Middle Eastern Water and the Maritime Option
Concerns are being raised in regard to Turkey’s plans to build 22 dams along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that also supply water to Syria and Iraq. While the water situation threatens political instability in the region, there may be scope to implement maritime based alternatives by which to provide additional water across a region that since 1998 had endured prolonged drought conditions.
The headwaters of the most important rivers in the Middle East, the Euphrates and the Tigris originate from high mountains located in Eastern Turkey. Rainfall in this region predominantly occurs during winter courtesy of winds that blow across Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan toward Turkey. These winds traditionally collected moisture from evaporation across the Aral Sea and Caspian Sea and deposited the moisture in the form of rainfall across the high mountains of northwestern Iran, eastern Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Between 1960 and 1987, water levels in the Aral Sea dropped by 13 meters and surface area decreased by 40 percent.
By 1998 and following continual shrinkage of Aral Sea surface area, drought conditions began to occur across much of the Middle East, with decreasing rainfall occurring in the watershed areas of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. By 2015, concerns were being raised about declining water levels in the Caspian Sea, the main source of windblown moisture that converts to winter time rainfall for the region. During summer, winds blow across the Black Sea toward southeastern Turkey and produce minimal additional rainfall across the watershed areas of the Middle East’s most important rivers.
Over a period of decades, diversion of water from rivers to sustain cotton farming steadily reduced water levels in the Aral Sea. Replenishing Caspian Sea water levels would follow construction of a modified version of the proposed Eurasian Canal that would connect the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea, dropping 27 meters at a depth of 6.5 meters over 430 miles (700 kilometers) along a land depression known as the Kuma-Manych Depression. The highest area of land along this route is 27 meters above the Sea of Azov, requiring construction of massive underground tunnels to carry water east from Sea of Azov.
The proposed Eurasian Canal passes through a very arid region and a water tunnel would connect to the eastern section of the canal. To avoid having to pump water to higher elevation, a massive amount of land excavation would be required to build the proposed canal east of Sea of Azov using a gently declining slope to allow gravity to flow the water. The canal and tunnels would serve a dual purpose to simultaneously provide navigation and replenish water dropping levels in the Caspian Sea. Continually dropping water levels in the Caspian Sea would likely impede future vessel navigation.
The completed canal would likely include six navigation locks able to transit vessels of 180-meter length by 11-meter beam and 6.2-meter draft that could sail through both the Eurasian Canal and the Danube River, to connect Asia – Europe trade. Vessels of 2.7-meters draft would sail between the Rhine River and Caspian Sea, via the proposed Eurasian Canal, Black Sea and Danube River. It is estimated that the Eurasian Canal could transit vessels of up to 10,000 tonnes and move bulk freight as well as container traffic at much lower cost per container and per tonne than railway transportation.
Unlike the North American railway system, some lines in India and Australia that can move 2-levels of containers, Asian, Russian and European railway lines are restricted to single level of containers. Inland waterway maritime transportation carrying 100 TEUs capacity becomes cost competitive with railway transportation. Vessels able to transit navigation locks along the Eurasian Canal and Danube River could carry in excess of 200 TEUs. To reduce transit duration and water consumption at navigation locks, water pumping equipment and covered water storage tanks may be required along the Eurasian Canal.
At the present time, the Mediterranean Sea evaporates a greater volume of water than that of all rivers emptying into it, producing a continual fluctuating water current flowing through the Strait of Gibraltar and Suez Canal. At the same time, concerns are being expressed internationally about rising sea levels in the world ocean. The construction of a water channel from Sea of Azov into tunnels along part of the Eurasian Canal would provide critically needed water to replenish Caspian Sea, maintaining optimally high water levels to assure future ship navigation and the future of the region’s fishing industry.
Optimal water levels in the Caspian Sea would assure sufficient winter evaporation to sustain winter rainfall in the mountains located west of the sea. The future volume of water to be transferred into the Caspian Sea would need to simultaneously support additional winter time operation of artificially produced evaporation that prevailing winds would carry into watershed regions of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Slow recovery of the Aral Sea is underway while the growing Russian population located along the Don and Volga Rivers have increased water requirements, in turn reducing water flow volume into the Caspian Sea.
Masses of air swirling above a large water body pick up droplets of water that are carried to high elevation where evaporation occurs. While such waterspouts occur naturally, there are evolving technological methods by which to produce and sustain operation of artificially generated water spouts. There are several variations of the vortex generator or vortex engine that could operate on a small island, on an artificial island or above a platform submerged just below the water surface. Locations for vortex engines that generate waterspouts include the southeastern region of the Black Sea and locations around Caspian Sea.
Geothermal energy and small-scale nuclear energy represent possible sources of heat to initiate and sustain operation of vortex engines to generate waterspouts that would pump massive volumes of water droplets skyward, that winds would then carry to mountain watershed areas. A nuclear ship could spend summer in the southeastern Black Sea and winter in the Caspian Sea, providing heat to sustain waterspout production. Deep level geothermal energy some 3,000 meters below maritime sea level approaches 80 degrees Celcius, an alternate source of thermal energy to sustain waterspout production, with nuclear ship having provided electric energy to operate drilling technology.
During the mid-1800s, private capital financed the excavation using crude tools to develop a ship navigation canal between the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. The difficulties involved in developing the Panama Canal using private capital led to the American government taking over the project, using improved tool technology. With regard to developing the Eurasian Canal, modern construction technology and modern excavation technology is vastly superior to the tools used to develop the Panama Canal, with automated construction technology beginning to appear and promising to greatly reduce the cost of excavation and also of building a water tunnel.
Successful completion of the Eurasian Canal and water tunnel would depend on cooperation amongst governments across the region along with a change in policy from Washington. If American economic sanctions hinder Iran’s ability to contribute to the development of the Eurasian Canal, perhaps decision makers in Washington could explore allocating a proportion of the foreign aid budget toward development of the canal and water pipeline. A portion of future oil revenues from Iraq and Iran could contribute to construction of the Eurasian Canal and parallel water pipeline as well as waterspout production.
The construction of the Eurasian Canal and water transfer from Black Sea into Caspian Sea will require cooperation amongst several governments. While the American administration may seek to protect the people and oilfields of northeastern Iraq, the region’s growing population will have increased need for a greater supply of potable water. Economic sanctions imposed on Iran restrict that nation’s ability to contribute to the development of the Eurasian Canal, parallel transfer of water into the Caspian Sea and methods to increase winter evaporation from that sea. Sanctions harm people living outside of Iran by restricting their future water supply.
The future trade and economies of several countries located around the Caspian Sea will depend on maintaining water levels in the inland sea, including by transferring water through channels and tunnels from Sea of Azov. Winter rainfall in the mountain regions to the west of the Caspian Sea depends on evaporation from the inland sea. That rainfall flows into the major rivers including the Tigris and Euphrates that provide potable water to much of the Middle East. It is therefore critical to sustain optimal water levels in the Caspian Sea to sustain ship navigation and future evaporation.
At the present time, the Russian government seems ready to move forward with developing the Eurasian Canal, with assistance from other nations.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.