Middle East Water Crisis–Lecture at Waterloo University


There is no more precious a commodity in the Middle East than water. Historically, when the Saudi peninsula had plenty of water, about 40,000 years ago, it acted as the land bridge to Europe during the second great exodus of early man from Africa. The fertile river valleys further north, in what is today called Mesopotamia, created the environment that led to the invention of farming. Because of the need to store water, to move it from place to place, and to build walls to protect harvests stored in newly-populated towns, these interconnected valleys also led to the invention of centralized government and the profession of engineering.


Further west, when the lush lands in what is today Saharan Africa dried up, and its population moved to Nubia, the Nile Valley too came into its own as an opposing centre of empire based on a relatively assured water supply.


The invention of terraced farming and the liming of cisterns to waterproof them enabled other tribes, including the biblical Habiru, to farm the mountainous areas between the great river valleys.


But, as I speak, something very strange is taking place in all three areas. Only three decades ago, people in this vast area were talking about “peak oil,” or the coming of a great shortage of oil, as the great threat to regional stability. However, today, because of global warming and increasingly severe droughts, together with huge population increases, the catch-phrase has become “peak water.”


Today, there are 4 geographical areas where there are major, water-caused political crises. Each area is also the site of at least one archetype of a potential casus belli. The regions are: Classic Mesopotamia (including the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys) the area between the Mediterranean and the mountains on the eastern side of the Syrian-African rift, the Mediterranean coast, the Nile Valley, and the headwaters of the Nile headwaters. The archetypes are: control of the headwaters of a river system, catastrophic water mismanagement, shared underground aquifers, the destruction of coastal aquifers, the control of water rights by downstream nations and the purchase of water through the leasing of land.


The crisis in Mesopotamia is an example of what happens when a state that controls the headwaters of a major river, unilaterally dams up the river and its tributaries and then reduces the flow of water to the downstream states. The story in the area began in 1975, when Syria completed the construction of the Tabqa dam on the Euphrates, which cut the flow of water to Iraq.


More importantly, though, in that year Turkey announced that it was undertaking what it called “the southeast Anatolia project,” which will eventually include 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations. When the project is completed in 2017, 10 percent of Turkey’s surface area will be covered with the water held back in the artificial lakes that are being created behind the dams. It is estimated that once the project is completed, the flow of water to Iraq will be reduced by 80 percent and to Syria by 40 percent.


As might be expected, them’s fighting figures.


However, because of the American invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the army there, there is little Iraq can do. And Syria too is too preoccupied with its civil war to even threaten Turkey verbally.


As a result of the decline in water flows, from 500 cubic metres per second in the Tigris and Euphrates, to 150 cubic metres per second, huge areas of southern Iraq have, for the first time in history, become useless for farming. Groundwater salinity has reached as far as 150 km inland, up to the point where the Tigris and Euphrates meet to form the Shaat al Arab River. According to UNESCO, 70 percent of the ancient underground canals in Iraq have now dried up.


The decline in water levels and the increase in salinity have led to an ecological disaster for the waterfowl and marine animals in the area. At the very time when ecologists are trying to reconstruct the great marshlands that were dried out by Saddam Hussein in a fit of anger against the Shiites who populated the area, farming and fishing in those southern marshlands are in the process of collapsing.


Not only is Turkey using the water to satisfy its own needs, caused by rapid population growth and industrialization, the dams have become one of the major tools Turkey has available to it as it tries to impose its political hegemony on the region and as it attempts to take on the mantle of the senior and primary Moslem Sunni state from Egypt. To that end, it intervened directly on behalf of Sunni political parties in the last Iraqi elections and it is currently supporting the Sunni rebels in Syria. In both cases, Ankara need not fear retribution for holding water as a political hostage because it not only has the second largest army in NATO, it is capable, at any time, of literally turning off the taps in Aleppo and Baghdad.


Syria too is going through a water crisis. A primary reason for the outbreak of civil war there was domestic water mismanagement.


Syria’s economy was crumbling long before the civil war broke out. In fact, for years there had been widespread shortages of even basic foods because of water shortages.


This had led the government to inaugurate a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and even the export of agricultural products. That policy, coming not long after Turkey had begun its dam-building in earnest has had disastrous results.


In particular, the government ordered that arid and semi-arid pasturelands be turned into wheat-growing areas through the use of irrigation. These pasturelands had provided sustenance for tens of thousands of herders from time immemorial. The problem with this new farming policy was that the only water available to grow crops in these arid areas had to come from underground aquifers that had been deposited during ice ages 15-40,000 years ago, and were non-renewable. Not only that, the soil in these areas was such that it did not absorb water very well, and this led to runoff, waste and the salinization of the soil.


