Water – Shaping Civilizations of the Past and Future

May, 2010
By Gitanjali Bakshi

Water was the prime element responsible for the rise of the Akkad civilization in Iraq. Dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE, Akkad thrived along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is considered the predecessor of the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. Akkad had the highest recorded population densities in the world at this time due to its massive agricultural system. Southern Iraq was extremely fertile and had a yield of 30 grains returned for one grain sewn, which is more productive than present day yields aided by modern farming technology. However, the blossoming of this civilization was short-lived due to a massive drought. The rivers experienced a sudden drop in water levels, while improper farming methods led to a progressive salinization of the soil. Trade seems to have collapsed, cattle starved and ultimately there was forced migration. The affluent civilization, it seems, fell prey to the devastating effects of the very water that once supported its lavish existence. 

Archeologists posit that the same climatic changes that affected Akkad were in fact responsible for a dramatic change in the hydrology of the entire Middle East region. This ‘Great Drought, played havoc on existing water resources and reduced immense civilizations, quite literally, to dust. Severe droughts between 2,200 and 2,150 BC led to the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (2700-2200 BCE) and sent Ancient Egypt spiraling into a dark age – a 140 year period of famine and strife known as the First Intermediate Period. The fertile Nile River helped sustain Egyptian civilization for 3 millennia. When it flourished Egyptian civilization reached an unprecedented level of achievement in art, culture, science and agriculture, but when the river collapsed, a gripping famine killed several, political disputes ensued and the people descended into civil war. 

According to Jared Diamond, the importance of environmental conditions has often been understated in the narration of human history. His book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, highlights the pivotal role that the environment played in the progress of societies. Countries like Iran and the Americas were able to flourish thanks to adequate precipitation and hydrology conducive to agriculture, while Australia and certain other pacific islands were not able to progress due to harsh environmental circumstances. The Great Drought that took place in the Middle East is another compelling example of the pivotal role that environment, particularly water, plays in determining progress.

In the future, water will again play an important role in these same countries that housed these great civilizations. Despite having abundant water supplies of around 67 BCM annually, or roughly 2,000 cubic meters per capita per year (a comfortable amount by international standards), Iraq will suffer from severe water shortage in 2020 due to the effects of water pollution, drought, poor water management, obstruction from upper riparians and as a long-term consequence of conflict. Egypt also is undergoing a water crisis of its own. It no longer enjoys a monopoly over the benefits of the Nile River; as supplies dwindle while demand rapidly increases Egypt must map out an effective river basin management plan that will meet its water needs while simultaneously benefitting the other four riparians of the river. 

Water security has always been an essential element while assessing the development of a civilization. With the use of modern irrigation technology and infrastructure, the importance of water has been largely down-played in recent history. But dwindling supplies, potential effects of climate change and a rising population have again brought water to the forefront of future development and risk analysis. It will be a key factor in the future, determining power-sharing strategies and political alliances.  Just like the need for energy and the lack thereof has resulted in organizations such as OPEC (Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries), fresh, marginal and virtual water exporters will form the organizations of tomorrow.  Countries that do not have adequate water resources will find themselves in a terribly disadvantageous position in the political spectrum - they risk instability, not just at an international level but also domestically. 

In the past, Middle Eastern civilizations, recognizing the importance of water, viewed it as sacred.  In both the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations, water took a central role in rights and rituals. Today, climatologists, environmentalists and strategists are once again emphasizing the importance of water for a safer and more secure future and the success of countries in the Middle East will depend upon their efforts to manage water effectively and preserve this precious resource for future generations.

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