Water Scarcity - Middle East
American University in Cairo
Home Mike in Egypt Middle East Studies Education
Middle East Political Economy International Business Management Islamic Institutions Human Rights   Communication & Negotiation

I. Abstract

This paper focuses on water scarcity and its implications for security in two particular regions of the Middle East: those who are in the Nile basin, and those who compete for the Jordan River and nearby aquifers. In discussing Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Israel and the Paletinian Territories, it outlines the recent history of negotiations and conflicts over sources of water in these regions. It suggests the urgency of such resource scarcity and then discusses ways in which these scarcities might impact future political relationships. These issues are important not only because they will affect future populations but also because they will pose increasing challenges for regimes in the Middle East to maintain legitimacy.

I will begin by discussing some concepts relating to environmental conflict, shedding light on some of the pressures caused by the combination of growing populations and depleting resources.  In the Middle East, the issue of water scarcity is particularly acute because most of the region is already to the point that it consumes more freshwater than is renewable in its territory. In both the Nile basin and in Israel, these issues play an important role in regional politics and as their populations continue to increase, freshwater supplies per capita can only grow scarcer. Finally, I intend to offer some potential solutions to these problems in order to assess whether technological advances and techniques for reducing consumption can have a significant impact in reducing the threat of water insufficiency.

II. Table of Contents

I. Abstract

II. Table of Contents

III. Environmental scarcity and violent conflict

IV. Water

V. Middle East Vulnerability

VI. Nile Interests

VII. Israeli Water Problems

VII. Possible Solutions

IX. Conclusion

X. Bibliography

III. Environmental scarcity and violent conflict

The notion of ‘environmental security’ has become a remarkably important and controversial field of research in international security. One way to simplify this concept is to conceptualize environmental problems that lead to scarcity as factors that result in increased competition for resources, reduce the average quality of life, and heightened tensions among groups. Or, we can look at this argument from the following perspective. The world population will probably reach ten billion within many of our lifetimes. Many of the resources on which we depend for life are either fixed or depleting. Land is being degraded, forests are being chopped down, and species are being eliminated in many regions of the world. As the scarcity of these resources becomes more acute, individuals will become increasingly interested in securing access to absolute necessities, like water and food, and so conflict is likely to result.

As an alternate opinion, some suggest that the concern over environmental security is paranoia and, in fact, not likely to lead to conflict. It can be argued that instead of reaching the climax of conflict, certain forces will help intervene and help mitigate the effects of depletion by reducing consumption habits and improving distribution equitability. Some scholars fear that writers overemphasize disastrous outcomes, which will not necessarily occur. Meanwhile, I propose that water scarcity is a significant enough threat in this region to constitute a key element of regional security. Although such conflicts can take on many forms, both nonviolent, including diplomatic negotiations, and violent, including warfare, it is plausible to predict that water conflicts will escalate in the near future. This is primarily due to the expected population increases and the environmental degradation that the region is witnessing.

The goal of security analysts should not be to determine whether or not resource scarcity can lead to conflict, but rather, where and when these conflicts are likely to occur. They can arise in villages, among political groups, and between nations and are most likely to occur as a result of depletion of agricultural land, water, forests, and fish. As Homer-Dixon argues, these problems will be more pressing in the coming decades than even more highly touted problems such as ozone depletion and climate change. First, we will step back and develop a theoretical discussion of resource scarcities, in general, before dealing specifically with water in the region.

 Problematic Conditions

There are several conditions that, when coupled with resource scarcities, increase the likelihood of violent conflict. Population growth is perhaps the primary catalyst of resource scarcity worldwide because it leads to a relatively fixed pie being carved into smaller slices. In other words, it is not raining any harder nor are rivers getting any larger. Yet, we see far more human lives being sustained on this planet than ever before.

To put this in perspective, we must understand the enormous rate at which this population growth has occurred. In 1950 the world population was just over two and a half billion but it had doubled by 1987, passing five billion for the first time. We are now just a few years from passing six and a half billion people and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the world population will pass nine billion by 2050. In other words, the number of humans living off of relatively fixed resources will have more than tripled in one hundred years. Because resources cannot be expected to grow at the same threefold rate, we are likely to encounter greater environmental stresses.

In general, when demand for a particular resource approaches maximum supply, we see increasing efforts to reduce consumption while simultaneously searching for a technological fix. Meanwhile, these tendencies cannot be expected to eternally prevent conflict over water. Certain innovations can definitely help to expand the pie and modified consumption patterns can help to redistribute some of it. Meanwhile, human reproduction has outpaced the positive influences to be gained from either positive trend. Here, it must be mentioned that resource scarcity does not necessarily lead to political insecurity. However, certain generalizations are useful for identifying what factors should be considered.

It is also important to recognize that resource scarcities are not uniformly distributed. Different regions face complex and diverse challenges that affect how real the scarcities become. There is a greater likelihood that the lack of economic resources in countries with weak economies will increase poverty and consequently, exacerbate resource conflict. Because new technologies or other coping mechanisms usually require financial backing, poorer countries are at greater risk.

