Frozen and Evaporated Hydrology of Mesopotamia

Aptly named by ancient Greeks, Mesopotamia, meaning “between two rivers”, has been a region dependent on the waters of Euphrates and Tigris for more than 7,000 years. This region–also called the cradle of civilization–owes much of its ancient development to irrigated agriculture. Dwellers of the region adapted themselves well to a challenging semi-arid and arid geography and limited rainfall by controlling and directing water from rivers. Extensive utilization of perennial irrigation plus the mobilization of a sufficient labor force to build and operate irrigation systems enabled the formation of urban settlements and sophisticated forms of government which, in turn, contributed to the groundbreaking explorations of the Sumerians and Babylonians.

Unfortunately, things changed when water began to be improperly managed. In fact, one of the underlying causes behind the collapse of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations was unwise and unsustainable water use. Lacking basic knowledge about advanced irrigation and drainage techniques, most of the area became salinized and thus, unavailable for agriculture. Now, after much water “passed under the bridge,” the region of Mesopotamia –still dependent on limited waters from the Euphrates and Tigris- has become a region well behind its glorious past.

But, history left a lesson for us: we should be using this critical resource in such a way that the ever-growing demands of the people can be met and all can enjoy and share the benefits that the Euphrates and Tigris rivers create.

The necessity of optimum utilization of waters of Mesopotamia in an integrated fashion has become more pressing than ever, particularly considering the expected impacts of climate change and continuing rapid increase in population in the region.

When we think of water resources, we have a tendency to think of it in its liquid form. This can be problematic given the huge amounts of water confined in snow and ice in upstream areas, and enormous amounts of water lost due to evaporation downstream. In order to make the integrated water resources management paradigm really work in Mesopotamia, we must deal with challenges that have not at this point been taken seriously enough.

Snow: The Euphrates-Tigris river system is basically a snow-fed one.  There are several challenges regarding the snowpack in the northern parts of the Euphrates-Tigris basin. First, according to many climate change scenarios, the snow cover in the upstream areas is predicted to decrease significantly in the coming decades. Since such change in the snow cover has the potential for big alterations in average flows of the rivers, there is still a need for in-depth scientific studies to confirm and/or give details about the anticipated impact. This could be a good impetus for establishing joint scientific and technical programs that extend across the basin. Integrated river basin management is a good venue towards cooperation in not only benefit sharing, but also burden sharing. There is a substantial cost associated with struggling with the long snowy season (e.g. road and infrastructure maintenances) in northern parts of the basin. Sharing these costs could be a good starting point for all countries of the basin to proceed into more advanced forms of cooperation.

Evaporation: There are huge evaporation losses in reservoirs in the southern parts of Mesopotamia due to the topographical and climatic limitations that necessitate shallow reservoirs.  1/6 of the annual Euphrates flow, for instance, is lost in Iraqi reservoirs due to evaporation. Thus, construction of new reservoirs and management of existing ones should be considered in a holistic manner and within the framework of geo-climatic imperatives of the entire basin.

Both snow and vapor provide new opportunities for water cooperation in Mesopotamia. Exploring these and similar novel foci, however, will largely be up to the wills of political elites in the countries of the region.

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