Where Has All the Water Gone?

According to Middle East water expert Aaron Wolf, “you can’t blame the current water shortages in the Middle East on the region’s dry climate alone. Even with the droughts, the water supply has remained relatively stable over the centuries. Most nations know how to plan for droughts and work around that.” He and other scientists cite the following factors as the primary causes of the water shortages in the Middle East today.

Rapid Population Growth

Probably the single biggest threat to the Middle East’s water supply is the region’s burgeoning population. The combined Middle Eastern population, according to the World Bank, has grown from around 20 million in 1750 to over 300 million in 2000. At the anticipated rate of growth, the population is expected to double again in the next 25 years.

There’s only so much water to go around,” says Wolf. “As the population in the region grows, there’s less and less water available per person.” Furthermore, he adds, “the growing numbers of people are polluting what’s there more and more, and so not only is less water available per person, but what’s available is less usable.”

Much of the population growth is due to immigration. In the geographic region of Palestine, of the total population of 9 million people, 5 million emigrated from Europe and elsewhere in the world to form Israel. As a result, the per capita share of water for a Palestinian has dropped drastically.

Because of the increased populations, “groundwater, the main source of water in many countries, is being extracted well beyond the renewal rate of the resource to try to meet increased demands,” notes Israel Institute of Technology’s Uri Shamir. He says some aquifers, such as the Al-Azraq Oasis in Jordan and the Coastal Aquifer in Gaza, have literally been drained dry in recent years.

Rising Standards of Living

Rapid economic development and rising standards of living in the region have also raised the demand for water. “In the Middle East,” says water resources consultant Munther Haddadin, “technology has progressed, and people are now able to both pump water to the point of use and drill for groundwater, thus boosting the consumption rates.”

Rising affluence in itself generates additional demand for water,” adds David Molden, senior researcher with the International Water Management Institute. “When people have a greater income, they buy washing machines and dishwashers, they want to shower every day, they want to wash their cars, water their lawns, fill their swimming pools—all of which dramatically increases their water usage.”

A related issue is urbanization. Over half the population in the Middle East now lives in urban areas. “As developing-country villagers (traditionally reliant on the village well) move to urban high-rise apartment buildings with indoor plumbing, their residential water use can easily triple,” Molden says.

Misuse and Mismanagement

A third area of concern is water mismanagement. Large quantities of water are lost because of being stored in shallow, open reservoirs and thus evaporating, or as a result of seepages in the water-pipe networks. Wolf estimates that about half of the water intended for cities in Jordan and the occupied territories never makes it there, thanks to old, leaky pipes.

Theft is also a problem. “People illegally tap public pipes and wells with a gusto reserved for pirating cable television in the West,” says World Bank’s Jamal Saghir. “It often takes ready fists and a shotgun to defend a healthy well.” In the West Bank, at least 200 illegal wells have reportedly been drilled in the past two years alone.

Another water management issue involves how available water is used. About 87 percent of freshwater resources in the region are used in low-value agriculture, with just 13 percent going to industrial and municipal uses. Many hydrologists believe nations should shift their priorities from agriculture to less-water-intensive enterprises.

We should take whatever we need for domestic purposes first, and then use the rest for irrigation, not the reverse,” Haddadin says. “We have a crisis because we are not able to put enough investment into industrialization, so we rely on agriculture, which needs less investment but more water.”