The crisis over water in the Middle East is escalating. Despite existing agreements, dwindling resources – increasingly affected by pollution, agricultural/industrial initiatives and population growth – have elevated the strategic importance of water in the region. For Middle Eastern nations, many already treading the razor's edge of conflict, water is becoming a catalyst for confrontation – an issue of national security and foreign policy as well as domestic stability. Given water's growing ability to redefine interstate relations, the success of future efforts to address water sharing and distribution will hinge upon political and strategic approaches to this diminishing natural resource.
Approaching Crisis: Water Resources in the Middle East
In the Middle East, water resources are plummeting. While representing 5% of the total world population, the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region contains only 0.9% of global water resources. The number of water-scarce countries in the Middle East and North Africa has risen from 3 in 1955 (Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait) to 11 by 1990 (with the inclusion of Algeria, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen). Another 7 are anticipated to join the list by 2025 (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria).
In addition to its scarcity, much of Middle Eastern water stems from three major waterways: the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile and Jordan River systems. Mutual reliance on these resources has made water a catalyst for conflict, spurring confrontations such as the 1967 War (fomented by Syria's attempts to divert water from Israel) and the Iran-Iraq War (which erupted from disputes over water claims and availability). Recognition of water's role as an obstacle in interstate relations has spurred numerous attempts at resolution, including diplomatic efforts (most notably the 1953-1955 U.S.-brokered Johnston negotiations) and bilateral and multilateral treaty efforts, ranging from the 1959 Agreement for the Full Utilization of Nile Waters to the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Treaty.
Increasingly, however, and despite these agreements, nations have begun to come into conflict over water. The natural scarcity of regional supplies, historically a point of contention, has been reduced to crisis proportions by a variety of factors:
-- With population rates among the highest in the world, countries in the Middle East are consuming water at a much higher rate than can be replenished naturally. Rising populations, estimated to reach 423 million by the turn of the century (and double 25 years thereafter), have increasingly affected water resources in the region;
-- In an area already critically short of water, this depletion has been compounded by domestic pollution, which has contributed to a deterioration of usable resources and a general decline in the quality of available water; and
-- Expanding initiatives in agriculture and industry have further eroded regional water availability. Spurred by growing populations, many nations have begun to overexploit their agricultural capabilities, resulting in desertification (reduction of arable land).
As a result of these factors, per capita water availability in the Middle East has become the worst in the world, representing only 1/3 of Asian and 15% of African levels. While progressive agricultural methods – such as drip irrigation – exist, they have, as a result of prohibitive costs, been implemented by only a handful of states. Nor have current desalination efforts in the region proven capable of meeting growing demands. The high energy and large costs associated with seawater desalination have limited efforts to cash and energy rich oil-exporting countries such as Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Influenced by declining availability and reductions in overall quality, crisis zones have begun to emerge along the major rivers of the region. Evolving conflicts – between Turkey and Syria over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; in the Jordan River Basin between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan; among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile River; and within Saudi Arabia – are manifestations of water's growing role as a strategic and political force.
Turkey - Syria
Along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Turkey and Syria are currently approaching a massive confrontation over water resources. Relations between the two countries, strained at best, have been exacerbated since the 1980s by growing tensions over water, which have brought them to the brink of war several times.
Despite the signing of a protocol ensuring Syrian access to Euphrates water in 1987, Turkish development efforts have increasingly threatened to marginalize and even eliminate Syrian access to water. Most notably, the Southeast Anatolia (GAP) Project has provided Turkey, situated at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates River system, extensive control over the flow of Euphrates water. Turkish disruption of the flow of the Euphrates in January 1990 to fill water reservoirs in front of the Attaturk dam highlighted Syrian vulnerability to Turkish control over upstream water resources. Further complicating the issue is Syria's continued support for the extremist PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party) in its insurgency against Turkey, a move that has prompted Turkey to threaten a blockade of water.
