The next major conflict in the Middle East
Water Wars

A Lecture by Adel Darwish- Geneva conference on Environment and Quality of Life June 1994.

Oil has always been thought of as the traditional cause of conflict in the Middle East past and present. Since the first Gulf oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, countries have squabbled over borders in the hope that ownership of a patch of desert or a sand bank might give them access to new riches. No longer. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated - unlike the water resources, which are still often unknown. WATER is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict in the Middle East. 

When President Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he said Egypt will never go to war again, except to protect its water resources. King Hussein of Jordan has said he will never go to war with Israel again except over water and the Untied Nation Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has warned bluntly that the next war in the area will be over water.

From Turkey, the southern bastion of Nato, down to Oman, looking out over the Indian Ocean, the countries of the Middle East are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra millions born each year, not to mention agriculture, the main cause of depleting water resources in the region. 

All these nations depend on three great river systems, or vast underground aquifers, some of which are of `fossil water' that cannot be renewed. 

Take the greatest source of water in the region, the Nile. Its basin nations have one of the highest rate of population growth which are likely to double in less than thirty years, yet the amount of water the Nile brings is no more than it was when Moses was found in the bulrushes. 

The shortage:

Although all natural water resources are replenished through the natural hydrological cycle, their renewal rate ranges from days to millennia. The average renewal rate for rivers are about 18 days - that is to renew every drop taken out - while for large lakes and deep aquifer they can span thousand years. 

The world's oldest reserves such as the Nubian aquifer in North Africa were filled when water infiltrated the earth's subsurface in past geological years. When we refer to fossil water in an aquifer, it is water trapped since the ice age and there is no certainty how long it would take to replenish them, thus it safe to conclude that mining their water is only a temporary solution. 

The oil boom in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern states, desalination became an industry. In 1990 over 13 million cubic meter were produced each day world wide using 7,500 plants, yet this represents just under one thousandth of fresh water consumption per day. 

Water scarcity: In general a country with less than 1,700 cubic meter per capita is regarded as experiencing water stress, while less than 1000 cubic meter is regarded as water shortage.

Water scarcity or availability is based on measurements of stream flow within countries in question, with evaporation calculated based on local climate and subtracted from the total. Dr Malin Falkenmark expresses the thresholds as number of people per ``flow unit'' of water, a unit equal to one million cubic meters per year. Dr Falkenmark uses 600 or more persons per floe unit as an indicator of water stress, 1000 or more persons per flow unit as an indicator of water scarcity and 2000 or more per flow unit as absolute scarcity. But most reports - and the methods used in publications - usually reverse the ratio of people per flow unit, expressing the figure as the amount of water available per capita. So reversing the first two equations yields fewer than 1,667 cubic meter per person per annum as an indicator of water stress ( again this figure is rounded up to 1700) and 1000 or fewer cubic meters per person as an indicator of scarcity. 

In the case of Renewable fresh water resources there is no universal uniform on it since there is no international consensus on how to define and measure renewable fresh water resources. 

* The list of water-scarce countries in 1955 were seven including three Middle Eastern countries : Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait. 

By 1990, 13 were added among them eight from the Middle East : Algeria, Israel/Palestine , Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. 

UN studies anticipate to add another 10 countries by the year 2025 seven of them are from the Middle east : Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria. This mean that by the year 2025 some eighteen countries in this troublesome region will suffer from water shortages. 

* The Annual Renewable fresh water Available Per Person ranked by 1990 Availability in Cubic Metres

Country 1955 1990 2025

Kuwait 147 23 9

Qatar 808 75 57

Bahrain 1,427 117 68

Saudi Arabia 1,266 306 113

UAE 6,196 308 176

Jordan 906 327 121

Yemen 1,098 445 152

Israel 1,229 461 264

Tunisia 1,127 540 324

Algeria 1,770 689 332

Libya 4,105 1,017 359

Morocco 2,763 1,117 590

Egypt 2,561 1,123 630

Oman 4,240 1,266 410

Lebanon 3,088 1,818 1,113

Iran 6,203 2,203 816

Syria 6,500 2,087 732

Turkey 8,509 3,626 2,186

Iraq 18,441 6,029 2,356

Sudan 11,899 4,792 1,993

* Figures of population growth in the Middle East leaves little room for optimism.

Israel's population is projected to grow from 4.7 millions in 1990 to about 8 million in 2025. By that time Palestinians in the west bank - because of their higher birth rate, are likely to reach just under seven millions- the two peoples are to share the same water resources which they both now say are not enough.

