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What of Hydropolitics and the Middle East?

Winter 2010 Query

What of Hydropolitics and the Middle East?

On Modern Manifestations of Water, Human Ingenuity and Manifest Destiny

In the ‘Middle East,’ host to a great number of countries with arid climates, water – this precious ingredient of life – has always played a vital role in both irrigation and direct consumption by the region’s people. Water scarcity and unprecedented demographic growth together mean that water resources are a key source of concern for the future of the entire region.

With more than five percent of the world’s total population, the Middle East and North Africa combined possess barely one percent of global water reserves. And while regional population is projected to reach 500 million by the year 2025, water accessibility is alarmingly on the decline. Moreover, much of the region’s useable water supply branches from three principal sources: the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Jordan River systems. Deteriorating water accessibility has meant that crisis zones have begun to emerge along these main channels.

With an annual average volume of 84 billion cubic metres, the Nile is one of the most important waterways in the Middle East. Its basin nations have some of the world’s greatest rates of population growth – a stunning fact, given that the river’s water supply has remained largely stagnant since the days of the Pharaohs. Distribution of Nile water has, for some time now, been the subject of heated discussions between Egypt and its Ethiopian and Sudanese neighbours. Questioning the impartiality of a 1959 agreement over distribution of Nile water, Ethiopia has in the past hinted that it may resort to military confrontation with Egypt to preserve its water interests. Sudan has equally threatened to withdraw from the agreement. Both statements have been met with stern warnings from Cairo.

Originating in eastern Turkey, the Tigris and Euphrates (T&E) – a historically important water source, much like the Nile – cross Syria and Iraq. With the construction of a series of dams – 22, to be exact – through the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), Syrian and Iraqi access to T&E water has gradually diminished. It is estimated that the disruption caused to water flows by GAP dams will reduce Euphrates water to Syria by 40 percent, and to Iraq by close to 80 percent. The completion of the GAP water resources component may severely jeopardize an already fragile regional stability – leading to direct confrontation over water resources. (Turkish-Syrian tension over the GAP, for instance, exists in a context in which a disenchanted Syria has in the past responded to Turkish insistence on the GAP by providing support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party – the PKK – whose separatist activities have caused much angst for Ankara.)

As for the River Jordan, its story is no different. While a relatively small river (251 kilometres long), its basin is shared among four nations: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Notwithstanding the 1994 ratification of an Israeli-Jordanian treaty to regulate distribution of the river’s water, the absence of any agreement between Israel, Syria and Lebanon makes the situation highly volatile. Let us not forget that the Six-Day War of 1967 was preceded by: escalating tensions over water being used from the River Jordan by Israel for its National Water Carrier; the counter-response – the Headwater Diversion Plan – by Israel’s Arab neighbours; and then military attacks by the Israeli Defence Forces against the Diversion project in 1965. It is also widely believed that Israel’s reluctance to forego control over the two-thirds of the Golan Heights (GH) that it controls is equally tied to water security (GH currently provides 15 percent of Israel’s total water needs). To be sure, the skirmishes of 1965 and 1967 are clear historical proof that (negative) competition over scarce water supplies in the Middle East is an ‘accelerant’ in an already unstable and divided region. Dispute over water has also been a significant point of contention in the troubled relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Undoubtedly, global warming and climate change will only exacerbate the Middle East’s water problem. Generally, countries with less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per-capita, per annum are regarded as suffering from water shortages or scarcity. UN studies project that, by 2025, seven additional Middle Eastern states (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria) will be added to the existing 11 nations already experiencing water shortages (Algeria, Bahrain, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen). These dynamics formed the background for the warning issued, in the not-so-distant past, by former Egyptian Foreign Minister and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to the effect that the next wars in the region will be over water.

And so, yes, hydropolitics gives great cause for concern for the future of the region. But the picture need not be so dire and bleak. They say that “desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspirer as genius.” In fact, collective dependence on scarce water resources represents a great opportunity for the region to work collectively toward the establishment of a regional cooperative regime – to begin with, through schemes of cooperation on the regulation of water usage, water sanitation and water management. Contemporary history is witness to the ever-increasing import of interdependence in the prevention of international conflicts. (The EU is a case in point.) Diplomatic brokering by the international community, most notably by the UN, is essential in facilitating this process.

Yet another constructive approach to avert water crisis and conflict in the region is to seek broader global assistance in promoting viable technologies – in accordance with environmental standards – to extract, transport, purify or desalinate water, and revolutionize irrigation techniques to reduce aggregate water usage. Expertise and financial aid, coupled with adequate supervision and assistance by specialized international organs (e.g. the International Water Association; the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council; the World Water Assessment Program of UNESCO; the World Water Council), are critical in helping the region to develop the necessary technologies and know-how to counter its water deficits.

Bref: Water is not manifest destiny for the Middle East. It must pass through the critical vector of human agency. There is much that can be done to avoid the worst, and still good reason to hope for the best.


Gholam-Ali (Ali) Mossadegh, a graduate in Public International Law and Middle Eastern Studies from universities in Iran and France, is the great-grandson of the former Iranian Prime Minister, the Honourable Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.

(Photograph: iStockphoto)

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