In the future, Turkish-Syrian disputes over water could escalate into regional conflict. Both Syria and Iraq, situated downstream from Ankara, have become increasingly threatened by Turkey's large-scale consolidation efforts. Once fully operational, the GAP Project may reduce Euphrates water to Syria by 40% and Iraq by up to 80%. Such activity, critical for Syria, will also be significant enough to substantially affect Iraq, currently somewhat autonamous because of its access to Tigris River water. In addition, aggressive Turkish acquisition efforts, currently concentrated on the GAP Project, are anticipated in the future to focus upon Tigris River water as well. Though currently divided in their opposition to Turkish efforts, such activity could nudge Syria and Iraq – despite their differences – into a strategic alliance, possibly destabilizing the region and precipitating a regional conflict.
Jordan – Israel – Palestinian Authority
The Jordan River Basin has also emerged as a flashpoint for conflict over water. Resources in the area, suffering serious overuse as a result of pollution and population growth, have increasingly impacted interstate relations.
Between Jordan and Israel, water resource issues are reaching a fever pitch. Despite the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Treaty – which established comprehensive guidelines regulating the distribution, preservation and availability of water from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers – conflicts over water have risen to the forefront of relations between the two countries. Jordan, fed only by underground sources and the Jordan River, has experienced an escalating water deficit – one that is expected to reach 250 million cubic meters (nearly 1/3rd of current annual consumption) by 2010. At the same time, Israel – currently utilizing almost all available water from its National Water System (consisting of the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, the Coastal Aquifer and the Lake Kinneret Basin) – has been forced to resort to overexploitation of available resources for expanding agricultural and industrial ventures.
As a result, water has become a critical bone of contention between the two countries, a tension exacerbated by the recent effects of the region's harsh climate. Facing a looming deficit in water availability brought about by lingering drought conditions, Israel halved its annual allocation of 2 billion cubic feet of water to Jordan in March 1999. Jordan, hit hard and lacking adequate desalinization capabilities, has in turn found itself unable to sustain current levels of consumption, declaring drought conditions and mandating water rationing in May 1999.
A breakdown of relations between Jordan and Israel could lead to water grabs by either side. Plagued by escalating populations that are stretching water availability beyond sustainable levels, Jordan has placed increased value on its "hydraulic imperative," a move that has created growing Israeli fears of a Hashemite grab of resources. For its part, Israel, facing reductions of internal water sources as a result of expanding Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, may soon eye the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers as important enough to risk conflict over.
The historically troubled relations between Israel and the Palestinians have also been magnified by water. Mutual reliance on the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, which rests atop the demarcating border of the disputed West Bank territory (and currently provides 1/3rd of Israel's water supply and 80% of Palestinian consumption), has created friction between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Despite being the most important source of long-term water for Israel, use of the Aquifer – as a result of its uncertain status – has not been implemented to the fullest extent possible. Israeli officials, while cognizant of the growing water crisis, fear Israeli dependency on potentially Palestinian-controlled water sources.
Efforts at cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians have so far proven markedly ineffective. Despite the passage of the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which included a Water Annex dealing specifically with water resource distribution, Israeli-Palestinian relations have continued to be plagued by conflicts over water. The Palestinian Authority, in spite of the "equitable distribution" formula constructed under the Water Annex, has claimed to be suffering from uneven water allocation under Israeli guidelines maintaining water distribution proportions at 1967 levels. Even the Multilateral Water Resources Group, created in 1992 as part of the peace process negotiations, has failed to affect movement toward agreement on water sharing between the parties.
In the north of the country, growing Syrian designs over the Golan Heights, where Israel has remained firmly entrenched since the 1967 War, threaten to jeopardize another source of dwindling Israeli water, the Lake Kinneret Basin. At the same time, the possibility of Palestinian control of the West Bank suggests, at the very least, a further reduction of available water to Israel, currently utilizing the majority of the West Bank Aquifer. Due to an amalgam of factors, Israeli security prerequisites for dealing with the Palestinian Authority – the ability to protect its water sources from hostile action, pollution or co-option – are not currently met, making water a critical emerging issue of dispute between the parties. These fundamental disagreements have deadlocked talks between the parties and edged them closer to confrontation.