Jordan's population more than doubled from 1.5 millions in 1955 to 4 millions in 1990 and is projected to double again before 2010. Their annual per capita water availability in 1990 was 327 cubic meters some 673 below the bottom line of crisis.

Iran for example had 2,025 cubic meter per capita in 1990, the figure projected for 2025 is between 776 and 860 cubic meter. 

Libya's population of 4.5 million in 1990 is projected to increase to 12.9 million in 2025 and the oil revenues enabled the government to increase dependency on desalination, but they diverted - or rather wasted massive resources on a white elephant, the great man made river to mine fossil water in the south.

Egypt's 58 Million in 1990 are projected to reach 101 Millions in 2025 and already approaching water scarcity: its per capita availability is 1,017 

* The Middle East is also a region where figures of water withdrawal as percentage of renewable water supplies are among the highest in the world, while the renewal rate is rather slow because of the arid nature of the land.

Withdrawal as a % years for country of renewable population to double Water supplies 

Libya 374% 20.4

Qatar 174% 33.0

UAE 140% 24.8

Yemen 135% 21.7

Jordan 110% 19.3

Israel 110% 46.2

Saudi Arabia 106% 21.7

Bahrain over 100% 28.9

Kuwait over 100% 23.1




See water laws 

Middle Eastern nations in the past have illustrated their willingness to resort to force in settling disputes over issues less serious than shortage of water, which is not only the source of life, but also lies at the heart of the basic beliefs of the majority who follow the three monolithic religions of the region, as well as ancient beliefs and mythologies that still the base of social life today - like Egypt and the Nile, or the inhabitants of the marshes in southern Iraq. 

Water sources in almost all cases, with few exceptions of underground aquifers, crosses borders and in some cases involve as high as nine sovereign states in the basin. 

Percentage of renewable years for Countrywater supplies originating population to double
outside national borders

Egypt 97 % 30.1

Syria 79 % 18.2

Sudan 77 % 22.4

Iraq 66 % 18.7 

Few agreements have been reached about how the water should be shared; most of those agreements are seen as un-just: upstream countries believe that they should control the flow of the rivers, taking what they like, if they can get away with it. Example Turkey. Downstream, where the states are often more advanced and militarily stronger they have always challenged this assumption, like Egypt and Israel. It is a recipe for confrontation. 

International law is not clear on the shared water courses, rivers or cross border aquifers. Water cannot be owned, but the methods by which an individual, a group, a legal entity or a nation can store, transfer and regulate the flow of water, makes this person in control. i.e. his hand on the tap. Governments, organisations and individuals negotiate agreements using a mixture of customary use, local and tradition laws, and the established right of use over a period of time - not specified. Such mixture is often contradictory and in itself a cause of conflict. 

The Islamic laws - or shari'aa - and incidentally stem from a word meaning the sharing of water-, of which many Arab countries based their water use rules- predates the Mohammedan belief and is based on the harsh rules of the desert: example the people who dig a well have the first right of use, but they cannot deny the use - for drinking - to man or beast. A man lowering a container into a well will have full possession of only the amount of water that fills it at that precise moment...and so on. 

When it came to sharing water courses, the situation is not clear. 

Muslim Fundamentalists, currently active in the region, have recently begun to include the water issue in their radical literature as they interpret the laws of water sharing with non Muslims along Islamic lines in a way designed to deploy water as another weapon to continue few ongoing conflicts in the region. 

The non clarity of international law is a matter of concern. There are few, if any, precedents that the UN international law commission or the International court of justice could be cited to establish some rules to arbitrate on water sharing that is if neighbouring countries quarrelling over water resort to arbitration; but so far no country has volunteered to do so.

Only the world bank set a precedent in the late 1940's in financing a dam project in India. The bank made it conditional that an agreement on sharing the benefits of the dam between riparian nations should be reached as well as commissioning independent studies to alter designs, and modify plans in order to minimise the harm that the project might inflict on neighbouring people. This only works when a nation approaches the world bank for a loan to finance a water scheme - like in north Syria and south Turkey in the 1950's. 

But, as history have shown in the Middle East, nations that did not go to the World Bank to finance their water schemes had no ombudsman or a neutral observer to arbitrate between them and their neighbours. There was - and still there is - no provision in international law to stop them imposing their will on weaker or smaller neighbours, uprooting ethnic minorities by force or by ending their way of life and even having far reaching and lasting devastating effect on the environment, all because they carried out their ambitious water scheme away from world supervision without any proper studies while mankind helplessly looked on.. 

