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Artillery Patch

Water, Population & Conflict in the Middle East

Dr. Hasan A. Yahya

When war plans begins, logic takes the backseat of politics, as I see it, these days, nations in the Middle East (including Israel) are now dedicated for the task of self destruction, unless….. (the author).

 Water is a vital resource, necessary for all aspects of human and ecosystem survival and health. In recent years, new alarms have been sounded about growing water scarcity and contamination and the likely inability to meet the water requirements of rapidly growing populations .(Postel 1992, Gleick 1993, Engleman and LeRoy 1993, Yahya 1994, 2010).

As the human population of the planet grows, our demand for freshwater dramatically increases. Yet, there exist large disparities between supply and demand. Further, environmental mismanagement has seriously degraded the quality of available water supplies, many of which are polluted, misdirected, or simply wasted.

Globally, the great variations in current per-capita water availability for each continent  show that  Oceania has over 70,000 cubic meters per person per year (m3/person/year),  North Americans use over 1,600 cubic meters per person per year, while the average in Europe is 725 m3/person/year. For all of Africa is under 7,000 m3/person/year, while that of Asia  is only 3,400 m3/person/year. some countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East have less than 100 m3/person/year reflecting the limited physical resources available, the large populations, and poorly developed water-supply systems. (Gleick 1993).  

The United States and Mexico are among many countries in the Americas that share water resources. Waters that form in or flow though one country are vital to livelihoods in another. For example, Syria is most unhappy with Turkey's GAP project,  which plans to dam the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that flow downstream to Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, troubled Sudan controls much of the water that flows into Egypt's Aswan High Dam on the Nile River water Forums help facilitate discussion about responsible management, but ultimately it is up to water users to decide how to use available water equitably and efficiently.

This article, deals briefly with population and water shortages, historical background, the necessity of water requirements for populations in the Middle East, and how Water as a precious and limited resource in the region, became a potential trigger for serious national conflicts in the area. Finally a  set of conclusions are drawn.

Water and Population: In terms of population, throughout most of human history, the world's population has grown gradually. It took thousands of years for the global population to reach one billion people (around 1800). Then, in a little more than a century, the population jumped to two billion (by 1960), and to three billion by 1980. In just twenty years—between 1980 and 2000—the world's human population doubled from three billion to six billion people.

In terms of water, in old history the Egyptians and Sumerians built elaborate irrigation systems based on the waters of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates. These required planning, central administration and cooperation - this need may have been the major stimulus for the advancement of civilization. Later, the Nabateans who inhabited southern Israel and Jordan, built a great network of cisterns and underground reservoirs to catch rainfall and runoff from flash floods in the Negev desert. The desert city of Petra is an example of what this civilization achieved.

Almost two hundred years ago, the average amount of water available per person (in 1850 for example) was about 43,000 cubic meters per year. By 1990, this figure had dropped to 9,000 cubic meters per year, simply because of the increase in global population. When measured this way, the spatial and temporal distribution problems become even more evident for reasons such as low rainfall and high erratic and evaporation.  Rapid population growth, relative to water resource development, is reducing per capita use. The Middle East region has rivers that originate outside and short seasonal or perennial rivers.

Conflict and water, are intimately related everywhere and across time in history. According to the above data, fresh water resources are unevenly distributed around the world, The Middle East is no different. Since the creation of Israel, the factor of water became acute and played an important factor in land domination and borders drawings. No doubt that water was the hidden agenda for past conflicts and one major obstacle to reach a lasting and final settlement in the region. The conflicts over water is not just between Israel and her neighbors, but among Arab nations as well.

Most of the resources  are controlled largely by Israel.  Syria lost its important  area of 66 square kilometers in the Golan Heights, in the 1967 war. While all countries claim water resources, These resources are near ending. In the past few millions of people reside in the area and depended on water. Today, the population was large enough to make governments ration water supply to citizens.    

From Turkey, the southern bastion of Nato, down to Oman, looking out over the Indian Ocean, the countries of the Middle East are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra millions born each year, not to mention agriculture, the main cause of depleting water resources in the region. 

All these nations depend on three great river systems, or vast underground aquifers, some of which are of `fossil water' that cannot be renewed. 

Take the greatest source of water in the region, the Nile. Its basin nations have one of the highest rate of population growth which are likely to double in less than thirty years, yet the amount of water the Nile brings is no more than it was when Moses was found in the bulrushes. 