Egypt – Sudan – Ethiopia
The beginnings of a crisis have materialized along the Nile as well. Ethiopia, making movements toward state building for the first time in a generation following the overthrow of the communist Mengistu regime in 1991, has focused upon water distribution as an issue of paramount concern. The North African country, currently ravaged by conflict with Eritrea, possesses neither the economic stability nor the investor confidence to facilitate desalination efforts. Consequently, Ethiopia has increasingly objected to the water use of neighboring Egypt, claiming present allocation – regulated by a 1959 agreement over Nile water – to be extremely unequitable. Asserting the 1959 agreement to be preferential to Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia has hinted it may resort to a unilateral exercise of sovereignty or a military confrontation with Egypt.
Egypt, for its part, has long asserted aggressive control over Nile water. Situated downstream from a long line of countries with access to the Nile, water occupies a central plank of Egypt's foreign policy and national security stance. Concerns regarding water dependency spurred the efforts aimed at creating the capacity to trap and store water (including the construction of the Aswan High Dam) during the 1950s. Despite these attempts, however, Egypt has become increasingly vulnerable on the water issue. Affected by environmental factors, water availability flowing to Egypt along the Nile has been significantly reduced, making Egypt increasingly dependent upon, and influenced by, the political climate and interstate dynamics of the region.
This growing vulnerability is likely to become a major source of political tension in the near future. Since Egypt has retained an aggressive military stance with relation to water, domestic Ethiopian development efforts (such as growing attempts to dam the Blue Nile) are likely to result in increasing regional tensions. In addition, Sudan has become an increasingly unstable factor in the Middle Eastern water calculus. Ravaged by civil war and guided by a radical Islamic fundamentalist regime, Sudan has manifested expansionist desires over Nile water, threatening to withdraw from the 1959 Agreement in August 1995. These movements have increasingly jeopardized the stability of neighboring nations, endangering Ethiopian and Egyptian access to water. As a result, tensions along the Middle East/North Africa boundary are on the rise, as water exacerbates and destabilizes the fragile regional status quo.
Saudi Arabia is another country rapidly approaching a dramatic crisis over water. In Saudi Arabia's case, however, the crisis stems from the country's lack of rivers and permanent bodies of water, as a result of which it relies heavily upon underground water sources for its agricultural and potable water supply. At present, 90% of Saudi Arabia's non-renewable deep-well water is utilized for agricultural purposes. These resources, already precariously low, have been significantly eroded in recent years as a consequence of the Persian Gulf conflict. Iraq's burning of oil wells during the Gulf War further contaminated underground water resources already degraded by pollution seepage from agricultural activity, creating a deficit that has failed to be resolved to date, despite significant Saudi desalinization attempts.
The state of water resources has significantly affected the nature and stability of the current Saudi regime. Though buoyed by oil revenues, which have facilitated massive desalinization efforts, Saudi Arabia has failed to adequately address its growing water concerns. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has begun to seek other water sources, a focus that has had pronounced effects on the region. Saudi Arabia's extensive exploration into the underground aquifers in its Eastern Province has reduced the agriculture and water availability of Qatar and Bahrain. The resulting political tension points to an emerging conflict over water resources in the Persian Gulf Peninsula, one that may engulf both Saudi Arabia and her neighbors.
Disputes are also becoming visible between Saudi Arabia and Jordan over the Qa Disi Aquifer. Though currently utilized almost exclusively by Saudi Arabia, Jordanian vested interest in the aquifer, which runs beneath both countries, has increased in recent years, with Jordan's Minister of Agriculture publicly accusing Saudi Arabia of overuse of the aquifer as far back as November 1992. Expanding Jordanian utilization of the aquifer, which is likely in light of Jordan's looming water crisis, may emerge as a contentious issue between the parties in the near future.
A Strategic Umbrella for Middle East Water
Depleted by expanding populations, rising birthrates and growing agricultural initiatives, water is redrawing the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Already considered a zone of conflict in international planning, the Middle East stands poised to deteriorate into regional infighting over water allocation and accessibility.
To date, the volatile politics of the region have arrested the implementation of progressive efforts at water sharing. Turkey's proposed "peace pipeline" – designed to carry water from the Turkish Seyhan and Ceyhan Rivers to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states – has, as a result of regional fears of dependence, failed to progress beyond the planning stage. Other regional initiatives, such as importing water by sea and comprehensive interstate water allocation, have also failed, threatened by fragmented politics and historic distrust.