As a result, over the period of a decade, the water table in these regions dropped by as much as 500 meters and more. When the latest drought struck the region just over 5 years ago, the farmers no longer had any water in even their deepest wells to tide them over the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats died, and 600,000 families fled to the slums of the main cities in order to survive.


But because modern industry had not been developed in Syria, there were few if any jobs available for these refugees.


So dire did their condition become, that many began to feel that they had nothing worse to fear—not even the power of the Syrian military. That loss of fear led directly to the civil war we see today.


All the protests in Syria were triggered by one seemingly insignificant event—the arrest of a group of teenagers in the southern city of Der’aa for having painted some graffiti on some walls. After being arrested, they had had their fingernails pulled out as punishment.


Der’aa had been particularly badly hit by the drought—and the government’s failure to provide any relief. The treatment of the children further inflamed passions, and people began to demonstrate. The protests then spread to the slum areas of the bigger cities, where locals had already been in competition for jobs with newly-arrived, ruling ethnic Alawites, and the dispossessed farmers who were willing to work for a pittance in order to survive.


The country, which had once benefitted from an abundance of water, is now running out of the stuff—and the water that is available is not being brought to where it is needed.


As I mentioned earlier, the country has now wasted most of its ancient underground water reserves. But because of increasing drought, a rapidly-growing population, and water usage by its neighbours, it is now also running out of surface water as well.


Largely because of climate change, the river flow in the Yarmouk River Basin, which among other things, supplies water to the beleaguered town of Der’aa, has declined by more than half since 1960—from an average of about 600 million cubic metres a year to about 250 million cubic metres. During the summer months, the flow falls to as little as one tenth of that level.


The same is true for some of the other rivers. One of the country’s most important water sources, the Orontes River, which flows from Lebanon, through Syria to Turkey, has now become a polluted cesspool. In fact, because the government has failed to invest in sewage treatment plants, pollution has become so bad in some areas that epidemics of e. coli and salmonella have become a regular occurrence—which has led the government to ban food production on some river banks that used to be among of the most productive agricultural areas of the country.


Turkey’s decision to dam up the Euphrates River, the biggest river running through Syria, has, of course, also had a major impact.


But even if Syria did want to pump more water from the Euphrates to more arid regions, it couldn’t because it has failed to build the necessary pipelines—and if it did take more water, it could invite war from Iraq.


Then there are the corollary problems. The influx of refugees into the Damascus area, has led to the drilling of 25,000 illegal wells, which has pushed the water table there down to unprecedentedly low levels, and has led to increased salinity in an area that has been a human inhabited oasis for 5000 years. Incredible as it might seem, it may not matter which of the opposing sides in the Syrian civil war actually takes permanent possession of Damascus, because at current pumping rates, the city may simply become uninhabitable within a decade.


Put in the simplest of terms, because of all of these water-related factors, Syria now faces the threat that huge semi-arid areas may turn into deserts. Currently, about 60 percent of the country is desert or semi-desert. In the near future that may grow to 75 percent of Syria’s land surface area.


Water is a crucial aspect of the Israeli-Arab dispute as well. Israel bombed Syrian construction equipment, and the two countries almost went to war in 1965, when Syria tried to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River.


Israel has the region’s most sophisticated water management system. But it is also embroiled in some of the region’s most complex water politics. In the 1950s, Israel nationalized much of its water supply and created a water network similar to its electricity grid. Today, about 60 percent of the wells are part of that net. At roughly the same time, the government began planning and building the national water carrier, which is designed to bring water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev Desert. As a result, the Dead Sea today, is at modern historic lows.


Israel has three main natural water sources: the Sea of Galilee, the coastal aquifer, and the mountain aquifer that it shares with the West Bank Palestinians.


Since the Israeli settlement project in the occupied areas began in the 1970s, the Israelis have modernized the water system in the West Bank—but primarily for the benefit of the settlers. Today, the settlers use about three times more water per capita than do the Palestinians. While that is undoubtedly unfair, it should be noted that those water and sewage management projects established by the Palestinian and their donors have suffered from theft from pipelines and poor maintenance. As with so many aid projects around the world, there has been enough money to build projects, but not enough to maintain them after they have been completed. As a result, many Palestinians still have to rely on truck-delivered water.


But the main problem is that the main mountain aquifer is shared.


This has led to any number of accusations and counter-accusations. The Israelis charge the Palestinians with over-pumping, while the Palestinians, whose population is growing rapidly charge that the Israelis take a disproportionate amount of water.


