If the last two decades have been marked by wars over oil, the coming decades could see conflict over a much more precious commodity, water. By mid-century more than half of humanity will be facing water shortages, particularly in the Middle East, according to a UN report, as supply and demand move dramatically in opposite directions.
Talk of Mideast peace focuses on borders, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem, but water may be the greatest – and most neglected – hurdle in an area where consumption far exceeds supply.
A severe freshwater crisis threatens the standard of living, political stability and security throughout the region. The crisis knows no national boundaries and is the most dramatic symbol of the interdependency of the region’s inhabitants. Scientists and policy makers agree that solutions require international cooperation in a region where history has shown it easier to hate than to help each other.
The rain that falls and the snow that melts in one country flows across borders, and when that flow is threatened, as in 1967 (shortly before the Six Day War) when Syria tried to dam the Yarmuk River, which feeds the Jordan River, conflict can erupt. Israel bombed the dam.
THIS WEEK a top State Department official is visiting Israel, Jordan and Egypt in a diplomatic effort to spur regional water sharing and cooperation.
Jon B. Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says water, not war, is “the most likely source of political and social unrest in the Middle East over the next 20 years.” The underground aquifers are a finite resource “being exploited far beyond their capacity to restore themselves.” And as they are drained, wells have to be dug deeper and deeper and the water is less pure.
Geologists warn that Amman may have only 15 more years of water. According to a report in this month’s National Geographic, “The Jordan River is now depleted by drought, pollution and overuse... The lower Jordan is practically devoid of clean water, bearing instead a toxic brew of saline water and liquid waste.”
In Syria hundreds of thousands of families have had to leave agricultural areas for lack of water and move to the cities, according to a UN report. Poor water management by the government and a lack of modernized agriculture has combined with the water shortage to exacerbate the crisis.
Nonetheless, Israeli requests to discuss water cooperation have been rebuffed by Damascus, according to Bloomberg News.
The World Bank contends Israelis consume four times as much water per capita as Palestinians, but the Israeli government insists the real number is half that. Amnesty International has accused Israel of neglecting the water needs of Palestinians through discriminatory and restrictive policies, but Israel insists it is meeting its obligations under the Oslo Accords.
Israel charges the Palestinians have “significantly violated their commitments” by failing to build sewage treatment plants, by drilling unauthorized wells, refusing to purify and reuse sewage for agriculture, dumping sewage into streams and not taking advantage of water desalination opportunities.
Palestinians accuse Israel of stealing their water, leaving thousands of homes dry, and insist that the security barrier cuts farmers off from their water supply.
An attempt by the European Union to develop a regional water management strategy broke down earlier this month when Israel and the Arabs could not agree on how to refer to the West Bank and Gaza even though, according to news reports, there was extensive agreement on technical issues related to water management.
ISRAEL’S 62 years have been marked by some 30 military clashes over water, as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan tried at various times to divert the Banyas, Dan, Hasbani and Yarmuk rivers to cut their flow into Israel, and Arabs attacked Israel’s National Water Carrier.
Israel may be water poor but it is rich in water use technology and one of the world’s most scientifically advanced agricultural nations. Making the desert bloom is more than a slogan.
But its higher standard of living and industrialization also mean greater water consumption.
The water crisis in the Arab world is compounded by growing demand,
highly inefficient usage, government corruption, domestic instability
and poor management, say international experts, leading to inadequate
supply, which could spark domestic hostilities as well as conflict with
Jordan and Israel have been discussing sending water from the Red Sea
to the Dead Sea, desalinating some along the way for human use,
producing hydroelectricity and restoring the shrinking Dead Sea.
Water is a strategic, economic, humanitarian, public health and
political issue that more than any other symbolizes the interdependency
of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Yet long-standing political disputes
make solutions all the more difficult to develop.
As the problem grows more critical, the chances for conflict grow as well.