Weaker governments are also often relatively incapable of solving resource demands in economically strapped countries, while increasing poverty has the detrimental effect of further weakening the local government’s legitimacy. In addition to the government’s inability to improve the resource dilemma, powerful groups tend to capture resources during stressful times in order to protect their own livelihood. This is especially common in countries where the economy is already relatively dependent on natural resources for income or when a few particular resources have traditionally been a defining characteristic in the nation’s power or economic development. Just as countries that rely solely on oil rents would suffer from the depletion of their vital resources, nations who rely almost exclusively on agricultural production are quite anxious about the prospects of severe water scarcity.

In addition, there is the problem of short sightedness in policy planning that makes it difficult to maintain continuity in confronting these challenges. Governments typically do not place as much priority on long term resource problems because they tend to have short horizons. In this way, a political leader might tend to focus more on day-to-day problems than take proactive steps to prevent issues, which might not become life threatening for several decades.


The issues of resource scarcity and economic stagnation become greatly magnified when severe environmental stress forces large populations to relocate in order to survive. In this process of ‘ecological marginalization,’ individuals tend to migrate into fragile environments, often lacking the experience necessary to protect their new environment and already limited resources.

During this dislocation, group identities are formed in the most taxing of circumstances. Group members rarely enjoy full political participation, whether because their poverty prevents them from asserting authority or their cross border migration was not desired by the receiving countries. In cases where these groups cannot meet their needs, they occasionally form into challenger groups that become frustrated with their inability to effectively express their grievances. In these circumstances, we have seen that the likelihood of civil conflicts increases as it did, for example, among Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Middle East. In many cases, the poor distribution of wealth is coupled with the misallocation of vital resources. According to Homer-Dixon, power disparity is not the fundamental issue that causes these cleavages, but rather, the perception of economic injustice that is held by weaker classes.

Meanwhile, the natural response of a weakened state is to reassert its authoritarian position and forcefully prevent serious civil strife. It finds itself pressured to become a hard power amidst ecological and economic problems, furthering the misallocation of national resources. Unfortunately, the resource depravation, economic stagnation, weakening of the state, and rise of dissident groups all simultaneously encourage further deterioration of stability, engaging the population in a self-perpetuating cycle.

In many regions, the need to share resources between neighboring countries presents significant challenges to political stability. As the problem of scarcity becomes more acute, the relative power structures between individual countries will likely be impacted as well.  This does not necessarily occur because one country attacks another explicitly to acquire a resource but, rather, resource problems unleash a chain of events that detrimentally impacts stability.

In summary, issues of population growth, a general decrease in resource quantity, and unequal distribution of these fixed supplies inherently lead to increased environmental scarcity. These factors have the effect of decreasing economic productivity and as a consequence, mass migration becomes likely. These characteristics often coincide with a weakened state, ethnic conflicts, and various other challenges to stability. The next section discusses how water, above other resources, is an especially powerful catalyst for the displacement of populations, the intensification of economic problems, and the appearance of strongly discordant domestic interests.

 IV. Water

The issue of water is of central importance in this discussion because of its many unique characteristics, most notably, its criticality to sustaining life. It is part of a complex ecological system in which forms of water are circulated around the planet in rivers, oceans, aquifers, and even clouds. It is also necessary for economic expansion, as it is an important part of agricultural and industrial development processes. Finally, it tends to cross national boundaries and so in many cases, it is difficult to ascertain exactly who owns it. Unfortunately, it is a tremendously complex issue that in the past, has been handled with relative simplicity.

 Human intervention

At a most basic level, water supply and quality is negatively impacted by human intervention. Our lifestyles and production methods contribute to destructive behavior such as water pollution, overexploitation of aquifers, and land degradation. It is through these processes that humans contribute to current negative processes and we ought to proceed cautiously in order to prevent continued decline in the quantity and quality of renewable resources.

Meanwhile, the issue is complex, as various types of climates create different water scarcity issues. Naturally, an arid country has to deal with its dry climate. Meanwhile, even in those countries who receive a great deal of rain, environmentalists have reasonable concerns. Humid, tropical countries, whose annual rain volume is significant, must deal with degradation caused by floods, soil erosion, and the depletion of organic material. Although they might have plentiful water, there are other components necessary for agricultural fertility. Meanwhile, arid countries are faced with daunting challenges such as recurrent droughts, desertification, and the overstressing of marginal land.

While it is important not to apply a single, universal approach to different regions, some discussion of the matter is necessary. These distinct symptoms of water scarcity do deserve to have different strategies formulated for them but these diverse symptoms do have certain commonalities. Consequently, it is still useful and important to transfer knowledge among countries experienced in dealing with water challenges, as we will discuss in a later section.

