Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


July 1998
Nowhere a Drop to Drink: The Politics of Water in the Middle East

By Beth Gould


Water is a highly politicized issue in the Middle East. It underlies all discussions about land, because the most desirable areas are those with access to an abundant water source, something rare in a part of the world where water is the most coveted natural resource. Water is the most immediate of necessities and the key to political stability. Indeed, Meir Ben-Meir, former Director General of Israel's Ministry of Agriculture, predicts that "the next war in the Middle East will be struggled over water." The problem has more to do with uneven and inequitable distribution of water than a shortage per se. Erosion of usable soil, depletion of underground resources, and salinization intensify existing contentions regarding water.

Because most fresh, usable water sources ignore political and territorial boundaries, any country attempting to increase water production infringes upon the needs and rights of its neighbors. A basic criterion of freshwater supply is the amount in cubic meters available per person (CM/Y). The standard of adequacy is measured at 1,000 CM/Y. In Egypt, the annual supply of water per capita is more than 1,200 CM/Y, but it depends entirely on the Nile. In Syria and Iraq, current supplies per capita exceed those of Egypt but are threatened by upstream developments. In the entire region, only Lebanon and Turkey enjoy a secure, abundant and independent supply of water.

The Tigris and Euphrates
The Tigris and Euphrates have a mutual origin, the highlands of Eastern Anatolia in Turkey. From here, the Tigris briefly enters Syria, then flows directly to Iraq. The Euphrates flows through Syria for hundreds of miles before entering Iraq. Syria receives the majority of its water from the Euphrates, and the maintenance or increase of the waterflow level is pivotal to expanding agriculture and industry.

Syria, however, may lose up to 40 percent of its water source when Turkey completes its Southeast Anatolia project. This ambitious project, which consists of a series of dams on the headwaters of both rivers, aims to generate electricity and allow increased agriculture to some of Turkey's poorest regions. Iraq, downstream of both Syria and Turkey, may lose as much as 80 percent of its inflow from the Euphrates.

The claims of these countries on the two rivers contradict each other, and are the source of complicated diplomatic negotiations which draw selectively upon International Law. Turkey claims absolute sovereignty over water resources originating in its territory. Iraq bases its case on the rivers' natural course, as well as historical rights to waters used by the people of southern Mesopotamia for over 6,000 years. Syria, in midstream, makes the same claim as upstream Turkey, but the opposite claim towards downstream Iraq.

Then there are the Kurds, whose traditional homeland encompasses the headwaters of the two rivers, and who have been fighting for statehood and thus independent water rights. None of the disputes in the Tigris-Euphrates basin has been resolved. Nor is there any mechanism, such as an international river basin commission, by which to negotiate an equitable resolution. Turkey can proceed with its plans because it is, economically and militarily, the dominant power. Also, because neither Turkey, Iraq or Syria agree on how to define ownership of water resources and believe that ownership rather than equal distribution is the pre-eminent concern, no compromise is currently being discussed.

The Nile
Equally turbulent are the issues regarding the Nile river and its sources. The principal contestants here are Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia (along with other riparian states, including Uganda). Egypt has long depended on the Nile, to which its territory, however, contributes practically no water. In contrast, Ethiopia (source of the Blue Nile, which generates over 80 percent of the united Nile's flow) has used very little of its water in the past but hopes to utilize more in the future to feed its needy population.

Here the hydropolitical equation is the reverse of that in the Tigris-Euphrates basin: the downstream country (Egypt) is dominant, both economically and militarily, so the upstream country cannot undertake unilateral action to dam the river and develop irrigation within its own territory. An agreement exists between Egypt and Sudan over allocation of Nile waters, but it ignores the needs and rights of Ethiopia (as well as the other riparians). The Egyptians have threatened Ethiopia with military action if it attempts to withhold a substantial amount of water from the Blue Nile. Still emerging from a prolonged civil war, Ethiopia is unable to defy Egypt. But the pressing needs of its people may force it to use water flowing from its domain.

