Water in the Arab world
In the coming years, water will fast replace oil in the hierarchy of issues of strategic importance to the region, writes Mohamed Hafez*
Since around the 1960s the equilibrium between water resources and population distribution in the world fell out of kilter, giving rise to numerous conflicts over water, especially in Africa, Asia and Europe. To a considerable extent, the growing disequilibrium derives from various political, social and economic developments in the modern world, as well as from the effects of climate change. Modern political boundaries, which impede the free movement of populations, hamper migration due to draught and famine. The pressures on countries that are less fortunate in water resources within their national boundaries can be tremendous. Soaring population growth rates give rise to or exacerbate water shortage crises in many parts of the world and in developing nations in particular. The population of the world is expected to exceed 10 billion in 2050 bringing with it a corresponding decline in the per capita share of water. Supply, in turn, is integrally linked to the interplay between demographic and economic factors. The larger the population the greater is the need to develop water resources to meet the requirements of domestic consumption as well as for agricultural, industrial and energy needs to sustain the population and economic growth.
Because of all these accumulating pressures on and demands for water, water is no longer the free or even cheap resource it once was. It is a substance that increasingly needs to be used wisely and economically. In fact, water has become a commodity, one that is beginning to vie with oil in terms of its economic importance. Israel, for one, has begun to buy water from Turkey. Economic considerations will certainly become increasingly instrumental in the rise of water crises in the areas where this resource is at its most scarce.
In the 21st century, the political hotspots as far as water is concerned are situated in those areas where countries have used up or are already utilising all or most of their own available water resources and have begun to tap additional amounts from the international watercourses they share with other countries. In riparian regions with urgent economic development needs and where there are vying and mounting demands on an international watercourse, disputes over water quotas could escalate to war. In fact, political scientists and other scholars and politicians have predicted that the wars of the 21st century will be over water. Arab countries threatened with water shortages or that rely on water resources from outside their borders should devote much more attention to their water security.
GLOBAL WATER RESOURCES: Some 97 per cent of the world's water is sea and ocean. Paradoxically, saltwater is the primary source of fresh water. Fresh water is the product of the hydrologic cycle, which begins with the evaporation of water from the surface of the ocean. As the water vapour rises into the air it cools and condenses to form the rain and snow that ultimately replenishes part of the water consumed by man. Freshwater is vital to economic growth and will be at the centre of the conflicts of the 21st century, especially in the world's most fragile strategic regions where most countries also have ambitious development plans and aspirations.
Since the mid-1970s, international agencies and specialised institutes and strategic research centres started to plan for the eventualities of the 21st century, towards which end they began to collect and process vast amounts of data and to organise hundreds of seminars and conferences. In a report on available freshwater resources around the world, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Freshwater Unit observed that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s the global per capita share of water plunged from 12,900 to 7,600 cubic metres, or by around 40 per cent in the space of a quarter of a century. In the Arab region, the annual per capita share fell from 2,400 to 1,200 cubic metres during the same period. In September 1995, the World Bank announced that more than 80 countries were threatened by water scarcity and that 40 per cent of the population of the world lived in harsh conditions in which the basic amenities of public health were not available. The Middle East and North Africa were cited as areas suffering from water scarcity.
WATER IN THE ARAB REGION: Water resource development is one of the most serious challenges the Arab nation will face in this century, especially in view of growing demand on declining freshwater resources. Freshwater makes up only three per cent of the water on our planet. Some 77.6 per cent of this is in the form of polar or mountain icecaps and 21.8 per cent is subterranean water. Only the remaining 0.6 per cent is what meets the daily consumption, agricultural and industrial needs of the world's current population of six billion.
The Arab region, of which around a tenth is desert, is ranked as one of the poorest regions in freshwater resources. It contains less than one per cent of the world's available surface water and receives only two per cent of global annual rainfall. This relative scarcity hampers the ability to meet the water needs of Arab populaces. According to international agencies, per capita share of water should be no less than 1,000 cubic metres per year, according to the global average. In most countries of the Arab world, the annual per capita share is significantly lower and is estimated to fall to 500 cubic metres by 2025. There are 19 Arab countries that fall below the water poverty line and 14 of these do not have quantities sufficient to meet the basic needs of their citizens. In addition, because much of the Arab region is arid or semi-arid, 30 per cent of its cultivatable land is vulnerable to desertification due to water insufficiency. At the same time, the Arab world utilises only around 50 per cent of its available 340 billion cubic metres of water, exposing the remainder to waste or loss.
