March 28, 2012

Solar Flares and Nuclear Armageddon

The following essay, shocking in its conclusions, details the vulnerability of the electrical grid to extreme geomagnetic disturbances [GMD] arising from solar storms and forecasts an apocalyptic result were such an event to occur. The author, Matthew Stein, argues that “the next natural, inevitable super solar storm and resultant extreme GMD” could produce 400 Chernobyls and “would end the industrialized world as we know it, creating almost incalculable suffering, death and environmental destruction on a scale not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.” A year ago, senior officials of the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that an intense electromagnetic storm would cause, in the worst case, two trillion dollars of damages, so Stein’s warning is rather far in excess of official estimates! He also thinks that the problem is fixable with fairly limited expenditures—some $2 billion. Alas, such preventative steps have not been taken; until they are, Stein argues, the danger is acute.

The following extract, about a third of the original, focuses on the threat posed by geomagnetic disturbances, but Stein also discusses later in his piece the potential costs of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack and the measures advisable in addressing both threats:  

In the past 152 years, Earth has been struck by roughly 100 solar storms, causing significant geomagnetic disturbances (GMD), two of which were powerful enough to rank as "extreme GMDs." If an extreme GMD of such magnitude were to occur today, in all likelihood, it would initiate a chain of events leading to catastrophic failures at the vast majority of our world's nuclear reactors, similar to but over 100 times worse than, the disasters at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. When massive solar flares launch a huge mass of highly charged plasma (a coronal mass ejection, or CME) directly toward Earth, colliding with our planet's outer atmosphere and magnetosphere, the result is a significant geomagnetic disturbance.

The last extreme GMD of a magnitude that could collapse much of the US grid was in May of 1921, long before the advent of modern electronics, widespread electric power grids, and nuclear power plants. We are, mostly, blissfully unaware of this threat and unprepared for its consequences. The good news is that relatively affordable equipment and processes could be installed to protect critical components in the electric power grid and its nuclear reactors, thereby averting this "end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it" scenario. The bad news is that even though panels of scientists and engineers have studied the problem, and the bipartisan Congressional electromagnetic pulse (EMP) commission has presented a list of specific recommendations to Congress, our leaders have yet to approve and implement any significant preventative measures. . . .

If an extreme GMD were to cause widespread grid collapse (which it most certainly will), in as little as one or two hours after each nuclear reactor facility's backup generators either fail to start, or run out of fuel, the reactor cores will start to melt down. After a few days without electricity to run the cooling system pumps, the water bath covering the spent fuel rods stored in "spent-fuel ponds" will boil away, allowing the stored fuel rods to melt down and burn. Since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently mandates that only one week's supply of backup generator fuel needs to be stored at each reactor site, it is likely that, after we witness the spectacular nighttime celestial light show from the next extreme GMD, we will have about one week in which to prepare ourselves for Armageddon. . . .

During the great geomagnetic storm of May 14-15, 1921, brilliant aurora displays were reported in the Northern Hemisphere as far south as Mexico and Puerto Rico, and in the Southern Hemisphere as far north as Samoa. This extreme GMD produced ground currents roughly ten times as strong as the 1989 Quebec incident. Just 62 years earlier, the great granddaddy of recorded GMDs, referred to as "the Carrington Event," raged from August 28 to September 4, 1859. This extreme GMD induced currents so powerful that telegraph lines, towers and stations caught on fire at a number of locations around the world. Best estimates are that the Carrington Event was approximately 50 percent stronger than the 1921 storm. Since we are headed into an active solar period much like the one preceding the Carrington Event, scientists are concerned that conditions could be ripe for the next extreme GMD.

Prior to the advent of the microchip and modern extra-high-voltage (EHV) transformers (key grid components that were first introduced in the late 1960s), most electrical systems were relatively robust and resistant to the effects of GMDs. Given that a simple electrostatic spark can fry a microchip and thousands of miles of power lines could act like giant antennas for capturing massive amounts of GMD-spawned electromagnetic energy, modern electrical systems are far more vulnerable than their predecessors.