Despite the current political, social, economic and military pressures resulting from the joint use of the mountain aquifer, those problems may be the most easily solved should the two sides ever come to a peace agreement.


The recent regional drought forced the Israelis to alter their water management policies. New sewage treatment facilities and BOT-funded water desalination plants have been built. The objective is to recycle 90 percent of sewage waters (primarily for agriculture), and artificially produce 50 percent of the nation’s drinking water by next year.


As part of this project, water distribution has been taken out of the hands of municipalities. In many cases the cities and towns had failed to maintain the pipe network, and had used the profits from water distribution for other purposes.


All told, within three years, 50 percent of the country’s water usage will be artificially produced. The cost to consumers, however, has been high. Some people are now paying three times the amount for water that they paid only four years ago.


Gaza is a special case. It is totally reliant on the coastal aquifer. Unlike inland aquifers, the water in coastal aquifers flows in only one direction—from inland sites to the coast. The aquifer under Gaza, is an extension of the aquifer that runs up the Israeli coast. So, when the level of the Gaza aquifer drops, it cannot be replenished by water from the Israeli one.


At that point water seeps in from the Mediterranean and the aquifer is permanently salinized. When the Israelis occupied Gaza, they put strict limits on well-drilling in the Strip. Following the signing of the Oslo accords in the mid 1990s, and the first Israeli withdrawal, the new Palestinian government permitted virtually free well-drilling. Five hundred new wells were dug in the first months after the new administration was installed and another 3,500 have been drilled since then. The result has been that the aquifer has now been permanently salinized.


While competition over water supplies has usually been a source of great international tension, in the case of Israel and Jordan, water management it has been a cornerstone of their peace agreement. As part of that agreement, the two arranged a trade. Jordan agreed to allow Israel to pump water from wells on the Jordanian side of the southern Arava Valley. It is located in a brutally-hot desert. In return, Israel supplies 50 million cubic metres of water from the Sea of Galilee to the farmers in Jordan’s central Ghor Valley. Those deliveries continued even during the great drought.


Most recently, seemingly out of the blue, Jordan’s King Abdullah issued a public statement highly praising Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. That announcement was so out of character that I couldn’t believe it. Abdullah has usually been heavily critical of Netanyahu’s attitude towards the peace talks with the Palestinians. After intensive checking, I finally found out why. Jordan too has been suffering from a huge water shortage. That shortage became critical with arrival of a million Syrian refugees, who were literally about to die from a lack of water—until, that is, Israel secretly agreed to supply an additional 10 million cubic metres of Sea of Galilee water.


Incidentally last month, for the first time in years, Israel opened the dam at the Sea of Galilee to allow water to flow into the lower Jordan River, in an attempt to clean up what had become a cesspool. Israel needed to “waste” the water because baptismal ceremonies at a site on the river just north of the Dead Sea, where John the Baptist dunked Jesus, has now become one of the major sources of tourist income for both Israel and Jordan.


Saudi Arabia is suffering the same kind of growth in population and youth bulge that is driving the long-term water crisis throughout the Middle East. A big difference, though, is that the Saudis also use an average of 950 cubic metres of water a year per person—twice the world average, three times as much as Israelis use, and nine times as much as West Bankers use.


But, and this is a big “but,” only 10 cm of rainwater falls on the country each year.


Just to give you some idea just how acute the water shortage is, despite having spent more than 20 billion dollars, or about 20 percent of Saudi oil revenues in the construction of a water infrastructure during the past decade, Riyadh still only gets drinking water once every two and a half days and Jeddah gets it only once every 9 days. Virtually every house in these cities has a huge water tank on its roof for water storage.


Much of my work involves economic analysis. Generally-speaking, when I discuss the economics of the region, I naturally put a heavy emphasis on current account deficits—the difference between export earnings and import costs. Analysing Saudi Arabia, however, requires a very special form deficit accounting, because there the major deficit is a water deficit. Some of the deficit is made up through desalination. But that doesn’t help many areas in the country’s interior—with the exception of Riyadh, which is fed by a 476 km-long pipeline that brings it desalinated water from the coast.


Incredibly, all told, Saudi water demand has increased by 500 percent in 25 years, and it is now expected to double again in the next 20 years. But one of the major problems with desalination that most people don’t take into account, is that not only it is a heavy polluter because it demands a lot of fuel and it thus creates climate change, even worse, the salt waste from desalinating has meant that parts of the Arabian Gulf are now 8 times saltier than normal, and this has affected marine life and fishing catches—an important source of protein.