Reasons for Scarcity

It is especially important to recognize the disproportionately high population growth in developing countries. For example, per capita renewable water resources in the Middle East fell precipitously, from 3,500 cubic meters in 1960 to 1,500 cubic meters in 1990. It is not that the availability of water plummeted so severely during this period, but that a gradual degradation of water was coupled with unsustainable population growth. According to 1994 World Bank estimates, per capita water availability was expected to fall to 667 cubic meters by 2025 in the Middle East, compared with a worldwide average of nearly 5,000. The problem with this per capita scarcity is only compounded by the problem of inequitable distribution among economic classes and sectors.

Much of the economic growth plans devised in recent decades has involved agricultural promotion, a sector that requires intensive irrigation and especially high water consumption. Such policies are unsustainable, given the anticipated intensification of water demands and growing urban populations in the region. In addition, while agricultural production consumes larger quantities of water, it is domestic consumption that has much higher economic value. In other words, rational societies will have to cut agricultural production before they will allow households to go without water. Consequently, as urban populations increase, agricultural production will have to either diminish in importance or use better water conservation techniques, or both.

There are a few especially significant factors that can lead to heightened competition over water systems. In assessing these strategic rivalries, it is necessary to analyze the degree of scarcity, the extent to which the water is shared between countries, the relative power of the states in the dispute, and the availability of alternatives. It is in the context of these issues that particular parts of the Middle East stand out for their particularly desperate qualities.

International implications

Meanwhile, these issues are not limited to the Middle East, but disputes have involved various other major rivers such as the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra in southern Asia, as well as the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the Parana in the Americas. In addition, there are numerous examples of strategic, water-related facilities and structures that were targeted during wars in the last century. The list includes dams in World War II and the Korean War, irrigation systems in the Vietnam War, hydroelectric stations in the Iran-Iraq War, and desalination plants in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Partly because of these experiences, research organizations have grown more aware of water scarcity issues in recent decades but have only been marginally successful at following through in solving them. Meanwhile, it is particularly important to address water scarcity from the global perspective because of the way that rivers and other sources transcend international boundaries and are critical to sustaining life. It can involve relationships between states as well as foment internal problems, two different, but important challenges. Because water policy continues to gain importance, the international community has convened many times to address its concerns.

The UN system has dedicated extensive resources to researching how to mitigate the anticipated problems. For example, the Arid Zone Programme was addressed by UNESCO during the International Hydrological Decade of the 1960s and it aimed to investigate the global water cycle. In conferences like this one, there were moderate successes in gathering information and creating awareness but real progress has been limited by the divergent interests between upstream and downstream states.

There are many obstacles to riparian states reaching comprehensive agreements regarding the shared use of water resources. Primary among these issues are concerns for state sovereignty and divergent perspectives on appropriate water allocation methods. Major conferences, such as the 1977 water conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, have focused primarily on avoiding a water crisis. They generally resulted in more sharing of rather sensitive water data and the adoption of several general recommendations. Meanwhile, the lack of follow-up on the agreements limited the success of these efforts.

Broad Strategies

The Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade of the 1980s helped to generate greater interest in improving safe access to water in the developing countries. While continued rapid population increases outpaced this program’s achievements, an additional 200,000 people were supplied with water per day over an eight year period. Nevertheless, there are still well over a billion people that do not have safe access to water and this resource scarcity is a primary catalyst for the rampant water-born diseases that afflict much of Africa and Asia. The issue of water quality is an important one for regional leaders to face and any discussion of water scarcity must make mention of the potentially disastrous situation. However, this paper attempts to focus on the global water problem from the perspective of quantity.

The general strategy for the 1990s included more assessment, further intentions of increasing access to safe drinking-water worldwide, and expansion of irrigation projects, especially in Africa. Nevertheless, the very countries who suffer most of water scarcity, mostly developing ones, are also the most poorly represented in the relevant international bodies such as the UN Committee on Natural Resources. As a consequence, their interests are not given as much attention. As we have mentioned, the situation for many temperate, water rich countries is quite different from that of many developing countries. Many influential countries intend to combat the problem primarily by preventing pollution but fail to consider the type of comprehensive approach needed to deal with more acute problems elsewhere.

Some important efforts have been made in the field of international law to place restrictions on the use of water as a weapon. For example, agreements have been signed that prohibit modifying the environment to cause destruction, carrying military actions against nature, and taking care to protect the environment during warfare. However useful they appear, these agreements are still limited by a lack of enforcement.

This lack of enforcement is occurs partly because there is no single, action-oriented body responsible for implementing water agreements. Meanwhile, the various conferences, commissions, and negotiations that have been held have yielded slow and fragmented results. In conclusion, despite different worldwide efforts to combat these problems, the water scarcity dilemma has not been dealt with sufficiently to reverse the potential for heightened strategic rivalries in the Middle East.

