Rain and snow falls on the Taurus mountains of southeastern Turkey. Snow melts and drop by drop the waters begin their journey. Drops merge and form trickles. Trickles become tiny streams. Streams gather into tributaries and they empty into two mighty rivers, the Tigris on the east and the Euphrates on the west. They zig zag their way south. At the widest point, nearly 250 miles separate these two rivers.  

They continue their journey through Syria and Iraq (Mesopotamia - Assyria, Babylon and Persia) and merge in southern Iraq near where many believe the biblical Garden of Eden existed. Finally, they travel through wetlands and marshes ending their roughly one thousand mile journey and then empty into the Persian Gulf.

As they flow the thirsty land drinks the fresh water. The area between these two rivers and the area surrounding them has for centuries been known as the Birthplace of Civilization - the Fertile Crescent - a boomerang-shaped region that extends from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

This oasis of life-giving water is home to many species of grasses, trees, birds, fish and animals. And that’s the way it has been for thousands of years. 

But that all began to change in the last few decades beginning in the 1970s. At least, in retrospect, that’s when we began to notice it. A number of factors have come together simultaneously to cause the disappearing water.

Factor #1 -  Droughts

Droughts are not new to the Fertile Crescent. They have been around for centuries; but droughts are now increasing in frequency and severity. The lack of rain has led to a lowering of the river levels, and a decline in rain and snowfall is 80% below normal.  

Factor #2 - Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein rose to power during the 1970’s. In order to consolidate his political power and prevent an internal political rebellion, he nationalized Iraq’s oil industry and began a series of reckless environmental policies. He sent his armies of tanks through the tall grasses and marshes where he believed dissidents might be hiding. As they went, the tanks chewed up and pulverized the fertile land with their huge treads.

Hussein’s Iraqi army also slashed and burned vegetation in the Fertile Crescent. That led to a decrease in the food supply, and the loose soil led to erosion.         


Under Hussein’s brutal Sunni leadership, he attacked Shiite Iran. The two countries went to war from 1980 to 1988.  Bombs and extensive use of chemical weapons that Saddam used poisoned the land and left Iraq deeply in debt. To stabilize Iraq’s economy Saddam invaded Kuwait hoping to get their oil. The opposition from the world community was more than he expected.

In his hasty retreat from Kuwait, Saddam’s troops set the oil wells on fire, which according to one witness, left Iraq “black”— poisoning the soil, the water, and resulting in the disappearance of many plant areas.


Factor #3 - Desertification and Salinization

A lack of rainfall and Saddam’s reckless environmental policies caused the Fertile Crescent to shrink and the deserts on either side to expand and squeeze this once fertile land. This expansion of the desert is called desertification. Choking desert sandstorms have become such a big problem that because of them, Baghdad must often close its airport.

Because of droughts, Hussein’s ecocide of the environment, and the decreased flow and quality of water, the salty Persian Gulf sea water has backed up into the marshes further killing life and their habitat. 

But as if suppressing dissidents, the war against Iran and the invasion of Kuwait, wasn’t enough, Hussein decided to annihilate the Arabs living in the marsh of southern Iraq. In so doing he destroyed the habitat once home to millions of animals, birds and fish - 90% of the wetlands were destroyed by the year 2,000. Agriculture in Iraq was so decimated by 2009 that this region, once known for exporting grain, was now importing 80% of its food. In just four years, from 2009 to 2013, Iraq’s land area affected by desertification and salinization had gone from 39% to 80%. The Fertile Crescent didn’t just die, it was murdered.

When we meet next, we’ll examine Factors #4 and #5 and the conclusion of The Case of the Vanishing Water. 

Map courtesy of The Economist.