Troubled Waters

Carrying empty milk jugs, liter-size soda bottles, and mop pails, Nahla Ameen and her two children take the mile-long trek from their home in the West Bank village of Ein Arik to a small spring located just outside the settlement gate. It’s early morning and they have come to the spring, as have others from the settlement, to collect water.

For Ameen, trips to the stream are part of a daily routine. “We are always tired by the time we get home,” she says. “Once the containers are filled, they are very heavy. Carrying them back can seem like a grueling chore, especially on hot summer days.” Still, Ameen doesn’t mind too much. She’s just glad to be able to get some water for her family.

There are no public pipes or running water where we live,” Ameen says. “Water trucks come through our village, but we cannot afford them. The price of a tankful of water is half a day’s wage for my husband. At least the water from the spring is free.”

But while she’s happy to obtain the water, Ameen adds that they are not able to carry enough water back for what her family really needs. “We have water to drink and to cook with,” she says, “but there’s never enough for things like washing clothes or mopping floors, or taking a bath more than a couple of times a month.”

The Ameen family is not unique. For most people living in the West Bank—and really throughout the Middle East—water is not something to be taken for granted. In this region of the world, water is a scarce commodity and becoming more so as time goes on.

According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa make up about 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they have less than 1 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources. Regionally, says the World Bank, per capita water availability has fallen by 62 percent since 1960 and is projected to fall by another 50 percent in the next 30 years.

Average annual per capita water availability in the Middle East and North Africa today is about 1,200 cubic meters—by far the lowest in the world. “That is about a third of Asia’s water availability levels, 15 percent of Africa’s, and a mere 5 percent of Latin America’s,” notes Jamal Saghir, a World Bank water expert for the Middle East and North Africa. Worldwide, the annual supply of water per person averages around 7,500 cubic meters. In the Middle East, Iran has the highest per capita water availability at 1,800 cubic meters per year. Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Gaza and the West Bank have the lowest water availabilities in the region, with 200 cubic meters (or less) per person annually.

In practical terms, things that are everyday occurrences in many other parts of the world—making a pot of coffee, taking a bath, washing dishes or watering a garden—are often seen as luxuries in the Middle East. In some areas, such as the West Bank and Gaza, the majority of residents do not have water piped into their homes, and getting water may require paying exorbitantly or standing in long lines at public pumps to fill cisterns. On the other hand, in a city such as Amman, residents are connected to a public water network, but the water is rationed and the Water Authority turns on the pumps only two or three times a week.

Of course, water shortages are not a new challenge for the region. “The Middle East has always had limited water resources,” says Aaron T. Wolf, associate professor of geography, director of the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database project, and coeditor of Water in the Middle East (University of Texas Press, 2000). “Droughts are common and a natural part of the climate. Most of the region’s rainfall is very irregular, localized, and unpredictable.” Much of the Middle East, in fact, has been experiencing the worst drought in the past 100 years, and that has served to shrink water levels in rivers, lakes and aquifers in the region. Although in some areas above-average winter rainfall has now eased drought conditions (the Sea of Galilee, for example, whose level had been declining since 1992, has been completely refilled), Wolf is quick to point out that factors other than drought play a part.

Major Waterways

With increasing water shortages expected for the years ahead, many believe competition for water resources between Middle Eastern nations is inevitable. Already there have been a number of clashes over water, and several political leaders have suggested that future conflicts may largely focus on access to water. According to Saghir, “ensuring a fair and adequate distribution of water in the region is vitally important for building a lasting peace among the nations of the Middle East.”

Ensuring a fair and adequate distribution of water in the region is vitally important for building a lasting peace among the nations of the Middle East.”

Jamal Saghir of the World Bank

While there are many international rivers and several important shared aquifers in the region, probably the greatest potential for water disputes is in the three major international river basins (the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Jordan-Yarmuk) and the aquifers in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Nile

The world’s longest river, the Nile, and its tributaries flow through the nations of Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda. Of these, Egypt is probably the most dependent on the Nile. “Egypt is the only riparian nation on the Nile where rain-fed agriculture cannot be supported; it relies completely on the Nile for its food production,” says Munther Haddadin, a Middle East water resources consultant and Jordan’s minister of water and irrigation from 1997 to 1998. “All the other riparian parties have rain-fed areas that can produce food. Northern Sudan is an exception, but southern Sudan is rich with rainfall and arable lands.”

