Water scarcity in the Middle East, the growing normal

water scarcity middle east wars
Israel accesses 87% of the West Bank’s aquifers thus leaving the balance 13% for the Palestinians. As a result, Israeli settlers on the West Bank have access to 300 liters of water per day while the Palestinians get only 75 liters. © CC0 Public Domain

Water scarcity is not a modern phenomenon, nor are wars over access to water. 4,500 years ago, in what was then known as Iraq, a battle was fought between two ancient city states over water rights. “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash,” killed “60 soldiers” from the kingdom of Umma. History, it would seem, has an uncanny sense of humour: even after four millenniums, armies of nation states continue to clash over access to water resources since whoever controls water resources also controls the land.

Tensed over water

Iraq and Syria are at odds with Turkey over water rights of the Tigris and Euphrates river system. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Ethiopia are tense over the Nile. Palestinians and Jordan have accused Israel of plundering water resources to irrigate the Negev Desert as well as exploiting the bulk of the three aquifers that underlie occupied West Bank.

Water scarcity is a reality that cannot be ignored. Data from satellites that monitor climate change show that the Tigris-Euphrates basin, which meanders through Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is one of the fastest river systems that is losing water and is second to only Northern India.

Although the lack of water is fast becoming a global phenomenon, and is hardly new to the Middle East, however, it is this region which is particularly vulnerable and is the hardest hit globally. The Water Stress Index shows, of the 37 countries in the world which face “extremely high” water scarcity, 15 are located in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait heading the list.

The building of dams have added to the problem. Turkey’s dam building mania has piled on water issues on Iraq and Syria. Since 1975 Turkish dams have had a material impact of water flow into Syria and Iraq by 40% and 80% respectively. According to the Iraqi Union of Farming Associations, as much as 50% of the country’s agricultural land could be starved of water, as a result of which 124 million acres will go out of production.

Syria and Iran have also built dams which check the flow of rivers feeding the Tigris and Euphrates river systems, which in turn has allowed salt water from the Persian Gulf to creep into the Shatt al-Arab waterway where both rivers converge. The salt has destroyed the fertile agricultural lands in the south and has wiped out much of the huge date farms for which Iraq was well known.

Nearly 50 years ago, Israel built the National Water Carrier canal. This diverted waters from the Sea of Galilee which is fed by the Jordan River and turned the river that flows into Jordan downstream into a muddy stream. To make matters worse, Israel created water scarcity for the Palestinians by preventing them from even using this muddy water.

According to data from the World Bank, Israel accesses 87% of the West Bank’s aquifers thus leaving the balance 13% for the Palestinians. As a result, Israeli settlers on the West Bank have access to 300 liters of water per day while the Palestinians get only 75 liters. At this juncture it is worth noting that as per World Health Organization (WHO) standards, an individual requires at least 100 liters of water per day.

The Nile Basin

The Nile basin is also not devoid of conflicts. Here too the face of water scarcity has reared it ugly head. The 4,184 miles long Nile, the world’s longest river traverses across 10 African countries. It is not only Egypt’s lifeblood, but also those of the other countries through which it traverses.

Currently Ethiopia is constructing an enormous dam on the Blue Nile for irrigation and power generation purposes. While the source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, the Egyptian Nile comes into being where the Blue Nile and the White Nile, sourced from Lake Victoria in Uganda, converge in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Geopolitcal relations revolving around water scarcity and access over water between Egypt and Ethiopia are usually tense, although both sides have shown maturity and have agreed to hammer out a framework on which they could share this vital resource.

However with climate change accelerating the phenomenon of water scarcity, relations between the two are likely to get worse unless. A bilateral water sharing treaty could potentially resolve the issue. However appear to agree to disagree on how to kickstart this process.

Is privatization the key?

The World Bank, through its International Finance Corporation, has suggested that privatizing water systems could be key in resolving many of the issues since this move could attract private capital thus providing the much needed funds to upgrade systems and guarantee delivery. Although this sounds good in theory, privatization has typically led to poorer water quality at higher prices.

Privatisation has capitalised on the phenomenon of water scarcity by treating it as a commodity. By controlling natural sources and distribution points, private companies have cornered the market for bottled water.

Lebanon is a good case in point. Despite the fact that historically Lebanon has been blessed with sufficient amounts of water, due to a variety of reasons including wastage and mismanagement, the country figures in the list of 33 countries that will face severe water scarcity by 2040.

Nearly 60,000 unsanctioned illegal wells siphon off thousands of litres of water from aquifer that used to keep the country water positive. 1.6 million people living in the greater Beirut area, are affected due to water scarcity. The building of check dams have not mitigated the problem of chronic water shortages. As a result people have turned towards bottled water.

Multinational corporations, such as Nestle, though its ownership of Shoat, controls 35% of Lebanon’s bottled water market. Not only is bottled water expensive but it is also inferior in quality to natural water sources. Additioanlly, bottled water necessarily adds to the growing menace of plastic.

While private capital could plug some of the issues surrounding water scarcity, such as providing funds to upgrade existing leaking water infrastructure, through which thousands of litres of water goes to waste. Fixing the problem requires a high level of cooperation between multiple agencies as well as tons of investments.

Although there are workable practical solutions to the problem of water scarcity, including the usage of drip water irrigation in farmlands, the creation of ponds and recharge basins which allows rain water to percolate back into the ground, many such solutions require investments that are beyond the capacity of many countries, let alone individual farmers.

What is required is the adoption of a water sharing treaty, much like the one spelt out by the United Nations in the Convention on International Watercourses, which lays out procedures for sharing water and resolving disputes.

Given that water scarcity is a global phenomenon, strategies such as “beggar thy neighbor” are void ab initio since eventually all mankind will be affected. According to the UN, four out of 10 people will not have access to water by 2030.

If countries were to adopt water treaties, much like the Umma and Lagash water treaty, chronicled in a cuneiform tablet in the Louvre, 4,500 years back, a solution to this problem which threatens our very existence as a race, is well within our reach. Or maybe it’s too optimistic.