There are many examples of governmental water schemes that took little notice of international laws, the effect on the environment and wildlife, the interests of neighbouring nations or even the welfare of their own population. Water policies in Jordan and Levant have, for generations, been in the front line of the Middle East longest conflict. Turkey has an alarming attitude to neighbouring Iraq and Syria, not to mention the effect of its water politics on its own Kurdish population. 

The Ba'ath dictatorship in Iraq is currently destroying the marshes and thousands of years way of life. 

The Egyptian dictator colonel Nasser refused to listen to any argument but politics when he built the Aswan Dam - while the dam is providing multiple benefits to farmers and generating electricity - it had other devastating effects. Nasser imposed his will on Sudan - 1959 agreement gave Egypt 84 cubic kilometre of water and Sudan 18 cubic kilometres, yet the Egyptian `borrow' 60 percent of Sudan's water-, the lake the dam created covered priceless archaeological sites, destroyed valuable ecosystems and fishing grounds, eroded beaches and damaged nutrient and sediment balances and uprooted the 100,000 people, by evacuating the majority of the Nubian nation in the 1960's from the land they inhabited since the ancient Egyptian state over 5000 years ago. 

Even if we put the damage to the environment aside, undemocratic governments - and the Middle East is full of them - argue that their water schemes which have infringed the rights of ethnic minorities, are internal matters. But again history proves that it is only a matter of time before the aggrieved ethnic minorities take up arms to face such injustice in a classical guerrilla war that on for years with even heavier price paid by the population, the wild life and the environment.



As the Palestine Israel accord is heralding the end of one long dispute, with its prospect of a general peace between Israel and her Arab neighbours, it became obvious that water is in the heart of the dispute since other issues that obscured water for years, proved to be of lesser significance to the parties of the dispute. Multilateral talks group concentrating on water - they met in Oman last month - still have reached no agreement on sharing water after almost three years of starting the talks. 

During the research for the book, both my co-author and I, discovered that water was the hidden agenda for past conflicts and one major obstacle to reach a lasting and final settlement in the region. The conflicts over water is not just between Israel and her neighbours, but also conflicts among Arabic speaking nations. 

In the past Arab dictators stifled their own disputes and faced the Jewish state as a common enemy. Soon, that constraint is likely to disappear and all the long-suppressed enmities - like water sharing quarrels - will come into the open. 

Already water has played a part in causing wars, altering policies and changing alliances. As late as in 1987 & 1989 Senegal and Mauritania fought two limited wars across the Senegal river - when Mauritanian tribesmen followed the shrinking vegetation and crossed to the other bank, violating Senegalese sovereignty. As artillery exchanges raved across the river Senegal, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia became directly and indirectly involved. 

Water was an early weapon deployed in the Arab Israeli conflict. In the 1960s cross border raids on water schemes' machinery raved between Israel, Syria and Jordan culminating in the Six Day war in 1967. In 1964, an Arab summit conference in Amman decided to divert the headwaters of the Jordan - in effect, depriving Israel of its main supply. 

Few months before the 1964 Arab Summit, Israel built a giant pumping station on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and began to siphon water into systems of pipes and canals known as the national water carrier, all the way to the Negav Desert. By 1990, the carrier was diverting 440 million cubic meter a year of water that used to pass through the Jordan all the way to the Dead Sea. As a result the Dead Sea has now shrunk into a slain drying two lakes. 

When Yasser Arafat founded Fateh guerrilla organisation, the group's baptism on new-year's-eve 1964/65 was an operation against the national water carrier in Israel. 

To implement the 1964 Arab summit resolution, work began on the Syrian and Jordanian side of the border, despite Israel's warning that it would consider it an infringement of national rights. And though all the work was carried out on Arab or neutral land, battles, air raids and artillery duels occurred. In the end, Israeli air strikes deep into Syria forced the Arabs to call off their scheme by destroying the proposed dam site on the Yarmuk river. Had the two dams al-Maquarin and Al-Makhiyabat been completed, they would have deprived Israel of 550 million cubic meter per annum.( In fact Jordan and Syria are proposing to build a new Dam the Unity Dam further upstream, World bank linking the finance with an agreement with Israel, which has not been reached yet.) 

General Ariel Sharon, later an Israeli defence minister, had no doubt what those skirmishes were all about. `People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six-day war began,' he said. `That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two- and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.' 

