Water management is an issue that weaves itself throughout Syrian and Mesopotamian history. Irrigation canals and water diversions have a long archaeological and historical record. As one example – royal inscriptions from 2500 to 2350 BC from Mesopotamia relate to how Eannatum the ruler of Lagash extended the Inun water canal and how disputes over canals and irrigated fields led to war between that state and the neighboring state of Umma.
The Romans were the great water engineers and managers of the ancient world. Throughout Syria there remain, sometimes in working order, examples of Roman water management. One type of Roman water work that is extremely abundant, and often still functional, is the Roman Cistern (Abar Romani). These are small excavated caverns, often lined with Roman hydraulic cement, that capture surface flow from the winter rains for use in the dry summer. They typically have a large stone cover to protect the water. There are at least 1115 of these cisterns in Syria. On a small road near Qatura northeast of Aleppo one such cistern sits beneath a set of Roman cave tombs and is still used by travelers.
Another fascinating technology used by the Romans was the water wheel (Noria) which is represented in 4th century AD mosaics from Syria. The noria is powered by the flow of a river and lifts water in buckets to fields or aqueducts. There remain a number of ancient Arabic water wheels along the Orontes River in and near Hama. These water works date back to medieval times and as late as 1985 there were about 80 in use along the river irrigating over 5000 ha. Today only a handful remain and those in Hama itself are tourist attractions for the city – ancient and elegant reminders of the long history of water management and transference in Syria.
The Euphrates River runs 2700 km through the cradle of middle eastern and western civilization. Its slow course and green fertile banks have nurtured some of the first urban cultures and the famous city of Babylon. The Euphrates rises in Turkey, flows across the arid portion of central and eastern Syria and then enters Iraq near the site of the ancient city of Mari. We traveled to the Ar Raqqah province of Syria to see the ancient river and the water works and agriculture along its course. We also wanted to cross it so that we would be in Mesopotamia – the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
One thing we wanted to see along the Euphrates was the dam at Al Thawra and the 640 sq km Assad Reservoir. The dam was built with Soviet assistance and is one of the largest earth-fill dams in the world. Assad reservoir is the largest in Syria and critical for water resource management and hydroelectricity.
Water withdrawal and management of the Euphrates has been at times flash point in relations between Syria and Turkey and Iraq. The salinity content of the water doubles between the Turkish and Iraqi borders. As we approached the dam to cross the Euphrates at Al Thawra we were stopped by Syrian army troops with AK-47’s and after much inspection of our papers we were allowed to cross the Euphrates to the eastern shore. However, we were strictly forbidden to stop on the dam or to photograph at all. We followed these rules to the letter – but it was unfortunate not to have been able to film. The dam is huge, with modern and purposeful looks. On one side extends the blue waters of the huge Assad Reservoir. Far below on the other side there spreads a shallow and green river valley – lush with reeds and small fields and dotted with tiny abode huts formed from the mud of the river. It was a view from the 21st century deep back millennia to the dawn of agriculture and civilization. A fitting place to cross the Euphrates.
After interviewing a number of scientists at ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) at Tel Hadya I was struck by the concern about the competition for sparse water resources between the large agricultural sector of the middle east and the rapidly growing and increasingly urbanized human population. With water-mining depleting groundwater resources in many regions, and a projected decreases in annual water balance of about 50 mm due to global warming – the increasing demand for water in urban areas adds extreme difficulty. Today about 70% of water regionally is used by agriculture, but some ICARDA researchers see this shifting to 50% in the future. To give some idea of the situation, consider the population in Syria in 1995 was around 15 million people. Today is is around 20 million and projected to hit 30 million in 2020 (Central Bureau for Statistics, Syrian Arab Republic)…. Many of these people will live in large cites such as Damascus and Aleppo. One can envision many pressures for change in rural farming and pasturalist lifestyles that have existed for millennia.
About an hour east of Aleppo lies a low tell called Umm El-Marra. From the distance it is an indistinct feature lying in the relatively arid Jabbul Plain. The tell is hot, dry and dusty, On closer inspection it has much to reveal about the early history of northern Syria. Deep below the soft sediment deposited over milennia, Glenn Schwartz and his team have uncovered the remains of a bronze age city- including apparently royal burials associated with sacrificial offerings. The interesting thing that brought us here to see the site and speak with Glenn is the evidence that this city, like many others in northern Syria, declined or was perhaps abandoned around 2200 BC. At that time the city appears to have been an outpost of the world’s first empire, the Akkadian Empire. Interestingly, paleoclimatic evidence suggests that the timing of decline corresponds to a large and protracted drought. Was an unprecedented mega-drought a sufficient perturbation to cause such a widespread decline in urban culture? The questions remains debated in terms of Umm El-Marra. Gazing at the tell and surrounding country side one wonders, where would such a drought lead to today?
Agriculture in Syria is always a game controlled by water scarcity. The boundary between those areas that receive 300 mm of rain each year and can produce wheat arcs across the country from the northern highlands westward and then southward parallel to the coastline. Southeast of that line you can grow some barley and other crops, but once the precipitation drops below 200 mm you are done with crops and the Syrian steppe and desert spreads before you, except along the green banks of the Euphrates. But this year the Spring experienced record heat and aridity and parts of Syria received less than 50% of normal precipitation overall. According to the USDA estimates, Syria’s wheat production may drop by 38% compared to last year’s production. Wheat, the ancient crop domesticated here at the dawn of history, makes up 83% of Syria’s grain production.Is this Spring an anomaly or a taste of the future?
As we travel we see that much of the sparse harvest is already in and Bedouin tents are pitched in the fields. The Bedouin rest in the cool shade of the large square tents while their sheep seek shade or wander the fields to graze on the sparse stubble.
A week or so ago portions of California and adjacent Nevada were declared a federal emergency zone due to the outbreak of scores of fires. The fires were generated by a freak outbreak of lightning strikes in a time of hot temperatures following an epic dry Spring. I myself celebrated the 4th of July Holidays under a pall of smoke from the Goleta Fire above Santa Barbara. The governor and State have concluded that there is no longer a fire season in California – the fire season extends across the entire year. Water districts in the State scramble to implement drought strategies and just as every Spring and Summer from 2001 onward has done, the North American Drought Monitor maps depict much of California and the interior west in shades of yellow, brown and red – the colors of moderate to extreme drought. The splash of colors across the drought map is the signature of the Perfect Drought – extensive in geographic area and long duration (see http://www.biogeographer.com). I believe it is also the signature of global warming. Some believe it is no longer simply a discrete drought we face – it is a new state of being for the west., a state of perpetual aridity.
While California burns, it may seem odd that I am writing this first blog from the city of Aleppo in northern Syria – a half a world away from the drought and fires of California where I live and do much of my research. But, here I am – close to the waters of Babylon for a reason. Over the next year, thanks to a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, I am going to travel and conduct research on the global implications of the many Perfect Droughts we are hatching as the planet continues to warm-up. Syria is the start and a fitting one at that. Syria, Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, hearths of agriculture, urban civilization, religions and an arid region whose human history is entwined with issues of drought.