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From Black Gold to Blue Gold – The increasing importance of hydro-politics in the Arab World

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Oil and energy concerns have featured prominently in security discussions in the Arab world, visibly floating on the surface of the region’s political agenda.
Concerns about water -- a less celebrated resource in the Middle East have always been latent, lying beneath the surface and quietly shaping geo-political events in the region. In the future, Blue Gold will become so increasingly precious that, much like the black gold of today, water will no longer play a latent role, but will instead be an integral part of the region’s political agenda.

For years water has been one of the driving forces of inter-state conflict in the Middle East.  

In 1964, Israel blocked the flow of the Jordan River to lower Arab states by damming the Daganya Gate at Lake Kinneret. In retaliation, Arab states embarked upon plans to divert the headwaters of the river from Lebanon and Syria. Eventually the dispute over the Jordan River played a part in what we know today as the Six Day War of 1967.

In the 1980s Palestinians became increasingly frustrated by the conditions they faced under Israeli occupation, including the inequitable distribution of shared water resources. Palestinians felt that vital water supplies from the Mountain Aquifer were redirected to Israel, and water usage was restricted so severely, that people had to queue with containers for hours to buy back their own water. Frustration led to protest, protests led to riots, which resulted in 1987, in the First Intifada.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, capturing the south of the country up until the Litani River -- territory it did not vacate completely for roughly 20 years. Though Israel’s War against the PLO was the main cause behind the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, many analysts believe that possession of the highly coveted sweet waters of the Litani River provided an additional incentive.  

Similarly, water has been instrumental during the formulation of peace agreements in the region.  

The Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty in 1994 was one of two historic peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It normalized relations between the two countries by addressing age-old territorial disputes and diplomatic hostilities. Water was one of the issues tackled: Israel came to a water-sharing agreement with Jordan over the Yarmouk River, which it had partially annexed in the 1967 War. As a result, work resumed on one of Jordan’s most important dams, the East Ghor Canal, or the King Abdullah Canal (KAC) as it’s known today.

The Oslo II interim Agreement of 1995, is another example of how water has been used in the past to repair the damage caused between two political entities -- in this case, between Israelis and Palestinians. The agreement aimed to ensure a system of equitable water distribution; although it had limitations, it was a step in the right direction, towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.    

Today, the need for freshwater has become a serious issue in many Arab countries, and has reached a boiling point of sorts.    

Gulf Council Cooperation (GCC) nations have abnormally low levels of freshwater. Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia yield annual per-capita freshwater resources of approximately 100 cubic meters, just one-tenth of the internationally stipulated per capita requirement of at least 1,000 cubic meters. Together, these countries spend over $12 billion annually on food imports because they cannot afford to use their precious water resources for irrigation. The increasing dependence on food imports has driven them to buy tracts of land in foreign countries so they can ensure food security in times of financial crisis. Desalination plants, which provide supplemental drinking water for their growing populations, will also pose problems in the future. Projected water demand for desalination in 2015 is expected to double current supply.    

Demand has far exceeded existing freshwater resources in Jordan, and the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT), where over-pumping (extracting more than the safe yield of water) is a rampant problem.

Over-pumping leads to saltwater intrusion and pollution. At present 95% of the water in Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer is considered unfit for human consumption, mainly due to over-pumping. This is the only local freshwater resource available to Palestinians living in Gaza Strip. Jordan, which has an extreme desert climate, is already feeling the impact of climate change; and abject wastewater conditions in the West Bank are polluting precious groundwater reserves. Of course, ‘water under occupation’ offers its own unique set of problems, with restricted access to freshwater, and inequitable distribution.

As the lower riparians, ET (Euphrates-Tigris) basin countries, Iraq and Syria often find themselves dependent on the whims and fancies of their Turkish neighbor. A large percentage of the rivers flowing into these countries originate in Turkey, and agreements over equitable distribution are a constant and on-going battle. 

In the case of Syria, geographical disparities in water supply pose a significant problem: its eastern region receives almost no water, and the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, are located far away from a reliable water source. In Iraq, water availability is still comparatively high, but three successive wars have completely destroyed the water infrastructure, leaving a large percentage of Iraqis without access to safe drinking water.    

Although better off than their Arab brethren in terms of freshwater supply, Lebanon’s slow progress in the field of water security could have serious implications for the future. The country has tenders for wastewater treatment plants and desalination facilities that have been collecting dust for years on end, while other Arab countries have initiated several projects in new water technologies.  

For years, Egypt has enjoyed an unbridled monopoly on the Nile River waters, despite being a lower riparian. In the last few months, however, the Arab Republic has been embroiled in a heated debate over the redistribution of water amongst the ten riparians. The Nile was almost completely divided between Egypt and Sudan according to a treaty signed with the British in 1959, but now riparians like Ethiopia --- which contributes around 80% of the total flow of the river -- are demanding their rights to a more equitable water sharing system.

Lastly, Yemen, perhaps the Arab country worst hit by water scarcity is facing a serious challenge. With a population of over two million and an astronomical population growth rate of roughly 7% per year, Sanaa will be the first capital city in the world to run out of water (current estimates say by 2020-2025).  

On the whole, Arab countries are particularly susceptible to the effects of drought, water cuts are everyday occurrences in cities like Damascus, Amman and Ramallah, while water shortages have exacerbated rural poverty in Syria and Jordan. 

The Arab world also loses a great deal of water to illegal and unmonitored pumping, as well as to poor infrastructure and pipe leakages -- an average of 40% of total water resources.  

With some of the fastest growing populations in the world, and dwindling supplies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the issue of water will come bubbling to the surface in the next ten years,  to become one of the main topics of study when analyzing security strategies in the region. 

As demand for water increases, disputes over unilateral utilization, water piracy and basic water rights can escalate into a full-blown war.

On the other hand, as water supply decreases, cooperation through joint water development projects, data sharing and water trade could guide the region towards peace and stability. Water will be a key factor in the future, determining power-sharing strategies and political alliances.

Countries that do not have adequate water resources will find themselves in a terribly disadvantageous position, in the political spectrum, while nations that invest in new water technologies might find themselves in a position of power. Either way, water will provide an important point of reference for the Arab world in the future.


Gitanjali Bakshi is a Research Analyst at Strategic Foresight Group (SFG), a political think tank in Mumbai, India. She is currently involved in a Water Security Initiative for the Middle East which assesses the future water situation in the region and posits potential areas for cooperation.


Photo via Gambler20 @ Flickr, October, 27, 2007. Creative Commons License.

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