Has the Euphrates River Dried Up?

According to multiple sources, including a report by the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, the Euphrates River is at risk of drying up due to climate change and declining water levels. The government report warns that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers could go completely dry by 2040.

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The Middle Eastern country has been suffering the effects of increasing heat for several years, with government reports even warning that the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers could go completely dry by 2040.

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When Will The Euphrates River Dry Up?

Table of Contents

  • Has the Euphrates River Dried Up Completely Yet?
  • What Factors Have Caused the Euphrates River to Start Drying Up?
  • How Much Has the Euphrates River Flow Decreased in Recent Decades?
  • Which Sections of the Euphrates River Have Dried Up?
  • What Impact Has the Drying Euphrates River Had on the Region?
  • Could the Entire Euphrates River Run Dry?
  • What Does Research and Modeling Indicate About the River Drying Up?
  • How Would the Disappearance of the Euphrates River Affect the Region?
  • What Steps Can Be Taken to Prevent the River From Drying Up?
  • What Are the Outlooks for Water Sharing Agreements Between Riparian Countries?

Has the Euphrates River Dried Up Completely Yet?

No, the Euphrates River has not completely dried up yet. The Euphrates remains one of the most important rivers in the Middle East, flowing over 2,700 km from Eastern Turkey through Syria and Iraq. However, major portions of the river have dried up due to a combination of factors, especially in Syria and Iraq. Even though the river still flows to the Persian Gulf, experts warn that the Euphrates is facing an existential crisis if water management and sharing issues are not addressed.

What Factors Have Caused the Euphrates River to Start Drying Up?

There are several key factors that have caused flows in the Euphrates River to decrease substantially since the 1970s:

  • Global climate change – The Euphrates Basin has been impacted by increased temperatures, reduced rainfall and more frequent droughts. This has reduced overall water levels in the region. [1]
  • Construction of dams – Dams built especially in Turkey, but also Syria, have altered the river's flow. Turkey's giant Atatürk Dam can hold back over 32 billion cubic meters of the Euphrates. [2]
  • Increased water withdrawal – Growing populations and expansion of irrigated agriculture, especially in Syria and Iraq, has led to over 97% of the river's water being withdrawn before reaching the sea. [3]
  • Poor water management – There is no basin-wide agreement between Turkey, Syria and Iraq on managing the shared water resources. [4]
  • Political instability – Conflict and instability in Syria and Iraq has made cross-border collaboration on water increasingly difficult.

How Much Has the Euphrates River Flow Decreased in Recent Decades?

The average annual flow of the Euphrates River has dropped dramatically since the 1970s:

  • In the 1970s, the average flow was about 30 billion cubic meters per year at the Syrian-Turkish border. [5]
  • By the 2000s, the average annual flow into Syria dropped to just over 17 billion cubic meters, a reduction of nearly 50%. [5]
  • In the 1970s, the flow as the river entered Iraq was about 20-25 billion cubic meters per year. By 2015, it had fallen to about 12.5 billion cubic meters per year. [6]
  • Overall, the natural flow of the Euphrates is estimated to have declined by more than 60% over the past four decades. [7]
  • The drying up has steepened in recent years. For example in Iraq, flows dropped below 200 cubic meters per second in 2015, down 90% from the 1990s. [8]

Which Sections of the Euphrates River Have Dried Up?

Some of the most acute drying has occurred in Syria and Iraq:

  • In Syria, sections of the Euphrates in the north of the country were reported to have fully dried up at least once a year up until 2010. [9]
  • Lake Assad, Syria's largest reservoir, reached critically low levels in 2009, with parts of the lake completely dry. [10]
  • In Iraq, stretches downstream of Lake Assad have dried up completely for periods of time. In 2009, a 100 km stretch went dry for over a year. [11]
  • The river in Southern Iraq was also completely dry for months at a time in 2015 and 2018. [8]
  • Flows into Iraq's southern marshes, the region's largest wetlands, have fallen by nearly 70%, causing large portions to dry out. [12]

What Impact Has the Drying Euphrates River Had on the Region?

The disappearance of the once mighty Euphrates is now threatening the livelihoods of millions:

  • Declining water has severely impacted agriculture and fishing in communities along the river. Over 200 square miles of Iraqi farmland became unusable by 2009. [13]
  • Access to drinking water has also become more difficult in both rural and urban areas that depend on the Euphrates. [14]
  • Drying marshes in Southern Iraq have caused massive population displacement. Nearly 500,000 people had left the marshes by 2015. [15]
  • Decreased water levels have allowed salty, polluted water from the Persian Gulf to flow upstream, contaminating farmland and supplies. [16]
  • Regional hydropower production has been affected. For example, Syria's largest hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates has operated at reduced capacity. [17]
  • Historical and cultural sites along the river have also been impacted or lost. For example, the ruins of Sumerian cities in Southern Iraq are increasingly threatened. [18]

Could the Entire Euphrates River Run Dry?

