shortage in southern Iraq that threatens to leave 2 million people without electricity and a similar number without drinking water.
The water level in the Euphrates has dropped 1.5 meters below normal levels, shutting down two of the four turbines that supply electricity to the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, the nation’s fourth-largest city. If the water level falls another 20 centimeters during the next two weeks, as predicted, engineers say the remaining two turbines will shut down and leave the people in and around Nasiriyah without power.
Throughout history, the valley of the Euphrates has been a model of fertility and abundance, giving rise to the idea that the Garden of Eden was located there. Two years of drought and an increasing number of water diversions by neighboring countries—Turkey, Syria and Iran—have left the Euphrates looking like a fetid stream and cut the region’s agricultural production by 60 percent.
There is not enough water in the Euphrates to feed the surrounding marshlands or to prevent salt water from the Persian Gulf from contaminating the drinking water. There is not enough water to drink, let alone wash, and both are taking their toll on the region. Animals are dying, disease is rampant, and at least two towns have been entirely abandoned due to the lack of fresh water.
This water crisis in Iraq is bad, but it is only a glimpse of where the world is headed if current trends continue. One-third of the world's people are already running short of fresh water, and scientists now predict increasing water shortages due to climate change, pollution and runaway population growth, which are creating increased demand for a rapidly diminishing supply of fresh drinking water.
Water is already replacing oil as the world’s most valuable commodity—the growing scarcity of water is expected to trigger an increasing number of wars and to create millions of new environmental refugees worldwide—and the global supply of fresh water just continues to shrink. And as the Iraqis are discovering, less water also means less energy and less food.