That brief conflict settled nothing, so once again war erupted in 1973. President Sadat of Egypt wanted to force Israel to the conference table, and to conclude a lasting peace. With the help of Henry Kissinger a peace treaty with Israel was reached in 1979, after the Camp David meetings and accords in 1978. 

As the various Israeli-Egyptian committees met to settle the details of the treaty, Israeli delegates suggested that there should be co-operation on water projects. In particular, they wanted about 1 per cent of the Nile flow giving them about 800 million cubic meter to be diverted into a pipeline extending from the peace canal which takes water from the Ismaelia canal east of the delta to Sinai.

President Sadat saw this as providing a substitute for water from aquifers of the west bank and the Jordan, thus reducing Israel's dependency on the territories seen as Palestinian self rule areas. He also saw such project as basis for regional co-operation, eventually extending the pipeline to Lebanon or Jordan in later stages. 

What president Sadat did not realise was the consternation that his ideas would cause at home, where the Nile is held in almost mystical regard; the prime duty of the Egyptian armed forces is to defend and preserve that source of all Egyptian life. 

Following Egyptian intelligence leaking the information to senior army officers already restive at being forced to make peace with their old enemy, plots to oust Mr Sadat were laid, and he was saved only when the CIA learned of them - through an Egyptian officer who defected to the opposition in London - and warned the Egyptian president. Amazed that the army could plot against him, Mr Sadat questioned Field Marshal Abdel Halim Abu Ghazala, the defence minister, who said the loyalty of the Egyptian army could not be guaranteed if a coup was mounted `to stop Israel stealing the Nile'. The president quickly dropped the water-sharing idea. 


More recently, Turkey seized an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to control the flow of water to its neighbours, and provoked a remarkable alliance between enemies. In January 1990, it stopped the flow of the Euphrates. Officially, the interruption was to fill the vast lake in front of the new Ataturk Dam; in fact, it was a demonstration to Syria of what might happen if President Hafez al-Assad continued aiding the Kurdish rebels in south-east Anatolia. Halting the flow of the Euphrates into Syria also brought water shortages in Iraq. Turkish planners thought that would not matter, as Syria and Iraq were bitter enemies. 

Faced with this common threat, however, old antagonisms were instantly forgotten; the Iraqi and Syrian media united in denouncing Turkey, and military leaders from both countries drew up plans for armed retaliation. After three weeks, the river was allowed to flow as usual, though the stoppage had been planned to last a month.

Trouble between Turkey and Syria over water remains the likeliest prospect today. So far, Turkey has completed only about half of the Gap (South-east Anatolia) project to build 22 dams and reservoirs on the Euphrates to reclaim 1.7 M Hectar. When the Gap is completed, the quantity and quality of water flow to Syria will be reduced by an estimated 40 percent of its 1980 flow ( which was 7,000 bn gallons of water). Turkey says the water will eventually return back to the river after watering its fields, but water will be much saltier by then, the Syrians say. And as the whole Western Alliance would be involved by a war between Turkey and Syria, it is no surprise that American and European planners have been working on contingency plans for such eventuality.

When all the Euphrates projects are complete, the Turks intend to harness the Tigris. That will have a direct effect on Iraq ( about 90 per cent of the current flow), again forcing Syria and Iraq into alliance - though they almost went to war in 1975, when Syria built the Thawrah dam. 

President Suleyman Demirel summed up the intransigent attitude of the Turks: `Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers, any more than Ankara could claim their oil . . . We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's, the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share the oil resources, and they cannot say they share our water resources.' 

Syria's answer has been to step up support for the Kurdish fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK, spreading devastation in Turkey. Part of the Kurdish grievances is the GAP project in their home land. Between 1984 and 1993 the region became a battle ground, some 5000 people were killed as the Kurdish revolt spread. Those who wanted to live peacefully were caught between the hammer of the PKK and the anvil of Turkish security forces. Iraq's answer as yet to be made. 

The Tigris-Euphrates river basin is the scene not only of a bitter, low-intensity war in eastern Turkey, but also of silent genocide where the two great rivers unite in the Shatt-al-Arab ( which itself was a main cause of eight year war between Iran and Iraq to move the borders from its middle to the eastern bank ) and discharge themselves into the warm waters of the Gulf. There, Saddam Hussein's engineers have built a `Third River' to drain the marshes north of Basra, home for 3,000 years to the Marsh Arabs. This is followed by another one `The Mother of All Battles River' Ostensibly an irrigation project, it is really a way of suppressing forever the last pocket of resistance to President Saddam in the south of the country. 