 V. Middle East Vulnerability

In suggesting that future water problems in the Middle East will create significant tension, Peter Gleick mentioned various shared waters that have already led to disputes. Such rivers include the Nile, Jordan, and Euphrates and an examination of the region’s characteristics helps to shed light on the sources of these conflicts. It is useful to understand how the Middle East compares with other regions on basic indicators of vulnerability, a frame of reference we will explore in this section.

First, we should assess how much water a country uses, relative to the annual renewable supply in its territory. According to worldwide data from the 1980’s, the ten worst performing countries in this regard were all from the Middle East. Libya was extracting at the most unsustainable rate, or 374% of its renewable supply, but eight other countries demanded more water than their natural sources could provide. Remarkably, Egypt was no exception and despite its enormous source of water, it was withdrawing 97% of its renewable supply at that time.

Water volumes per capita provide additional information about water scarcity and help us to understand the depth of the problem in the region because these data take population figures into account. Falkenmark identified 1,000 cubic meters per person as the minimum annual required water supply and Egypt scarcely satisfied this standard in 1990, at 1,070 cubic meters. Meanwhile, considering Egypt’s population growth, the UN data predicted its per capita supply would drop to 620 cubic meters per year by 2025. Israel was expected to drop to 310 and the data suggest that six severely constrained Middle East countries will have per capita rates fewer than 100 cubic meters, a symptom of significant water stress.

In addition to being extremely arid, the Middle East is characterized by rapidly growing populations that place increasing pressures on a region that is already ridden with historical disputes across ideological, religious, and geographical lines. A useful example is that of the conflict caused by Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, who all rely heavily on the Euphrates for fresh water. Because they control most of the river’s headwaters, Turkey has the ability to threaten Syria and Iraq’s access, which s critical for their consumption, irrigation, and industrial needs, not to mention a source of hydroelectricity. The diverse cultural, strategic and economic interests held by the Turks, Syrians, Kurds and Iraqi’s will only exacerbate the potential for tension as demand for water increases.

VI. Nile Interests

Water scarcity can be a tremendously dangerous issue, especially when certain groups are highly dependent on one source, many states lay claim to it, and downstream powers are willing to use military power to defend their rights to it. These conditions all converge in the case of the Nile River. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) research on water stress in Africa, five major river basins will reach levels of chronic scarcity, or worse, by 2025. It ranks each country from one to five according to expected water competition levels, based on the expected population per volume of available water. These data suggest that riparian countries of the Nile River will suffer especially critical shortages, anticipating that Egypt and Tanzania will reach chronic scarcity and Rwanda, Burundi, and Kenya will be beyond the water barrier, with more than two thousand inhabitants for every one million cubic meters of annual water supply.

These shortages have the potential of becoming so acute because the countries in the Nile basin are not only some of the poorest in the world, but they are also fairly populous, with nearly three hundred million inhabitants. Unfortunately, about half the population of these countries is dependent on one source alone for freshwater: the Nile. Consequently, it is logical to assume that pressure will increase dramatically among those riparian countries in the south, to secure increasing volumes of Nile flow, as their populations continue to grow.

Looking back, there was a flurry of pro-Egypt agreements near the beginning of the 20 th century that dealt with Nile consumption. These were heavily influenced by colonial interests, as Britain controlled this agricultural country and depended on Egypt’s cotton exports to supply its massive textile production. Foreign influences would continue to affect the discussion of Egypt’s Nile rights until Britain pulled out in 1937. Similarly, it was involved in the Sudan as late as 1956. Here we will discuss some of the key points of this process.

In 1891, the Britains signed an agreement with Italy, who dominated Eritrea and Ethiopia, to the south. The result of this agreement was to prevent construction on the Atbara river, an important source of the Nile’s volume. Again, in 1902, an agreement was signed that restricted water projects that would impede flow of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, and the Sobot river, which constituted the rest of the Nile’s major Ethiopian sources. These, which we will discuss later, comprise the large majority of Nile volumes. The agreements continued with the Congo agreeing not to build on the White Nile in 1906 and with Italy doing the same in 1925. While each of these agreements was heavily influenced by the colonial powers, their presence is still felt today.

The 1929 Nile waters agreement was primarily between Britain and Egypt but it was enforced until the 1959 agreement between Egypt and the Sudan. Partly because of their historical dominance over the Nile’s consumption, Egypt was first assured country some forty-eight billion cubic meters of water per year. Meanwhile, the Sudan was restricted to a paltry four billion, granting remarkably more water to the more powerful northern neighbor. The 1959 agreement only reinforced this Egyptian dominance, guaranteeing some 55.5 billion cubic meters per year to Egypt and only 18.5 billion to the Sudan. The treaty signing managed to solve a number of issues between these two countries but it failed to include any of the other relevant countries.

