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March 03, 2003

The Looming Crisis of Water in the Middle East

This piece in MEMRI is very important and deals with a subject to often ignored because of the Intifada. Edward O. Wilson, in his book of some years ago called Consilience noted that the number one problem to be faced in large sections of the world will be a scarcity of drinikable water and that this will bring about wars, struggles, and many deaths.
One of the most serious looming crises in the Middle East is the water shortage crisis. Recent articles in the Arab press have underscored the strategic dimension of the crisis and its long-term implications for peace and stability in the Middle East. Thus, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat wrote about "Water: the Hidden Bomb Between Crises?" The Saudi paper Al-Riyadh warns that "the water struggle will lead to wars in the region;" Al-Hayat states that "water, after land, will determine the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict." Another Saudi paper, Okaz, published an interview with a water researcher who maintained that "the Arabs are approaching thirst." In an earlier article, Okaz reported about "water in Yemen... a real crisis treated with tranquilizers." In a symposium on the impact of the decline of water resources on economic growth, the newly-appointed Saudi minister of irrigation, Dr. Ghazi Al-Qusaibi, echoed the strategic analysts, predicting that future wars will be water wars. Similarly, the Egyptian minister of water resources, Dr. Mahmood Abu-Zayd, warned that water conflicts could lead in the next few years to world wars originating from the Middle East.

Water: Supply and Demand Imbalances

Unlike other forms of supply and demand imbalances, in the domain of water such imbalances often transcend market forces and result in regional political and strategic dilemmas. First, in the Middle East, most of the water resources originate upstream from countries outside the control of the users downstream. Second, in the absence of an appropriate political environment, regional cooperation for equitable distribution and use of water resources is lacking.

A recent study conducted by Egyptian researcher Dr. Hamdi Abd Al-Adhim shed some light on the current status of water supply and demand in the Middle East. According to this study, the total needs of the Arab countries for water in 2002 reached 189.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) which rose from 153 bcm in 1990. These needs were estimated to rise to 280.6 bcm in 2025. For example, the Egyptian requirements for water, for various uses – agriculture, industry, as well as potable water – were 70.5 bcm in 2000 but will rise to 103.2 bcm in 2025. Dr. Hamdi has determined that water surplus, the differential between supply and demand, was 103 bcm in 1990 but declined to 84.2 bcm in 2000. By 2025 the water surplus will turn into a water deficit of 2.25 bcm annually due to a growing population and a subsequently growing demand. Currently, water deficits are recorded in Iraq, Libya, Oman, Jordan, and the U.A.E. By 2025, Egypt will suffer a water deficit of 19.2 bcm, followed by Sudan (9.7 bcm), Saudi Arabia (1.6 bcm), and Jordan (1.15 bcm).

One of Dr. Hamdi's major concerns is that most rivers in Arab countries originate from non-Arab countries which, as a group, control 88% of water flowing into Arab lands. In Egypt, dependence on water originating from outside the country is 90%, but it is only 50% in Syria.

According to a study by the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, the population in the Jordan River basin, which includes Israel, Jordan, the West Bank/Gaza and southern Syria, has grown six fold since the late 1940s. This area needs 15 bcm annually for self-sufficiency but it currently has available only 3-5 bcm.(10) To make up for the shortage, groundwater, the main source of water in many countries, is being extracted well beyond the renewal rate of the resource.[more] [note: footnotes supplied with link]