Jordan's population more than doubled from 1.5 millions in 1955 to 4 millions in 1990 and is projected to double again before 2010. Their annual per capita water availability in 1990 was 327 cubic meters some 673 below the bottom line of crisis.

Israel's population is projected to grow from 4.7 millions in 1990 to about 8 million in 2025. By that time Palestinians in the west bank - because of their higher birth rate, are likely to reach just under seven millions- the two peoples are to share the same water resources which they both now say are not enough.

Libya's population of 4.5 million in 1990 is projected to increase to 12.9 million in 2025 and the oil revenues enabled the government to increase dependency on desalination, but they diverted - or rather wasted massive resources on a white elephant, the great man made river to mine fossil water in the south.

Egypt's 58 Million in 1990 are projected to reach 101 Millions in 2025 and already approaching water scarcity: its per capita availability is 1,017 

In the case of Renewable fresh water resources there is no universal uniform on it since there is no international consensus on how to define and measure renewable fresh water resources. 

* The list of water-scarce countries in 1955 were seven including three Middle Eastern countries : Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait. 

By 1990, 13 were added among them eight from the Middle East : Algeria, Israel/Palestine , Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. 

UN studies anticipate to add another 10 countries by the year 2025 seven of them are from the Middle east : Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria. This mean that by the year 2025 some eighteen countries in this troublesome region will suffer from water shortages. 

Israel uses underground water sources in the West Bank, which are the main sources of water for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area for example. 

Water Shortages in the Middle East: From Turkey, the southern bastion of NATO, down to Oman, looking out over the Indian Ocean, the countries of the Middle East are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra millions born each year, not to mention agriculture, the main cause of depleting water resources in the region.  Middle East Countries, in fact,  suffer from a shortage, and the scarcity of water is used as a political issue and a lever.

All these nations depend on three great river systems, or vast underground aquifers, some of which are of `fossil water' that cannot be renewed. 

Take the greatest source of water in the region, the Nile. The Nubian aquifer in North Africa were filled when water infiltrated the earth's subsurface in past geological years. When we refer to fossil water in an aquifer, it is water trapped since the ice age and there is no certainty how long it would take to replenish them, thus it safe to conclude that mining their water is only a temporary solution. In the same time, the Nile basin nations have one of the highest rate of population growth which are likely to double in less than thirty years, yet the amount of water the Nile brings is no more than it was when Moses was found in the bulrushes. 

Although all natural water resources are replenished through the natural hydrological cycle, their renewal rate ranges from days to millennia. The average renewal rate for rivers are about 18 days - that is to renew every drop taken out - while for large lakes and deep aquifer they can span thousand years.

In general a country with less than 1,700 cubic meter per capita is regarded as experiencing water stress, while less than 1000 cubic meter is regarded as water shortage.  The Arabian Peninsula is poor in surface water but has larger groundwater reserves than the other nations in the area; those reserves are being withdrawn faster than natural recharge rates, however. Conflicts and disputes over water allocations have impeded improvements in the use of surface water. Seawater intrusion and contamination by human and industrial waste and pesticides are affecting water quality.

In the case of Renewable fresh water resources there is no universal uniform on it since there is no international consensus on how to define and measure renewable fresh water resources. The list of water-scarce countries in 1955 were seven including three Middle Eastern countries : Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait.  By 1990, 13 were added among them eight from the Middle East : Algeria, Israel/Palestine , Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. UN studies anticipate to add another 10 countries by the year 2025 seven of them are from the Middle East : Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria. This mean that by the year 2025 some eighteen countries in this troublesome region will suffer from water shortages.

The Annual Renewable fresh water Available Per Person ranked by 1990 Availability in Cubic Meters The highest was Iraq, Iraq 18,441 (1955) to 6,029 (1990) and 2,356 (2025) cubic meters, the lowest  was Kuwait 147, 23,  and 9,   then  Jordan with  906,  327 121 cubic meters in 1955, 1990, and 2025 respectively. However, the projection of 2025 for water shortage in Qatar 57, Bahrain 68, Saudi Arabia 113, Yemen 152, and UAE 176 cubic meters, and the highest four countries were Iraq 2,356 Turkey 2,186,  Sudan 1,993 and  Lebanon 1,113 cubic meters fresh available per person. 