The Shia, who answered the call by George Bush for a rebellion against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1991, took refuge there when they were defeated, and have been supplied and joined by revolutionary guards and Iraqi dissidents from Iran. Unable to flush them out of their reed- hidden bases, the Iraqis first poisoned the waters, are now draining them - and are destroying a whole people and their way of life which is estimated to irreversibly disappear within the next 10 to 20 years if the Iraqi government continues to drain them as indicated by a study of ecological and environmental changes in the marsh region, an area slightly smaller than Wales, carried out by a team of scientists. 

Of 15,000 square kilometres of marsh and lake in 1985, 57 per cent had been turned into dry land by 1992. [ Evidence for this claim comes from detailed interpretation of satellite images of the region, obtained from Landsat, NOAA and SPOT probes.] This transformation has irreversibly damaged much of the wildlife of the marshland ecosystem, which is classified as of global importance by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).


See The Nile basin 

The Iraqi schemes might not shock many since the world has accepted that Saddam Hussein is in the habit of pursuing such policies. But on the other extreme where moderation is the norm, things don't look too bright when it comes to water politics. 

Today, Egypt is regarded as the most moderate and helpful of all Middle Eastern nations. But it is as ready as any other country to use force to protect its vital resources. It worries about dams that might be built in the Ethiopian highlands, which will affect the flow of the Nile, and about grandiose plans for a canal that could tap the sources of that great river in central Africa. 

In November 1989, the Ethiopian ambassador was called to the Foreign Office in Cairo to provide an explanation on the presence of Israeli hydrologists and surveyors studying the areas on the Blue Nile with the possibility of building a number of dams to store 51 bn Cubic Meter. He was left in no doubt about Egypt's stern response. In the same day Egyptian members of Parliament lined up one speaker after the other saying they would back the government in taking military action in Ethiopia. The Blue Nile contributes about 85 percent of the annual flow that reaches Egypt. Two days earlier the Egyptian intelligence leaked information to the press about the issue and moving special forces near Ethiopia. Among the Egyptian special forces is a unit that trains regularly in jungle warfare: there are no jungles in Egypt. 

Until couple of years ago, Egypt had no real worry about Ethiopia when it was under the Marxist regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu and had little chance of getting finance to build dams or little support world wide, the story is now different, which makes the more hawkish trend in Egypt push for a military solution at the first prospect of Ethiopia building dams on the Blue Nile. 

Above all, Egypt worries about Sudan, whose fundamentalist government is increasingly friendly with Iran. Cairo blames extremists across the border for the wave of terrorist attacks that have halved its tourist trade. Egypt may seek an excuse to intervene in Sudan: any `unauthorised' interference with the flow of the Nile would be an ideal pretext,' one Egyptian official told me.

A more immediate danger to the Nile basin and the environmental welfare of the valley is posed, in the eyes of the Egyptians, by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's `Great Man-made River' in neighbouring Libya. A huge pipeline carries water from 120 wells, tapping the Kufrah aquifer in the sparsely populated south of the country, to the arid, densely inhabited coast in the north. 

In addition to the white elephant nature of the project ( the final cost could exceed $32 bn, the cost of a dozen desalination plants - while the water which could be mined just once, is unlikely to last more than 15 years). According to some hydrologists, the rapid depletion of this aquifer could lead to seepage from the Nile. Meanwhile some geologists fear a change in the sub layers or rocks under the desert as a result of speedy pumping of the water. 

There is no agreement among geologists in Egypt on what effect that might have, but some argue that such seepage could have a devastating effect on the cavity of the rocks underneath the western deserts as the sudden drop in temperature at night would cause the frozen water to expand cracking the rocks and leading to irreparable damage. 

However we have reasons to suspect that in the event of geologists presenting the proof that mining water by the Libyans is having a direct effect on the Nile bed, the Egyptian army will - directly or indirectly pending a political decision - put an end to Gaddafi's man-made river.

Egyptian intelligence sources refuse to comment on whether they have plans to slow down Gaddafi's project or even shut it down altogether before the whole of the aquifer is totally depleted. But they confirmed another plans for a massive military operation that would ` temporarily' take the Egyptian army into southern Libya; although the term temporarily could mean years here. That is to do with the Aswan High Dam, rather than the Gaddafi project. Aswan High Dam was a controversial project. 

