Ted Thornton
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"Water Wars" in the Middle East

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waterwars.jpg (61721 bytes)
Cover of January 2, 2000 issue of al-Majalla, a leading Arabic language weekly news magazine.  Main  headline reads:   "The Waters of the Middle East:  Scenarios of Wars to Come"

Some scholars of the Middle East have predicted that the next war there will be over water. Others maintain that water has always been at the center of conflicts in the Middle East (see, for example, Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War:  June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York:  Ballantine Books, 2003), 2, 16, 20-23).  By the 1990s, aquifers and rivers were showing signs of drying up in the not too distant future as growing populations competed for already scarce water resources.

Middle Eastern nations are home to only 4.5% of the world's population, but are the source of up to half the world's oil supply.  Yet, these nations receive only 2% of the world's rainfall and possess only 0.4% of the world's recoverable water sources.  The total water supply of the twenty-two Arab nations is less than 150 billion cubic meters.  With the population in this area expected to rise from 250 million in 2004 to 600 million by 2030, Arab per capita water supplies are expected to decrease by half:  from 150 to 75 cubic meters per year.  (see Roger Harrison, "A Problem With Liquidity: The Challenges of Water in Saudi Arabia," The Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, July/August, 2004, 44) 

Egypt, the Greek historian Herodotus said, was "the gift of the Nile."  Yet, Egypt, which lies down river from historically hostile neighbors Ethiopia and the Sudan to the south, worried about dam projects in those upriver nations that could decrease the amount of water available to Egypt's burgeoning population. (more)

To the north in February of 1996, the Arab world was stung by the announcement of a comprehensive mutual defense pact between Israel and Turkey which granted, among other things, Israeli warplanes access to Turkish air space. Syria was especially upset as it saw itself hemmed in by hostile neighbors both to the north and south. Tensions between Syria downstream and Turkey had mounted during the 1990s over water rights along the Euphrates River which supplies both countries. Turkey controlled 70% of the waters in the Tigris and Euphrates basin which impacted Iraq as well as Syria. Turkey had recently completed construction on a huge dam which had the potential of cutting off Syria's access to the river's resources completely. This was the keystone of Turkey's Southeast Anatolian Project (or GAP, as it is known).  Some Arabs read the alliance as Turkey's revenge on the Arabs for turning against their former rulers in World War I, and as part of Turkey's plan to reassert themselves as a regional powerbroker in the Middle East.  Tensions between Turkey and its downstream neighbors Iraq and Syria were expected to become acute when GAP becomes fully operational in 2005. 

Israel had been an aggressive pursuer of water beyond its own borders.  Since at least 1974, Israeli water planners like Elisha Kally had their eye on Egypt's Nile.  Rumors were rife in the 1990s that Israel was anxious to gain a piece of Egypt's North Sinai Agricultural Development Project which had been underway since 1987 and was projected to cost $1.5 billion.  As far back as 1979, articles had appeared  in the Egyptian press expressing fears that Nile waters were destined to end up in Jerusalem.  And, Egypt's then President Anwar Sadat had openly courted the Israelis with promises of shares in the Nile if they made political concessions on Jerusalem in return (see Ronald Bleier, "Will Nile Water Go to Israel?   North Sinai Pipelines and the Politics of Scarcity,"  Middle East Policy, vol. V, no. 3, September, 1997, 113-124). 

Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon had been planned by then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as a way of gaining control over Lebanon's Litani River in addition to neutralizing Syrian and PLO opposition to Israel's plans to annex the Syrian Golan Heights and "Samaria and Judea" and to set up a pliant Christian government in Lebanon.  Jewish settlers had coveted Lebanon's Litani river for a long time:  at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the World Zionist Organization demanded a huge share of the Litani's resources. (see Robert Brenton Betts, "Water and Power" (book review), Middle East Policy, vol IV, no. 3, March, 1996, 191).   To the east, Israel and Jordan were competing over use of Jordan Valley resources.  

On Syria's Golan Heights (an area occupied by Israel since the close of the 1967 war), Israel began tapping into water resources as far back as 1949. The main point of contention was Israel's illegal assertion of sovereignty over the demilitarized zone created on the Heights by the 1949 armistice that ended the first Arab-Israeli war. Israel began its incursions into the zone almost before the ink was dry on the armistice agreement. The U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) reported a series of border skirmishes between Israeli farmers and Syrians because of, as UNTSO put it, "progressive extension of Israeli cultivation toward the east" inside the demilitarized zone. Swedish General Carl von Horn of the U.N. peacekeeping forces wrote that, "gradually, beneath the glowering eyes of the Syrians, who held the high ground overlooking Zion, the area had become a network of Israeli canals and irrigation channels edging up against and always encroaching on Arab-owned property."

Then, beginning in 1951, Israeli army units entered Arab villages in the zone, destroyed Arab houses and property, and drove villagers out. Israel initially ignored UNTSO protests, but, following the passage of U.N. Resolution 93, allowed Arab residents to return. However, Israel refused to pay compensation for damages.

Israeli farmers raised tensions further by installing irrigation systems that diverted water away from Syrian land. Israeli army units mounted additional raids. One on December 11, 1955 left 56 Syrians dead, seven wounded, and 32 missing. The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 111 condemning Israel's "flagrant violation" of the 1949 armistice. Another assault was mounted by Israeli forces on March 16-17, 1962 which led to U.N. Security Council Resolution 171 strongly condemning Israel.

Inside the Palestinian Territories during the summer of 2000, the Israeli human rights group B' Tselem reported that 150 Palestinian villages containing a total of 215,000 residents were not connected to any water pipeline.  Many cities in the West Bank did not have sufficient running water.   In Hebron, some hospitals and nursing homes had running water only one day a week.   Consumption of water by Israelis (the highest in the Middle East) was  running five times that of Palestinians.  (The Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, August/September, 2000, 17)  In an article in the Arab weekly al-Majalla (May 13-19, 2001, 6), Walid Zubeidi charged that Israel was using  modern technology to draw water from the Hamad aquifer upon which Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia depended. 

In 2004, hopes were running high that inexpensive, high quality water could be produced through a process called "reverse osmosis." Initial tests at a plant in Ashkelon, Israel were promising.  The plant was designed to produce, beginning in 2005, water at the rate of 100 million cubic meters per year (BBC, Sept. 7, 2004). And, in 2007, hopes were high that a vast underground lake in Darfur might help the crisis that was raging there (BBC, July 18, 2007).

See BBC: Obstacles to Peace: Water


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Last Revised: July 18, 2007