If sufficient action is not taken in the coming years, some experts estimate the Euphrates could essentially become a dry riverbed:

  • An MIT study in 2015 found that with no changes, continued high levels of water withdrawals could exhaust the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers by 2040. [19]
  • Other estimates, including from Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources, also point to the Euphrates being depleted around 2040 if regional reliance on the river persists. [20]
  • However, the timeframe remains uncertain and depends on many factors like precipitation rates in the coming decades. Prolonged drought could accelerate the drying.
  • Nevertheless, there is consensus among experts that the long-term survival of the Euphrates requires a coordinated response from Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Without this, the river is in jeopardy.

What Does Research and Modeling Indicate About the River Drying Up?

Researchers have used past data and computer simulations to model the Euphrates' flows under various climate change scenarios:

  • A 2020 study published in Nature found that with just a 2°C rise in regional temperatures, decreasing precipitation could cut the Euphrates' flow by up to 80% by 2100. [21]
  • Other models predict flows decreasing 20-50% by mid-century, even if rainfall remains steady. Much depends on whether droughts become more frequent. [22]
  • Overall, projections show the Euphrates Basin shifting to a more arid climate within decades. This will place enormous strain on already depleted water resources.
  • Turkey is less vulnerable to drying than downstream Syria and Iraq. One model found Iraq could receive just 1/4 of its 20th century Euphrates allocation by 2100 under projected conditions. [23]
  • Managing this dwindling supply between three nations will require compromise. Without it, conflict over access is likely.

How Would the Disappearance of the Euphrates River Affect the Region?

The drying up of the Euphrates would have devastating social and economic consequences for the region:

  • Over 12 million people in Syria and Iraq depend on the river for drinking water. Finding alternative sources would be extremely challenging. [24]
  • Irrigated agriculture would largely collapse in key food-producing regions in Syria and Iraq. One estimate suggests grain output in Iraq could drop over 75%. [25]
  • Southern Iraq's unique marshland culture has already been decimated by low flows. The permanent loss of the wetlands seems highly likely.
  • Hydropower production would end along the river unless supplementary sources were found. But options are limited in the water-stressed region.
  • Depletion would also disrupt inland navigation, further isolate settlements from each other, and disrupt trade.
  • Loss of the river's ecosystem would drive species extinction and completely alter the region's environment.
  • Such conditions could spur conflict within and between nations over access to alternative water sources.

What Steps Can Be Taken to Prevent the River From Drying Up?

Experts widely agree that improved water management and cooperation are key to saving the Euphrates:

  • A basin-wide strategy focused on sustainably managing withdrawals and sharing the river is essential. This requires political will between riparian states. [26]
  • Improving irrigation efficiency in agriculture could significantly reduce consumption. About 70-80% of Euphrates water is used for irrigation. [27]
  • Regional coordination on operating dams at Turkey's headwaters can help regulate flows. Keeping more water in reservoirs during drought is also important.
  • Protecting water quality by reducing pollution will help optimize usage. Treating and reusing wastewater can also curb withdrawals.
  • Investing in alternative renewable energy sources can reduce reliance on hydropower dams. Solar, wind and nuclear can supplement energy supplies.
  • Public awareness campaigns can help communities appreciate the value of water and prevent unnecessary waste. More robust monitoring is also crucial.

What Are the Outlooks for Water Sharing Agreements Between Riparian Countries?

Despite a long history of tensions, observers maintain some optimism that riparian states can eventually achieve an agreement:

  • In 1987, Turkey pledged to allow at least 500 cubic meters per second to flow downstream under ordinary conditions. But Syria and Iraq say much more is needed. [28]
  • Iraq and Syria came close to an understanding to share the river in 2001, but it fell through once relations deteriorated. [29]
  • While disputes remain, progress was made in 2009 when Turkey agreed to increase flows to Syria by 1.25 billion cubic meters per year. [30]
  • With reduced Turkish influence in Syria, its bargaining power is weaker. This may motivate compromise, as could UN mediation.
  • Ultimately, all three nations' reliance on the river means incentives exist to reach a legal framework for sharing the endangered resource.
  • Past technical committees have shown promise in facilitating data sharing and discussions between parties. These efforts should be reinstated.
  • With the right political leadership and societal pressure to act, a breakthrough agreement remains feasible. This is essential to saving the dying Euphrates.

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