A joint Egyptian-Sudanese engineering project to augment the flow of the White Nile by cutting a canal through the Sudd swamps in southern Sudan, has been halted by civil war in southern Sudan. Egypt and Sudan had hoped to reduce the amount of evaporation in the swamps, thus increasing the volume of water delivered downstream.

An additional problem for the region is the threat of global warming. Some scientists suggest that the greenhouse effect may increase the frequency and severity of periodic droughts in the Nile basin, thus reducing the supply of water while adding to the demand. In the case of Egypt, the projected rise of the sea level poses the further threat of saline water intrusion into the northern sections of the Nile Delta, with a consequent loss of soil productivity there.

The Jordan Basin
Rivalry between Syria and Israel over the sources of the upper Jordan River has caused conflict for decades, and may have triggered the 1967 war. One reason Israel is reluctant to withdraw from the Golan Heights is that this territory controls some important tributaries to the Jordan, as well as the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, one of Israel's major reservoirs of fresh water.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is already suffering an acute water shortage. Its major source is the Yarmouk River, which, like the upper Jordan, receives much of its water from Syria. Some years ago, the Jordanians and Syrians conceived a plan to build a joint dam (to be called Unity) on the Yarmouk to supply water for Jordan and electricity to Syria. Israel objected briefly, fearing their share of the river would be diminished, but now the plan is delayed due to tensions between Syria and Jordan. However, the entire project might be rendered moot by the construction of a series of dams on the tributaries to the Yarmouk originating in Syrian territory. Those dams have seriously reduced inflows to Jordan. Israel has agreed to supply the Jordanians with additional water from the Sea of Galilee, but the amount is not sufficient to meet the country's growing need for water to support agriculture, cities and industries.

Israel and the Palestinians
A major issue of contention between Israel and the Palestinians is the use of groundwater from the Mountain Aquifer, which is divided into three different basins. That aquifer is recharged naturally by rainfall over the West Bank, but flows naturally toward Israel's coastal plain. The Israelis have for many decades been extracting water from the aquifer through a series of wells. Historically, use of the western aquifer by local Palestinian populations was limited to part of the flow of springs and to traditional wells in the coastal area, fed by the runoff of the aquifer. Intensive exploitation of groundwater began when Jewish settlers arrived in the 1920s and 1930s. The remaining potential was developed by Israel between 1948 and 1967, and by Israeli settlements on the West Bank after its occupation during the Six Day War. Because the groundwater is largely of good quality, it is used for municipal supply. Israel is increasingly dependent on the Mountain Aquifer after the deterioration of its coastal aquifer.

An average Israeli has at his or her private disposal about 275 liters of water a day, comparable to that of European countries. Water rationing in private households is very rare, except during extreme droughts. The same standards are typical in Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. However, domestic water consumption is much lower and rationing is common in Arab states and among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. This is in part due to lower levels of agricultural and industrial usage, but mainly to constraints imposed by water scarcity and an unequal distribution of resources.

As the Palestinians embark on a program of economic development, they will need more water. The needs are especially acute in the crowded Gaza Strip, which has already overdrawn its own aquifer. This need for water enters a peace process already rife with territorial loyalties and religious differences and any resolution involves political questions about Palestinian and Israeli relations. Even if the peace accords become active in the near future, water rights are, according to the negotiation timetable, only to be discussed in the second phase of the peace process, putting off any resolution to the future.

Use and Waste
Unfortunately, the Middle East does not differ from other regions regarding waste and misuse of water resources. A common attitude is that water, being God-given, must be free. Water is priced far below cost, thus encouraging over-irrigation and water-intensive crops such as sugarcane, rice and cotton. Traditional surface irrigation systems are so inefficient that more than half of the water delivered to the field is lost to seepage and evaporation. Similarly, high losses occur in many cities because water is stored in shallow open reservoirs and delivered in leaky pipes.

Because diplomacy has not produced viable solutions, the preservation of water resources must be the responsibility of individuals--to treat water less as a right and protect it from waste and pollution. But with many countries in the Middle East striving for higher levels of industry, it appears that this water-scarce region is adopting a path of development based on a virtually unlimited access to water--a false construct that will heighten tensions surrounding dwindling water sources.



All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.