The Socio-Political Factors Driving the Environmental Crisis in the Islamic MENA States


The Islamic states that make up the Middle Eastern and North African states have been plagued with war and conflict for centuries due to a wide range of reasons. Oil rich regions that hold important religious historical significance have crippled these lands with ethnic, religious and political disputes. While the media has been occupied with its own perspective on the current conflicts in the MENA states, years of neglecting to discuss the issue as well as an increasingly bad rate of all consumption methods have presented this area of the planet with an alarming environmental crisis. The MENA states are currently feeling a gradual increase in the constraints caused by fresh water availability. The region would already be considered water sensitive due to its geographical characteristics as a natural desert and hot climate, but an exponentially growing population in the region paired with the existing political tensions have birthed a new way of life that scientists have proved to be extremely unsustainable in terms of the state of fresh water. Water rights and instability are the problems of the future and will become more and more prominent yearly. It is time for the inhabitants of this region, and frankly the rest of the world to put aside their differences and focus their efforts on the immense task at hand. It is a common understanding that in the practice of Islam, humankind is understood as stewards of the Earth. Perhaps religious perspectives can provide us with the possible solutions for this solving these environmental issues of the future.

The fresh water crisis in the MENA states can be represented by several different statistics that can provide very different ways of looking at the situation. Water is one resource that is naturally spread out, however it may be very unevenly distributed. The Islamic MENA, or rather Southwestern Asia specifically, is very unevenly spread out. Countries in this region rely heavily on river systems to provide the clean water necessary for irrigating agricultural lands and for drinking. Certain areas have no access to any water systems and rely on importing water from foreign or faraway lands. Due to geographical characteristics of the land and the small amount of access to fresh water, above ground farmers have been forced to mine for untapped aquifers and fossil below ground for welling purposes. These collections of water can provide quite pristine bodies of water, but their problem is that they are usually concentrated and refilled from rainfall and runoff, meaning that with the climate of the region that rate of consumption and growing population draws water from these aquifers at a faster rate than it can the bodies of water can sustain. In the case of the fossil aquifers, these are trapped from all sides so they can never be naturally refilled. According to several studies, the current insufficient cycle will cause serious implications in the region for the next 25 years and if nothing is done now it will have an even more long-lasting effect. New analysis suggests that the water crisis has already contributed to several conflicts, stating that “Drought and water shortages in Syria likely contributed to the unrest that stoked the country’s 2011 civil war. Dwindling water resources and chronic mismanagement forced 1.5 million people, primarily farmers and herders, to lose their livelihoods and leave their land, move to urban areas, and magnify Syria’s general destabilization,” (Vidal)[1]. It goes on to mention that this will be increasingly normal as a little under half of all the worlds water-stressed countries are located in the MENA region.

Climate change is only exacerbating the need for fresh water. As noted earlier, because of the minimal amounts of above ground bodies of water in the region, this area has been extremely dependent on underground aquifers. These aquifers are depleting at an alarming rate and forcing the use of river systems for supplying fresh water. These river systems simply cannot sustain this rate of consumption and have been crippled by worsening environmental constraints. In the same study, it has been noted that the Jordan River which supplies water to countries like Israel, Palestine and Jordan could possibly deplete by about 80% by 2100. It goes on to mention that the Tigris-Euphrates water basin has lost more water than any other place in the world other than northern India (as of 2015), “with the loss of 117m acre-feet of stored freshwater between 2003-2009,” (Vidal). Putting extremely populous metropolitan areas like Baghdad at risk. A similar situation is currently unfolding to the west of the Jordan River, as the Nile proves to be more susceptible to the worsening conditions yearly. By 2100, studies have shown that the main provider of fresh water to Egypt, at this rate of depletion, could be reduced by 75%. Of course, with the arid conditions in the region it is possible for these kinds of losses to be experienced in a more immediate manner. Heat waves, which are very common in the area, can dry up water sources and leave countries vulnerable for an indefinite amount of time. Syria could experience possible repercussions from these more and more frequent heatwaves increasing the desertification of the country by 60%[2]. This is frankly the sad reality of today. As global conditions worsen, the areas around the globe will first be those that originally experience some form of insecurity or vulnerability. The World Bank reported that the region was already naturally at risk as just the Middle East alone, without the Northern African countries that make up the MENA, contains about 6.3% of the world’s population but only 1.4% of the worlds fresh water. It is stated by the World Bank that as of 2012, “the average global water availability per person is close to 7,000 cubic meters per person per year (m3/person/year); the Middle East region, however, has only about 1,200 m3/person/year” (Lund 372)[3]. With these circumstances, it is imperative that the MENA states make water resources a priority before necessity forces them to make decisions on the matter. One way these states can make an immediate difference is to focus their own time and energy on maintaining their water infrastructure and lowering the amount of polluted water in the area.