The main disputes over water so far have primarily involved Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Egypt, for the most part, has long asserted control over the Nile. In recent years, though, Ethiopia has been increasingly vocal in its objections to Egypt’s use of Nile water, claiming that the 1959 Nile Water Agreement governing allocation of the river’s waters is extremely unfair. Asserting that the agreement is preferential to Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia began making unilateral plans in the 1990s to divert Nile water for its own use.

Egypt, the downstream riparian, worries that Ethiopia might build dams in its highlands or construct a canal, both of which would significantly tap the Nile’s sources. Over the past two decades Egypt has on occasion even alluded to the possibility of military action against Ethiopia if they attempt to withhold Nile water and prevent it from flowing down into Egypt.

Sudan, too, has expressed expansionist desires over Nile water, even threatening in 1995 to withdraw from the 1959 agreement. This has increasingly jeopardized the stability of neighboring nations, endangering both Ethiopian and Egyptian access to water.

The Tigris-Euphrates

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have their headwaters in the mountains of southeastern Turkey. From there, the two rivers flow through the nations of Syria and Iraq before emptying into the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, which in turn flows into the Persian Gulf.

In recent years, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have exchanged verbal threats over their use of these shared rivers. Turkey has a development program under way, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), involving the construction of 22 dams and reservoirs on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. “This has been a source of contention for neighboring Iraq and Syria,” Wolf says, “who demand that the Turks allow more water to flow past Turkish dams to them down the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.”

So far, Turkey has completed about half of the GAP project. Once fully operational, the quantity of water flow to Iraq will be reduced by an estimated 80 percent of its 1980 flow, and the flow to Syria will be reduced by 40 percent.

Another area of dispute is water quality. “As Turkey increases its abstraction from the Euphrates upstream,” Haddadin explains, “fresher water is taken out of the river, and the salinity levels increase downstream in Syrian and Iraqi stretches of the river. What is more damaging is yet to come, however. Turkish irrigation upstream in the river basin causes brackish drainage water to return to the river after irrigation uses. This will multiply the environmental problem of the Euphrates water in Syria and Iraq.”

Further complicating the situation is Syria’s support of the PKK (Turkey’s Kurdish Separatist Party) in its insurgency against Turkey—a move that has prompted Turkey to threaten a blockade of water.

None of the disputes in the Tigris-Euphrates basin has been resolved. Nor is there any mechanism by which to negotiate an equitable resolution.”

Aaron T. Wolf

None of the disputes in the Tigris-Euphrates basin has been resolved,” says Wolf. “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, he adds, because neither Turkey, Iraq or Syria agrees on how to define ownership of water resources, all of them believing that ownership rather than equal distribution is the preeminent concern, no compromise is currently being discussed.

The Jordan-Yarmuk and the Aquifiers

The third major river system of the Middle East is small compared to the others, but the potential for conflict over its water is just as great. The Jordan river basin consists of the Upper and Lower Jordan and four tributaries, the largest being the Yarmuk River. The basin provides critical water supplies to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the occupied West Bank and has been a source of frequent disputes over the years between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

At the root of the conflict is the fact that the annual flow of the entire Jordan basin has been under Israel’s control since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Lake Tiberias or Lake Kinneret) basin in northern Israel and the Golan Heights. In addition, Israel controls the Mountain and Eastern Aquifers in the West Bank and the Coastal Aquifer in the Gaza Strip.

The Arabs in the region generally believe that the Israelis are using more than their fair share of water,” Saghir says. According to World Bank statistics, while Palestinians and Jordanians get by with just 200 cubic meters of water per person annually, the average use for Israelis is 447 cubic meters per year.

Much of the friction in recent years has been in regard to the Mountain Aquifer, which Israel ostensibly shares with the Palestinians on the West Bank. Israel depends on this aquifer for one third of its water needs. Although some of the water naturally flows into Israel, the vast majority of the aquifer’s water comes from Palestinian lands, yet Israel controls pumping and consumes about 80 percent of the supply, according to Abdel Rahman Tamimi, a groundwater expert with the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG). This is a constant source of contention, since the Palestinians view this water as being rightfully theirs. “Israeli settlements have water, lawns and swimming pools, while dozens of Palestinian villages are without adequate water supplies and suffer from water shortages,” says Tamimi.

