Southwest Asia: Human–Environment Interaction

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Icebergs for fresh water? As you have seen, fresh water is in short supply in Southwest Asia. In 1977, a Saudi prince, Muhammad ibn Faisal, formed a company to investigate the possibility of towing icebergs from Antarctica to the port of Jidda on the Red Sea. The icebergs would then be melted to release huge quantities of fresh water. It cost one million dollars to find out that no ship was powerful enough to tow an enormous iceberg, and there was no way to keep the iceberg from breaking up on the way. In 1981, the iceberg project was suspended. This story illustrates just how precious fresh water is in Southwest Asia. For centuries, people living in the region have struggled to find fresh water for themselves and for crops.

Providing Precious Water

Water has been a valuable resource since life began on earth. Even though oil brings a great deal of money into Southwest Asia, the most critical resource in this dry region is water. Fresh water supplies are available only in small amounts and not consistently. Ancient civilizations constantly faced the problem of finding and storing water in order to survive and prosper. Today, the same challenge exists for modern nations. To find reliable water supplies, nations today use both ancient and modern practices.

The pictures on page 496 include examples of both ancient and modern techniques for providing water.


Ancient practices for providing water work well for small fields but are not efficient for large-scale farming. To meet the needs of large farms and for growing populations, countries must construct dams and irrigation systems. Turkey is building a series of dams and a man-made lake on the upper Euphrates River. The dams and lake will provide water and hydroelectricity for parts of the country. But the project is controversial—countries downstream from the dam will lose the use of the water for irrigation or hydroelectricity.

The National Water Carrier project in Israel carries water from the northern part of the country to sites in the nation's center and south. The water comes from mountain areas, including the Golan Heights, the Jordan River, and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Some of the water is used in agricultural projects in the Negev Desert, and some for drinking water. Because the water sources flow through several countries and access to the water is restricted, the National Water Carrier Project is a source of international conflict.


Several countries in the region use drip irrigation. This is the practice of using small pipes that slowly drip water just above ground to conserve water used for crops. Other nations are developing ways to use ocean water. Desalinization, the removal of salt from ocean water, is done at technically sophisticated water treatment plants. However, the desalinated water may be too salty to use for irrigation so it is used in sewage systems. Desalinization plants are very expensive and cannot provide adequate quantities of water to meet all the needs of people in Southwest Asia. Another alternative source of water, especially for agriculture, is the treatment of wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants constructed in the region fail to generate enough water to meet all the needs.

Water pumped from underground aquifers is called fossil water, because it has been in the aquifer for very long periods of time. Fossil water has very little chance of being replaced because this region has too little rainfall to recharge the aquifers. It is estimated that at the current rate water is being pumped, only about 25 to 30 years of water usage remain. Finding ways to conserve or even reuse water must be a top priority for the nations of this region.

Oil From the Sand

The oil fields discovered in the sands of Southwest Asia have been a bonanza for the region. These fields contain about one-half of all of the petroleum reserves in the world. Petroleum is the source of gasoline for automobiles, heating oil, and the basis of many chemicals used to make everything from fertilizers to plastics. Thus, petroleum products are an important part of the world economy. Having huge oil resources makes Southwest Asia a very important region economically.


Oil and natural gas deposits were formed millions of years ago when an ancient sea covered the area of Southwest Asia. Microscopic plants and animals lived and died in the waters. Their remains sank and became mingled with the sand and mud on the bottom of the sea. Over time, pressure and heat transformed the material into hydrocarbons, which form the chemical basis of oil and natural gas.

Oil and natural gas do not exist in large pools beneath the ground, but are trapped inside rocks. You could hold a rock containing oil in your hand and not be able to see the oil because it is trapped in the microscopic pores of the rock. The more porous the rock, the more oil can be stored. A barrier of nonporous rock above the petroleum deposit prevents the gas or oil from moving out of the rock and to the surface.

Engineers use sophisticated equipment to extract, or remove, the oil. It also takes technical skill and special equipment to find deposits of oil. For this reason, oil was not discovered in some parts of the region until the 1920s and 1930s.


Industrialization and the increasing popularity of automobiles made petroleum a highly desired resource. Beginning in the late 1800s, oil companies searched all over the world for oil resources. The first Southwest Asia oil discovery was in 1908 in Persia, now known as Iran. In 1938, oil companies found more oil fields in the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf. Then, World War II interrupted further exploring. In 1948, oil companies discovered portions of what would become one of the world's largest oil fields at al-Ghawar, just on the eastern edge of the Rub al-Khali. This field contains more than onequarter of all Saudi Arabia's reserves of oil.


Petroleum that has not been processed is called crude oil. Crude oil pumped from the ground must be moved to a refinery. The job of a refinery is to convert the crude oil into useful products. Pipelines transport the crude oil either to refineries or to ports where the oil is picked up by tankers and moved to other places for processing. Study the diagram on page 498 to learn how oil is processed and moved.

Placement of pipelines depends on the location of existing ports or access to worldwide markets. Study the map on page 498. Notice that in this region, the pipelines move the crude oil to ports on the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea. From these locations, oil tankers carry the petroleum to markets in the rest of the world.

In some places, refineries process the crude oil near ports. Tanks to hold the oil products are located at port facilities. Many Southwest Asian nations have updated and outfitted their ports to service the very large ocean-going tankers.

Oil Pipelines in Southwest Asia


Moving oil from one location to another always involves the risk of oil spills. The largest oil spill ever recorded occurred in January 1991, during the Persian Gulf War. A series of tankers and oil storage terminals in Kuwait and on islands off its coast were blown up. More than 240 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into the water and on land.

Buried pipelines in Southwest Asia help reduce the danger of aboveground accidents. However, oil spills on land do happen. Because oil is such a valuable commodity, the pipelines are carefully monitored for any drop in pressure that might signal a leak in the line. Any leaks are quickly repaired.

On the other hand, ocean-going tankers transporting oil are at a much higher risk for causing pollution. Many tankers operate in shallow and narrow waterways such as the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Persian Gulf, and the Straits of Hormuz. Here, there is danger of oil spills due to collisions or running aground. Most modern tankers have double hulls so that minor accidents will not result in oil spills. In addition, oil-producing nations in Southwest Asia have taken legal steps to protect their environments.

In the next chapter, you will learn more about the people and cultures of the subregions of Southwest Asia.