The federal government recently sponsored a detailed scientific study to better understand how much critical components of our national electrical power grid might be affected by either a naturally occurring GMD or a man-made EMP. Under the auspices of the EMP Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and reviewed in depth by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Academy of Sciences, Metatech Corporation undertook extensive modeling and analysis of the potential effects of extreme geomagnetic storms on the US electrical power grid. Based upon a storm as intense as the 1921 storm, Metatech estimated that within the United States, induced voltage and current spikes, combined with harmonic anomalies, would severely damage or destroy over 350 EHV power transformers critical to the functioning of the US grid and possibly impact well over 2000 EHV transformers worldwide.

EHV transformers are made to order and custom-designed for each installation, each weighing as much as 300 tons and costing well over $1 million. Given that there is currently a three-year waiting list for a single EHV transformer (due to recent demand from China and India, lead times grew from one to three years), and that the total global manufacturing capacity is roughly 100 EHV transformers per year when the world's manufacturing centers are functioning properly, you can begin to grasp the implications of widespread transformer losses.

The loss of thousands of EHV transformers worldwide would cause a catastrophic grid collapse across much of the industrialized world. It will take years, at best, for the industrialized world to put itself back together after such an event, especially considering the fact that most of the manufacturing centers that make this equipment will also be grappling with widespread grid failure. . . .

The Congressionally mandated EMP Commission has studied the threat of both EMP and extreme GMD events and made recommendations to the US Congress to implement protective devices and procedures to ensure the survival of the grid and other critical infrastructures in either event. John Kappenman, author of the Metatech study, estimates that it would cost about $1 billion to build special protective devices into the US grid to protect its EHV transformers from EMP or extreme GMD damage and to build stores of critical replacement parts should some of these items be damaged or destroyed. Kappenman estimates that it would cost significantly less than $1 billion to store at least a year's worth of diesel fuel for backup generators at each US nuclear facility and to store sets of critical spare parts, such as backup generators, inside EMP-hardened steel containers to be available for quick change-out in the event that any of these items were damaged by an EMP or GMD. . . .

* * *

In the comments section, Stein notes that "numerous top notch scientific experts" are in accord with his outlook:
For example, in his letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on 8/5/2011, Dr. William Graham, former chief science adviser to President Reagan, and chairman of the bipartisan Congressional EMP Commission, discussed the problem of long-term widespread grid failure due to extreme geomagnetic storm, saying "A Study by the National Academy of Sciences independently confirmed the EMP Commission's assessment that, if a great geomagnetic storm like the 1859 Carrington Event recurred today, recovery of the national electric power grid would take 4 to 10 years. Such an event could also cause operators of the 108 nuclear power plants in the United States to lose the ability to perform a safe, controlled shutdown of their power reactors, producing Fukushima-like disaster on a large scale."

Matthew Stein, “400 Chernobyls: Solar Flares, Electromagnetic Pulses and Nuclear Armageddon,”, March 24, 2012

March 19, 2012

Oil Price Spikes and Recessions

From Societe Generale, via Business Insider and Financial Armageddon, summarizing an argument previously advanced by Jim Hamilton, David Rosenberg, and Stuart Staniford.

March 15, 2012

Energy Independence and the New American Century?

Philip K. Verleger, Jr., the petroleum economist, is publishing this year in his Petroleum Economics Monthly a series of reports under the general heading "Energy Independence and the New American Century." Verleger was recently interviewed by NPR and predicted that the United States would be in a net energy export position by 2023. That date is the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon's 1973 call to achieve energy interdependence by 1980, which didn't exactly work out as planned. Nixon proposed what Verleger calls a "high-cost dirty path to energy independence." It featured off-shore resource development, fast-breeder reactors, expanded coal use, and the intensive development of shale oil in Colorado using the same techniques now employed on Canada's tar sands. Had it been followed, "Nixon's strategy would have saddled the US with high-cost energy supplies and very high emissions of harmful global-warming gases." Instead, the United States took a different path, accidentally stumbling upon a "low-cost clean path to energy independence."

A number of key developments, in Verleger's retelling, came together to produce this result. First in importance was the entrepreneurial development of natural gas and oil from shale rock by smaller U.S. firms, now "freed from the multinational oil industry's high-cost yoke." These companies were able to utilize new financial instruments invented by Wall Street that enabled them to hedge their production and stay in business even when gas prices collapsed (while also shifting their new techniques to oil). Finally, "the United States is profiting from dramatic increases in auto fuel economy, a change that came after the 2008 gasoline price surge and GM and Chrysler's subsequent bankruptcies."