However, the water problem in the Arab region extends beyond the question of scarcity to the question of quality. For various reasons, the quality of water is deteriorating and large quantities of it are becoming unusable. The problem, moreover, extends to all sources of water in the Arab world. Because the major Arab rivers, such as the Nile and Euphrates, originate in non-Arab countries, those countries have a major strategic advantage over downriver Arab countries. Although the disadvantage could be offset by better use of subterranean water and rainfall, this would require huge investment in necessary projects and equipment. The alternative, water desalinisation projects, is not only costly but requires sophisticated technology. Clearly, then, the water problem is complex and multifaceted. The challenge requires a rational and innovative response, which in turn requires dynamic institutional mechanisms that are not yet available.
AVAILABLE ARAB RESOURCES: The Arab world has three basic types of water resources: renewable surface waters, slightly renewable subterranean waters, and limited quantities of water from artificial processes such as desalinisation and purification.
Rainfall is the most important source of renewable surface water. The Arab region receives an average of 2.282 billion cubic metres of rainfall every year. But rainfall is erratic, both over the course of a year and from one year to the next, which can affect the productivity of irrigated agriculture. In addition, rainfall efficacy is poor, as up to 85 per cent of it is lost to evaporation in some parts of the region, which means that only about 15 per cent of the annual rainfall can be utilised. Naturally, this situation has a direct bearing on the utilisation of land, as well as of surface and subterranean waters. Rainfall levels range from an annual 1,500 millilitres in the heights of northern Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan to only five millilitres per year in northern Sudan and Libya. In other words, there are huge departures, positively and negatively, from the regional average of around 300 millilitres a year.
Rivers constitute the other major source of renewable water, supplying the Arab world with some 350 billion cubic metres of water a year. Of this, 125 billion cubic metres -- or 35 per cent -- come from rivers originating outside the region, with 56 billion cubic metres supplied by the Nile, 28 billion cubic metres by the Euphrates and 38 billion by the Tigris and its tributaries. At 6,695 kilometres, the Nile is the longest river in the world. Emanating from Lake Victoria and the Ethiopian heights, the Nile River basin is home to 10 countries: Ethiopia, Congo (former Zaire), Kenya, Eritrea, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. Whereas most of these countries are located along the sources and tributaries of the Nile, Sudan and Egypt host the main course of the river, which has its mouth at the Egyptian Delta. Of all these countries, Egypt is the most dependent on Nile waters in view of its predominantly desert geography and relatively scarce rainfall.
The Tigris and the Euphrates river system originates in the Anatolian plateau and passes through Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates at Al-Qurnah, to the north of Basra, forms the Shatt Al-Arab. From its source in the Armenian mountains until its confluence with the Tigris, the Euphrates is 2,780 kilometres long, of which 761 kilometres are located in Turkey, 650 kilometres in Syria, and 1,200 kilometres in Iraq. Syria is dependent on the Euphrates for 90 per cent of its water needs. Iraq is almost entirely dependent on it. Numerous dams have been constructed along this river, some of the most notable being the Tabaqa Dam in Syria, and Al-Ramadi, Al-Habaniya and Al-Hindiya dams in Iraq. The Tigris is 1,950 kilometres long, of which 342 kilometres are in Turkey, 37 kilometres form part of the Turkish- Syrian border, another 13 kilometres form part of the Syrian-Iraqi border, and 1,408 kilometres pass through Iraq. This river originates in the Taurus Mountains in Turkey and has dams or barrages at Mosul, Samaraa (Tharthar), and Kut and Amara.
The relatively small Jordan River, which forms the borders between Palestine and Jordan, is 360 kilometres long. Formed from the tributaries Al-Hasbani in Lebanon and Al-Laddan and Banias in Syria, it passes through the Hula Valley after which it drops into the Sea of Tabariya (Sea of Galilee). From there, it continues southward through Al-Ghur after which it is joined by the Yarmuk, Zarqa and Jalloud tributaries and then flows into the Dead Sea. Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Israel are all dependent on water from the Jordan River.
