A Commodity in Scarcity: The Politics of Water in the Middle East

, March 1, 1994



The Global Water Shortage / Dimensions of the Middle East Water Problem / Depleted Sources, Growing Conflicts / The Suggested Solutions / Desalination: The Only Realistic Hope

The Global Water Shortage

The problem of water scarcity is a growing worldwide phenomenon. Net renewable water resources per capita have declined dramatically over a single generation, and in little more than thirty years from now will reach dangerously low levels. By the year 2025 the average net water resources in the Middle East are expected to be less than 700 cubic meters per person per year, half of what they are today. The sharp growth in global population and development has badly depleted and polluted the world’s water sources. This situation is already keenly felt in India, China and Mexico, and even in the United States there is a problem of deteriorating water quality.

More and more a dilemma arises between water use for industry and agriculture, and use for domestic household purposes. Of the 5.5 billion people in the world today, 3.5 billion are forced to live with less than 50 liters per person per day, one-seventh the quantity used by the average American. Agriculture uses 73 percent of the world’s fresh water, and the world needs more agriculture because of increasing food needs. Water consumption in several countries already exceeds renewable supply; others are at or close to the limits. In many poor countries, famine is prevented only by grains and cereals taken from global grain stocks. Lately, however, these stocks have dropped sharply: in 1987 they were sufficient for 101 days, but by 1989 stocks had dropped to only 54 days.

Furthermore, experience shows that when available water resources drop to between 1,000 and 2,000 cubic meters per capita per year, large investments are generally required to meet ongoing water demand. However, when resources fall below 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year, difficult socio-economic adjustments are then required to cope with such scarcity.

Water conflicts exist in many places around the globe, such as between India and Bangladesh, Israel and its neighbors, Egypt and Ethiopia, Turkey and Syria, and Turkey and Iraq. At the same time, the distribution of water sources is highly uneven: many countries with small populations possess large amounts of water whereas many populous countries face acute shortages. Yet there is a limit to man’s ability to bring water from one place to another by building dams, tunnels, and hydroelectric projects without causing irreversible ecological damage, and in circumstances where such damage is probable, the financial assistance usually available from organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund will likely be denied. Additionally, the worldwide tendency to utilize fresh river water just before it reaches the sea has proved disastrous because a river’s most biologically productive part is the brackish zone where fresh and salt water meet.

The global shift from rain-fed to irrigated agriculture has increased the salinity of the earth in many areas, and evaporation of fresh water has left chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the ground. In addition, experience has shown that attempts to dam flood waters have prevented the normal drainage of destructive salts out of the soil to the sea, thereby rendering the soil unusable. Furthermore, there is a proven link between deforestation and a reduction in the amount of rainfall. In Western Africa, deforestation has already contributed to shorter rainy seasons. In Florida, the reduction of vegetation has led to a 10 percent drop in rainfall over the past 30 years. Once exposed, land reflects more sunlight, producing atmospheric processes that reduce rainfall by drawing dryer air into a given area.
Dimensions of the Middle East Water Problem

Water supplies in the Middle East are facing enormous pressures and all are already at maximal or near-maximal use. Egypt’s population is growing by one million every nine months. Many Jordanian towns get water only once a week. Immigration into Israel is increasing the stress on that country’s already taxed water sources. In the Gaza Strip, the salination of agricultural lands and fresh-water wells has reached catastrophic levels. In Syria, the low level of the Euphrates, together with pollution from pesticides, chemicals and salt, has forced the Syrian government to cut back on the supply of drinking water and electricity in Damascus, Aleppo, and several other cities. Damascus is without water most nights, and is estimated to lose as much as 30 percent of its water from old, leaking pipes. In Jordanian cities water losses from leaking pipes may have reached 60 percent.

Over 50 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa (excluding the Maghreb) depend either on water from rivers that cross an international boundary before reaching them, or on desalinized water and water drawn from deep wells. Two-thirds of all Arabic-speaking people in this region depend on river water that flows to them from non-Arabic-speaking countries, and another 24 percent live in areas with no perennial surface streams whatever. The latter rely either on well water from rapidly depleting sources or seawater, which is expensive both to purify in sufficient quantities and to pump to its places of use.

The size of these water-dependent populations is rapidly increasing. In 1983, the population of this area numbered 217.4 million, while by the year 2000 an additional 119.6 million people will be added to this figure, an increase of 55 percent. Water will be needed not only for these people as individuals, but also for industry and all other urban uses. Irrigation water will also be needed to prevent, as far as possible, dependence on imported food.
Depleted Sources, Growing Conflicts

There are four sources of water in the Middle East: a) precipitation; b) exotic rivers, or those that rise in amply watered areas but eventually grow smaller as they flow through deserts to the sea or inland sinks; c) aquifers, or underground water-filled strata; and d) desalinized seawater. In areas not reached by exotic streams, particularly the Arabian Peninsula and the Libyan Sahara, millions more Arabs must rely on wells and desalinized seawater. In the Peninsula south of the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, in an area of 1,160,481 square miles, not a single permanent surface stream exists. If we add riverless Libya to the list, the Arab world includes 1,839,839 square miles without one permanent sur-face stream.

Water has long been a source of conflict in the Middle East. In the period before the June 1967 Six-Day War, armed clashes broke out between Israel and Syria over the Jordan River sources. There is also growing tension in the Nile River basin, where nine countries (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi) plan and execute water development projects that hardly take into account each other’s needs. Any water taken by the upstream countries for their own needs means that the downstream countries get that much less. Similarly, growing immigration into Israel has caused anxiety among the Arabs that Israel will seek to exploit the two remaining rivers in the area whose waters have not yet been completely exhausted: the Litani and the Yarmuk. Indeed, the average Israeli uses five to six times more water than the average person in Arab countries, and the new immigrants to Israel come mainly from countries where water is plentiful and lavishly used. Jordan, already one of the poorest countries in terms of water, needs more water for the 350,000 Palestinian refugees who were forced to leave Kuwait following the Gulf War. Overall, population growth in the Middle East now averages a staggering 3 percent annually, which can only increase both the pressure on already exhausted water resources and the pollution of the water.

Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Jordan are facing a combined deficit of at least 300-400 million cubic meters per year (and some estimate the figure to be as high as 500-600 million cubic meters). Indeed, the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which in a generation is expected to have a total population of 14 million people, is already currently suffering from “water stress,” which means that only 500 cubic meters per capita per year are available.

Since agriculture consumes 80 percent of Middle East water, one remedy might be to cut back on agricultural production. But it seems unlikely that countries which gained their independence from the colonial powers during the last fifty to sixty years would agree to depend on imported food. Could one expect that the Zionist dream of return to the land and to Jewish agriculture would be so easily relinquished? Would Arab farmers abandon their olive trees and grape vines? Neither droughts nor water shortages have encouraged people to switch away from agriculture. They have only led to moves from rain-fed to irrigated agriculture, thus increasing the pressure on already dwindling resources.

An added complication in regional water cooperation is the fact that countries are reluctant to make honest disclosure concerning actual water usage and available resources: information is an asset which parties to negotiations do not easily surrender. Hence there is a need to discover the real dimensions of the water problem and to refute some of the myths related to it.

Turkey’s apparent water surplus is both temporary and misleading. Turkey’s population growth is enormous (one million every nine months); furthermore, the uneven distribution of water within Turkey itself and its lack of local energy resources mean that Turkey must allocate more water to its own population and to produce more hydroelectricity. In addition, Turkey faces the need to defuse Kurdish ethnic unrest by developing eastern Turkey where most of the Kurds reside, and this will require a greater allocation of water resources.

Long-standing political disputes also complicate regional cooperation on water. A Syrian-Israeli water agreement would imply Syrian recognition of Israel. A Syrian-Turkish agreement concerning the Orontes River would imply Syrian recognition of Turkish sovereignty over the Hatay region, which the Orontes crosses on its way to the Mediterranean. Hatay, called Alexandretta by Syria, was taken in June 1939 from Syria and given to Turkey by France, then the colonial power that controlled Syria. A Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi agreement to share Euphrates water would mean, according to Ankara, the imposition of Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty on a Turkish asset. Turkey, instead, is prepared to discuss only the technical aspects of allocating water to the downstream riparians.

Intermittent civil strife in the region also frustrates the development of water sources. The civil war in the Sudan, for instance, prevents the draining of the Sudd marshes that otherwise could add 35 billion cubic meters of water annually to the Nile. A more mild clash of internal interests may be seen in Lebanon where water is used to produce electricity as well as for agriculture. There the wealthy Christian community has sought to build hydroelectric projects to supply air-conditioning to Beirut rather than irrigation projects to aid the Shiite farmers in the south.
The Suggested Solutions

Two often-discussed regional water solutions are the combining of national water systems and the diverting of seas (as a means to produce electricity for water desalination). The difficulties involved, however, are most formidable. For instance, it is absolutely clear that there could be no room for both a Jordanian Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal and an Israeli Mediterranean-Dead Sea one. Furthermore, the diversion of seas in an earthquake prone area such as this, in the vicinity of the Syrian-African Rift, could lead to the contamination of pure aquifers which lie beneath the diversion routes. Hence, the implication is that Middle East water problems can apparently be dealt with only in a regional framework. Indeed, there is a growing tendency among global financial bodies to provide monies only for regional water projects.

Yet care must be taken to avoid plans that are grandiose or impossible. The proposed Turkish “peace pipeline” would carry the water of the Ceyhan and Seyhan Rivers (now emptying into the Mediterranean) to the entire Middle East and Persian Gulf. But with the pipeline’s two arms exceeding a length of 6,500 km., its projected cost of more than $20 billion, and its building expected to last more than fifteen years, this is hardly a practical plan, not to mention the near-insurmountable psychological barriers: the Arabs having to depend on the Turks, Kuwait depending on water coming from Iraq, and the like. Likewise, Jordan’s plan to import Iraqi water from the Euphrates is highly problematic. The envisioned 650 km. pipeline would be very vulnerable and would depend on the Euphrates, which originates in Turkey. However, Turkey’s growing use of the Euphrates already leaves diminishing amounts of water to the downstream riparians. In any case, all this puts Turkey at the center of Middle East water planning.

In addition to the “peace pipeline,” another of several proposed Turkish plans would involve the shipping of water by tankers or large plastic bags from the Manavgat River (which also empties into the Mediterranean) to potential buyers in the Middle East. Israel had originally thought that the Manavgat project could provide a source of water for the country’s needs. However, current official thinking has virtually rejected this option due to apprehensions shared by other potential buyers of Turkish water of Turkey’s ability to “turn off the tap.”

At present, the building of Turkish dams on the Euphrates is causing growing conflict with Syria and Iraq. (“We give them [the Syrians and the Iraqis] the water – they can’t share it,” declared the Turkish secretary of state responsible for the southeast Anatolia water development project [GAP]). Overall, there is an internal Turkish objection to sharing and exporting a valuable national resource such as water, and the Arabs, for their part, are reluctant to depend on Turkey. Furthermore, the official Turkish stance poses almost impossible conditions, tying the import of Turkish water to support for Turkey’s position in the Cyprus conflict.
Desalination: The Only Realistic Hope

In January 1992 Israel proposed at the multilateral talks on water of the Arab-Israeli peace conference in Moscow that desalination was the only long-term remedy for water-poor areas such as the Middle East. It is cheaper to invest in desalination of brackish water, seawater, or recycled sewage water than to try to settle by force disputes over available water resources, most of them already overused. Indeed, the cost of a desalination project for 10,000 people equals the cost of one tank, and a project for 100,000 people costs about the same as a jet-fighter aircraft. Similarly, diversion of water from one place to another is much more expensive than the development of new technology for cheaper desalination.

Most of the current global desalination capacity is already installed in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia has 26.8 percent, Kuwait 10.5 percent, and the United Arab Emirates 10 percent (by comparison, the United States has 12 percent). Israel desalinates 4 million cubic meters per year in 33 desalination units at 23 sites, which supply a mere 0.2 percent of its total water consumption.

The cost of a major desalination plant with a capacity of one quarter of a billion cubic meters per year is about $1 billion ($600-700 million for basic overhead and about $250 million for required operating expenses for fifteen years). The needs of Jordan, Israel and the West Bank could be met by two plants, together producing half a billion cubic meters per year at a cost of $2 billion. The costs of desalination are thus estimated at 25 cents per cubic meter (compared with 15 cents per cubic meter that Israeli farmers currently pay for water). However, these calculations are theoretical and the real cost of desalination might actually be significantly higher. Currently, commercial companies offer desalinated seawater at 65 cents per cubic meter and brackish water at 45 cents.

At the beginning of 1990 there were 70,000 desalination plants worldwide, purifying 13 million cubic meters per day or more than 4 billion cubic meters per year. Desalination today is a viable option for regular domestic use, and not only for island-resort or oil-rich states. Advanced technologies are applied today in desalination of both brackish water and sea water, making the process more and more economical and commercially feasible. Desalination of brackish water may be accomplished through the use of relatively inexpensive solar energy ponds. Despite the potential cost reductions involved in the use of large desalination plants, however, it is not reasonable to expect that desalination can solve the problem of water supply for agriculture in the near future. For the time being, desalination will serve mainly domestic and some industrial water supply requirements.

As we have seen, the combining of national water systems in the Middle East appears virtually impossible. Likewise, the barriers to diversion of the Mediterranean or the Red Sea into the Dead Sea appear to be politically, economically, and ecologically insurmountable. Diversion of rivers, or the reduction of agriculture and the consequent dependence on foreign food sources are unfeasible as well. The recycling of water can yield only marginal quantities. Hence, in a region where nearly all available water resources are being utilized, the only remaining option is desalination. Yet even this is not commercially viable for Middle Eastern agriculture at present. Perhaps a generation from now we will possess economical technology for mass desalination of water.

In the meantime, conservation measures are necessary such as the reduction of waste in irrigation, the introduction of more economical drip-irrigation methods, the phasing-out of water- intensive crops, recycling, and price increases of formerly subsidized water toward its real value. These conservation measures will sustain the water needs of the steadily growing Middle Eastern population by better utilizing the existing resources. However, critical water shortages are still expected within ten to fifteen years. Therefore, we need to choose our options and plan now to increase the overall water supply in the region. The water needs of the Middle East are growing to such an extent that there will soon not be enough water to go around. Hence, because of the anticipated continuing lack of political cooperation in the area, each of the states in the region must not wait for better times but should act independently to develop and wisely utilize its current resources and to plan for major desalination in the future.


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Dr. Amikam Nachmani is a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University where he specializes in countries at the border between Islam and Christendom. This Survey of Arab Affairs is based on the author’s presentation at the Jerusalem Center Fellows Forum. A more comprehensive version of this essay will appear in E. Inbar, ed., Regional Security Regimes: Israel and Its Neighbors (Albany: SUNY Press, forthcoming).


About Dr. Amikam Nachmani

Dr. Amikam Nachmani is a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University where he specializes in countries at the border between Islam and Christendom.