It seems somewhat doubtful that Verleger fully accepts his own thesis that energy independence will arise simply because of dumb luck. He himself emphasizes that entrepreneurial inventiveness has played the key role, and the larger thrust of his analysis is to suggest the foolhardiness of statist solutions. But such is his arresting conclusion: by 2023 the United States will have "blundered into energy independence."

This profound transformation in world energy markets, he contends, will produce a "New American Century" made possible by the cheaper energy supplies available to American companies: "Such an advantage, combined with construction of new advanced manufacturing facilities and competitive domestic labor costs, will give the US economy an unprecedented edge over other nations, particularly China and northern Europe." Already, the huge disparity in costs--recently "US firms paid less than $3 per million Btu for natural gas while South Korean buyers paid $13.50"--is having an effect on industrial competition, and Verleger thinks the big price disparity will continue. Russia and OPEC, the big oil and natural gas exporters, look set to continue to tie the cost of natural gas to crude. If they are successful, that will only increase the US competitive advantage.

How plausible is this scenario? Verleger does not explain in the publicly available executive summary the respective roles that increased production and reduced consumption will play in achieving energy independence by 2023.  As we saw earlier, the US is still a net energy importer of some 8 million barrels per day, so that is a lot of ground to cover in ten years.

The argument regarding the new financial instruments is novel and intriguing, though here too the summary report is short on specifics. Presumably he is referring to both the ability to raise capital to fund risky investments and to hedge production. For the longer term, however, hedging would not seem to provide a way out of the dilemma in which natural gas producers now find themselves. While hedging has certainly facilitated the ability of natural gas companies to keep drilling and to increase supplies despite the collapse in prices, it is difficult to see how this can keep going. Even futures prices a few years out look to be well below the cost of production, customarily estimated at between $5.50 to $6.00 per million btu. Barring a sharp fall in supplies stemming from drilling halts or company bankruptcies, the only way to overcome the disparity between extremely low domestic prices and ramped up production is to begin exporting natural gas on a large scale, bringing US prices more in line with the world prices--but that would diminish the expected US competitive edge and also inhibit the large scale conversion of domestic electricity generation and transportation to natural gas.

Larger questions remain regarding the longevity of US oil and gas reserves, expected flow-rates, the price of extraction, and the relative "cleanliness" of natural gas versus alternatives, but Verleger has given us an arresting vision of the future. Remarkably, it is a projected future of American dominance that has little room for the major oil companies. "Twenty years from now, we expect most large energy firms, which seem so important today, will have disappeared. It is even possible that a person born in the United States or Europe in 2020 will never know about Exxon." That prediction seems other-worldly to me; alas, Verleger does not explain in the executive summary how he arrives at it.

Citigroup has also produced a recent report arguing that the United States is on course to achieve energy independence "this decade" (which one supposes means by 2019 rather than Verleger's 2023 date). Noting that net imports of crude oil and petroleum products are around 8 million barrels per day, Citigroup gets to energy independence with the following calculations. "If shale oil grows by 2 mbd, which we think is conservative, and California adds its 1 mbd to the Gulf of Mexico's 2 mbd, we reduce import reliance to 3 mbd. Canadian production is expected to rise by 1.6 mbd by 2020 . . ., and much of this will effectively be stranded in North America, and there is the potential to cut demand both through conservation and a shift in transportation demand to natural gas by at least 1 mbd and by some calculations by 2 mbd--adding to demographic and fuel efficiency impacts the switching of heavy and medium-duty trucks to LNG- and CNG-fuelled vehicles."

There is a sharp critique of the Citigroup report by Chris Nelder of The Energy Futurist, who notes that Citigroup appears to ignore the question of declining production from existing fields and gives highly optimistic forecasts for both oil shale and Gulf of Mexico production. In contrast, the EIA's forecasts (see chart below from a February 2012 report) are much more restrained. The chart shows domestic production rising nearly 2mbd to around 7.5 mbd in the 2015-20 period--a sharp turnaround from projections only a few years back but still a long way from the 8 mbd needed to close the net energy trade deficit.