This deadlock has eloquently illustrated water's integral role in the larger balance of power equation in the Middle East, where water-planning issues have become a function of the security and stability of regional regimes. Those countries living in the shadow of Iraq, where dictator Saddam Hussein remains firmly entrenched, fear a repeat performance of the 1990 seizure of Kuwait. Given the disarray of international efforts to depose or even contain the current Iraqi regime, these countries have been – despite their escalating crises over water – unwilling to engage in any regional activity that could exacerbate Baghdad's hostility. Movement is also visible in the eastern Mediterranean, where Syria's Assad and the PLO's Yasser Arafat have shown growing alignment with Iraqi and Iranian politics, much to the uneasiness of moderate regional neighbors such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
Future efforts to normalize regional tensions over water will hinge upon the equitable distribution of available resources, and the creation of security frameworks to ensure their safety and stability. Despite the volatility of Middle Eastern politics, the beginnings of such frameworks are already in place. Turkey and Israel have manifested a burgeoning strategic alliance on economic, political and military affairs. Jordan and Israel have commenced a comprehensive dialogue on political and military affairs (including joint counterterrorism initiatives), efforts strengthened by the signing of 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Treaty. These developing alliances could, with the proper international support, serve as a fulcrum for regional stability.
Laying the Groundwork
Only under a new strategic architecture can the normalization of growing water conflicts become a realistic option. The creation of an alliance system based on the use of strategic resources in a rational and equitable manner may allay current fears and facilitate interaction on the basis of mutual benefit. A stable strategic grouping capable of intimidating Syria's Assad into passivity, or quelling Saddam's expansionist efforts, would facilitate the commencement of large-scale regional water planning. Since extensive water planning proposals will necessitate the establishment of pipelines and energy grids stretching across borders, a political and military structure that can ensure the safety and security of these carriers (and by extension the precious liquid within them) will be a prerequisite to effective water sharing. The eventual creation of such a structure could be facilitated through coherent regional coordination in the near term, including:
Resolving outstanding disputes over water – the requisite first step toward the creation of a regional political alliance over water issues hinges upon the resolution of current disputes affecting moderate, alliance-building countries. Jordan and Israel, currently locked in an escalating struggle over Jordan River Basin water, desperately need guarantees of water security and availability. Such needs could begin to be addressed through the creation of a trilateral (and potentially quadrilateral, with oversight by the United States) Turkish-Israeli-Jordanian diplomatic track geared at resolving current conflicts over water. Progressive solutions, and ones currently unexplored by the governments of these countries, could include the establishment of a trade agreement instituting Turkish water allocation to Jordan, a move that would provide an alternative source of water for Jordan while easing Israel's growing worries over water availability.
Integrating water into regional strategic cooperation – Further movement towards strategic water security could be assisted through the integration of water as a distinct element of coordination among the burgeoning strategic alliances taking shape in the region. Creating a solid political-military framework on water issues (perhaps through the formal signing of a Memorandum of Understanding similar to the one which laid the foundation for U.S.-Israeli strategic coordination in 1981) could initiate a broad range of collaborative ventures, such as:
-- the creation of concrete military coordination, including mutual defense agreements over regional water supplies, among cooperating nations;
-- the commencement of research and development efforts on the issue of regional water sharing – including multilateral plans for creation of a regional grid of interstate carrier systems;
-- the establishment of a structure for regional information-sharing regarding environmental conditions and technological breakthroughs. Such an effort could include the construction of a Turkish-Israeli-Jordanian regional database to expedite centralized responses to emerging water conditions and changes.
-- The integration of water into emerging regional frameworks of strategic cooperation would also provide a forum for individual governmental involvement, facilitating the passage of domestic legislation and allocation of funds, as well as spurring the creation of specialized agencies designed to coordinate intergovernmental efforts on water issues. In addition, the formalization of strategic interaction over water will substantially further international economic investment by creating coherent regional movement toward securing the safety and availability of resources.
