Water problems in the Middle East

Paper prepared by the MEDEA Institute
and delivered by Gerard COLLINS,
Former Foreign Minister of Ireland,
Member of the Dail Eireann and the European Parliament,
before the Diplomatic Institute of Oman on 14 October 1997.

As far as we can go back in History, water has played a crucial role in the relations between the different peoples of the Middle-East. More recently, it is obvious for every expert that the struggle for water is a key issue in the Israeli-Arab conflict and explains partly the 1967 war, a fact acknowledged by then-members of the Israeli government like Mr. Yigal Alon. Water is more than ever a sensitive issue in the Middle East and there will only be stability if this question is settled.

The crucial access to water also affects relations between other neighbours like Turkey, Syria and Iraq, or Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Water and the Arab-Israeli conflict

Some experts have suggested that rumours of Jordanian and Syrian plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River were the principal cause of the 1967 war between Israel and the Arab states. Others believe that Israel’s systematic exploitation of the water resources of the West Bank has been the main reason for its reluctance to consider a peace agreement based on the exchange of land for peace, and that the control of the flow of the Litani River is the real reason for Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.

Three rivers are involved in the Arab-Israeli struggle for water: the Jordan, the Yarmuk and the Litani. But water is not only running in rivers and the control of the Palestinian Aquifer is definitely another strategic and vital case of dispute.

The main flow of the Jordan River has now been all but totally preempted by Israel’s diversions. All the headwaters’ flow is now collected by Israel and pumped out of the Jordan Basin, across the mountains, for use in irrigation or municipal water along the Mediterranean littoral of Israel.

The planning for diverting the Jordan River water by the Israelis started as early as the 1940s, but the very idea of capturing it is even more ancient. Much of the design of the civil works for capturing the Jordan River was completed in the 1950s, and they succeeded in diverting the entire volume of sweet water from the Upper Jordan by the late 1960s, when construction of the National Water Carrier system was completed. Pumps lift Jordan River water out of Lake Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee, and convey it across the watershed. The diverted flow is then pumped to Israeli consumers on the Mediterranean coast and down into the northern Negev.

The second river involved in this conflict is the Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan River which rises in southeastern Syria and flows into the Jordan a few kilometers downstream of Lake Tiberias. Exploitation of the Yarmuk was part of Jordan’s development plans in the 1960s. The project was blocked by the Israelis, who wanted to preserve the flow for their own downstream preemption. Israeli aircraft blew up Jordan’s Khalid ibn Walid dam site works and obstructed later efforts by Jordan to construct the Mukhaiba Dam a few kilometers upstream. Today the waters are de facto partitioned: Syria extracts increasing volumes near the headwaters, and Israel allows some offtake by Jordan, capturing the rest for itself. This situation would change dramatically if Israel goes ahead with its plans – announced a few weeks ago – to build a dam on the Yarmuk at a place bordering the occupied Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights, overlooking both the Jordan and Yarmuk, are a strategic region overlooking the Damascus plain eastwards. Israel’s main interest there, however is the source of water it provides as 35% of the water consumed in Israel comes from the rivers bordering the Heights. Minister Yigal Allon in his book « Israel, the Struggle for Hope » wrote in 1970 that « the global strategic needs of Israel require the control of the Golan Heights as we have to defend our main water sources. » First, seizure of the area by Israel blocked Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian efforts to mobilize the headwaters of the Jordan River. Israel’s control of the Golan Heights is key to preventing any new efforts by these upstream states to use the water. Second, occupation of the Golan Heights was an initial step toward Israel’s assault on the Litani River, securing the eastern approaches to the proposed diversion works.

The Litani, located entirely within Lebanon, derives its hydro-political importance from the fact that it runs within easy tunneling distance to the present Israeli-Lebanese border. It runs actually less than 10 kilometers from the Israeli controlled upper reaches of the Jordan. Israel had hoped to connect the Litani with the Jordan, thus enabling it to pump those waters into Israel proper. The plan to seize the Litani has a long history. It had been articulated for the first time in the 1920s by one of the Zionist organisations but the objective became more serious following the 1967 war, as Israel wanted more water than had been garnered from the war. The timing for the capture of the Litani in 1978 was logical: if South Lebanon were secured at the time, the waters of the Litani would be available for Israeli use by some point in the mid-1980s, when Israel anticipated that the waters captured in the 1967 war would be fully used up and more water needed. However, as things stand now, the coveted waters of the Litani remain undeveloped for Lebanon and in limbo for Israel.