With the constant state of unrest, areas that have been experiencing serious implications due to warfare have seen a serious decline of their overall infrastructure. War torn countries like those in the Middle East have not had the capability to rebuild these systems, nor have they really had the time to. With the rate of change, we witness in the political sphere of the Middle East, fluctuating between new governments, not many countries have had the opportunity to focus all of their attention on the state of their own infrastructure. Making sure the state of the water infrastructure may be the first step to solving the fresh water crisis in these states. Iraq currently serves as a prime example of the serious physical implications a war-torn country can have on infrastructure. Cities like Baghdad, are apparently flooded with sewage, writes Angela Balakirshnan. Stating “Today’s (2008) findings state that water supplies in the war-torn country have continued to deteriorate with even the most basic infrastructure not functioning,” (Balakirshnan)[4]. She goes on to mention that due to this problem over 40% of people in the area are relying on poor quality water and this water is provided to the population via improper infrastructure. Thus, increasing the possibility of transmitting water borne diseases to that population and increasing the demand for fresh water. As a result, many people are forced to extract water personally from the Tigris and Euphrates, both which account for upwards of 95% of the surface water in the area. But even these sources have been found to be extremely contaminated themselves. With the current state of water availability in the Middle East, certain groups of people are not able to obtain water due to poor infrastructure nor are they able to extract water for themselves.

Water rights are the newest political debate brewing in the MENA states. As water access becomes more strenuous in the region, countries that can afford to provide water for its people will continually do so, although that may not be exactly proportional in terms of large population differences. This issue is especially prevalent in countries that are major exporters of oil. While it takes a lot of water to pump oil itself, these countries are usually wealthy enough to consume water at an unsustainable rate. Joshka Wessels outlines the alarming rate of consumption by major oil exporting countries in the MENA region in the first table of the journal report Water Use and Rights (Middle East and North Africa). The table displays the extremely unbalanced water consumption as a percentage of renewable resources. Countries like Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar and The United Arab Emirates are all considered Major oil-exporting countries and each are consuming 181, 270, 951, 798, 624 and 1,600 percent. These countries are all very dependent on fossil water and sources that are non-renewable, while countries that would be considered “resource-poor” all consume at much lower percentages. These numbers accurately represent how wealth contributes to rate of consumption in terms of water use in the Middle East. Affluent countries are inevitably consuming more water to provide for irrigating agriculture. It is estimated that the inefficient irrigation throughout the region is the main contributor to the stress, consuming about 85 percent of the region’s water. At this rate, it is believed that countries like the United Arab Emirates are expected to be without water in less than half a century.