Water still a cardinal issue in the Middle East. Where drought doesn't miss the area. Religious people pray for God to bring rain. It is urgent to solve the water shortage in the Middle East, because I believe that conflict over  water supplies is vital factor in the whole Middle East conflict. It is common knowledge, that the distribution of water resources in the Jordan River Basin: Israel, Palestine and Syria is not equally provided. The water crisis is not confined, however to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Water sources in almost all cases, with few exceptions of underground aquifers, crosses borders and in some cases involve as high as nine sovereign states in the basin.  In general a country with less than 1,700 cubic meter per capita is regarded as experiencing water stress, while less than 1000 cubic meter is regarded as water shortage.

Water and Conflict: Adel Darwish in his research on the topic, shows how they could lead to a war or wars in the near future (1994,2003). Conflict and water in the Middle East are intimately related, but to address the problem, who's first, the chicken or the egg argument should be resolved. From prehistory,  the desert Arabs, fought continually over grazing rights and wells in land where water and pasture were disparately scarce. Water for them was like God, the source of life, therefore, the source of conflict over life. Arab lore has it that Israel occupying the land of Palestine  where the Dome of the Rock  in Jerusalem, over which many peace talks have broken up, is built over the source of all waters.

In recent history, the conflict over water between Israel and Syria, began in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, it was generally agreed that Britain should receive the mandate for Palestine, and France for Syria and Lebanon; but the Palestine-Syrian borders remained undecided, mostly due to disagreement between Britain and France over the development parameters of their acquisition. Documents show that Chaim Weizmann, on September 19, 1919 was seeking to expand the modern boundary as decided by the British authority "at the peace conference, laid siege to Winston Churchill  with a last memo written by a Jewish scholar, Aaron Aaronsohn, who's primary concern was the economic development of the new country".(Goldstone, 2007). Weizmann wrote: " I should like to say that in the discussions and negotiations  with the French Government now in progress with regard to the northern frontier, from the point of view of Palestine the deciding factor is the question of water supplies." Weizmann continues to emphasize this issue, "I have much pleasure in enclosing a memorandum on that subject in which this subject is dealt with very thoroughly and in my opinion, convincingly." Palestine northern boundaries in Weizmann's mind was including the whole the Bekaa Valley, where with help of an engineer named Sir John Benton, whose plans to dam the Litani River in what was now French Lebanon.

In her book, Aaronsohn's Maps: The untold Story of the Man who Might have Created Peace in the Middle East, the author Patricia Goldstone,  putting her finger on the cause of conflict in the Middle East concerning water, she noted that Prime Minister David Lloyd George and General Allenby, commander of Britain's Egyptian Expeditionary Force,  in September, 1919, "proposed  redrawing the northern boundary far south of the water resources ……… extracting in return a promise that France would forget about Greater Syria." Goldstone noted that after two weeks, "Allenby evacuated his troops from Northern Galilee, leaving all water resources and the Jewish settlements in French hands."  What happened later, "without British protection,   the settlement of Metulla, Kfar Giladi, Tel Hai, and others became prey for Arab marauders, and have remained flash points ever since." Advised to "abandon the northern settlements because they are indefensible, David Ben-Gurion, in the process of metamorphosing Hashomer into a regular militia, insisted on hanging on."

Goldstone shows that on March 1, 1920, Tel Hai fell in the hands of Syrians,  and two days later, the Jews evacuated Metullah and Kfar Geladi. The Hashemite Faisal, proclaimed himself king of Greater Syria, which in his lexicon incorporated Lebanon, Transjordan, and "Southern Syria," meaning Palestine. Immediately Chaim Weizmann left for San Remo, Italy, where on April 25,  the British and French split Syria into two parts, North (Syria) and South ( Palestine and Iraq,) with France taking Syria and Britain the rest. (p.288)     

Now Lebanon and Syria became under French rule on June 21, 1920, the French proposed a compromise that retained all Jewish settlements within the existing boundaries  of Palestine, but it allocated to Syria almost all of the water resources. In the agreement, finalized by the French and British Governments in March 1923, The entire Litani and the Jordan headwaters of the Ayoun and Hasbani Rivers would originate in Lebanon before flowing into Palestine. According to borders, however, the Banias springs would originate  and flow for one hundred meters in Syria, before entering Palestine. This plan was confirmed, in March  1923, prevented Jews from these resources, in spite of Weizmann and other Jews opposition. This was the point where the conflict over  water began and continues to be to this day.  

In May 1948, the British troops departed Palestine, and the State of Israel was created. In War of Independence against Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Israel lost the three tiny areas to the Arabs, Givat  Banias, its access to the Banias springs; the town of El-Hama, including a small triangular area close to to linking al-Yarmuk to Lake Tibrias; and another patch of Lake Huleh, the Daughters of Jacob Bridge have been targeted by Israeli planners as the site of major Israeli water reclamation project.