Built by Egypt's former dictator colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasser as a monument to his era of defying the west the dam has a lake stretches some 500 kilometre up streams and some 60 kilometres wide in certain places. The lake can store two years of water of the annual flooding. The Aswan giant turbines generate 2000 megawatts of hydroelectricity. But the harm that the Aswan Dam did over the years is irreversible. Before the dam was built, the annual flood used to bring 130 million tonnes of silt - mainly soil washed down from the Ethiopian high mountains; 90 per cent used to be washed into the Mediterranean and 15 million tonnes was deposited onto the Nile flood plains accumulating in annual layers of 1 millimetre each - that what formed Egypt's agricultural soil in the valley and Delta over the millennia. 

Since the dam was built almost all the 130 million tonne are is deposited in front of the dam. There are two possible scenarios as a result of the accumulation of the silt, which, in low flood years mounts to hills dried by the sun into mini brick dams. First scenario is a wall from dried silt forms on the west bank of the lake, then it dries by the sun in a low flood year; in a high flood year, the water will break through it and billions of tonnes of water will gush westwards. In the event of the Nile breaking its banks and creating streams going west, it would take months if not years to repair some of the damage by directing the flow northward to keep it within the Egyptian borders. The Egyptian High Command have plans to occupy South East Libya, North Chad and parts of North Sudan for as long as it takes to complete the construction of several dams to divert the newly formed streams to the North, in order to prevent neighbouring nations from establishing a right of use presence - since International law is not clear in such cases but the right of use is recognised - by moving some of their nationals into the newly formed streams inside their borders.

The second scenario, is more depressing and is based on study by Dr Ibrahim Kamel. His theory is as the current slows, millions of tonnes of silt fall into the bottom to form a small mound. In low flood season, the dam dried by the sun, more silt accumulates on top of it year after year and so on. The same process repeats itself several times every few hundred kilometres upstream making another lake further south. In a year of high flood - as happened with the Mississippi in the US last year, the pressure of water will destroy the most southern of those silt dams, the water will gather force destroying other dams as it gushes through; by the time the massive wave reaches the Aswan dam, it would sweep the structure and flood most of Egypt. We also have evidence that the Egyptian military are anxious to have total control of Sudan to carry out necessary work to minimise the possibility of such flood. 


The third river system of the Middle East is tiny compared to the others, but the danger of conflict over its water is just as great and even more noticeable than the other two. The short, muddy Jordan flows through the most hotly disputed territory of all, and is bordered by countries that have history of using force to gain their ends. 

The annual flow in the whole area controlled by Israel since 1967 is just under 500 cubic meter per person. The 1991 figures indicate that Israelis use 375 cubic meter apiece and Palestinians 180 cubic meter ( assuming that 5 million Israeli citizens and settlers and 2 million Palestinians and Golan heights residents). Looking at birth rates, the population could double some time between 2010 & 2020. The flow of the river Jordan cannot be improved either. Even less than 15 months after some unusual heavy rain in 1991 that caused flood, water shortages were endemic in Amman despite ongoing water rationing. 

A study, in 1990, by Dan Zaslavsky, Israel's national water commissioner found that 10 consecutive years of above average rainfall are needed to replenish the heavily overtaxed underground resources. In the five years since, it only happened in 1991, and partly early 1993.

In the Jordan basin of all, it is a zero-sum game. If Israel obtains more Jordan will receive less, and vice versa. 

One of the bitter sources of conflict, which Arabs never fail to mention, that while the a Jordanian average use is 80 litres per day, Israelis use 300 litres, of the same river and the same aquifers. 

If you go to the west bank an area of 5,890 square kilometre occupied by Israel, the difference are great and both sides' belief in their right to water makes their ideological differences over land, religious interpretation etc., seem moderate. 

The presence of some 100 Israeli settlements (populated by over 100,000 Jews) on land occupied in the West Bank in 1967, is a thorny issue. Water is very much in the heart of the conflict. The 100,000 settlers are given ( 100 Million Cubic meter) almost as much water as the one million Palestinians who live in the region ( given 137 million cubic meter). This is a source of bitterness and a real obstacle for peace. `` All Israeli settlements have water, lawns and swimming pools, while dozens of Palestinian villages are with inadequate water supplies and suffer from water shortage'' said Abdel Rahman Tamimi a ground water expert with the Palestine Hydrology Group. 

Figures published by PHG indicate that Israelis take 80 percent of the annual flow of 615 million cubic meter of mountain aquifers that should be, according to Mr Tamimi, `Palestinian water.' This means that one quarter of water used by Israelis annually is seen by Arabs as `stolen water' which they want back. ( according figures by Independent scholars like Professor Thomas Naff of University of Pennsylvania, 40 per cent of Israel's water comes from two aquifer. The early one within pre 1948 borders but the other one supplies 20 per cent is from the occupied West bank ). 

The PHG also accuse the Israeli occupation authority of forbidding Palestinian civilians from drilling new wells or deepening existing wells since 1967, while Israeli wells are six times deeper causing Palestinian wells to totally dry for more than 5 month a year. As a result, the PHG argue, irrigated Palestinian farmland declined from 27 per cent of all agricultural land in 1967 to a meagre 4 per cent in 1990. 

The Israeli counter argument is based on their military superiority and a status quo that wont help peace, as well as the lack of provision on water use in International law. 

In theory, peace between the Arabs and Israel should end their rivalry over water, but it is just as likely that water will delay, if not altogether prevent, peace. In a final settlement, Israel would have to give up the West Bank which gives it control of the southern portion of the Jordan, the west bank of the river with its aquifers; the Golan Heights in Syria which contains the headwaters of the Jordan and the strip of land along the southern Lebanese border where the Zahrani and Litani rivers flow. 

It seems unlikely that the Israelis would leave the land without guarantees to water security, particularly as at least part of its motives in invading and holding to south Lebanon - or so the Lebanese and other non partisan sources say - was to have access to Litani and Hasbani rivers, and the headsprings of the Jordan. 

Before the six day war, Israel controlled less than 10 Kilometre or 6.25 Miles only of the Yarmuk river, now it has a de-facto control that stops Syria and Jordan from diverting the headwaters if they chose to. A report was recently prepared by the Israeli Military warned Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin against pulling out of the Golan heights. Two reasons were given, first water security and second the army intelligence gathering operation. 

Even if some generous compensation are to be paid to the settlers to hand back settlements to the Palestinians, no electable Israeli government is likely to let go of control of water supplies, unless alternative source is found by some miracle. 

In 1989 - just less than two years before the Arabs and Israelis met in Madrid - an official publication issued by Israel's Ministry of Agriculture, which was then headed by hardliner Rafael Eitan, concluded that full control of the mountain aquifers are of vital necessity :`` It is hard to conceive, of any political solution consistent with Israel's survival that does not involve complete and continued Israeli control of the water system.'' General Eitan argued later that, overriding any religious and even security grounds for keeping the West bank is Israel's need to stay because it must have the water. Mr Eitan has just ( In February ) been invited into the labour coalition by Prime Minister Rabin, to strengthen his hand in securing a vote to back the accord with Yasser Arafat. Now the price Mr Eitan is demanding is holding into water resources for good. 

When it comes to international law it is even more complicated. Unless there is a legal entity called Palestine, there can be no international arbitration, so this has to be between Jordan and Israel. Even though, the two parties themselves must seek arbitration, which is unlikely.

If agreement is reached between Jordan and Israel, but without a settlement between Syria and Israel, in decade or so Syria could face an alliance of Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel aimed at maximising their share of scarce water resources. Just as the old enemy Iraq, might side with Syria against Turkey to demand more water, such alliance would even be supported by Israel, just to emphasise the right of a down stream state to confront an upstream state which exploits geography to the disadvantage of other riparian states.

International law is not clear on the right of upstream countries to control either surface or ground water. Israeli experts interpret the law in practical hydrological terms according to the practices of centuries of irrigation methods in the region:`` In hydrological terms water should be harnessed in the foothills. The onus is on the people who live below to arrange supply;'' a point welcomed by Egypt and Jordan and partly by Syria in its dispute with Turkey.


Optimists think that if a general peace is reached in the Middle East, Arab oil money and Israeli technology may combine to help reduce the wastage of water and revolutionise irrigation - since agriculture swallows up to 85 percent of water in the Middle East, while the world average figure is 69 per cent and in countries like Sudan the figure is 99 per cent - and also find an economic, nuclear, solar or electric energy to desalinate seawater ( like the red-to-dead-sea canal project, the Indongo pan-African electric grid among the nine Nile riparian states, etc.).

But pessimists outnumber the optimists, among them are regional statesmen, politicians, and world diplomats and technocrats too. Elias Salamah, professor of water resources at the University of Amman has warned, on several occasions, that, ``if the multilateral talks on water fail to bring about a fairer distribution of water, some time between 1995 and 2005 there is high probability that Israel, Jordan and the west bank will face such progressive worsening water shortages that there will be conflict.'' 

The issue of water security comes up almost once a month in Egyptian Parliament, the all party water committee's 1993 report accuses Israel of `stealing 1300, Million cubic meters of `Arab water' every year.

The inevitable serious shortage makes such a conflict seems likely. It is estimated that the Middle East's population of 314 million will rise by 34 million within 30 years, with an annual water requirement of 470 billion cubic metres annually - 132 billion more than the total available supplies based on current level of consumption from both renewable and non renewable sources and on the assumption that there will be an improvement in conservation of about 2 percent annually. Arab Gulf states' water needs jumped from 6 bn cubic meter in 1980 to 22.5 bn cubic meter in 1990 and estimated to reach 35.5 bn by 2010. 

In general the Middle East will need double the amount of water it used in 1975. As it is, per capita water consumption in such comparatively Arab countries as Jordan is only about 80 litres and Israel is 300 on a par with the European average. Meanwhile, unless other projects are implemented, water available in Israel would be half of what was available in 1985. Some countries - like Oman - have already trimmed its development programme to take account of highly population growth, and other countries will soon be forced to follow suit. 

But there are other political, ideological, social and historic considerations making many Middle Eastern governments too reluctant to move into a revolutionary consumption reduction methods. Egypt, the largest nation in the region, is unwilling to see large migration from the country to the urban areas, or to use modern technology in irrigation that would create mass unemployment, or to replace high water consumption crops unemployment, loss of hard currency earning form export or increase of salinity of farm land. 

Long history of antagonism and mistrust makes Middle Eastern leaders reluctant to reform their agriculture policy, switching the subsidised home produced with imported cheaper food. At present almost all grow cereal crops - with little economic sense, not to mention the devastating effect on both surface and underground water - since they are used to wars interrupting the trade routs. ( The Saudi always argue that their project to grow wheat in the desert was a decision taken by the late King Faisal claiming that his 1973 oil embargo led hostile western powers to delay delivery of wheat and flour to the kingdom !) 

Iraq has gone full circle from paying subsidies to farmers to work in industry and construction project back into embracing the land and raising the slogans of the land of the two rivers being the cradle of the agricultural civilisation, due to the political turmoil that this unfortunate nation has been through. 

Israeli agriculture policy too is ideologically motivated; `` making the desert of Palestine bloom'' was, and still is, an entrenched Zionist ideal. For some bizarre ideological motives a number of Israeli farms insist on growing every fruit, vegetable or a crop of which they read in the bible, even if that was not always economically feasible. ( subject to weather condition and time of the year between 35 to 55 per-cent of all Israel's energy goes to pumping and moving water).

In addition, when some governments showed willingness to invest in water projects, they end up wasting their financial, economic and natural resources by choosing the wrong scheme because they were ill advised. Some irresponsible - even corrupt - western experts, academics and advisers to western construction companies go on advising the Arabs to build White elephants like Gaddafi's project or Saudi Arabia growing wheat in the desert and depleting the water table below sea level increasing salinity. Those experts and academics know they are giving wrong and dishonest advice. Their greed for fees paid by construction companies or undemocratic governments in the Middle East make them opt for projects that would make dictators' media show water gushing in abundance, which is a short term solution. But such projects by nature sharpen the water crisis on the long term, thus bring the possibility of open conflict even closer.

The majority of Engineers and Hydrologists are honest, but in their planning of dams, diversions and more desalination plants and trying to improve water use and eliminate leaks and reduce evaporation ( the figures are astronomical but 15 per cent of all water in the region is lost through leaks and 20 per cent to evaporation ) and inefficient irrigation ( 60 percent is lost before reaching the crops and orchards to be watered). 

Several discussion with some of those experts, and examining their reports, indicated that they have lacked the political advice of non-partisan specialist, while some also ignored the environmental and human factors ( examples the Nubians in the Asswan Dam, the silt, As a result of slowing the current, pollution is behind 40 percent of Kidney chronic disorders in Egypt. The lack of silt resulted in an increase in the use chemical fertilizers. The salinity in drainage has reached 340 in a million that is seven times higher than the safety level. The Kurds in Turkey , the Shia in Southern Iraq etc.). 

They also either ignored, or misunderstood the factors and political realities of the region, let alone their assumption that they can find the will among politicians to allow cross-border co-operation. Their ideas could work in other regions; but not in the Middle East, not just yet. 

Most alarming, and perhaps most telling, was an off-the-record comment by a leading politician about his country's water need. `` A time may well come,'' he said,`` we have to calculate whether a small swift war might be economically more rewarding than putting up with a drop in our water supplies.''.
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