See also this critique of the cornucopians by Nelder and Greg McDonald, responding to a piece by Daniel Yergin:
Conventional crude ended its 150-year-long growth trajectory in 2004 and flattened out around 74 million barrels per day. Crude supply did not budge when oil prices tripled from 2004 to 2008, but global demand remained firm, shrugging off a recessionary dip in 2009. All the growth in supply since then was not crude but unconventional liquids, including natural gas liquids, biofuels, refinery gains, synthetic oil from tar sands, and other marginal resources. These liquids are by no means equivalent to crude. Yergin's calming charts [showing current world production of oil at 90 mbd] include these unconventional liquids and hide the fundamental issue of the depletion of mature fields. They also hide the declining energy density, higher cost, and lower flow rates of these new resources.

As Shell, Chevron, Total, the IEA, and a host of other serious observers have openly declared since 2005, the age of cheap and easy oil has ended. The "oil" that's left is progressively expensive, difficult, risky, marginal, and fraught with secondary effects like increasing carbon emissions, demand for water, and competition with food.

A wide spectrum of agnostic analysts with decades of distinguished service in the oil industry and its press have addressed this. We like the formulation of petroleum economist Chris Skrebowski, which defines peak oil as the point where "the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth at a given point in time."

Update: There is a critical review of the Citigroup report at The Oil Drum, by Heading Out, posted on April 1, 2012. 


US Rig Count Exploding, Production Not So Much

These two charts from Barclays Capital show a veritable explosion in US rig counts for oil development and oil exploration.


This rig count expansion, of some 400 to 500 percent over the last three to four years, underlies the glowing prognostications of a revolution in US domestic energy supply. And domestic supplies are increasing. However, as the following chart from the Energy Information Agency shows, the expected increases over 2010 levels in the following three years (2011-2013) amount to only about 700,000 barrels per day. Given overall US consumption at around 19,000,000 barrels per day, and net petroleum imports of some 8 to 9 million barrels a day, those increases do not seem like the "game changer" so often advertised. That such an enormous increase in rigs employed should lead to so limited an increase in production is striking. 

According to the EIA's March 6, 2012 Short Term Energy Outlook, domestic crude oil production increased by 120,000 barrels a day to 5.6 million barrels a day in 2011. A 390,000 b/d increase in lower-48 onshore production in 2011 was offset by a 40,000 decline in Alaska and a 230,000 b/d decline in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). Natural gas liquids (NGLs) and biofuels are not included in that tally.

 * * *

Source of charts: Walter Kurtz of Sober Look, via Pragmatic Capitalist

March 8, 2012

Exporting Natural Gas?

One of the most striking of U.S. energy predicaments is whether to encourage the export of natural gas from the United States. 

Four years ago, the question did not arise; the assumption was that the United States would need to import large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in order to overcome domestic shortfalls. In 2008, the price of natural gas reached $13.69 per million British thermal units, almost back to the crisis levels reached in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Since that time, the price of natural gas has fallen to $2.30, far below the cost of production, and production itself has exploded, growing 41 percent since 2005. New techniques of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have made for an energy revolution, and have produced unprecedented disparities in pricing between natural gas and everything else. Natural gas prices in Asia, reports The Wall Street Journal, are now 8 times those in the United States.

The controversy over whether to build new export terminals, as the Journal notes, has made for strange bedfellows, with the petrochemical industry and the Sierra Club, for different reasons, standing side-by-side in opposition. Those in favor of encouraging exports include the domestic natural gas producers, big importers like Japan and Europe, and wind, solar, and coal companies hammered by the collapse in natural gas prices. Beyond the economic and political interests at play, however, there is also a profound tension between strategic and economic objectives, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other. The controversy, in basic respects, thus replicates the debate over whether to build the Keystone Pipeline.  

Energy companies have found so much natural gas in U.S. shale rocks they want to begin exporting it. But the push is creating a political clash with an unusual set of opponents who think American gas should stay in America.

Gas producers are eager to find new markets after seeing the glut of U.S. gas depress prices to a 10-year low. Big gas importers, such as Japan, are lobbying through diplomatic channels to persuade the U.S. to open the export spigot.