These regional efforts can be cemented by the domestic initiatives of individual nations. Internal reform, restructuring and development will assist further movements toward consensus over water resources on a regional level. Such domestic efforts could include:
The modernization of current systems of water distribution and processing – Statistics indicate that water networks in Jordan and the Occupied Territories currently lose up to 55% of carried water as a result of leakage from old and damaged piping. The initiation of repair and reconstruction efforts by regional governments would therefore increase the efficiency and capacities of existing systems, reducing water waste and raising available totals. Such modernization efforts are also likely to bring larger economic dividends. The implementation of a coherent modernization plan would invite international development and involvement by private contractors and engineering firms, (and facilitate financing from the World Bank and other financial institutions).
Consolidate strategic control over current water efforts – On the strategic level, a reexamination of current initiatives is also necessary step. While representing the only currently viable method of addressing regional water woes, desalinization is a dangerous and ultimately futile mechanism for change in the region. As water has risen in strategic value, so have imperatives regarding its security. Vulnerability to attack, dependency on foreign sources of energy, and prohibitively high costs consequently make desalinization efforts a strategic liability for countries in the region. In fact, desalinization may actually escalate the potential for an eruption of conflict by presenting easy, complete methods of water processing – a prize water-starved nations may soon not be able to resist. A turn away from current desalinization efforts would free up much-needed capital and consolidate the strategic posture of nations in the region.
Implementation of progressive domestic water initiatives – In light of water's growing role in the high politics of the region, the success of a strategic alliance over water will be predicated upon the success of domestic responses to water reduction. Research and development efforts geared at exploring emerging innovations in water technology should therefore be regarded as a national security priority by nations in the region. Possible innovations could include the initiation of "water harvesting" efforts through the construction of micro-scale dams and aquifers to gather rainfall and storm run-off. Such initiatives could substantially increase the agricultural and potable supplies of regional nations; studies indicate that such a technique could provide a 5% increase to the water supplies of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Another option is the implementation of a 'virtual water' approach (based upon the processing of grains and foodstuffs to release trapped water for agriculture) which is, by some assessments, actually significantly more efficient than importation or desalinization.
The Future of Middle East Water
Facing historical, psychological and political barriers that have impeded cooperation and deadlocked diplomacy, nations in the region are sliding toward conflict over water. Water's growing role in the emerging hydropolitics of the region has stressed the need for a new approach to safeguard this diminishing resource. The integration of water into developing strategic cooperation frameworks becoming visible among regional states could facilitate the protection and preservation of water resources. This interaction could eventually pave the way for the long-term security of Middle East water. In light of the formidable barriers that have prevented agreement to date, such an approach may represent the only method by which to turn back the tide of the new water politics of the Middle East.
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2. Adel Darwish, "Water Wars," Lecture given at the Geneva Conference on Environment and Quality of Life, June 1994.
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5. Aimed at expanding Turkish agricultural and energy capabilities, the Project entails the construction of large-scale irrigation systems and energy sources, including 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants. The Project covers 19% of total economically irrigable Turkish land and is anticipated to significantly increase regional income and employment. For a further examination of the GAP project specifically and Turkish hydropolitics in general, see Ali Ihsan Bagis, "Water in the Region: Potential and Prospects – An Overview" in Water as an Element of Cooperation and Development in the Middle East (Ali Bagis, ed.), Hacettepe University, Ankara (1994).
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9. Martin Sherman, The Politics of Water in the Middle East, Macmillan Press (1999), pp. 51-53.
10. "Ethiopia Finds Success Despite Regional Pressures," Security Affairs, January – May 1999.
11. Greg Shapland, Rivers of Discord: International Water Disputes in the Middle East, St. Martin's (1997), p. 62.
12. Mary E. Morris, "Poisoned Wells: The Politics of Water in the Middle East," Middle East Insight, September-October 1991.
13. Nina Sachdev and Margaret Lo, Working Paper – Air and Water Pollution, Saudi Arabia Environment Programme (1998).
14. Greg Shapland, Rivers of Discord: International Water Disputes in the Middle East, St. Martin's (1997), p. 151.
15. Natasha Beschorner, Water and Instability in the Middle East, Adelphi Paper No. 273, International Institute for Strategic Studies (1992), p. 12.
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17. A.R. Turton, Precipitation, People, Pipelines and Power: Towards a 'Virtual Water' based Political Ecology Discourse, MEWREW Occasional Paper No. 11, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1999).