Water Politics and the Middle East
Water shortage, or drought, coupled with rapid population growth provides for extreme volatility in any region. In the Middle East water shortage issues are coupled with long-standing political and religious differences. The Middle East, stretching from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, through Israel and Lebanon to Turkey, and along the Tigris-Euphrates valleys, has only three major river systems and a few smaller rivers. The population stands at about 160 million. The Nile has an annual discharge of about 82 billion cubic yards (62.7 billion m3), whereas the combined Tigris-Euphrates system has an annual discharge of 93 billion cubic yards (71 billion m3). Some of the most intense water politics and drought issues in the Middle East arise from the four states that share the relatively small amounts of water of the Jordan River, with an annual discharge of fewer than 2 billion cubic yards (1.5 billion m3). It has been estimated that with current water usage and population growth, many nations in this region have only 10-15 years before their agriculture and their security will be seriously threatened.
The region is arid, receiving 1-8 inches (2.520 cm) of rain per year, and has many drought years with virtually no rain. The Middle East has an annual population growth rate of about 3.5 percent, one of the highest in the world. Many countries in the region have inefficient agricultural practices that contribute to the growing problem of desertification in the region. some of the problems include planting water-intensive crops, common flooding and furrow methods of irrigation, as well as spraying types of irrigation that lose much water to evaporation, and poor management of water and crop resources. These growing demands on the limited water supply, coupled with political strife resulting from shared usage of waterways that flow through multiple countries, has primed the region for a major confrontation over water rights. Many of the region's leaders have warned that water may be the cause of the next major conflict in the region—in the words of the late King Hussein of Jordan, water issues "could drive nations of the region to war."
Water use by individuals is by necessity much less in the Middle East than in the United States and other Western countries. For instance, every American has about 11,000 cubic yards (8,410 m3) of freshwater potential to use each year, while citizens of Iraq (pre war) have about 6,000 (4,590 m3), Turkey 4,400 (3,364 m3), and Syria about 3,000 (2,294 m3). Along the Nile Egyptians have about 1,200 cubic yards (917 m3) available for each citizen. In the Levant Israel's have a freshwater potential of 500 cubic yards (382 m3) per person per year, and Jordanians have only 280 cubic yards (214 m3) per year.
The Nile, the second-longest river on Earth, forms the main water supply for nine North African nations, and disputes have grown over how to share this water as demand increases. The Blue Nile flows out of the Ethiopian Highlands and meets the White Nile in the Sudan north of Khartoum, then flows through northern sudan into Egypt. The Nile is dammed at Aswan, forming Lake Nasser, then flows north through the fertile valley of Egypt to the Mediterranean.
The Nile is the only major river in Egypt, and nearly all of Egypt's population lives in the Nile Valley. About 3 percent of the nation's arable land stretches along the Nile Valley, but 80 percent of Egypt's water use goes to agriculture in the valley. The government has attempted to improve agricultural and irrigation techniques, which in many places have not changed appreciably for 5,000 years. If the Egyptians embraced widespread use of drip irrigation and other modern agricultural practices, then the demand for water could easily be reduced by 50 percent or more.
Egypt has initiated a massive construction and national reconstruction project whose aim to establish a new second branch of the Nile River, extending from Lake Nasser in the south, across the scorching Western Desert, and emerging at the sea at Alexandria. This ambitious project starts in the Tushka Canal area, where water is drained from Lake Nasser and is steered into a topographic depression that winds northward through some of the hottest, driest desert landscape on Earth. The government has been moving thousands of farmers and industrialists from the familiar Nile Valley into this national frontier, hoping to alleviate overcrowding. Cairo's population of 15 million is increasing at a rate of nearly 1 million per year. If successful, this plan could reduce the water demands on the limited resources of the river.
There are many obstacles to this plan. Will people stay in a desert where temperatures regularly exceed 120°F (49°C)? Will the water make it to Alexandria, having to flow through unsaturated sands and through a region where the evaporation rate is 200 times greater than the precipitation rate? How will drifting sands and blowing dust affect plans for agriculture in the Western Desert? Much of the downriver part of the Nile suffers from lower water and silt levels than needed to sustain agriculture and even the current land surface. so much water is used, diverted or dammed upstream that parts of the Nile Delta have actually started to subside (sink) beneath sea level. These regions desperately need to receive the annual silt layer from the flooding Nile to rebuild the land surface and prevent it from disappearing beneath the sea.