Lining up against exports are some strange bedfellows in industry and the environmental community. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group of chemical makers, says a long-term supply of cheap natural gas would drive enormous investment and job creation in the U.S. petrochemical industry. It has warned the government against "undermining the availability of domestic natural gas."

The chemical industry is being joined by the Sierra Club, a major environmental group, which frets that giving natural-gas producers new customers overseas will lead to more hydraulic fracturing to break up the shale and release the gas, a technique dubbed fracking that has raised environmental concerns. . . .

The issue could come to a head this spring as the Department of Energy prepares to decide whether issuing export licenses for gas is in the national interest. The department has said it will rely in part on a report about the economic impact of exports, due within weeks.

Proponents say allowing exports could create more jobs in the natural-gas industry by encouraging new wells. Recently, some companies have shied away from drilling because domestic gas prices are so low and there is no way to sell the fuel overseas.

Exports also could also help trim the U.S. trade deficit, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said last month. "Exporting natural gas means wealth comes into the United States," he said. Once a big energy importer, the U.S. has begun to turn into an export powerhouse by shipping out refined products such as gasoline.

The U.S. currently exports a small amount of gas to Japan from a 43-year-old facility in Kenai, Alaska, which chills the gas to turn it into a liquid before it can be put on supercooled tanker ships. But there aren't any large-scale terminals to create liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to ship overseas. . . .

One proposed export terminal—Cheniere Energy Inc.'s project at Sabine Pass, La.—already has won Department of Energy approval to ship to most nations. Seven other projects are seeking similar signoffs. If all are built, which is seen as unlikely, they could export about 25% of current U.S. gas production.

Creating an export trade is expected to boost prices and production of gas, a fuel used to heat about half of U.S. homes and generate a quarter of the nation's electricity. The Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Energy Department, recently said gas exports could push domestic prices up over the next decade between 14% and 36%, depending on the pace of export-facility construction.

Increasing exports of gas could help both coal and renewable power, both of which are struggling to maintain market share against inexpensive gas-powered electricity generation. . . .

Cheniere's Mr. Souki said the biggest support for exports should come from "every politician in a state that produces gas, and there are 32 states that produce gas today," since exports bring in royalties and taxes.

The Sierra Club opposes creating more incentives to drill, citing long-term effects of natural-gas production, such as methane that escapes into the atmosphere from wells. It also has concerns about potential groundwater pollution from fracking and the amount of energy used to chill gas to 260 degrees below zero so it can be shipped. "It becomes a net negative in terms of climate impact, and for that reason alone we would oppose" the terminals, said the group's Mr. Brune.

Recently, U.S. diplomats have been encouraging global LNG production because they see potential strategic benefits, such as weakening Russia's power in gas markets.

"In the last five years, LNG that had been originally slated for U.S. markets has been diverted to European spot markets, forcing gas-on-gas competition as Russian suppliers had to accept lower prices for pipeline gas," said Robert Cekuta, a senior State Department official in the energy and economics bureau, speaking last month in Indonesia.

Russell Gold and Keith Johnson, “Odd Alliance Says No to Gas Exports,” The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2012

* * *

As the price of natural gas has fallen back to 1990s levels, the wind, solar, and coal sectors have taken it on the chin. The following chart shows the coal index ($DJUSCL, in red), the solar exchange traded fund (TAN, in green), and the wind etf (FAN, in purple).

Jeremy Grantham's latest quarterly letter contains the following chart showing the natural gas/crude oil energy equivalent ratio over the last fifty years. He notes that "there have been several recent decades in which the BTU equivalent price for natural gas did, at least for a second, reach parity with oil. But now [as of 2/8/12] it is at just 14% of BTU equivalency, the lowest in almost 50 years." (click to enlarge)

Here are a couple of additional charts from Floyd Norris, "Gas Costs More, or Less," New York Times, March 30, 2012. Note that the price of crude oil in the chart is for West Texas Intermediate. The extreme ratio displayed in the bottom chart (showing oil at a 8.35 multiple to natural gas for energy equivalent value) would be even higher were it compared to Brent Oil, which has averaged around $125 per barrel the last few weeks.


