01 Apr 2012

Whether international river basins become a source of cooperation or conflict is a question over which many millions, if not billions of lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.


Whether international river basins become a source of cooperation or conflict is a question over which many millions, if not billions of lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. In no other region is this question more pressing than in the Middle East where a water crisis of dire proportions looms. Relentless population growth, the accompanying increase in demand for water for both domestic and agricultural uses, and the exploitation of water resources well beyond the rate at which they can be replenished by natural processes do not bode well for the future water security of the region. The World Bank estimates that annual per capita availability of freshwater in the region dropped by two-thirds between 1960 and 1995. Dramatically underscoring this picture of a region under exceptional water stress is the fact that all of the nine countries globally whose annual water demand exceeds their annual renewable water supply are located in the Middle East, as Peter H. Gleick wrote in his 1993 article, “Water and Conflict: Fresh Water Resources and International Security”.

Bitter conflict, brittle cooperation

International concerns over the conflict potential of freshwater resources are fueled in part by regional water-related antagonisms that intensified and became flashpoints of international conflict in the past. Between 1974 and 1975, Syria and Iraq came close to trading blows over water in the wake of the construction of several dams by upstream Syria. These projects sharply curtailed the flow of Euphrates River water across the Syrian-Iraqi border at a time of well-below-average rainfall, placing the livelihoods of three million Iraqi farmers in jeopardy. Iraq and Syria massed troops on their mutual border, and the two states were headed on a collision course until Saudi Arabia stepped in as a mediator and secured the release of additional Euphrates River water from Syria’s al-Tabqa Dam.

An even more intense dispute over water resources occurred in the mid-1960s, when Israel and the neighbouring Arab states clashed over a plan authorised by the Arab League to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River out of Israeli territory. The intent of the diversion was to frustrate Israel’s plans to make its integrated national water delivery system operational and set back its economic development prospects and ability to absorb Jewish immigrants. Viewing the Arab move as an existential threat to its economic well-being, Israeli tanks swung into action during March 1965 and shelled the Syrian engineering equipment at the diversion site, bringing the project to a screeching halt. The hostile Israeli response raised Arab-Israeli tensions to a fever pitch and was one of the conflict spirals that led to the outbreak of a fullblown war in 1967.

Catalyst for cooperation

Alternatively, one might argue that it is precisely the vitality of water to human and economic welfare and its preciousness as a natural resource that make water a likely catalyst for cooperation, even when relations are otherwise permeated by conflict. Tellingly, even as Israeli/Palestinian relations deteriorated with the onset of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in 2000, the representatives of the Israeli/Palestinian Joint Water Committee, against all expectations, continued to meet and coordinate their hydrological projects and activities with each other. This in fact was the only joint committee created by previous interim Israeli/Palestinian peace agreements which functioned continuously throughout the conflict. Additional cases of water-related cooperation in the region include the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, signed in 1994, which included a water annex, and the Agreement for the Full Utilisation of the Nile Waters in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan.

Growing water scarcity, however, poses a significant obstacle to the effectiveness and durability of existing water-sharing agreements. Jordanian-Israeli hydro-political relations were strained to the breaking point when Israel announced plans (which it ultimately abandoned) to curtail the supply of agreedupon water quantities to Jordan in the midst of a severe drought in 1999. One of the challenges for future water-sharing endeavors is to devise transparent and equitable procedures for sharing the burden of reduced water supplies during droughts and other water-related crises, a feature conspicuously absent from the Jordanian- Israeli peace treaty.

Grounds for optimism?

To what extent can constraints on freshwater availability be managed or their consequences alleviated to prevent water-related concerns and antagonisms from becoming flashpoints of future conflict in the Middle East region? ‘Environmental optimists’ argue that it is the lack of technological capacity or imagination, rather than any naturally occurring deficit, that is chiefly responsible for critical shortages of water resources in regions such as the Middle East. While water resources may be limited, the capacity of human ingenuity to solve pressing challenges such as water scarcity is infinite. They emphasise that economic development can dampen resource competition at both the domestic and international level, as highly developed countries are in a better position to innovate or absorb the technologies necessary to more efficiently exploit or expand the supply of available resources.