Israeli settlements have water, lawns and swimming pools, while dozens of Palestinian villages are without adequate water supplies and suffer from water shortages,” says Tamimi.

Many springs and wells in the West Bank have dried up, and agriculture there is suffering. The PHG is convinced that Israel is to blame—that it is taking most of the water for its own use and forbidding Palestinians from drilling new wells or deepening existing wells. Israelis point out that unlimited drinking water is available to everyone in the occupied territories, but neither Israeli nor Palestinian can dig new wells for agriculture when the water table is low.

No comprehensive agreements have been reached over the equitable allocation of the aquifers in the region, or for the Jordan basin’s waters. “Water scarcity,” says Wolf, “has very much exacerbated tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, along with ethnic strife and border disputes. I think Palestinians see water as one of the tools that Israel has used in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Control of water takes on symbolic meaning right up there with the land, Jerusalem and the refugees.”

Given the hostility in the region, it is likely that water will remain a major source of contention for the foreseeable future.

Possible Solutions

While there are certainly no quick fixes to the water shortages in the Middle East, a number of technological options are available to help solve problems of both water quantity and quality.

One such option, which some believe would free up freshwater for human consumption, is the reuse of treated wastewater and drainage water for agricultural uses. Israel has pioneered in this technology. A project in Tel Aviv already generates enough to cultivate 20,000 acres of farmland. The recycled water is pure enough for accidental drinking.

Desalination is another option under discussion. “The use of brackish water drawn from fossil aquifers is being developed in the Negev,” says Uri Shamir, founding director of the Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. At present, though, “desalination for agriculture is still too costly,” Shamir says, “at least until other options run out, or until new technology brings down the price.”

Other strategies to confront the growing water shortages include improving municipal water supply systems and repairing pipes to reduce leakage; slowing population growth; and initiating media campaigns to educate the public about water conservation.

The Future

Experts disagree on the likelihood for future conflict over water in the region. Some argue that it is inevitable because of increased political tensions. Anxiety relating to growing water scarcity and the lack of adequate treaties and international laws regarding water increases the probability of confrontation.

Jordan’s late king Hussein remarked in an address at the University of Ottawa in 1989 that “competition for water is a major contributor to regional tension” in the Middle East. Abdullah Toukan, the king’s science advisor, told National Geographic in 1993: “In this arid region water is life. Money may bring desalination plants, but the real solution remains the restoration of Jordan’s rightful share of water.” Meir Ben-Meir, former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, predicted several years ago that “the next war in the Middle East will be struggled over water.”

Others, however, believe that future water conflicts are unlikely. “States have it in their power to decide to use water as a basis for cooperation rather than a source of conflict,” Shamir maintains. He says there have been only seven armed skirmishes in the last 50 years relating to international water disputes, and none erupted into full-scale war. During the same period, hundreds of water treaties were implemented, even during times when relations between the parties concerned were strained (e.g., India and Pakistan, Jordan and Israel). “People are willing to cooperate on water,” he adds, “because it is too important to fight over, and all parties benefit from cooperation. If you want reasons to fight, water will give you an opportunity. But if you seek peace, water can be a bridge.”

If you want reasons to fight, water will give you an opportunity. But if you seek peace, water can be a bridge.” 

Uri Shamir

Wolf agrees. “Water has been an excuse for people to come together and talk. It has basically forced them to cooperate, even in the midst of tension,” he says. He cites as an example the fact that Israel and Jordan had secret water talks for years, long before they had diplomatic relations. Though the Second Intifada began in September 2000, three months into it the Israeli and Palestinian water authorities put forward a joint declaration asking both Israel and Jordan to respect the infrastructure relating to water, pointing out that it was critical to make water deliveries that had been agreed to by treaties such as the 1993 Oslo Accord.

All over the world people have shown that when they want to resolve their issues, water issues not only don’t stand in the way but help induce people to cooperate,” Wolf remarks. “If you look at the most bitter enemies around the world—Indians and Pakistanis, or Israelis and Arabs, or Azerbaijanis and Armenians—all of them have very vicious political, ethnic and religious issues, and all of them have negotiated water treaties at one time or another. I think what drives people to work together is the realization that both sides need it. No matter how you feel about your enemy, somewhere deep down at the visceral level you recognize that they have the same basic needs that you do. You can’t say that about land or oil or about almost anything else. But somehow I really think water is different.”