March 3, 2012

Syria's Water Woes

Though all eyes are fastened on Syria's civil war, it is evident from the following report that environmental and climatic woes have played a crucial role in fomenting the conflict. According to Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security:
From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), “nearly 75 percent … suffered total crop failure.” Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.
The human and economic costs are enormous. In 2009, the UN and IFRC reported that over 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the droughts. By 2011, the aforementioned GAR report estimated that the number of Syrians who were left extremely “food insecure” by the droughts sat at about one million. The number of people driven into extreme poverty is even worse, with a UN report from last year estimating two to three million people affected.
This has led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. Last January, it was reported that crop failures (particularly the Halaby pepper) just in the farming villages around the city of Aleppo, had led “200,000 rural villagers to leave for the cities.” In October 2010, the New York Times highlighted a UN estimate that 50,000 families migrated from rural areas just that year, “on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled in earlier years.” In context of Syrian cities coping with influxes of Iraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion in 2003, this has placed additional strains and tensions on an already stressed and disenfranchised population. . . .
A NOAA study published last October in the Journal of Climate found strong and observable evidence that the recent prolonged period of drought in the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East is linked to climate change. On top of this, the study also found worrying agreement between observed climate impacts, and future projections from climate models. A recent model of climate change impacts on Syria conducted by IFPRI, for example, projects that if current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions continue, yields of rainfed crops in the country may decline “between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.”
This problem has been compounded by poor governance. The al-Assad regime has, by most accounts except their own, criminally combined mismanagement and neglect of Syria’s natural resources, which have contributed to water shortages and land desertification. Based on short-term assessments during years of relative plenty, the government has heavily subsidized water-intensive wheat and cotton farming, and encouraged inefficient irrigation techniques. In the face of both climate and human-induced water shortages, farmers have sought to increase supply by turning to the country’s groundwater resources, with Syria’s National Agricultural Policy Center reporting an increase in wells tapping aquifers from “just over 135,000 in 1999 to more than 213,000 in 2007.” This pumping “has caused groundwater levels to plummet in many parts of the country, and raised significant concerns about the water quality in remaining aquifer stocks.”
On top of this, the over-grazing of land and a rapidly growing population have compounded the land desertification process. As previously fertile lands turn to dust, farmers and herders have had no choice but to move elsewhere, starve, or demand change. . . .

From Climate Progress, "Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest"

* * *

An October 2010 report from the New York Times gives additional detail on the scale of Syria's (and Iraq's) water shortages. Reporting from Al Raqqah, Syria, a town on the Euphrates River, Robert F. Worth noted that the farmlands north and east of the town were once the breadbasket of the region:

Now, after four consecutive years of drought, this heartland of the Fertile Crescent — including much of neighboring Iraq — appears to be turning barren, climate scientists say. Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.

“I had 400 acres of wheat, and now it’s all desert,” said Ahmed Abdullah, 48, a farmer who is living in a ragged burlap and plastic tent here with his wife and 12 children alongside many other migrants. “We were forced to flee. Now we are at less than zero — no money, no job, no hope.”

The collapse of farmlands here — which is as much a matter of human mismanagement as of drought — has become a dire economic challenge and a rising security concern for the Syrian and Iraqi governments, which are growing far more dependent on other countries for food and water. Syria, which once prided itself on its self-sufficiency and even exported wheat, is now quietly importing it in ever larger amounts. The country’s total water resources dropped by half between 2002 and 2008, partly through waste and overuse, scientists and water engineers say.

For Syria, which is running out of oil reserves and struggling to draw foreign investment, the farming crisis is an added vulnerability in part because it is taking place in the area where its restive Kurdish minority is centered. Iraq, devastated by war, is now facing a water crisis in both the north and the south that may be unprecedented in its history. Both countries have complained about reduced flow on the Euphrates, thanks to massive upriver dam projects in Turkey that are likely to generate more tension as the water crisis worsens.

The four-year drought in Syria has pushed two million to three million people into extreme poverty, according to a survey completed here this month by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. Herders in the country’s northeast have lost 85 percent of their livestock, and at least 1.3 million people have been affected, he reported. . . .

Robert F. Worth, "Earth is Parched Where Syrian Farms Thrived," New York Times, October 13, 2010