The difference between what Saudi Arabia uses and what it gets in the form of rainfall or from desalination is covered by dipping into what is called “its fossil aquifer”— the same sort of underground reservoir found in Syria. The Saudi’s aquifer was laid down during the last ice age 15,000 years ago. And as in Syria, any water that is taken out of that aquifer is literally irreplaceable.


Part of the problem is that agriculture uses up more than 85 percent of the country’s average annual water usage. As happened in Syria a couple of decades ago, the Saudis began planting huge areas with wheat—and had to use huge amounts of water from the fossil aquifer for irrigation. The idea was to provide food security. But this was hugely wasteful of an irreplaceable resource. So, in 2008, the government decided to phase out wheat growing and to end it by 2016.


But then new problems arose. The farmers began planting date palms and growing more forage for animals—both of which need more water than does wheat. Since date-growing and the raising of livestock have a strong pull on the Saudi national psyche, the government has been hard-pressed to prevent this shift to even higher-water-use agricultural production.


To make up for lost domestic wheat production, the Saudis began importing water in the form of crops grown elsewhere. Beginning a few years ago, the Saudis began following the initial example of the Chinese, Indians and South Koreans and started leasing huge tracts of land in Africa from corrupt governments for a pittance. In some cases it has paid little as 75 US cents per hectare. Crucially, that price has included the water rights to the property as well.


That has had a major impact on the region and the world. First of all, almost all the land that was leased is in Sudan and Ethiopia, which control the headwaters of the Nile. But Egypt too is now suffering from a peak water crisis and needs every drop of Nile water that it can get. Any water used upstream is no longer capable of being used downstream in Egypt. In other words, in their search for food security, the Saudis are not above weakening the poor Egyptians—their ostensible allies.


But that’s not all. A few figures should give you some idea of what is involved. The latest statistics indicate that Saudi businessmen, using Saudi government loans, have bought or leased 5,520,000 hectares of land in Sudan and Ethiopia. All these properties come with water rights.


Not only that, the Saudis not only use the land to grow wheat, vegetables and cut flowers for sale in the Arabian Peninsula, they also use the land—and the water—to grow a lot of rice. And while it takes 1400 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of wheat, it takes 3,400 litres –two and a half times that amount to produce an equivalent amount of rice. The Saudis now say that they intend to grow 7 million tons of rice over the next 7 years. That means that they will be effectively importing 2 quintillion, 380 quadrillion litres of water from growing rice alone.


But that’s not all. In order to give the Saudis that land, the governments in Africa had to declare the properties as “state lands”—even though, in many cases, they had been communal property, in the hands of the same families for generations. This has turned hundreds of thousands of people, especially the pastoralists, into serfs—a sure recipe for eventual social unrest in a strategic part of the world where rebellion is already endemic.


And to top it all off, the terms of the leases permit the Saudis to repatriate 75 percent of all the produce. So, in 2011, after a devastating drought in the region, because the food the Saudis grew was being exported instead of being consumed locally, Western taxpayers had to send relief supplies to the affected region through the UN World Food Program in order to prevent famine. Even then, tens of thousands of people are still estimated to have died from hunger.


Egypt, my fourth subject for discussion, is suffering from an economic catastrophe both because of its inability to reform its economy and as a result of the revolution there. But is may soon also suffer from water catastrophe as well.


Egypt could not exist without the Nile. But now, the flow of the Nile is endangered–-as is the prime agricultural area in the Nile delta.


Part of the problem is historical, part is cultural, part is political, part is social and part is the product of climate change.


The bottom line is that, today, Egypt is suffering from a major food shortage. One reason is that the population continues to grow at a rapid rate. Another is that a fundamental assumption in Arab culture is that those who have are bound to share some of their wealth with those who don’t have. In practical terms, this has meant that food subsidies eat up a major part of the government’s expenditures. Those subsidies cover basic things like bread, rice and cooking oil.


A third problem is that farmers have always considered the water from the Nile to be a gift to the nation, and therefore should be free. This has meant not only severe waste, but, just as importantly, there has been very little money available to expand or repair the water pumping system. For example, it has also been estimated that because some of the piping is very old and corroded, 40 percent of the water drawn from the Nile by pipe leaks out on its way to the fields and the cities.


To keep the cost of food subsidies low, the government pays local farmers low prices for their crops. This has meant, though, that farmers have been unable to invest in newer, more productive wheat seeds or pesticides, so production is low. Only about 10 percent of Egypt’s farms have been modernized. As a result, even though Egypt was once the breadbasket for Imperial Rome, today it has to import about 60 percent of the wheat it consumes.


