Water and Politics

Ami Isseroff

Water is a cardinal issue in the Middle East. This year it is bound to make headlines because of the shortage in rainfall, and because the Israeli government announced  their intention to pump less water to Jordan then was agreed in the treaty commitment. This is not a violation of the treaty, strictly speaking, since the treaty contains an escape clause that refers to seasonal fluctuations. However, it was undoubtedly a stupid move by PM Netanyahu’s government, if it was supposed to be an example of how Israel was going to help support Jordan’s new King Abdullah. Predictably, it provoked angry and somewhat unfair reactions by those seeking to make political capital out of the water issue, as for example in Jordan Star.

The water crisis is not confined, however, to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Most Mid-Eastern countries suffer from a shortage, and the scarcity of water is used as a political issue and a lever. Adel Darwish reviews some of the different water crises in the Middle East, and shows how they could lead to a war or wars in the near future. The problem will become more acute with time. Expanding populations and expanding economies will place increasing demands on water supplies. The e long term global warming trend will no doubt excacerbate the problem as well.

A dispassionate analysis of the water issue and its treatment might yield some surprising conclusions. The first conclusion is that there has almost always been a water crisis in the Middle East. Population growth always expanded to the limits of the scarcest available resource, which was usually water. Existing settlements were also threatened by climactic changes. The problem was met successfully by ingenuity and adaptation. The Egyptians and Sumerians built elaborate irrigation systems based on the waters of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates. These required planning, central administration and cooperation - this need may have been the major stimulus for the advancement of civilization. It was also the stimulus for not a few wars, but these did not necessarily solve the problem. Later, the Nabateans who inhabited southern Israel and Jordan, built a great network of cisterns and underground reservoirs to catch rainfall and runoff from flash floods in the Negev desert. The desert city of Petra (click for photos here) is an example of what this civilization achieved.

The second conclusion is that whenever political conditions permitted, the water supply has always expanded to meet population requirements. Throughout the period of the British Mandate, experts were convinced that the land between the Jordan and the sea could not comfortably support any great population increase. As the population increased, the standard of living went up however, and new sources of water were found, turning arid and unusable land into productive farmland and orchards. This did not prevent the experts from issuing increasingly dire predictions that Palestine would run out of arable land and of water. The same pattern of doomsaying continues today of course. The 1946 Anglo-American Survey of Palestine concluded quite self-assuredly that well water would remain the basis of water supply in Palestine, and that irrigation schemes based on pumping water from the Jordan were impractical and costly. They were wrong of course. Now the doomsayers tell us that there are other insuperable obstacles in the way of increasing the water supply.

The third conclusion is that feasible peaceful solutions to the water problem are at hand. Desalination programs or import of water from neighbors such as Turkey would cost a small fraction of the Gross National Product of Israel, as  detailed elsewhere

The most important conclusion is that there is a water crisis, not because there is an objectively insoluble problem, but because certain political leaders want to use this issue for their own ends, as discussed by geologist Arie Issar. If there is a water war, it will not be the water that caused the war. Rather the war will be due to belligerence that was in search of an issue, and helped perpetuate the water crisis as an excuse for war.

Ami Isseroff

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