From the late sixties until today, Egypt has continued to control the majority of the Nile’s flow but has been met with resistance as well. When it became interested in building the high dam in Aswan, the Sudanese appeared to object, until a military take-over opened the doors for Egypt’s pursuit. The other riparian countries continued to be ignored in the decision making. Meanwhile, Egypt maintained relatively good relations with subsequent regimes, despite the issue of Lake Nasser drowning some of the Sudan’s territory. Most importantly to Egypt, the country continued to enjoy unrestricted access to its large share of the Nile.

In the late 1970s, Egypt went so far as to work on a project in Sudan that would divert the flow of a major tributary. They designed a canal that would reroute the river’s flow around the Sudd swamps in the south. This effort was expected to increase Nile flow downstream by nearly five billion cubic meters, as less water would be lost due to evaporation in the swamp. However, construction was halted on this Jonglei canal when civil war broke out in the region. Although it was not completed, this effort on Egypt’s part is interesting in its own right, illustrating how increasing populations have placed additional stress on existing resources. As we have discussed, our response is to seek out a technological fix that does not address the greater problem of steadily increasing demand.

More recently, Egypt’s good relations with the Sudan have disappeared since the Islamic military dictatorship took power in Khartoum. As a result, Egypt can rely less on their neighbors to the south to help maintain the respect for Egypt’s perspective on its guaranteed volume of water supply. Although the Sudan does share the concern that comes from not controlling their own source of water, the result of Nile depletion would be far more horrific for Egypt, if for no other reason than that they are at the end of a long line of countries.

Egypt ’s dependence on Nile waters presents a stunning example of resource vulnerability. More than ninety-five percent of Egypt’s water originates outside of Egypt, flowing into it through the Sudan. The obvious risk inherent in such dependence is that any shortage in the river’s volume, occurring either naturally or otherwise, will be a huge problem for its large population. A major concern, however, is that any upstream activity by the countries where the water is ‘captured’ could also significantly reduce the total water volume reaching Egypt. Public statements by Egyptian leaders have only served to reinforce the magnitude of this threat. In 1979, President Anwar Sadat cited water as being the only matter that could bring Egypt to war. In a similar expression of concern, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Egyptian foreign minister and UN secretary general, stated that the next war in the region would not be over politics, but over the Nile waters.

Inequitable Distribution

While colonial era treaties grant Egypt a disproportionately large allocation of the Nile runoff, there are eight other nations that share its basin: the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zaire. Based on water per capita figures, five of these riparian countries are likely to suffer water volumes under the 1,000 cubic meter threshold by 2025. Consequently, it is likely that Kenya (projected at 190), Burundi (280), Rwanda (350), Tanzania (900), and Ethiopia (980) will seek an increasingly large share of Nile water to compensate for this scarcity. Naturally, their water extraction will be at the expense of Egypt and any such projects will threaten the 1959 treaty.

Meanwhile, the inequitable agreements on water allocation have been upheld in relative peace partly because of Egypt’s military advantage and the strategic partnerships that have reinforced its position of dominance over the Nile. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that conflicts will emerge as downstream countries will invariably continue to depend on the water for their own agricultural development. Here we will discuss factors that have helped Egypt to ensure the relative compliance of the Nile’s other riparian countries.

The Sudan, for example, has simply been unable to carry out major water supply projects without the help of Egypt. In certain cases, Cairo would even provide its own engineers because it had a strategic desire to have certain dams built in the Sudan in order to help mitigate flood problems. As we discussed, the Sudan is officially prohibited from withdrawing additional water without changing or violating the 1959 treaty. Meanwhile, the Sudan’s compliance with Egypt during this period has also been influenced by their relative economic weakness. They have basically been unable to concentrate in areas of water technology because the recurrent conflict that has occurred there throughout the civil war of the last two decades. However, the Sudan has extensive arable land that it will want to develop if the unrest there can be controlled. It would be interesting to know how the Sudan would be dealing with the 1959 treaty now, if it had sustained real growth during the last generation.

Nevertheless, some believe that there is even greater likelihood that Ethiopia will exert itself over the river because it ‘captures’ the vast majority of total Nile flow in the first place. In fact, seventy-five to eighty-five percent of all Nile water comes from the Blue Nile branch, whose headwaters are in Ethiopia. Because it continues to enjoy relative political and economic stability, this influential riparian state is rather likely to demand its fair share of Nile water. It is reasonable to suggest that leaders in Addis Ababa resent the country’s inability to use more of the water that falls on its own land. Although these countries have so far yielded to negotiated treaties, any action by Ethiopia to block the Nile from flowing into Egypt will not be taken lightly in Cairo. As Sadat once warned, Egypt would have no choice but to go to war with Ethiopia if it attempted any major hydrologic projects.

Many of the other Nile riparian countries are likely to continue the rapid population growth, economic challenges, and occasional, but devastating droughts that help to put more pressure on the Nile. It is without question that Egypt will eventually face increased competition for this water on which it is so dependent. It must be understood that this argument does not suggest that the region is likely to erupt in warfare over water in the immediate future. It does, however, highlight that as growing populations continue to depend on a single source of water, unpredictable changes in its supply could have disastrous consequences for the lives of the region’s inhabitants.

 VII. Israeli Water Problems

Similarly, water scarcity is a particularly acute issue between Israel and its surrounding neighbors. In addition to complex political, religious, and military dynamics in the region, rapid population growth and limited alternative water sources exacerbate the tension. It is important to understand Israeli agriculture policy because much of the Israeli development and economic policies of the last half century were focused on securing sufficient resources to promote agricultural self-sufficiency. These policies were focused on the rational allocation and distribution of available water in the country, a resource that was already rather limited. In this context, it is useful to further examine the expansionist efforts of the Zionist entity.

In working to generate agricultural production throughout its new country, Israeli promoted various types of communal dwellings, such as the kibbutz and moshav. Among these groups, food production was encouraged and distributed based on regional value and demands, and flourished under a strong, centralized agricultural planning program. In order to maintain this complex system, authorities intervened with subsidies for certain farms, consolidation of smaller farms into bigger ones, and managing production based on water availability. Later, state intervention gave way to a somewhat greater reliance on market prices, using output, sales value, income, and employment indicators to determine strategy. Meanwhile, production is still characterized by tremendous state involvement in planning and implementation. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that a significant portion of Israeli development policy was influenced by the location of water resources. Access to fresh water has been characterized as a ‘question of life,’ a reality that explains the extent of Israel’s focus on water.

Faced with water demands exceeding the country’s maximum supply, Israel has coped with this situation in various ways. It has acquired additional territory, increased its pumping of aquifers, and redistributed water through complex channels and other water transport projects. To understand the extent of these efforts, we can look to Israel’s National Water Carrier project in the 1950s, an aqueduct that would deliver water to the south of the country. Syria disapproved of this project because it would impact water resources that both countries shared. This project led to an uncomfortable period in Syrian-Israeli relations. The groups held tense negotiations, which were occasionally coupled with protests and muscle-flexing on both sides. Later, in the mid-1960s, Syria tried to divert the Jordan’s headwaters in their favor and the Israelis remained intent on implementing their own scheme to redirect the flow into their control. These political and military machinations were important factors leading to military conflict in the 1967 War.


In June 1967, Israel enjoyed an impressive military victory and claimed important territory in the Mt Hermon basin, finally securing the Jordan River’s headwaters, and preventing immediate scarcity issues and limiting the danger of being cut off from their lifeblood. In addition, they took the entire West Bank, whose north-south mountain range forms a large watershed summit. It absorbs rain water and replenishes the groundwater systems that came to be exploited over the next few decades by an increasing concentration of Israeli wells in the area.

By restricting Palestinian well-drilling, the occupying forces protected new Israeli wells in the area, assimilating these water sources into its system of geographic and agricultural expansion. By 1978, Israel still owned only five percent of the total wells in the West Bank but their superior technology facilitated their extraction of nearly thirty percent of the water. In addition to restricting their access to drilling permits, the Israelis also employed more forceful means, occasionally destroying water pumps and once even bulldozing a Palestinian irrigation canal. What resulted was a severe distortion in per capita water consumption between the Israel and Palestinian populations.

Fresh Water

Although the Jordan is a relatively small river, it is a strategically important freshwater source that is divided among several antagonistic nations. It begins in the north, in Lebanon and Syria and then forms the border between Israel and Lebanon, as it runs south into the Dead Sea. In fact, eighty-five percent of Israel’s freshwater sources are concentrated in the north of the country, much of which they seized in 1967. Much of the headwaters of the Jordan River originate in the Mount Hermon basin and this area was of strategic interest to Zionist leaders as early as 1919. Although they did not receive all of these lands when they were established as a state in 1948, there proximity to the region gave them an important foothold for future expansion, as we have discussed.

A most telling sign of Israel’s water dependency is its proud assertion that by 1979, it was able to exploit ninety-five percent of the water resources that rose between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. While Israeli water production was only 350 million cubic meters in 1948, it grew to 1.3 billion cubic meters within its pre-1967 borders. By the mid 1970’s, this figure grew to nearly 1.7 billion cubic meters, growth that was made possible only by the country’s disciplined efforts to secure access to this resource.

A remarkable forty percent of Israel’s water originates in the Jordan headwaters, a dependency that seems to confirm suspicion regarding Israel’s interest in this vital source. In addition, it was estimated in the early 1980s that another one-third of all Israeli water consumption originated in the West Bank. Not coincidentally, most of Israel’s immigrant population growth has been supported by the increase in water made possible by the 1967 War and subsequent access to waters in the Jordan River and the West Bank. It could be argued that such strategic water interests were a factor in national policy considerations, in anticipation of high population growth in Israel. By the mid-1990s, Israel’s water demands exceeded 2 billion cubic meters, a quantity that surpassed its recorded supply by 10%. Despite advancements in water use technologies, Israel has had to resort to over pumping aquifers in order to support growing demand. Most of these aquifers are located under the West Bank.

In addition, Israel has successfully pursued intensive efforts to reduce water consumption in agriculture by developing new irrigation technologies. By using sprinkler and drip irrigation systems, it can reduce water consumption and improve crop yield. Meanwhile, these technologies require significant installation costs and maintenance, making them less attractive to poor countries.

Desalination is similar in that it is an extremely useful solution but demands a great deal of energy to produce significant increases in water availability. Although it is quite expensive, the demand for fresh water might result in a tremendous growth in the popularity of water desalination plants in the Middle East. Meanwhile, it is not yet cost efficient in most cases. According to one report, the cost of transporting water in Israel was fifty cents per cubic meter, compared with eighty cents for desalination. While this is certainly not an option for everyone, countries like Israel and the petroleum-rich Gulf States will likely increase their reliance on this source of freshwater as the desalination technology improves, its cost drops, and water scarcity continues to increase.

Although attractive for short term fixes, many new technologies are expensive solutions to a complex and worsening problem that must be dealt with on the demand side as well as the supply side. Because of the region’s lack of renewable water resources, growing populations, and political uncertainty, Israel has been determined in its efforts to secure adequate access to water for agricultural production and domestic consumption. It is in this context that Israel has exerted its military influence and focused its settlements in areas that provide much of its needed access to water resources. Moreover, the region’s population will continue to increase and these problems will not disappear.

 VII. Possible Solutions

At some point, a uniform, global response will be necessary to deal with the tension of an increasing number of states that will face issues of water scarcity. It is useful for the international community, for example, to pool knowledge, resources, and technologies to alleviate some of these stresses. However, technology cannot be relied upon, alone, to solve these problems. Similarly, it is important not to apply uniform approaches to the entire developing world. Meanwhile, it would be beneficial to pool lessons learned from individual countries in order to formulate strategies for water conservation, protection and distribution in the Middle East. Many regions of the world are facing similar issues of scarcity and so it is important to identify useful ‘best practices.’

In addition, now is a most opportune time for technology entrepreneurs to target these global natural resource challenges in order to develop solutions to water scarcity. For example, one could apply the experience Israel has had in finding technological solutions for water scarcity. Efforts to improve desalination or other hydrology technologies could be financially rewarding as well as socially desirable, as they could mitigate the potential for violent conflict in the relatively near future.

Entrepreneurs have thought up various schemes, such as importing water in tankers, delivering it in pipes, or diverting icebergs from distant polar regions but the mere complexity of such tasks is indicative of the relative lack of viable options or alternatives. Although these efforts are still in their nascent stages, it appears likely that resource conservation and substitution will become more urgent in coming decades. Presumably, there will be great demand for technical innovation to help mitigate these challenges.

One unique example of such resource and technological ingenuity is the concept of Israel providing water conservation technologies to Egypt in exchange for a transfer of Nile water. This complex scheme involved diverting Nile waters on canals, east across Sinai and then north, toward the Negev in southern Israel. There have been extensive scientific analyses based on this idea. In fact, the concept was famously proposed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in exchange for a solution to the Palestinian problem.

The authors of one statistical exploration of this issue, Dinar and Wolf, suggested in 1994 that through such a resource allocation arrangement, all parties would benefit from the transfer. By applying Israel’s water irrigation technologies, Egypt would consume less water in agricultural production. This excess water would then be diverted to Israel, who would theoretically have adequate supplies to share some water with the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, the authors indicated that Israeli’s benefit of dramatically increased water supply would far exceed the benefit to any other countries.

Constraints to Progress

This solution was nothing but a dream, however, because nationalists in both Israel and Egypt opposed the project. In addition, it would have faced fierce resistance from other riparian countries, such as Ethiopia. In addition, the authors conceded that because Israel would benefit far more from this scheme than the other three parties, Egypt would be unlikely to accept such disproportionate benefits. Nevertheless, Israel could have balanced the equation with cash transfers and various other means. In other words, this water transfer did at least represent a viable and important model, from a strictly economic perspective. In fact, based on population predictions made in 1990, the Egyptian population was expected to double within thirty years. At present consumption levels, Egypt’s demand would have outstripped supply by a great amount and it would do well to have conservation technology to mitigate these potentially catastrophic effects.

Despite the clear political obstacles to such an arrangement and the criticism that it generated, such ingenuity in resource distribution could be applicable in future situations. Nevertheless, the benefits of new technologies, no matter how effective, will never be able to provide a limitless supply of water. Rather than eliminate the ultimate issue, which is the growing population stress on resources, new technologies can only reduce tensions. In other words, technology can only delay an impending, forced reduction in per capita consumption.

The many political clashes, efforts to strengthen regime legitimacy, and divergent interests in the region make cooperation quite delicate on such issues that impact national security. As we mentioned, nationalist groups in Israel would have prevented the Nile diversion, a tremendously beneficial development for Israel, due to their concerns regarding a reduction in national sovereignty. Ariel Sharon, when he was agricultural minister reinforced this position by stating that he would hate to be in a position where another country could simply shut off Israel’s water whenever they wished. In other words, political problems can ruin opportunities for mutually beneficial compromise because some actors simply refuse to participate.