In addition to these rivers, there is a vast network of seasonal wadis. Of diverse sizes and capacities, depending on topographical formations and annual rainfall level, they number in the hundreds of thousands. These wadis only fill during certain seasons of the year and sometimes only for a few days or even hours. Although there are no concrete studies on the volume of water that flows through these wadis during their flooding seasons, it is certain to be several dozen billion cubic metres, which could possibly be tapped.
In terms of subterranean water, the Arab region sits atop an estimated 7,734 billion cubic metres, of which 35 billion cubic metres are available. These resources renew themselves at the rate of only 42 billion cubic metres a year and large portions are non-renewable. Subterranean water resources are replenished primarily from rainfall that seeps down through the ground into subterranean aquifers. But they can also be created from the upward seepage of the steam or water given off from deep geothermal or sedentary processes, and which is then trapped in subterranean pores or rock strata. There are three major aquifers in the Arab world:
- The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (SNAS) that spans 1.8 square kilometres covering northwest Sudan, northeast Chad, southeast Libya and most of Egypt. About 150,000 square kilometres of this is in the form of artesian wells. This enormous reservoir contains nearly 20 times the amount of annually renewable water supplies in the Arab world. The SNAS water table rises to create the Dakhla, Kharga and Farafra oases in Egypt's Eastern Desert. Libya's Great Manmade River Project will be able to transport two million cubic metres a day from this aquifer to the Libyan coast where project planners envision that it will be able to irrigate 180,000 hectares of agricultural land.
- The Bas Saharan Basin is an aquifer system that covers 140,000 square kilometres from the Atlas Mountains to Tunisia, enclosing the Grand Erg Oriental. It is estimated to contain around four times the amount of renewable water supplies in the Arab region.
- The Disi Aquifer Basin, which stretches 106,000 kilometres through southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, which is the primary beneficiary.
In terms of unconventional water resources, a process pursued primarily by Libya and the Gulf countries, desalinisation provides more than 75 per cent of the water consumed in the Arab Gulf countries. This area produces 1.85 billion cubic metres of desalinised water a year, or around 90 per cent of the total amount of desalinised water produced in the Arab region. According to some American sources, 35 per cent of the world's desalinisation plants and 65 per cent of the energy devoted to such plants in the world are located in the Arab world and in the Arabian Peninsula in particular. Meanwhile, the treatment of agricultural, industrial and domestic wastewater to permit for its reutilisation in agricultural and industrial projects saves between 6.5 and 7.6 billion cubic metres of water a year. Water consumption for domestic, agricultural and industrial use in the Arab world has increased fivefold over the past 50 years. The current annual level of consumption is estimate at around 230 billion cubic metres, of which 43 billion are for domestic and industrial purposes and 187 are for agriculture.
EMERGING WATER CONFLICTS: Water is of critical importance to the Middle East, with vast stretches of arid land, ambitious economic development projects and greater than average population growth rates. A report of the Washington-based Centre for International and Strategic Studies on a seminar it organised in 1987 on US policy towards Middle Eastern water issues stated that by the third millennium water would have supplanted oil as the region's prime concern. But this is not the only region where freshwater resources have been a source of international tension. The UN and its agencies were forced to step in between India and Pakistan in the 1950s after water disputes spiralled into a full-fledged war.
Of course, some international water disputes have been resolved peacefully and, occasionally, water resources have proved instrumental in avoiding conflict and bringing countries together. Treaties between countries that share a single river are an example. Nevertheless, of the 215 trans-boundary river systems, many remain unregulated by treaties covering the various aspects of their utilisation. Although there exists a range of international principles and judicial rulings aimed at protecting acquired rights to and the freedom of navigation in what are termed international rivers, they are not comprehensive enough to forestall conflict as the water crunch grows more and more serious.
In this region, water will become a chief if not the chief source of tension when the water deficit becomes severe under the impact of the pressures of demographic growth and economic development requirements. Political hotspots surrounding water will surface in those areas where Arab freshwater resources are plundered or used illegally and where there is constant abuse or attrition of Arab water rights. Hydraulic projects on the part of countries at the source or along the tributaries of major rivers that provide the Arab world with 85 per cent of its freshwater could constitute such a threat. The threat and the consequent spectre of war would be greater where there are no treaties regulating water rights to international rivers or where existing treaties have grown obsolete and need to be renewed, or where there are no international mechanisms to enforce accepted conventions or formal agreements on water use.