On the whole, the 1967 war secured the capture of about 900 mcm/y of water for the Israelis, or nearly half of their water use. These waters are now so many arguments against any kind of settlement with the Palestinians which would involve restitution of that water.

To make things even more difficult, there is another source of extra-boundary water that Israel diverts for its own use, albeit less obviously. The amount of water that Israel take from the underground of the West Bank is almost as important as the water diverted from the Upper Jordan Valley. This could surprise as the West Bank appears to be quite dry much of the year. In fact it receives more rain than the coastal plain, mostly in wintertime. As the soil is extremeny porous much goes into the ground and thus into the aquifers underneath which is now pumped by the Israelis. This subsurface flow of water is a major contributor to Israel’s water balance, representing with its 400 mcm/y of water just over 20% of total Israeli consumption. This explains why Palestinians have not been allowed to dig new wells since 1967 and why their water consumption was constantly restricted by the occupier: the hegemony over the West Bank is critical for Israel’s water supply.

So, the issue of water resources in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours is caught in a vicious circle. There can be no basic agreement on an equitable distribution of water resources until a formal Middle Eastern peace settlement has been concluded; but no such settlement can be concluded until an agreement on a balanced distribution of water has been reached.

The Nile

The waters of the Nile are also a potential cause of future conflict.

In October 1991 Egypt warned that it was prepared to use force, if necessary, to protect the head-waters of the Nile for reasons of national security. The warning was aimed at Ethiopia, which controls 85% of the Nile’s higher flow, and at Sudan, through which the Nile passes.

So far, Ethiopia has been too poor and too afflicted with civil unrest to implement a major dam construction programme. In 1990 Egypt blocked a loan to Ethiopia from the African Development Bank for fear that it might be used for this purpose. Ethiopia can however argue with some justice that it has as much need of irrigation water and electricity as Egypt.

Yet Egypt launched in January 1997 a massive irrigation project in the Western Desert. This very ambitious plan called « New Valley project » has been welcomed with a lot of scepticism by international hydrologists who really do not know where Egypt could find the 5 billion cubic metres of water needed.

Hoping to be wrong I nevertheless foresee a lot of problems ahead for the Nile basin.

The Tigris and Euphrates

Four states have riparian interest in the Tigris/Euphrates river system: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In recent years Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria, have developed major water resource projects along the Euphrates and it now seems likely that insufficient water will remain in the river to meet the irrigation needs of Iraq.

The diversion of water for irrigation in Turkey will cut one fifth of the flow of the Tigris river and that of the Euphrates even more. That could maybe be acceptable on a constant level throughout the year but facts have shown that the tap could be shut much more fiercely: when Turkey filled the Attaturk reservoir in 1991, the Euphrates became a trickle for a full month…

If he who controls the headwaters can cut off his neighbour’s water-source at will, what security can there be for the future among the downstream partners?

Other regions of the Arab World

Two other regions of the Arab World have an acute water deficit, namely Libya and the Arabian Peninsula.

Libya which is richly endowed with fossil water is currently solving this problem by the « Great Man Made River ». Work on this largest scheme to exploit fossil aquifer tables in the world, got under way in 1984 and was inaugurated by Mr. Khaddafi in August 1991. Its essential aim is the irrigation, via a vast system of waterways, of agricultural areas on the Libyan coastal region by using waters located deep under the Sahara in the southern part of the country.

Only the first phase of the project has been completed to date. Some 2 million cubic metres of water are conveyed through a 1,200 km pipeline from the large aquifer table situated in the south-east of the country to irrigate the regions of Benghazi and Syrte, on the coast. This should continue to be exploited for two centuries at least. Work on the completion of the « Great Manmade River » should last another 25 years. The total cost of the project is estimated at $25 billion.