Syria, which have the territory in that time, agreed to withdraw from all these places, except El-Hama and Givat Banias, the rest of the land were turned into demilitarized zone (DMZ) the area  of the DMZ was sixty-odd square kilometers, whose sovereignty would be negotiated in the future, that future does not come yet.

While oil has always been thought of as the traditional cause of conflict in the Middle East past and present. Since the first Gulf oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, countries have squabbled over borders in the hope that ownership of a patch of desert or a sand bank might give them access to new riches. No longer. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated - unlike the water resources, which are still often unknown. Water is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict in the Middle East.

The oil boom in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern states, desalination became an industry. In 1990 over 13 million cubic meter were produced each day world wide using 7,500 plants, yet this represents just under one thousandth of fresh water consumption per day. 

Water was an early weapon deployed in the Arab Israeli conflict. In the 1960s cross border raids on water schemes' machinery raved between Israel, Syria and Jordan culminating in the Six Day war in 1967. In 1964, an Arab summit conference in Amman decided to divert the headwaters of the Jordan - in effect, depriving Israel of its main supply. 

Prior the 1964 Arab Summit, Israel built a giant pumping station on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and began to siphon water into systems of pipes and canals known as the national water carrier, all the way to the Negev Desert. By 1990, the carrier was diverting 440 million cubic meter a year of water that used to pass through the Jordan all the way to the Dead Sea. As a result the Dead Sea has now shrunk into a slain drying two lakes. 

To implement the 1964 Arab summit resolution, work began on the Syrian and Jordanian side of the border, despite Israel's warning that it would consider it an infringement of national rights. And though all the work was carried out on Arab or neutral land, battles, air raids and artillery duels occurred. In the end, Israeli air strikes deep into Syria forced the Arabs to call off their scheme by destroying the proposed dam site on the Yarmuk river. Had the two dams al-Maquarin and Al-Makhiyabat been completed, they would have deprived Israel of 550 million cubic meter per annum.( In fact Jordan and Syria were proposing to build a new Dam the Unity Dam further upstream, World bank linking the finance with an agreement with Israel, which has never been reached.) 

On the side of Israel, General Ariel Sharon, the late Israeli defense minister, had no doubt what those skirmishes were all about. `People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six-day war began,' he said. `That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two- and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.' 

The conflict war erupted in 1973. President Sadat of Egypt wanted to force Israel to the conference table, and to conclude a lasting peace. With the help of Henry Kissinger a peace treaty with Israel was reached in 1979, after the Camp David meetings and accords in 1978. 

When President Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he said Egypt will never go to war again, except to protect its water resources. King Hussein of Jordan has said he will never go to war with Israel again except over water and the Untied Nation Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has warned bluntly that the next war in the area will be over water.

As the various Israeli-Egyptian committees met to settle the details of the treaty, Israeli delegates suggested that there should be co-operation on water projects. In particular, they wanted about 1 per cent of the Nile flow giving them about 800 million cubic meter to be diverted into a pipeline extending from the peace canal which takes water from the Ismaelia canal east of the delta to Sinai.

President Sadat saw this as providing a substitute for water from aquifers of the west bank and the Jordan, thus reducing Israel's dependency on the territories seen as Palestinian self rule areas. He also saw such project as basis for regional co-operation, eventually extending the pipeline to Lebanon or Jordan in later stages. 

Turkey seized an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to control the flow of water to its neighbors, and provoked a remarkable alliance between enemies. In January 1990, it stopped the flow of the Euphrates. Officially, the interruption was to fill the vast lake in front of the new Ataturk Dam; in fact, it was a demonstration to Syria of what might happen if President Hafez al-Assad continued aiding the Kurdish rebels in south-east Anatolia. Halting the flow of the Euphrates into Syria also brought water shortages in Iraq. Turkish planners thought that would not matter, as Syria and Iraq were bitter enemies. 

Faced with this common threat, however, old antagonisms were instantly forgotten; the Iraqi and Syrian media united in denouncing Turkey, and military leaders from both countries drew up plans for armed retaliation. After three weeks, the river was allowed to flow as usual, though the stoppage had been planned to last a month.

If agreement is reached between Jordan and Israel, but without a settlement between Syria and Israel, in decade or so Syria could face an alliance of Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel aimed at maximizing their share of scarce water resources. Just as the old enemy Iraq, might side with Syria against Turkey to demand more water, such alliance would even be supported by Israel, just to emphasize the right of a down stream state to confront an upstream state which exploits geography to the disadvantage of other riparian states.