While examining the wealth and consumption rate it is also important to analyze the population growth in order to further understand the possible inequalities stemming the MENA region. All the countries mentioned in the previous paragraph are predominately Muslim, with each population well over 75 percent of the country. The only problem is the majority of the people in the region that are under the constraints of water instability live in the countries that can’t afford to drill for water and supply for its people. The entire region is currently experiencing a massive population boom. A New York Times article, Middle East: Population growth poses huge challenge for Middle East and North Africa – International Herald Tribune, states that “the region’s population has grown from 127 million in 1970 to 305 million in 2005. Even these figures disguise some remarkable numbers. For example, in the ten years between 1976 and 1986, the population of Iran grew by 50%,” (Times)[5].  This trend marks the highest population growth of any region in the world. While the rest of the world currently grows at about a rate of 2 percent annually, the MENA region continues to grow at about 3 percent. It is here that population growth meets water rights. Countries that have more power are able to claim rights to certain water systems, whether that be a basin or underground aquifer. But especially in a region that has historically struggled with its own introduction to the ideology of nationalism, who is to say that one country is entitled to a certain water source over another? The fight for water has begun already and has taken its toll on an unfortunate number of people. Fred Pearce reported for Yale Environment 360 in his article Mideast Water: In Iraq a Battle for Control of Water that a tactic of the Islamic State to gain control has been the occupation of certain dams, stating that over the last couple months the majority of battles in this civil war have been over large dams. “The Islamic State’s quest for hydrological control began in norther Syria, where in early 2013, it captured the old Russian-built Tabqa Dam, which barricades the Euphrates as it flows out of Turkey. The dam, which is the world’s largest earthen dam, is a major source of water electricity for five million people including Syria’s largest city Aleppo. It also irrigates a thousand square kilometers of farmland,” (Pearce)[6]. Pearce goes on to note that the numerous countries that depend on these water systems makes situations like these even worse as downstream areas in a time of stress can easily point fingers. While Aleppo was experiencing this extreme water crisis, the dam emptied rather quickly. Turkey inevitably was thrown into the spotlight for possibly holding water back in its own upstream dams, the possibility flared tempers, only to find out that the shortage was caused by engineers who ordered to run water through water turbines to provide electricity for the war-torn city. While certain areas of the Middle East are experiencing casualties and extreme stress from a culmination of different factors, more fortunate regions like Turkey for example (those upstream, wealthy and lack war), have been able to tackle their water issues from the perspective of technological advancements.

Water desalinization could possibly be the solution of the future. The process of converting saline water into fresh water presents a promising picture of the outlook of the future in this region. Through the process of reverse osmosis, countries fortunate enough, like Israel, have been able to turn their luck into good fortune. A century ago the region in which Israel is located today was extremely dry, but the Israeli government has been able to change this through this scientific process, resulting in a surplus of water today. New technological advancements have made this approach, once deemed last resort of water resources, a possible solution for the whole region. While this was once a process that required intensive chemical cleansing periodically to ensure the safety of the product, industries have found a way to eliminate that aspect of the process and still provide clean water to its consumers. Rowan Jacobsen wrote for the Scientific American on how Israel has flipped its own fortune around as it found success in creating a surplus of freshwater in Israel Proves the Desalination Era Is Here, stating “In 2008, Israel teetered on the edge of catastrophe. A decade- long drought had scorched the Fertile Crescent, and Israel’s largest source of freshwater, the Sea of Galilee, had dropped to within inches of the ‘black line’ at which irreversible salt infiltration would flood the lake and ruin it forever. Water restrictions were imposed, and many farmers lost a year of crops,” (Jacobsen)[7]. Israel took this as more than a sign of a time for change, the country not only promoted desalination efforts, but coupled this with a push for national water sustainability. They made low-flow toilets and showerheads mandatory alongside new and improved water treatment systems that have been successful in recapturing a majority of the water that goes down the drain for other purposes such as irrigation. This extreme efficiency is what allows Israel to supply more water for itself than it needs. Not only does this situation provide a new hope for the future of the region, but it could also possibly ignite greater instabilities as less fortunate countries that continue to struggle with water crises of their own are forced to conform to the needs of countries that harness a new power in the form of freshwater.

While desalination poses an immediate solution to the crisis in the Middle East, several issues have arisen that prove that desalination is not in itself the one and only solution. While desalination has proved to be successful, ultimate dependency on the process proves to be unsustainable for the time being because of the high cost of these plants as well as the many potential risks. As far as the potential risks, several immediate problems have grown from the dependency on the technology. The byproduct of this process results in large amounts of salt dumped back into salt seas. In addition to the byproduct of the process, a continual reliance on desalination means there is a continual reliance on a non-natural process. This reliance almost seems like a positive feedback loop; the more reliance a country like Israel has on desalination, the less the country would reap any benefits that naturally occurring water could provide. Certain minerals that are potent and naturally occurring in natural freshwater and that humans rely on for health are absent in water that is a product of the process of desalination. Certain minerals, for example, Magnesium are now being added to this water to prevent significant health issues (such as heart disease) to consumers of this unnatural process. Magnesium deficiency has also led to agricultural problems as crops dependent on desalinated water lack this important mineral. This continual reliance on non-natural systems to provide for large amounts of people has to be unsustainable in some way. The more dependent we become on the process, the more prevalent and dispersed the problems become. The process of desalination proves to be extremely expensive and not exactly sustainable. In addition, only wealthy countries are able to afford this process. Currently only Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel are able to afford these plants because of their wealth and plethora of fossil fuel availability. Thus, a new form of power is born. While certain countries hold the ability to produce water for themselves, the externalities will continue to reap havoc on those countries that are not able to produce for themselves. Just like any other environmental injustice around the world, those that are powerful can take advantage of those less fortunate and offset any of their own problems on worse off, more disadvantaged communities.

The possibility for all this potential mayhem and what we are witnessing of it already presents serious implications for the future, but hopefully the MENA region can benefit from it as well. With a threat that sees past ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic standing, the MENA states have a chance develop good relationships between them. Historically there have been several relationships between groups of people in the MENA states that have been resolved through a larger, more significant battle. As countries continue to fall into deeper cycles of water stressful activity. They are partially hindered not only by the activity but because of relationships with other neighboring countries, the only way some of these problems will be alleviated would be through the act of developing peace in the region. Due to the wide range of diversity in the region between religions, ethnicities and cultures, this region has the opportunity to recognize these differences as a way to develop the mutual respect needed to collaborate on a project of this magnitude. The first step towards this respect or mutual understanding is using these differences to help people come to the realization that water is a basic human right, and the significance of this holy region and the various ways of life that stem from it, all trace back to this region. The three monotheistic religions are all very closely related and all share important similarities with one another, and from a deconstructed fundamental perspective, all these practices boil down to one thing, and that is a mutual respect. Not just a respect from person to person but for all entities. Once a certain level of respect is obtained it seems as though any problem can be solved.

Take the most successful Islamic states for example. Aside for states that were fortunate enough to behold some of the world’s most important resource in crude oil, the Islamic states of Malaysia and Indonesia are examples of majority Islamic states in southeast Asia that have flourished. Although these states are both majority Muslim they have found success in their ability to recognize all other groups outside of the majority country as legitimate. This solely derives from a separation between state and religion. by keeping the two entities separate, people are able to practice what they want in peace without being restricted by a government in the process of doing so. By choosing to separate church and state, both countries have been able to focus on matters aside from human rights issues, such as expanding their economies rapidly. Thus, the wide range of diversity represented by each country is recognized and respected. For example, in Malaysia, of their own citizens over 30 percent of the country is made up of groups aside from the Bumiputera people (Malays). Of that 30 percent, the people are from various different ethnic groups including Indian and Chinese[8]. By keeping a secular democratic democracy Malaysia has been able to welcome those from all different walks of life including the minority 40 percent of religions that are not Islam. Like Malaysia, Indonesia has experienced a great amount of recent economic success. With extreme diversity, Indonesia is home to about 742 different languages and dialects, 8 million Indonesian diasporas and recognizes 6 official religions in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Its 260 million people are spread out over about 13,000 islands[9]. While its various differences could possibly be any country’s demise that fails to recognize the legitimacy of all its people, both Indonesia and Malaysia succeed in doing so. This has propelled them into two of the world’s most rapidly growing economies. The United States for example, a country that prides itself on being a land comprised of immigrants, has struggled to recognize the legitimacy of all its people of late. The result has been a recent history plagued with social justice issues rather than success on the world stage. The election of Donald Trump exemplifies this phenomenon. The separation between state and religion is the necessary foundation for mutual respect for all people. When legitimacy is granted to all walks of life, a common understanding is developed; one that provides a platform mandatory for solving great problems like the water crisis the MENA states are facing.

In efforts to solve this freshwater crisis in the MENA states, it should not only be state level that decisions are made. It will take a serious amount of sustainability conscience raising to do so. The people of this region must understand what it means to conserve and how to take the mandatory precautions to do so. One way these MENA states can gain legitimacy among their own people is through education. In the last century, specifically between 1960 and 1990, many MENA states have succeeded in gradually raising the percentage of children enrolled in primary school. For example, since 1960 Saudi Arabia has expanded the total percentage of males enrolled in primary school from 12 percent to 78 percent and their total percentage of females from 2 percent in 1960 to 72 percent in 1990. Although not as extreme, similar trends of growth have been calculated within the following states in the MENA region, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey, with Pakistan making the least growth and Turkey having started off with the highest percentages for both categories continually making progress. The older the school age population gets, the worse these statistics get. For secondary school among the same countries, no country had a total male percentage of the age group enrolled in secondary school greater than 16 percent, nor the female percentage higher than 8 in 1960. As of 1990, the highest percentages calculated were much higher marking a great 30-year improvement, but still all relatively low with the consideration of education to be a basic human right. Egypt calculated about 82 percent of the total percentage of the secondary school age group enrolled, while both Iran and Turkey were the only two other countries able to declare that just over 50 percent of the age group in their populations were enrolled in secondary school, marking a significant decline in those attending school between primary and secondary school. The most drastic of the all the information would be the significantly lower percentage of the population enrolled in higher education as a part of a certain age group. These numbers are drastically lower than the last. Between 1960 and 1990 many of these countries have seen a decent rise in percentages, but all of their percentages remain relatively low, with only five countries with over 10 percent of that age group in enrollment[10]. While it is important to recognize all the privileges that allow higher education to be accessible, it is equally important to understand the great improvements that would result from a larger percentage of the population obtaining higher education. The more people in enrollment, the greater a possibility of sustainability being culturally accepted and practiced.

The coming years will give us a glimpse of what the fate of the MENA states will be. Of course, none of these possible solutions are immediate nor will any sole solution solve the immanent water crisis. In light of the possible future, it is important for this region and the world to recognize what made Islam spread so quickly, where we are today because of it, and how our own capitalistic needs have hindered how we perceive this region and its environmental crisis. The idea of equality and eternality are essentially the two main elements that charged the almost exponential growth of Islam throughout Asia. The prophet Mohammad was originally an ordinary businessman. The religion experienced several golden ages in which the arts and sciences were explored and built upon; later the European renaissance was born from these Islamic discoveries. In light of all that we owe to Islam and what it teaches in terms of peace and prosperity for not just a specific group of people, but anyone, it is imperative that we as mankind rekindle the friendship and brotherhood that has gotten us here in the first place. Whether that be finding new ways to increase secondary and higher education enrollment in the MENA states, finding ways to legitimize groups of people in the eyes of others, scientific advancements (such as desalination), culmination of allogether, or a piece of each, these are the options available for MENA states currently facing this environmental crisis. The historically bloody history mankind has laid over this holy land proves the importance all of mankind bears for it. It would be a shame if we lost such a large piece of our history up to irresponsible relations. As mentioned before in the Quran, it is written that as creations of Allah we are here to be stewards of the earth, that is to tend to it and one another. With the immanent water crisis at hand, it is time the world leaders and citizens do their part in recognizing the importance of this land, the importance of celebrating our own differences, and collaborating on a world stage to solve the problem at hand.
























[1] Vidal, John. “Middle East faces water shortages for the next 25 years, study says.” The

Guardian. August 27, 2015.


[2] “Water Scarcity: Cooperation or Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa?” Foreign Policy

Journal. September 29, 2017.


[3] Wessels, Joshka. “Water Use and Rights (Middle East and North Africa).” The Berkshire

Encyclopedia of Sustainability: Afro-Eurasia: Assessing Sustainability, 2012, 371-78.


[4] Balakrishnan, Angela. “Iraq: millions at risk from contaminated water, says Red Cross.” The

Guardian. October 29, 2008.


[5] “MIDDLE EAST: Population growth poses huge challenge for Middle East and North Africa –

– International Herald Tribune.” The New York Times. January 18, 2007.


[6] Pearce, Fred. “Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq, A Battle for Control of Water.” Yale E360. August

25, 2014.


[7] Jacobsen, Ensia Rowan. “Israel Proves the Desalination Era Is Here.” Scientific American. July

29, 2016.


[8] Class lecture 11/8


[9] Class lecture 11/6


[10] “Return of Islam?” In Religion and State; The Muslim Approach to Politics, 123-33. New

York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000.