The Euphrates River, at the 'Cradle of Civilization,' Is Drying Up

By: Mitch Ryan  | 
The Euphrates River Basin, sometimes called the cradle of civilization, still runs through the Middle East today. Joel Carillet / Getty Images

The Euphrates River is one of the most important water systems in recorded history.

Located in Western Asia, at the very heart of the Middle East, the Euphrates-Tigris river system fed farmable land in the fertile crescent, which became the roots of human civilization with the rise of the Mesopotamians and Sumerians.


What Is the Tigris-Euphrates River System?

This essential water system comprises two rivers (known today as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) that flow North to South from Turkey to the Persian Gulf.

Headwaters of the Tigris River

The Tigris River begins at the Taurus Mountains of Eastern Turkey and flows along the Syrian-Turkish border before branching off into smaller tributaries. The Tigris then connects with the Euphrates near the town of al-Qurnah to form the Shatt-al-Arab River.


Dams and Levees

Each river flows from the Taurus Mountains, heading south toward the Persian Gulf. As the rivers descend toward the Syrian-Turkish border, they are controlled by manmade dams and levees that maintain a minimum average flow of 500 cubic meters per second (nearly 18,000 cubic ft./second).

Central Flood Plain

The most important aspect of these water resources for humans is that the Euphrates River basins offer some of the most fertile land in the region.

However, humans have done little to return the favor, as pollution, war and other misguided human intervention have led to increased water scarcity and higher contaminated water levels in the region.


Importance of the Euphrates Basin in the History of the Middle East

Historians and anthropologists often refer to the Euphrates River Basin as the "cradle of civilization" because this river valley was the perfect location for people to gather and develop societies based on agriculture and trade.

Various tributaries and marshlands provided a reliable drinking water supply for a growing population and enough water for crop irrigation systems to ensure food security and surplus for commerce. This growth spurred groundbreaking developments in art, writing, mathematics and various other sciences.


From humble beginnings, this land would be the birthplace of some of the most influential empires in human history, including the Persian and the Ottoman.

Effects of Climate Change on the Euphrates River

The Euphrates River drying is an indicator that climate change will undoubtedly have a serious human impact unless international cooperation and nongovernmental organizations can invoke dramatic changes.

Temperatures in Northern Syria have increased by 1 degree in the last century, and decreased rainfall has exacerbated the situation. These reduced water levels will likely diminish reservoirs like Lake Assad and cause hydroelectric power stations like the Atatürk Dam and Alouk Water Station to stop generating electricity.


These challenges will only make things worse for the roughly 7.2 million refugees displaced by civil war who rely on these rivers for basic human needs. Therefore, these rivers are not just an essential resource in the evolution of humanity; they are also an important aspect of human rights today.