Population Growth and Water Resources
in the Middle East

by Leigh Josey, Research Intern

The Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, July 2001


Political strife is nothing new in the Middle East. In fact, many of the present-day disputes date back 100 years or more. But the increasing scarcity of renewable water resources and the simultaneous high population growth add new urgency to the necessity to devise a settlement.

The Middle East and North African countries (referred to as MENA) are home to 300 million people. Constituting about 5 percent of the world total, they have a mere 1 percent of the annual renewable water resources on the globe. "In the Middle East freshwater problems have arisen from increasing demand for water generated by rapid population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and irrigation needed to satisfy increasing demand for food." The scarcity of water resources in this area exacerbates the regional tensions already present among governments, and impedes cooperation along even technical lines.

The main water systems under dispute are the Nile River, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan River valley (and its tributaries), and groundwater resources in the West Bank and Israel. In the past, there have been multiple attempts at reaching a water settlement, yet none have achieved a comprehensive agreement.

In the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49, the United States began meeting with the various water holding, or riparian, states to work out an agreement. U.S. officials thought that practical interdependence between states would further political cooperation, a concept of political functionalism. From the beginning, however, there were insurmountable disagreements over water allocations and international legal precedent. Essentially, none of the Arab states wanted to become dependent on Israeli water policy, and the Israelis did not want to become subordinate to an international supervisor. And in an even broader sense, the various states did not want to enter into multilateral negotiations with their historic rivals.

Disinterest in multilateral settlements has led to a series of bilateral ones. The situation regarding usage of Tigris and Euphrates river water among its riparian states is a good example. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers rise in Turkey and flow south/southeast into Syria and Iraq. Syria holds 17 percent of the basin, and Iraq holds 40 percent. In Syria

alone, the Euphrates accounts for 86 percent of water availability-a critical amount considering Syrian territory barely receives 250 millimeters of rainfall per year (considered to be the minimum amount required for rain-fed agriculture.)5 In Iraq, where nearly two-thirds of the nation is desert, river water for irrigation is essential to support agriculture. With population growth rates of 2.6 percent (Syria) and 2.9 percent (Iraq), agriculture is immensely important to both countries.

Yet among the three nations there are deep political divisions, thus a lack of real cooperation. Not until 1984 did Iraq agree to an allocation of 500 cubic meters flow per second from Turkey, and it was 1987 before Turkey and Syria negotiated the same arrangement.

Neither of these arrangements can truly be viewed as comprehensive, legally binding agreements. Turkey's superior, upstream position allows it to essentially dictate water policy, as evidenced by the Southeast Anatolia Development Project (or GAP). The fact that Iraq and Syria refuse to cooperate to present a united front heightens the autonomy Turkey can wield. In fact, Turkey has recently made Syrian flow contingent upon Damascus' efforts to oppose the Kurdish insurrection.

A cursory look at the status of the Nile river system provides even further evidence of the haphazard nature of standing agreements between riparian states in the Middle East.

In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed an accord granting 87 percent of river water rights to Egypt and the remaining 13 percent to Sudan. No allowances were made for the other water-holding states. Ethiopia in particular, as it struggles to improve its living standards, has faulted this arrangement. And although Egypt has shown recent willingness to discuss new allocations, the enormous reliance on Nile water among Egyptians to sustain their way of life raises several concerns.

Although it has little arable land, Egypt relies on agriculture for approximately 50 percent of its employment and 80 percent of its export earnings. Furthermore, as a regional consumer and major producer of rice, irrigation is essential for crop cultivation. With adequate water availability Egypt has achieved one of the highest rice yields in the world. Yet the growth rate of the Egyptian population (between 1.7 and 2.5 percent, depending on the source) presents the government with a major challenge to find methods to increase agricultural production to keep up. In order to expand its agriculture and decrease population density, Egypt has undertaken significant desert reclamation projects-a water intensive activity that involves substantial use of the Nile.

The issue of irrigation is a significant one throughout the Middle East, since nearly the entire region is dependent upon water for its agriculture. "Producing 1 ton of cereal requires between 500 and 2,000 tons of water (wet paddy being the most wasteful)." But 1 ton of cereal is estimated to provide only enough food for four people per year. With regional population growth rates high (about 3 percent, or one and a half times that of the Western world), the water volume required simply to produce food is quite large. 17 As a result, 80 percent of all water use in the Middle East is for irrigation.

Many other water demands are pressing, too, such as for domestic and industrial use. Water must be accessed and used responsibly (especially with regard to human and industrial waste management). The urbanization trend that often accompanies high growth also increases strain on infrastructure, requires the building of new water carrying systems and the renovating of old ones. In areas with high refugee populations, specifically with large numbers of women and children, the need for fresh water and sanitation are even greater for good health and hygiene.

Those living in the Jordan Valley deal with these issues daily. The Jordan River is a main source of fresh water for Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. Additionally, Syria and Lebanon have some rights to Jordan waters because they hold (or have held) some portion of its principal tributaries. (Here the legal issue of Prior Usage rights becomes most contentious.) Between Israel and the Occupied Territories there is also the matter of allocation of groundwater resources, illustrated by the fact that Israel has controlled water distribution in the West Bank since the 1967 war.

Aside from the effects of the political unrest engulfing the region, water disputes are fueled by simple logistical problems. For example, accessing water requires drilling and maintaining wells and pipelines. Israeli settlers' consumption practices are such that a significant portion of West Bank water is inefficiently used. In Palestinian areas, very old pipelines and irrigation systems waste water due to lack of repair. Furthermore, the drilling of new and deeper wells by the growing number of Israeli settlers has often upsetting existing structures and may have altered aquifer characteristics. Non-Israeli residents have not been legally allowed to build new facilities. The result has been uneven access to water resources in the West Bank and downstream Jordan River. This has affected agriculture tremendously, benefiting the Israeli minority of land-holders over the Palestinian majority. Moreover, the inability of the governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate mutually beneficial usage has harmed many more people than settlers and farmers.

Population growth rates, (Figure 1) are relatively high overall. Additionally, Israel receives many immigrants, as does Jordan, and the populations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have significant casualty rates due to the intifada. The unrest puts additional strain on the water supplies available for the Palestinian people, leaving an acute, immediate need for increased water supply compared with their neighbors. Water policies restricting access, and the unplanned nature of living in refugee camps and impermanent housing, creates a consistent challenge in providing a continuous supply of clean water and sanitation.

Although these same issues exist in the more or less fixed refugee population in Jordan, significant progress has been made as a result of the Oct. 26,1994, peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. The treaty lays out a path for cooperation and mutual respect, including provisions for territorial water rights. Both parties recognize their own water supplies are insufficient. The treaty's proposal for regional cooperation to ensure a sustainable supply may be the solution to both nations' futures.

The agreement between Jordan and Israel provides a model for other governments. Without cooperation there can be no definitive settlement, and without a settlement there can be no equitable use of such an extremely limited resource. As one scholar put it, "It is the growing pressure on these water resources which has caused the difficulties which are observed at the present day." The expansion of populations adds pressure, but is too often the only focus of the water issue. Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes in regard to regional growth rates that "we are talking about challenges and not crises. There are no magic limits to population growth.

The more likely cause of crisis is the lack of collaboration regarding the allocation of the limited water sources in the Middle East. Governments will have to come to terms with one another through international law or other means, but they will have to settle the issue before they can establish peace and prosperity in the region.

Middle East Watch

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