The story is quite different in the Gulf countries. Although Saudi Arabia also possesses some limited fossil water resources, these are bound to run dry in about 25 years. In fact, water resources are plentiful in the northern part of the Middle East, but almost non-existent in the Arabian Peninsula. Although there is no dispute about water in this region, this vital element is in great need. Nowadays, the Gulf countries are only able to survive by supplementing their meagre ground water resources with ever larger amounts of expensive desalinated water.

Water and Population

As high rates of population growth continue to put pressure on finite water supplies, regional and domestic tensions are set to heighten.

How population growth erodes water availibilty is also shown by a survey of the Islamic Network on Water Resources. This organization calculates that the minimum water requirement in the 21 Arab League countries is 1205 m³ per person a year – 55 m³ for domestic use and 1150 m³ for agriculture and industry. In 1985, average water supply was 1750 m³ a year but, even so, 12 of the 21 countries could not meet their basic water requirements. By the year 2000, it was calculated that overall water availability would fall just below the basic requirements, at 1100 m³ and to less than 600 m³ by the year 2025. By then, only three countries – Iraq, Mauretania and Lebanon – would be able to meet the basic water requirements, and the total water deficit of the Arab League countries would amount to 421 billion m³ a year.

Concerning Israel and the Palestinian Territories, most estimates suggest that water consumption in Israel and Jordan will rise to almost double its present level by 2010, so a stable external supply is a key issue in the Middle East peace process.


A special World Bank study published in 1995 shows that the Middle East and North Africa faces a future of increasingly acute water scarcity. By 2025 only 700 cubic meters of renewable water will be available per capita in the region – half the 1990 figure and five times less than in 1960. This report called « Middle East and North Africa Environmental Strategy: towards Sustainable Development » noted that ten countries from the region – amongst which Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen – already consume more than 100% of their renewable water supplies. In the region as a whole, agriculture accounts for 87% of water demand while industry and homes account for 7% and 6% respectively.

In response to the mounting water crisis, projects are being developed to ship water from Turkey or Malaysia. Although their economics remain unproven, they might prove to be part of the answer.

Israel is showing serious interest in importing water from Turkey. Up to 150 million cubic meters a year would be extracted from the Manavgat River in southern Turkey. It would be transported either by converted oil tankers or in specially constructed large plastic containers that would float behind powerful tugs. The World Bank has been looking at the scope for also supplying the Gaza Strip with water from the Manavgat River. This water would cost about $0.50 per cubic meter, roughly half the price of desalinated water.

The Malaysian project, costing $600 million, would consist in using a fleet of tankers to carry yearly 39 million tons of fresh water to the Arabian Gulf. It would come from Kenyir, a man-made lake on the eastern coast of Malaysia. A Danish shipping concern has agreed to provide up to ten vessels for the venture and supply agreements seems to have been signed with three Gulf states – although which ones has not been revealed.

Anyway, it is clear that imported water would definitely be far too expensive to use in agriculture, which accounts for most of the demand. But even for domestic and industrial use it would not necessarily be cheaper than locally produced desalinated water. Because of the distance, the water from Malaysia would cost its Gulf recipients about $6 per cubic meter while one cubic meter of desalinated water costs between $1 and $1.50. The advantages of imported water are thus not clear.

Another project, proposed by the late President of Turkey Mr. Turgut Ozal is one of a fixed « Peace Water Pipeline » which could carry water of to southern Turkey rivers – the Ceyhan and Seyhan rivers – to the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. It would fill two trunklines. Both would initially flow through Syria with the western spur then continuing through Jordan and terminating near Jeddah, and with a possible spur line running to Israel. The eastern spur would give access to Iraqi waters and then run south to Oman via the United Arab Emirates. The network of pipelines would deliver 6 billion cubic meter of clear water annually, using about one-quarter of the water flow of the two Turkish rivers. However, Syria and other Arab states have refused to attend a water conference to discuss Turkey’s proposals. Syria regards the plan as a plot to divert attention from the issue of the Ataturk dam. Generally speaking, governments are loathe to become dependent upon outsiders for a commodity as basic as water. It is mainly for this reason that Turkey’s plan for a so-called « Peace Water Pipeline » was received so coolly.

Hardly any progress has been made with the only other major cross-border water pipeline scheme in the Middle East, involving a line under the Gulf from southern Iraq to Qatar. Little has been heard from the project in recent months although it is not officially dead. Here also, lack of political will plays a major role in the feasibility of the project.