The Jordan River basin, the Tigris-Euphrates river system, and the Nile River basin are all potential water resource flashpoints. Perhaps the most serious threat comes from Israel's theft and depletion of Arab water resources in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, the Golan Heights and South Lebanon. Israel obtains 60 per cent of its water from the occupied Arab territories. Indeed, it has been conjectured that one of the reasons it occupied these territories in 1967 and attempted to occupy Lebanon up to the Litani River in the 1980s was to ensure its own water security. Meanwhile, major Turkish hydraulic projects such as the Ataturk Dam and the Southeast Anatolia Project have sparked sharp tensions with Syria and Iraq. And to the south of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, the Shatt Al-Arab has been an arena of tension and warfare between Iraq and Iran.
The Nile River basin is no less a sensitive region, given that the Nile is the life-giving artery for both Sudan and Egypt. Recently, the quota system became a source of tension between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand, as downstream countries, and the other eight upstream countries, especially in light of Israel's attempts to help Ethiopia build dams along the Blue Nile, which would reduce the amount of water flowing into Sudan and Egypt. The Israeli hand is revealing itself day by day in southern Sudan where its backing of the rebel movement obstructs the completion of the Gongoli Canal, a joint Egyptian-Sudanese project aimed at preventing the waste and loss of Nile waters.
CHALLENGES AHEAD: Arab countries need to coordinate with other riparian countries in order to prevent or offset the potentially detrimental impact of hydraulic projects upriver. Whether the impact derives from long-term direct effects or from immediate direct effects, it will have considerable social, economic, political and technical repercussions. Otherwise put, the question of water in the Middle East is no less than a question of Arab national security. Reduction in the amount of water available to Arab countries because of upriver hydraulic projects poses a threat to their water security. Water deficiency not only hampers the ability to meet the immediate water consumption needs of a people, it also obstructs agricultural production and development, thereby threatening food security. Without food security, Arab countries cannot achieve economic self-sufficiency and, hence, true autonomy.
Upriver hydraulic projects could also impair hydraulic projects downriver, especially hydroelectricity projects. Reduction in the efficacy of these would be detrimental to industrial development and economic development in general. Then, too, there is the spectre of pollution deriving from the misuse or abuse of water by upriver riparian nations. In other parts of the Arab world, the theft or abuse of subterranean resources by non-Arab parties threatens artesian wells with salinity, making these waters unfit for consumption and for agriculture.
The political repercussions of the water crisis are obvious. Countries that can control the source of water, as is the case of upriver riparian nations, can have a powerful influence on the political will of others. Ironically, just as Arab thought turned its attention to the importance of water resources, water crises began to emerge in the Middle East. Around this time, Turkey decided to complete its mega Southeast Anatolia Project, which entailed cutting off Euphrates water from Iraq and Syria for several weeks, nearly triggering a war between these two countries and Turkey. Also around this time, the Middle East peace conference opened in Madrid in 1991. One of its stated aims was to create a climate that would enable higher levels of development in the world.
Since the second half of the 20th century, the Arab region has had to maximise the use of its water and compete over and search for additional water sources in order to address three chief challenges: high and rapid population growth rate; agricultural expansion and development in order to feed the growing population; water management. These challenges have proved all the more demanding in view of the fact that a large percentage of the populace of the Arab world depends on river systems shared with non-Arab countries. The problems created by shared international rivers have, so far, compounded other problems that plague the international relations of the region. The strategic challenge, therefore, is how these countries can secure their water rights and maintain peaceful and cooperative relations. The task is not as easy as it may appear, given that water is not the only issue of contention between nations; relations are frequently complicated are other political, economic and social problems of a cumulative historic depth.
Consider, too, that the challenges are exponential in nature. Rising population rates mean that populations double within shorter and shorter timeframes, meaning that agricultural production needs to double accordingly and so too the amount of water currently used. It is little wonder, therefore, that in this region of limited water resources some countries with the power and wherewithal to dominate water resources grab the quantities they need for the present and for the future and then proceed to turn water into a weapon in order to bend other countries to their will. As water security is increasingly threatened by scarcity and surpasses oil in strategic importance, one can easily picture it becoming not just the key to agricultural and industrial development but also the decider between life and death itself.
* The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies.