Access to water has become an increasingly pressing issue in the Middle East. The region has experienced drought conditions for 15 of the last 20 years. Arab countries account for 10.8 percent of the Earth’s landmass but have only 0.7 percent of the world’s surface water. Furthermore, only 2.1 percent of the world’s annual rainfall occurs in these lands.
On average, every individual in the Arab region has a share of 565 cubic meters of water per year, whereas the global rate of water consumption is 1,385 cubic meters per capita per year. And though around 295 billion cubic meters of freshwater exist in the Arab world, this is expected to drop to 261 billion cubic meters by the end of 2030.
Moreover, after Africa, the Arab region accounts for the highest population growth in the world. Therefore, there is a strong chance this combination of a high birth rate and increasing water scarcity could lead to a conflict.
Many observers have predicted that the water crisis in the Arab world will inevitably worsen, as two thirds of supply resources originate from states that can control the flow and level of rivers to neighboring countries by building dams. This is the case for the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan rivers, as well as the Senegal River in Mauritania.
Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia have been using water to achieve their geopolitical objectives and exerting political and economic pressure on the down-stream states.
For example, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia have been using water to achieve their geopolitical objectives and exerting political and economic pressure on the down-stream states in the region. Water resources have a strategic impact, given the various religious, ideological, and geographical conflicts that are already occurring in this region.
Israel has long been greedy for water, making it an integral part of its settlement expansion strategy. Although initially it attempted to share water with neighboring Arab states, its aggressive actions in 1967, the 1978 Peace Treaty with Egypt, the occupation of south Lebanon in 1982, and the annexation of the Golan Heights in 2019 all show that Israel tends to take over water resources.
Turkey –aspiring to restore its Ottoman Empire – exerts power over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Despite its political ambitions, though, it has constructed many dams to create agricultural centers which could meet the needs of regional countries. Moreover, to satisfy the United States and Israel, Turkey has suggested carrying out the “Peace Pipelines” project. This involves building two pipelines to transfer water from Turkey to the other countries in the region, including Israel.
Iran, on the other hand, has developed a number of dams, transfer projects, and agriculture on the river basins shared with Iraq, seriously affecting both the quality and quantity of Iraq’s water resources. In the past ten years, Iran has cut off about 35 major tributaries that pass through Iraq, taking 80 percent of this water. Iran not only blocked the tributaries fresh water, it also used dry ones to push saline-puncture water into Iraqi territory, flooding a large part of the border between Iraq and Iran at Basra.
Then there is the potential conflict brewing between Ethiopia, on one side, and Egypt and Sudan on the other, which has revealed sharp contradictions in each state’s foreign policy. The issue surrounds the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)– which Ethiopia started building in 2011 along the Nile – and its potential threat to Egypt and Sudan’s water supply. Since then, numerous negotiations have been conducted between the parties, the latest in Kinshasa in April of this year, all of which have proven to be fruitless.
The treatment of water issues by the parties has always reflected their political relationship with one another. Although the Ethiopian administration has changed since it began constructing the dam, the country has not yet given up its project, despite the strong possibility of depriving Egypt and Sudan of their shares of the Blue Nile water. Further complicating the matter, Israeli experts are helping Ethiopia to establish the dam. Ethiopia is unyielding in its plans to start the second phase of filling the dam in July.
Should Ethiopia’s GERD project be completed, the impact for Egypt would be tremendous. Vast amounts of cultivated lands would be destroyed, leading to massive unemployment and a rise of food imports. Thus, the threat of an imminent armed conflict has now become very real.
This case illustrates how the crisis over water is a regional and international issue that can only be resolved through cooperation in the development of water resources and rationalization of their use.
International law and organizations must take the leading role in resolving water disputes early on.
International law and organizations must take the leading role in resolving water disputes early on, following the principle that all riparian countries have the right of an equitable use of a shared basin, and ensuring information exchange concerning all water management plans.
On a national level, a comprehensive water strategy that is scientific and forward-looking must be developed, with the aim of justly rationing water consumption. Specifically, for the Middle East, an international body similar to OPEC, for resolving water issues, should be established.
In this region, the only way out of the water shortage dilemma appears to be applying advanced water technologies to generate additional water and to use water more efficiently. Recent advancements in water technology are very promising and can be technically, economically, and socially affordable. Timely application of such technologies can foster development and economic progress, leading to political stability and social ease.
Ultimately, the regional disputes over water are about control and distribution of water resources with numerous political, societal, and economic implications, all of which may play a role in sparking new regional conflicts.
As a result of population growth and the increased water consumption per person, global water use has increased by a factor of 10 over the past 100 years. Since most freshwater resources are from surface water supplied by rivers and lakes, the issue of water will likely continue to be important over the next several decades.
Yet, although water shortage could provoke conflicts, it could also be the key to development, prosperity, and well-being. Water could be a source of cooperation and partnership in the region, as well as the basis of stability, if it is dealt with rationally and wisely, without ambitions of hegemony or domination.
Unfortunately, we live in an era where the logic of force prevails. And as the Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi once said, “The sword has always been the truest news of all deals and treaties.”