Obstacles to improved water management

While environmental optimists furnish a useful corrective to exaggerated predictions of looming ‘water wars’, many Middle Eastern states simply lack the technological and financial capacity or geographical advantages to mount an effective, sustained, and comprehensive effort to overcome water resource scarcity. There is an upper limit to the degree to which states can escape their water woes through either large-scale engineering solutions aimed at expanding and diversifying available resources or via cutting-edge water-saving technologies designed to foster conservation. Desalination, often touted as a magic bullet solution, can be prohibitively expensive or difficult for some Middle Eastern states to develop. At a minimum, states must possess the capital, technical expertise and abundant sources of cheap energy required to power desalination plants. Jordan and Yemen are at an extreme disadvantage in this respect, because any desalinated water must be pumped to high elevations where population centres such as Amman, Sana’a and Ta’izz are located, a non-starter for such impoverished states. This raises the more general point that states well endowed with water resources (e.g., Turkey and Lebanon), and affluent oil-exporting states (e.g., the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) can better negotiate barriers to water availability than capital-deficient states such as Jordan and Yemen.

Climate change and water stress

Furthermore, a growing body of scientific research shows that human-driven climate change is bound to take an especially heavy toll on developing regions least able to cope with water stress, especially the arid Middle East. Global warming is expected to generate a host of severe consequences impacting on freshwater availability, including decreased precipitation and runoff in the tributaries of major rivers, reduced yields for major food crops, heightened irrigation requirements stemming from higher temperatures and increased rates of evaporation, and saltwater intrusion of coastal freshwater aquifers due to rising sea levels. Aggravating the impact of climate change on the Middle East region is the absence of timely and robust institutional responses to past and present water crises. In periods of drought, national water agencies and authorities in countries as diverse as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Bahrain have delayed taking resolute action until plummeting water supplies in aquifers and reservoirs have reached critical levels, as observed by Jeannie Sowers, Avner Vengosh, and Erika Weinthal in their 2011 article, “Climate Change, Water Resources, and the Politics of Adaptation in the Middle East and North Africa”, published in Climatic Change. Despite piecemeal efforts to enhance the capacity of water-specific institutions in the Middle East in recent years, their ongoing weaknesses do not inspire much confidence that they will be able to adroitly address the challenges water shortages pose to the region for the foreseeable future.

Remedies for water scarcity

As a spur to water conservation efforts, the wealthier countries of the Global North and the network of specialised United Nations agencies which oversee various aspects of worldwide water management should significantly increase their transfer of innovative water-saving technologies to water-scarce Middle Eastern nations. Drought-resistant seed varieties, drip irrigation systems that deliver water directly to the root zones of plants (and thus dramatically reduce water loss and evaporation associated with surface irrigation techniques), and other technologies designed to maximise agricultural output per unit of water utilised (‘more crop per drop’) should constitute central components of such efforts. A push to disseminate these technologies should be complemented by concerted efforts by the international community to make them more affordable to small-scale farmers. Progress towards this goal can be achieved in part through the expansion of microcredit facilities offering extended loan repayment periods for purchases of water-thrifty agricultural inputs. International donor assistance also has a role to play in enhancing the capacity of the states of the region to cope with climate changedriven shocks to water availability. However, initiatives should be appropriately tailored to the unique hydrological, demographic, social and economic conditions of individual Middle Eastern nations.

Acute imbalance

Rapid population growth and growing household and urban water needs, coupled with inherent limits on the carrying capacity of natural water supplies, suggest that the current imbalance between the demand for and supply of available water resources in the Middle East will only become more acute in the future. Despite formidable constraints, there is room for improvement in managing scarce water resources more efficiently. Of equal urgency is crafting a regional conflict management framework capable of mitigating the tensions and discord that inevitably result from conflicting claims to scarce water resources. Progress towards these objectives requires effective collaboration between the international community and the water-stressed states of the region. However wealthy donor countries and specialised water agencies, with their abundance of resources, technology and know-how, must take the lead in bringing innovative solutions to the table.

Matthew Isaac Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. His email is