The Fertile Crescent, once known for its arable land containing the Euphrates, Tigris, and Nile rivers in the Middle East, has been steadily drying up in the past half-century, demonstrating the impact of climate change and water use. Extreme heat and lack of rainfall are destroying the once-fertile soil, according to scientists, spreading desert sands across approximately 40 percent of Iraq.
Though the Fertile Crescent is called the “cradle of civilization” since ancient societies flourished due to its rich minerals, it is now desolate. In the lands that once held the civilizations of Assyria, Sumer, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia, countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are struggling to prosper today.
As a result of the infertile conditions, farmland is disappearing, forcing farmers into already-overcrowded cities. Groundwater is also becoming more salty and dangerous as water supplies dwindle and mix with waste and agricultural runoff. According to the United Nations, Iraq has become the fifth most-vulnerable country to extreme heat, and Iran, its neighbor, might run out of water by mid-September, per The New York Times.
The current consequences are grounded in historical failures to adapt to modern water usage and environmental needs. In the 1960s, extensive irrigation projects redirected water away from the land, eventually causing the soil to dry up. In 1991, the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, built numerous dams to drain the water, drying the lands further. 200,000 Arabs lost their homes by 1992 when 90 percent of the marshland turned into desert, according to National Geographic. In the winter of 2007-2008, the Fertile Crescent experienced one of its most severe droughts. Between October and December 2007, little to no rain fell during the critical planting season, and in the following months, there was insufficient rain to support the crops that managed to grow.
But even the droughts then were less deadly and unyielding than the more recent ones. Iraqi citizens told The New York Times that summers just 20 years ago were rich with agriculture and water. But as climate change worsens, the Fertile Crescent is getting hotter to the point where some areas are inhabitable.
Additionally, as populations increase, the water demand rises, constraining the water supply and making it impossible to sustain the whole population. Water scarcity has displaced thousands of people every year within the Fertile Crescent and caused outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid and cholera from dirty water. Water shortages in Iraq and Iran also often cause violent unrest as groups battle for control over the water supply; the recent heatwaves and droughts increase this risk.
Scientists hope that seed banks, where seeds are stored for future use, will temporarily solve this agricultural crisis. They hope to find seeds more resistant to unfavorable conditions. Ancient seeds have been continuously evolving, allowing them to develop traits to adapt to their environment and grow against adversity. Specifically, scientists are interested in legumes, as they take in a lot of carbon dioxide, require little water, release nitrogen back into the ground — acting as a fertilizer — and can grow during the winter.
How can you help?
While there’s not much we as individuals can do to help fight against the drought in the Fertile Crescent, we can be aware and proactive in saving and conserving our water usage. To do that, we can take shorter showers, turn off the tap water when brushing our teeth, wash only full loads of laundry, and install water-efficient products.
While there are some ongoing relief efforts, preventing future extreme heat is the most helpful. You can check out our Climate Action Starter Guide to see how you can become an activist to prevent future droughts.
Denton, Bryan and Allisa J Rubin. “A Climate Warning from the Cradle of Civilization.” The New York Times, July 30, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/29/world/middleeast/iraq-water-crisis-desertification.html.
“Drought in the Fertile Crescent.” NASA, April 30, 2008. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/20010/drought-in-the-fertile-crescent.
“Fertile Crescent.” Encyclopædia Britannica, June 16, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Fertile-Crescent.
“Fertile Crescent.” History.com, December 20, 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/pre-history/fertile-crescent.
“Fertile Crescent.” National Geographic. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/fertile-crescent/.
Lindsey, Rebecca, and Curt Reynolds. “Just Add Water: A Modern Agricultural Revolution in the Fertile Crescent.” NASA, September 15, 2003. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/HarranPlains.
Sherlock, Ruth, and Jawad Rizkallah. “How Ancient Seeds from the Fertile Crescent Could Help Save Us from Climate Change.” NPR, January 25, 2023. https://www.npr.org/2023/01/25/1149738126/climate-change-food-supply-lebanon-seed-bank-agriculture.