Two views of Water and Peace: Optimists think that if a general peace is reached in the Middle East, Arab oil money and Israeli technology may combine to help reduce the wastage of water and revolutionize irrigation - since agriculture swallows up to 85 percent of water in the Middle East, while the world average figure is 69 per cent and in countries like Sudan the figure is 99 per cent - and also find an economic, nuclear, solar or electric energy to desalinate seawater ( like the red-to-dead-sea canal project, the Indingo pan-African electric grid among the nine Nile riparian states, etc.).

But pessimists outnumber the optimists, among them are regional statesmen, politicians, and world diplomats and technocrats too. Elias Salamah, professor of water resources at the University of Amman has warned, on several occasions, that, ``if the multilateral talks on water fail to bring about a fairer distribution of water, some time between 1995 and 2005 there is high probability that Israel, Jordan and the west bank will face such progressive worsening water shortages that there will be conflict.'' 

Several conclusions are necessary to make before the end of this article:

  1. There has almost always been a water crisis in the Middle East. Population growth always expanded to the limits of the scarcest available resource, which was usually water.  Existing settlements throughout history. were also threatened by climactic changes. The problem was met successfully by ingenuity and adaptation.
  2. Whenever other conditions permitted, the water supply has always expanded to meet population requirements. Throughout the period of the British Mandate, experts were convinced that the land between the Jordan and the sea could not comfortably support any great population increase.
  3. As the population increased, the standard of living went up however. If there is no agreement between Israel and Palestinians, as well as neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the area is in serious need for dire predictions that Palestine (Israel and Palestinian territory) would run out of arable land and of water soon.
  4. All Israeli wars were for water supplies, the 1967, the 1973, and the Lebanon1979 and 1982, where the last two were under the command of Ariel Sharon, the Litany River was, once again, a major strategic objective in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, by a coalition government in which Shimon Peres, who began his political life as a Ben-Gurion's aide, was a partner.
  5. In the absence of Arab unity which is not seen in the near future, water will take more projects for negotiation, taking the form of unilateral negotiation. Lack of leadership of Pan-Arabism like Jamal Abdul-Nasser and Saddam Hussein, contributes in such negotiation.
  6. By the disappearance of Zionist ideals to form Large Israel from the Nile to  Euphrates, and the serious need to compromise by using modern technologies using  springs projects of Desalination.
  7. On a world scale, competition for increasingly scarce water increases the likelihood of international conflict (both economic and military) over water quality and diversion schemes. More than 200 river systems cross national boundaries. Thirteen major rivers and lakes are shared by 100 countries.
  1. What is recommended, though, is the need for purely technological solutions to water scarcity even though are likely to have limited effect. Desalinized seawater now accounts for less than 1 per cent of the water people consume. It is likely that this will increase, but it is only feasible in countries wealthy enough to take on the costs—currently oil-producing states of west Asia—with no need to transport the water over long distances. Movement of fresh water in large plastic bags pulled by ships has been of some value in the eastern Mediterranean, but as with desalination, it is of little help to landlocked countries or in- land populations and of limited scale.
  2. The need for Crescentologism approach to come to cultural knowledge, understanding, appreciation, and finally, compromising for the benefits of all, where reciprocal respect and recognition between nations and cultures is the final stage to live in peace, without ranks of power domination, or slavery or exploitation. This last point is described in the author's book: Crescentologism, the Moon Theory, 2010.

10.  Water always would be a primary source of conflict in the Middle East, unless it could be neutralized on a relatively simple means of engineering. That needs a political will to achieve it as essentially pragmatic solution. Otherwise the Middle East will remain embroiling.  (4589 words) www.hasanyahya.com

References may be found in the original paper.

About the Author

Dr. Hasan A. Yahya is an American writer, scholar, and professor of Sociology. He's the honorary member of the Arab & Muslim Writers Union-A&MWU). Has a 2 Ph.d degrees from Michigan State University. He published 50 books plus (38 Arabic and 12 English), and 230 plus articles on sociology, religion, psychology, politics, poetry, and short stories. Philosophically, his writings concern logic, justice and human rights. Dr. Yahya is the author of Crescentologism: The Moon Theory,  and Islam Finds its Way, on Amazon. He's an expert on Race Relations and Arab and Islamic cultures, and was invited to several TV shows and international conferences on religion, world affairs and future strategic planning. www.dryahyatv.com

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