Middle East Water Shortage
Due to geography and population growth, the Middle East nations are faced with a growing demand for a shrinking water supply. Throughout most of the Middle East region rainfall is irregular and the rainy season is very short. The World Bank reports that this area (including North Africa) has 5% of the world’s population, but only 1% of the world’s water. Droughts have been occurring more frequently and lasting longer, warning of a bleaker future.
Man himself has not helped the situation. The rivers in the Middle East are being diverted, dammed, aquifers are being drained and polluted by pesticides and sea salt, and even marshes are drying up due to over-pumping. The countries that do have access to the precious few water sources do not conserve it, preserve it, nor can they agree on how to manage and share the water fairly.
The need for water is not only for human consumption, but it is also vital in order to sustain agriculture. A nation that is unable to produce enough water and thus, food, for their own people is reliant on other nations to provide for them. This dependence can give rise to suspicion and conflict, which unsurprisingly has plagued this area of the world for centuries.
The population in the Middle East has been growing rapidly, both from an increased birth-rate and immigration. For example, the Jordan River basin population has quintupled since 1940, to 15 million people, creating detrimental damage to both the amount and quality of water. More and more water is needed to keep up with the population growth, and the current consumption in the Middle East already exceeds the annual rainfall needed to replenish the basins. The additional human population is stressing environment and is affecting temperature in the region, changing the climate for the worse.
The methods of carrying the water from source to user are inefficient, and much water is wasted. Most systems are outdated and leaking, some losing up to 60% back into the ground. Others have been tampered with by those wishing to pilfer some of the valuable life-giving liquid. The West Bank loses 50% of their water to illegal drilling. Of the water that does make it to the population, pollution from wastewater, sewage or pesticides has made much of the water unusable in much of the Middle East.
The Middle Eastern nations most affected by the water crisis are Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The Nile basin has been quite stable since Egypt entered into an agreement in 1929 with ten adjacent countries that is still in effect today. Development in Africa worries them, however, as Egypt’s relies on the Nile for 98% of its irrigation water, and to support its 70 million people.
In the Jordan River basin, the lack of alternatives for fresh water has increased the dependency of both Israel and Jordan on the river. After 40 years of war, the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994 which included specific rights to the Jordan River. Not only does this treaty state specific periods of time each country can pump water, it also includes provisions for monitoring water quality and prohibiting pollution.
Turkey, Syria and Iraq all share the important Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which once sheltered the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. The two rivers originate in Turkey, offering them the most control over the rivers, and power over their southern neighbors.
Riparian countries like Turkey have the upper hand in the Middle East, as they have additional rainfall that the more arid southern countries do not. They control the tops of the rivers, and by diverting the water they get additional resources, while at the same time they lessen the volume of the rivers to the countries downstream.
These countries are often less interested in negotiating with the countries in dire need of water, since their needs are already being satisfied. Turkey is currently involved in the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) program and intends to construct 22 dams, and 19 hydraulic power plants and will irrigate 1.7 million hectares of land (one hectare equals 10,000 square meters) with the water of the Euphrates River. Turkey didn’t consult any adjacent countries regarding this project, and acted unilaterally, even though the other countries would be greatly affected by the decision. And this wasn’t the first time they had angered their neighbors.
In 1990 Turkey stopped the flow of the Euphrates when filling a giant lake and forced two bitter enemies, Syria and Iraq, to look past their political differences and unite against Turkey. Turkey withdrew and the flow was returned after three weeks, instead of the intended month.
The GAP construction project is expected to reduce the flow of water into Syria by 40% of its 1980 volume, roughly 7,000 billion gallons. Turkey also intends on harnessing the flow of the Tigris River, diverting 90% of the current volume away from Iraq. Turkey’s actions will have repercussions in the years to come as these projects near completion. The new democracy of Iraq will find itself forced into an old conflict and could unite again with Syria.
Solving all of the problems that have caused the crisis, and problems caused by the crisis is complex. Instituting population control, pollution control, and finding new fresh water sources require more than one country’s attention and commitment. Some currently available techniques can help reduce the burden by helping to conserve the current supply.
Improved agricultural irrigation techniques such as irrigating when evaporation is minimal, or using effective methods to apply water such as drip systems, could reduce water use significantly. Other options are to grow crops that require less water or are salt-tolerant.
Recycling wastewater is a starting point in conserving the limited water supply. A wide range of options for treatment are available. Systems range from inexpensive sand filters to sophisticated water treatment facilities running reverse osmosis and ion exchange processes.
Desalinization, or the removal of salts from seawaters, has been gaining popularity as a solution to the Middle Eastern water problem. New laser technologies and decreasing costs have established desalinization as the technique for the future. Saudi Arabia and Israel have already invested in building plants; however, the technology still remains quite expensive.
Improved irrigation techniques, recycling and desalination, or rational use of water are interim solutions for the short term. Unfortunately, the only possible sustainable solution for the Middle East water crisis is brought up rarely by the responsible decision-makers. Only cooperation in an international institution governing water usage and control among the countries in the region, including Turkey and the Gulf-states, can prevent a