There are also political problems with establishing the new river through the Western Desert. Ethio-
pia contributes about 85 percent of the water to the structure to transfer the water from the Nile to the Nile, yet it is experiencing severe drought and famine thirsty lands to the east. sudan and Egypt have longin the eastern part of the country. There is no infra- standing disputes over water allotments, and sudan
Map of the Middle East showing the main river systems. The area faces a rapidly growing population and a severe lack of water.
is not happy that Egypt is establishing a new river that will further Egyptians' use of the water. Water is currently flowing out of Lake Nasser, filling up several small lake depressions to the west, and sinking into and evaporating between the sands.
The Jordan River basin is host to some of the most severe drought and water-shortage issues in the Middle East. Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians share the Jordan River water, and the resource is much more limited than water along the Nile or in the Tigris-Euphrates system. The Jordan River is only 100 miles (160 km) long and is made of three main tributaries, each with different characteristics. The Hasbani River has a source in the mountains of Lebanon and flows south to Lake Tiberias, and the Banias flows from Syria into the lake. The smaller Dan River flows from Israel. The Jordan River then flows out of Lake Tiberias and is joined by water from the Yarmuk flowing out of Syria into the Dead Sea, where any unused water evaporates.
The Jordan River is the source for about 60 percent of the water used in Israel, and 75 percent of the water used in Jordan. The other water used by these countries is largely from groundwater aquifers. Israel has almost exclusive use of the coastal aquifer along the Mediterranean shore, whereas disputes arise over use of aquifers from the West Bank and Golan Heights. These mountainous areas receive more rain and snowfall than other parts of the region and have some of the richest groundwater deposits. Since the 1967 war Israel has tapped the groundwater beneath the West Bank and now gets approximately 30-50 percent of its water supply from groundwater reserves beneath the mountains of the West Bank. The Palestinians get about 80 percent of their water from this mountain aquifer. A similar situation exists for the Golan Heights, though with lower amounts of reserves. These areas therefore have attained a new significance in terms of regional negotiations for peace in the region.
The main problems of water use stem from the shortage of water compared with the population, effectively making drought conditions. The situation is not likely to improve, given the alarming 3.5 percent annual population growth rate. Conservation efforts have only marginally improved the water use problem, and it is unlikely that there will be widespread rapid adoption of many of the drip-irrigation techniques used in Israel throughout the region. This is partly because it takes a larger initial investment in drip irrigation than in conventional furrow and flooding types of irrigation systems. Many farmers cannot afford this investment, even if it would improve their long-term yields and decrease their water use. When the Gaza Strip was turned over to Palestinian control, the authorities ripped out the drip irrigation systems and greenhouses set up by the Israelis and sold the parts for scrap. Now more water is needed to yield the same amount of crops.
Sporadic droughts have worsened this situation in recent years; in 1999 Israel cut in half the amount of water it supplies to Jordan, and Jordan declared drought conditions and mandated water rationing. Jordan currently uses 73 percent of its water for irrigation. If this number could be reduced by adoption of more efficient drip-irrigation, the current situation would be largely in control.
One possible way to alleviate the drought and water shortage would be to explore for water in unconventional aquifer systems such as fractures or faults, which are plentiful in the region. Many faults are porous and permeable structures that are several tens of meters wide, and thousands of meters long and deep. They may be thought of as vertical aquifers, holding as much water as conventional aquifers. If these countries were to be successful in exploring for and exploiting water in these structures, the water shortage and regional tensions might be reduced. This technique has proven effective in many other places in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, and would probably work here as well.
Another set of problems plague the Tigris-Euphrates drainage basin and the countries that share water along their course. There are many political differences among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, and the Kurdish people have been fighting for an independent homeland in this region. one of the underlying causes of dispute is also the scarce water supply in a drought-plagued area. Turkey is completing a massive dam construction campaign, with the largest dam being the Attaturk on the Euphrates. Overall Turkey is spending an estimated $32 billion on 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants. The aim is to increase the irrigated land in Turkey by 40 percent and to supply 25 percent of the nation's electricity through hydroelectric plants. This system of dams also now allows Turkey to control the flow of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. If it pleases, Turkey can virtually shut off the water supply to downstream neighbors. At present Turkey is supplying Syria and Iraq with what it considers to be a reasonable amount of water, but Syria and Iraq claim the amount is inadequate. Political strife and even military action has resulted. Turkey is currently building a pipeline to bring water to drought-stricken Cyprus. Turkey and Israel are forging new partnerships and have been exploring ways to export water from Turkey and import it to Israel, which could help the drought in the Levant.
Continue reading here: Can Desalination Help SolvE The Water Crisis
Was this article helpful?