All these economic distortions, and others, have led to total absurdities. Egypt, for example, is, a major producer of high-quality rice, which is in demand throughout the Arab World. Recently the rice producers managed to persuade the government to lower the rice ration that is subsidized and replace it with macaroni so that more rice could be sold in foreign markets at a higher price. And what is macaroni made of? Wheat flour that has to be imported!


Another threat is the fact that if climate change goes on as anticipated, the level of the Mediterranean will rise by about half  meter, which means that the Nile delta will become totally salinated.


Many of the absurdities in the Egyptian agricultural economy can be traced to the 1929 treaty negotiated by the colonial British, which was designed to protect cotton growers who were selling their crops to British mills. Under the terms of the treaty, Egypt was given the rights to 85 percent of the Nile waters; and Sudan was given the rights to 13 percent of the water flow. The 6 countries at the headwaters of the Nile—Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Congo were not even consulted.


Now, these countries are demanding a fairer share of the water flow. Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and parts of the new country of Southern Sudan recently went through the worst drought in sixty years; and, according to the UN, millions of people remain on the verge of starvation. To give you some idea of just how severe this drought is, the UN last summer issued a report that 80 percent of the goats and sheep, and even half the camels in the affected region had died of hunger and thirst.


But the fact is that, for example, while Ethiopia supplies 85 percent of the water flow in the Nile, it is only permitted to use 1 percent of it.


Two years ago, the 6 headwaters countries signed what has been called the “Entebbe Pact,” which will enable them to use more water once 5 of the six countries ratify the agreement.


And Ethiopia, is already constructing a massive dam, designed to produce more than 6 thousand megawatts of electricity—three times the amount produced by the Aswan dam downstream. The Ethiopians say that they need the dam only as a source of income from electricity that could be sold to neighboring countries. But once it is completed, possibly by 2017 there will undoubtedly be a growing temptation to use the dam as a source of water for irrigation as well.


Any reduction in the flow of water to Egypt could create an incredible upheaval there. Filling the lake behind the dam is expected to take 6 years and cause a water deficit in Egypt of 10-20 billion cubic meters, (or 20-40 percent of current water flows) per year. That would not just affect the amount of water available for Egyptian agriculture, the drop in water levels could have a major impact on electricity production at Aswan and shipping traffic on the Nile.


On a cultural level, the Nile is viewed by Egyptians as a patrimony and a national right. In what would be a major cultural upheaval, the Moslem Brotherhood government may very well be forced, finally, to ration water, or charge for it, as is the case in most countries.


Such a move could lead to massive riots. It may very well have been the fear of Nile-water caused unrest that led the Egyptians to convert the civilian airport at Abu Simbel, near the Aswan Dam into a military one. The assumption by analysts is that the conversion was carried out so that Egypt could launch, or at least threaten to launch, a major punitive military assault against any upstream country that chose to divert the Nile headwaters.


However that may be easier said than done because the geopolitical framework in the region has been changing dramatically. Somalia has been weakened, which has increased Ethiopia’s relative influence. To Ethiopia’s north, Egypt’s ally, Sudan, has now split into two separate countries. And Sudan has also been weakened in international fora because of the slaughter in Darfur.


No less importantly, ties between Ethiopia and the United States have recently been strengthened. And just to add a bit more salt and pepper to this cauldron, Ethiopia’s ties with Egypt have been very strained for a totally different reason. Since the election of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, there has been an increase in the number of attacks on Christian Copts in Egypt by Moslem extremists. While the Copts are a minority in Egypt, they are a majority in Ethiopia. And, as if that were not bad enough, China is now seeking not only contracts to build additional dams in Ethiopia, it is also negotiating to lease more land and water rights there as part of its long-term plans to provide food security for its people.


But that is not all. There is an even greater problem than all that I have already said put together. The flow of the Nile into the delta on the Mediterranean is now controlled by the Aswan Dam. Water is stored behind the dam in what is called Lake Nasser. The underlying problem with Lake Nasser is that it is very wide, but not very deep. That means that evaporation rates can be very high—up to 12 percent of the water flow. And evaporation leads to an increase in the salinity of the water. Salinity can only controlled by ensuring that there is a constant flow of fresh water into the lake that then dilutes the amount of salt in the water. If the flow rate into Lake Nasser is reduced because the countries at the headwaters begin taking a greater portion of the water, the salinity will increase. And that could be disastrous for all types of Egyptian agriculture and lead to permanent damage to fields.


Scary, ain’t it?


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