2.1 Water in the Middle East
The Middle East is an area of low precipitation and high evapotranspiration, much of it with less than 200 mm precipitation a year and potential evapotranspiration of over 2000 mm; this defines it as 'arid'. It has a few rivers, arising in the mountains, two of which, the Euphrates and Tigris, are a major source of water in the region (Figure 2). Another river, the Jordan and its tributaries, is of significance to the west of the region. The limited water resources of the region have led to international disputes over water supplies (Table 8.3), the two main disputes being between Israel and its neighbours, and between Iraq, Syria and Turkey over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Many of the countries in the Middle East are waterscarce; Israel for example has about 300 m3 of fresh water available per person per year and Kuwait about 1m3 of water available per person per year. In recent years, large population increases into some areas resulting from immigration (e.g. Israel) or high birthrate have made agreement on equitable distribution of water imperative. This has been exacerbated by a series of Arab-Israeli conflicts and disputes between Arab countries.
Secure water supplies have been a primary concern for Israel ever since the creation of the state in 1948, and in the 1950s there were plans to share the waters of the Yarmouk River (a tributary of the River Jordan) and Lake Tiberias with Jordan and Syria. However, Syria objected to Israel's plans to divert water from the Jordan above Lake Tiberias and Israel objected to a Syrian scheme to dam the Yarmouk as it would reduce flow into the Jordan. The 1967 war resulted in Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon and the West Bank, which strengthened Israel's water supply position, as it controlled the headwaters of the Jordan and aquifers of the West Bank. However, drought and increased extraction during the later 20th century reduced the levels of Lake Tiberias and increased its salinity to levels that threaten its aquatic life, and increasing groundwater exploitation above the safe yield has lowered aquifer levels, causing saline intrusion into the coastal aquifer. To increase its water security, Israel is constructing desalination plants. However, water continues to be a central feature of peace negotiations in this area.
The other major area of water dispute in the Middle East involves the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which rise in the mountains of Turkey and flow southwards into Syria and Iraq, dependent on these rivers for most of their water supply. Turkey, as the upstream country, claims the right to control the water that originates within its border. Iraq claims historical rights to the rivers as its people have depended on them for thousands of years, in what was Mesopotamia, using them for large-scale irrigation. Syria claims both ownership rights and historical user rights. Unfortunately there is just not enough water for all the counties, leading to conflict and, at times, threats of war.
In 1974 Syria cut off the flow of the Euphrates to Iraq in order to fill a new reservoir. Iraq assembled troops on the Syrian border and threatened invasion, with the result that Syria hastily released water back into the river. In 1990, Turkey stopped the flow of the Euphrates to fill the reservoir behind the Ataturk Dam (Figure 3); Syria and Iraq insisted that Turkey restore the flow, which it did, but a month later. Greater cooperation between the three countries to manage the rivers on a catchment scale, and changes to agricultural practice will be necessary to manage the water resources of these major rivers effectively, but there are many obstacles to this, especially as water issues have a political role in the area.
Kuwait, with its extreme water scarcity, is one of the Middle Eastern countries with a different approach. There is no water shortage in Kuwait; it does not depend on rain to provide its fresh water, it depends on desalination. This requires large amounts of energy (Section 6.4); but Kuwait also has huge energy resources. Although desalination is expensive, it is definitely not out of reach for an oil-rich state in the Gulf. It shows clearly that sufficient water can be obtained — if the country can pay for it. Poverty is the villain that often forms the root problem, not the environment or resource limitations.
An economically rich country (e.g. the Gulf states) or one which can adapt (e.g. Israel) has greater water security (Figure 4).
Water has been previously undervalued as a resource, although that is now changing—it has been called the 'blue gold' of the 21st Century. Managing demand through conservation and appropriate use, rather than continuously striving to meet greater demands, is beginning to be recognised as the most environmentally sound solution.