Moreover, the deep ethnic and cultural cleavages that characterize the region make negotiations on this issue a last resort in the minds of many leaders. Groups with limited resources are pitted against others with relatively easy access to them, and regional leaders could ease the burden with some considerate diplomacy. However, some argue that recurrent conflict in the region makes the prospects for true cooperation unlikely. Meanwhile, things might change as the conditions of environmental stress become unbearable. This paper suggests that we will know more about this desperation scenario in the relatively near future.

In fact, Middle Eastern leaders have shown an increased willingness in recent years to address the problem. Meeting for the third time at the International Water Conference in the Arab Countries, a group of Egyptian, Lebanese, Saudi, and Omani ministers joined together. They focused on the issue of water scarcity, as it can lead to social conflict. Future related conferences include the March 2005 Ninth International Water Technology Conference in Sharm Al-Sheikh as well as the first International Conference on Water Resources in the 21 st century, which will be held in Cairo in December 2005. Although these conferences do not guarantee cooperation, they are certainly a positive sign of regional cooperation.

 IX. Conclusion

In conclusion, there are a couple of important themes that we must highlight. First, population increases are the most critical factor placing increased pressure on our environment. In assessing the appropriate global response to this situation, we would do well to consider how water scarcity could impact our future quality of life. If we recognize that water stress has the potential to escalate quite rapidly over the next couple of generations, we might begin to alter our behavior. We should examine the pace of human reproduction, prospects for equitable water distribution, and the need for greater moderation in water consumption. The Middle East countries, from a simply strategic perspective, would do well to cooperate in resource distribution while simultaneously crafting strong national policies to deal with population growth and water consumption. Meanwhile, such a strategy appears unlikely considering the climate of recurrent conflict and violence that exists in places like the Sudan, Israel, and the Occupied Territories.

Nevertheless, international cooperation must be stressed as the best alternative to violent power struggles for water allocation. In this context, we would implore the region to attempt an unbiased analysis of rights and solutions. This process could help mitigate the disparities in resource sharing among populations in the region. Meanwhile, it is remarkably unlikely that such a process will unfold without the direct involvement of an international body on the behalf of weaker parties. Meanwhile, such a body does not exist. In addition, it is improbable that an international institution will soon have the authority to enforce objective judgments in such charged disagreements. As a result, it is utterly important the countries involved in these disagreements exercise caution in their behavior and critically assess solutions to these problems before they result in the unraveling of regional peace and security.

X. Bibliography

Anonymous. ‘Micro Irrigation.’ Appropriate Technology; June 2003; 30, 2; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 51-53.

Barron, Michael. ‘ Mideast’s Next Liquid Asset: Water.’ Journal of Commerce. New York: Mar 31, 1999. pg. 4.A.

Chaichian, Mohammad A. ‘The Effects of World Capitalist Economy on Urbanization in Egypt, 1800-1970. International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Feb., 1988), 23-43.

Dinar, Ariel; Wolf, Aaron. ‘International Markets for Water and the Potential for Regional Cooperation: Economic and Political Perspectives in the Western Middle East.’ Economic Development and Cultural Change; Oct 1994; 43, 1; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 43-66.

Falkenmark, Malin. ‘Global Water Issues Confronting Humanity.’ Journal of Peace Research, vol. 27, no. 2, Special Issue on the Challenge of Global Policy (May, 1990), pp. 177-190.

Gleick, Peter H. ‘Water and Conflict: Fresh Water Resources and International Security.’ International Security, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Summer, 1993), 79-112.

Halevi, Nadav. ‘Economic Policy Discussion and Research in Israel.’ The American Economic Review, Vol. 59, No. 4, Supplement, Surveys of National Economic Policy Issues and Policy Research (Sep., 1969), 74-118.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. ‘Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases.’ International Security, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Summer, 1994), 5-40.

Sooros, Marvin S. Beyond Sovereignty: The Challenge of Global Policy. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. 1986.

Stork, Joe. ‘Water and Israel’s Occupation Strategy.’ MERIP Reports, No. 116, Israel’s Strategy of Occupation (Jul. – Aug., 1983), 19-24.

Swain, Ashok. ‘ Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute.’ The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), 675-694.

U.S. Census Bureau. ‘Total Midyear Population for the World: 1950-2050.’ http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/world.html.

Waterbury, John. A Political Economy of the Middle East. Westview Press. 1998.

Youssef, Eman. ‘Saving the Region’s Water.’ Beirut’s Third International Water Conference in the Arab Countries. 2004.

• Contact Mike Dorsey by email • Mike Dorsey HomeMike Dorsey in EgyptMiddle East StudiesEducation


Hit Counter