UN climate report strengthens case for wise management of Middle East groundwater reserves

People look at the Dukan dam in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, 65 kms northwest of Suleimaniyah, which was built in 1955 and has reached its highest water levels following heavy rains in the region, on April 2, 2019. (AFP)
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People look at the Dukan dam in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, 65 kms northwest of Suleimaniyah, which was built in 1955 and has reached its highest water levels following heavy rains in the region, on April 2, 2019. (AFP)
Barricades are set up to contain water in a flooded street in the city of Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's Khuzestan province, on April 10, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
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Barricades are set up to contain water in a flooded street in the city of Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's Khuzestan province, on April 10, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
A woman walks with her children along the Karun River which has burst its banks in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern province of Khuzestan, on April 11, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
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A woman walks with her children along the Karun River which has burst its banks in Ahvaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern province of Khuzestan, on April 11, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)
Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
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Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 21 October 2021

UN climate report strengthens case for wise management of Middle East groundwater reserves

UN climate report strengthens case for wise management of Middle East groundwater reserves
  • Mismanagement could have dire environmental and political consequences for MENA
  • IPCC report contributor says water management should be a vehicle for cooperation

NEW YORK CITY: A landmark UN study on climate has sounded a stark warning about the impending irreversible changes to the natural environment and the catastrophic consequences for humanity that a failure to act could entail.

In its report, released on Monday, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said: “Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible.”

Among the approaching changes are the well-documented warming of the atmosphere, rising sea levels, severe and unpredictable weather and catastrophic damage to natural life on land and in the sea.

But one less acknowledged, but perhaps equally existential, effect of climate change is the rapid decline in the availability of fresh and drinkable water through groundwater reserves — and for the hot and arid countries of the Middle East, the threat is particularly acute.

“Climate change is intensifying the natural production of water — the water cycle. This brings more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought in many regions,” the UN report added.

In the Middle East, mismanagement of groundwater — particularly in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran — could have catastrophic environmental and knock-on political consequences.

Groundwater is the term used for the massive reservoirs, known as aquifers, of fresh water available beneath the earth’s surface, which formed naturally over millions of years. Similar to the reservoirs that are drilled into for the extraction of oil, they are finite — and dwindling fast.

“Increasing global freshwater withdrawals, primarily associated with the expansion of irrigated agriculture in drylands, have led to global groundwater depletion,” said the UN report, adding that the massive extraction of groundwater was so severe that it was contributing to rising sea levels — and ushering in all the associated complications that came with it.

The consequences of groundwater extraction are more immediately obvious on a local level than globally.

Water scarcity, particularly in the Middle East, is not a new problem, and countries such as Saudi Arabia have been ramping up efforts to produce fresh water, for example through desalination plants that remove salt and other harmful materials from seawater to ultimately process it and make it safe to drink and useful in agriculture and everyday life.

While desalination does not come without its own challenges, it has alleviated reliance on groundwater and reduced the pressure of economic growth and human needs on fragile groundwater systems.

However, Jay Famiglietti, executive director at the Global Institute for Water Security and one of the senior authors of a study that the UN drew on for Monday’s report, told Arab News that such forward-thinking water management was scarce at best — or non-existent at worst — in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

“About a third of the world’s population relies on groundwater as their primary water source,” he said, adding that groundwater usage “depends on your resources.” Where there was less rain and surface water available, such as rivers and lakes, states were more likely to pump it from deep reservoirs, many of which were too deep to be replenished with rainwater.

“Regions that have groundwater access — they use it. They should be balancing their surface water use with groundwater, but in fact they pull water out of the ground like it’s free money — literally. But this is the norm,” Famiglietti said.

He noted that a huge amount of groundwater was used for agriculture but pointed out that this should not be condemned. “We need to eat food.”

The only solution to the problem of managing the fast-dwindling supply of groundwater reserves with the need for food and economic growth, he added, was through international cooperation.

In Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, this is absolutely critical because of their significant reliance on groundwater as a result of the short supply of surface water.

“These aquifers that are running out of water are so big now that they cross over political boundaries — whether they are international or intranational,” Famiglietti said, adding that the issue presented a political challenge as well as an opportunity for progressive cooperation.

“Imagine pulling together a group of Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Syria to cooperate — it’s really, really hard. But that is the only way forward. We have to switch what has been a vehicle, a trigger for conflict — water — for something that becomes a vehicle for collaboration and cooperation. Monday’s report makes that crystal clear,” he said.

The political pitfalls of failing to reform water management have recently become abundantly clear in Iran.

The country’s southwestern Khuzestan province was recently convulsed by weeks of violent protests spurred by a lack of clean drinking water. Human rights groups have verified that at least nine people were killed by security forces during the demonstrations.

A police officer was also killed, and the violence prompted a rare admission of guilt by then-President Hassan Rouhani.

People were incensed by the authorities’ mismanagement of their water, which pushed the province, the water-wealthiest in Iran in terms of natural resources, into what has now become known as a state of “water bankruptcy.”

Those protests that started because of water shortages in Khuzestan province quickly turned into anti-regime chants in Tehran — crystallizing the destabilizing potential of water mismanagement.




An Iraqi man walks past a canoe siting on dry, cracked earth in the Chibayish marshes near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Marsh areas in southern Iraq have been affected since Daesh started closing the gates of a dam on the Euphrates River in the central city of Ramadi, which is under the group's control. (AFP/File Photo)

Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said: “In Iran in particular, the water crisis is a political one, because it is intimately tied to, and exacerbated by, longstanding regime neglect and mismanagement. That’s a situation that’s unlikely to change in the near future, unfortunately.”

Despite repeated warnings from the UN about climate catastrophe, as well as from Iranians who took to the streets in July, Berman said, Tehran did not appear to have taken on board the existential threat posed by water mismanagement.

“In fact, Iran seems to be headed in the opposite direction, because we’re now seeing a consolidation of the hardline clerical status quo around new President Ebrahim Raisi.

“All that makes Iran unlikely to pivot toward regional cooperation of the sort that the UN report envisions, or to invest in technologies, like desalination, that have helped other regional states, such as Saudi Arabia, turn the corner on their hydrological issues.”

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Twitter: @CHamillStewart


Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon
Updated 23 October 2021

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon
  • US official says Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations

WASHINGTON: A senior Al-Qaeda leader was killed in a US drone strike in Syria, the Pentagon said on Friday.
The strike comes two days after a base in southern Syria, used by the US-led coalition fighting the Daesh group, was assaulted.
“A US airstrike today in northwest Syria killed senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid Al-Matar,” said Central Command spokesman Army Major John Rigsbee in a statement.
There were no known casualties from the strike, he said, adding it was conducted using an MQ-9 aircraft.
“The removal of this Al-Qaeda senior leader will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks,” he said.
At the end of September the Pentagon killed Salim Abu-Ahmad, another senior Al-Qaeda commander in Syria, in an airstrike near Idlib in the country’s northwest.
He had been responsible for “planning, funding, and approving trans-regional Al-Qaeda attacks,” according to Centcom.
“Al-Qaeda continues to present a threat to America and our allies. Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations,” Rigsbee said.
The ongoing war in Syria has created a complex battlefield involving foreign armies, militias and jihadists.
The war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.


Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
Updated 23 October 2021

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks
  • Morocco sees the entire Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and has offered autonomy there while firmly ruling out independence

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday ruled out returning to roundtable talks over Western Sahara, days after the UN appointed a new envoy for the conflict. “We confirm our formal and irreversible rejection of the so-called roundtable format,” Algeria’s Western Sahara envoy Amar Belani told the APS news agency.

Algiers is seen as the main backer of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence in the disputed territory, mostly controlled by Algeria’s arch-rival Morocco.

The International Crisis Group wrote this month that “Rabat considers Western Sahara a regional issue and the Polisario an Algerian proxy”, meaning Morocco wants Algeria at the table in any talks.

But some Polisario officials demand a return to bilateral talks on what they see as “a struggle by a colonized population for national liberation from a colonial power”, the ICG report explained.

The last UN-led peace talks in 2019 involved top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.

But they were frozen after UN envoy Horst Kohler quit the post in May 2019. He was finally replaced this month by veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of peace mission MINURSO by Oct. 27, and possibly call for new roundtable talks.

But Belani said Algeria had told the council it rejects the “deeply unbalanced” and “counterproductive” format, warning it would thwart De Mistura’s efforts.

He accused Rabat of trying “to evade the characterization of the Western Sahara issue as one of decolonization and to portray it as a regional, artificial conflict”.

Tensions have mounted between Rabat and Algiers since Morocco last year normalized ties with Israel and won US recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in phosphate and Atlantic fisheries.

Algeria, which has long supported the Palestinian cause as well as the Polisario, in August cut diplomatic ties with its rival over “hostile actions,” including alleged spying on its officials — accusations Morocco dismisses.

The standoff also came after the Polisario declared a three-decade cease-fire “null and void” after a Moroccan incursion to break up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania.

Belani urged the UN to treat the issue seriously. “We must recognize that the risks of escalation are serious,” he said. “Peace and stability in the region are at stake.”


Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
Updated 23 October 2021

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions
  • The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used distorted exchange rates to divert at least $100 million in international aid to its coffers in the past two years, according to new research.

The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds. It also allows the Damascus government to circumvent sanctions enforced by Western countries that hold it responsible for most of the war’s atrocities.

“Western countries, despite sanctioning Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency,” said the report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on international public policy issues.

“Assad does not merely profit from the crisis he has created,” the report added. “He has created a system that rewards him more the worse things get.”

On Friday, the UN acknowledged that exchange rate fluctuations have had “a relative impact” on the effectiveness of some of the UN programs, particularly since the second half of 2019 when the Syrian currency took a nosedive.

Francesco Galtieri, a senior Damascus-based UN official, said his office received the report on Thursday. “We are carefully reviewing it, also to openly discuss it in the coming weeks with our donors, who are as concerned as we are that the impact of the assistance to the people in Syria is maximized,” Galtieri, team leader of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said.

The authors of the research published on Wednesday said the amount of aid lost and diverted to Syrian government coffers as a result of the national currency fall is likely to be more than $100 million over the past two years. The data they used to calculate the amount was limited to UN procurement and does not include aid delivered through other international aid groups, salaries or cash assistance.

Sara Kayyali, who researches Syria for Human Rights Watch, called the findings shocking and said donors can no longer ignore the fact that they are effectively financing the Syrian government and its human rights abuses. She said UN procurement processes did not meet due diligence standards, from a human rights perspective.

The Syrian pound has been hit hard by war, corruption, Western sanctions and, more recently, a financial and economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.


Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
Updated 23 October 2021

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19
  • The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

TEHRAN: Mass Friday prayers resumed in Tehran after a 20-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state TV reported.

The prayers at Tehran University, a gathering of religious and political significance, came as authorities warned of a sixth wave of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed 124,928 lives in Iran and afflicted more than 5.8 million.

On Saturday, schools with fewer than 300 students are also due to reopen. Also starting on Saturday, government employees, except those in the armed forces, will be barred from work if they are not vaccinated at least with a first dose, according to a government circular released earlier this week.

The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today is a very sweet day for us. We thank the Almighty for giving us back the Friday prayers after a period of restrictions and deprivation,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer imam who led the sermons.

Worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during the gathering, a forum where officials present a unified front in the weekly sermon, a duty that rotates around senior members of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.

Most worshippers brought their own prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, said the broadcast.

It added Friday prayers were also performed in several other Iranian cities.

Health Minister Bahram Einollah said earlier this week that it was a “certainty” that Iran would face a sixth wave next week. The warning came even as the country has accelerated its vaccination drive.

Einollahi added that his country was well-prepared for the new surge.

Schools with more than 300 students will re-open on Nov. 6, Alireza Kamarei, spokesman for Iran’s Education Ministry, said earlier this week, adding that it was not essential for students and teachers to be vaccinated. He said 85 percent of the country’s teachers and 68 percent of students had so far been inoculated and that classrooms were well ventilated.

Required social distancing will remain at least one and a half meters.


More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah
Updated 23 October 2021

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah

More than 90 Houthis killed, 16 military vehicles destroyed in coalition strikes on Jubah and Al-Kassarah
  • The coalition said it had carried out 31 air strikes on the districts of Juba and Al-Kasarah over the past 24 hours
  • UN says 10,000 were displaced last month alone by fighting in Marib governorate

JEDDAH: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said on Friday it had killed at least 92 Houthi rebels in airstrikes on two districts near the strategic city of Marib.

The deaths are the latest among hundreds that the coalition says have been killed in recent fighting around Marib, and come during a second week of reported intense bombing.

“Operations targeted 16 military vehicles and killed more than 92 terrorist elements” in the past 24 hours, the coalition said in a statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. The coalition has for the past two weeks reported almost daily strikes around Marib.

Most of the previously announced strikes were in Abedia, about 100 km from Marib — the internationally recognized government’s last bastion in northern Yemen.

The latest airstrikes reported were in the districts of Al-Jubah, some 50 km south of Marib, and Al-Kassarah, 30 km northwest.

The Houthis began a major push to seize Marib in February, and have renewed their offensive since September after a lull. Several Yemenis are waiting for help after fleeing fighting in Marib, according to Reuters.

Iman Saleh Ali and her family left Al-Jubah in the dead of night with only the clothes on their back to escape fighting, the second time they have been forced to do so.

The UN says some 10,000 people were displaced last month alone by the fighting in Marib governorate. It is calling for a humanitarian corridor for aid.

UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen David Gressly told Reuters that access has been most restricted to Abedia, but that they have now been given authorization though security concerns remain.

Luckily, he said, food was distributed in coordination with the World Food Programme just before the fighting, which is exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has left millions on the verge of famine and 20 million needing help.