In spite of their controversial nature, this project and Turkey’s « Peace Pipeline » project may well represent parts of the solution to the various conflicts over water in the Middle East. They at least grasp the essential truth that if water resources are potentially a casus belli, they could also form the foundation of a more secure peace by promoting mutual dependency.

Europe’s involvement

Europe, particularly its southernmost part, also faces some water shortages. And we have even problems between members of the European Union about this precious resource. This is the case for example between Portugal and Spain, all the rivers flowing into Portugal having their headwaters in Spain which would like to use more of it.

The role of the European Union in the water problems of the Middle East is threefold.

First, the EU is financing and organising seminars and trainings for technicians, to raise the awareness about the scope of the problem and to promote integrated projects for better water management which are also financed totally or partly by European funds. Since 1978, the European Commission has disbursed for this purpose some $ 600 million through various financial protocols in the framework of the different cooperation agreements with Mediterranean countries.

In the future, the European Commission, wants to give priority to an overall strategic approach instead of isolated projects. Recently, it organized a number of meetings on this issue. The most publicized of these was held in Barcelona in November 1996 under the title « Water Initiative in the MENA Region ». The main purpose was to clearly identify what is at stake and to work together to promote a change of mentality. The next step will be to bring together not only the technicians but also the policy makers, together with the money givers (the European Union, the World Bank and different governements).

Secondly, Europe could act as a mediator between the various countries which have disputes with each other about water. Within the framework of the « Regional Economic Development » (one of the five working groups set up at the first session of the multilateral negotiations in January 1992 after the Madrid Peace Conference) the European Union is contributing financially to the « Water Data Banks Project » aimed at improving availibilty of data for Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli water managers, planners and operators. The main activities of this project are the development of a Palestinian Water Data Bank Unit. The first phase started in January 1996 and the project is expected to take more than three years.

Thirdly, the European Union is also involved in the process of finding new solutions to the water crisis in the region. This is the sense of European Union involvement in the establishment of a new « Middle East Desalination Research Centre » in Muscat. The creation of this centre was proposed by Oman and aims at developing better desalination technologies, in particular those using renewable energy. The European Union – together with the host country, Japan, USA and Israel – pledged $3.5 million to create this Centre.


First of all, the seriousness of the situation has to be accepted. Irrigated agriculture has to be recognized as a very inefficient way of using water, even with the most sofisticated modern technics. New policies have to be devised which will ensure that water is utilised for more productive uses, such as industrial development. Today, 80 to 95 % of the water used in the region goes to agriculture although this sector only represents an average 6 % of the GDP and employs only 15 to 20 % of the working population. There must be a change in attitude: food self-sufficiency should not remain a goal in itself and the countries have to turn to less water-consuming and more added-value crops. Just to illustrate this, let me remind you that Japan stopped pursuing food self-sufficiency long ago…

Secondly, it is quite apparent at the moment that international law is inadequate to help resolve the problems of supply and use of water. The basis for agreements between states in international law is singularly vague and unhelpful. The accepted practice is to prohibit appreciable harm caused by deprivation of water rights and pollution. Riparian states also have the right to an equal and reasonable share of water resources. Yet, for obvious reasons, states have different perceptions of what constitutes an equal and reasonable share, while concepts of harmful practice also vary. In addition, only one major international institution – the World Bank – attempts actively to invoke these principles with any significant effect.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that it is in the interest of all the countries to further integrate the economies of the region to complement the strengths and reduce the weaknesses which each country possesses. Some have sound agricultural bases and adequate water resources, but are short of energy. Others have energy in abundance – being it oil or solar energy potential – but lack agricultural products and especially water. These states could help each other greatly provided that the political will to do so exists.

Europe fought many wars on two resources, coal and steel. After millions of deaths, some enlightened statesmen proposed to create the European Community of Steel an Coal, which was the starting point of today’s European Union. Mr. Delors, former European Commission’s President, suggested some years ago that the future of a peaceful Middle East lies in the establishment of a Middle-East Water Community. If this is what the peoples of the Middle East want, Europe is definitely ready to help them.