Rumblings of water wars

The Middle East Water Question - The Nile Basin
September 13, 2002

The Middle East ran out of water in the 1970s. Since then, it has been running on empty. And perfectly satisfactorily for many purposes - unless you are a Palestinian denied access to your ancient wells or are about to be flooded from your home to make way for a new Turkish dam.

Tony Allan of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London has been writing interestingly about Middle East water for many years. He gets angriest with those who insist that water shortages will inevitably lead to "water wars". Hogwash, he says. The water crisis happened, and there was no war. Everyone had too much to lose. And water, unlike land, is a hard substance to capture militarily.

But as Allan would admit, this is not entirely true. Water can be captured. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel found itself able to divert much of the water from the Sea of Galilee through a giant pipe named the National Water Carrier to irrigate its newly annexed desert regions in the Negev. Tough luck for the Jordanians, who lost most of the flow of the River Jordan, which drains the Sea of Galilee and ends up in the Dead Sea.

But he is right to point out that in a region fizzing with past, present and future conflict, Middle Eastern leaders generally go out of their way to deny the water crisis in their midst. "For political leaders in the region, political imperatives are more compelling than scientific facts. On water, these imperatives drive them to assert that their economies have not run out of water," Allan writes.

How has conflict over this most vital resource been avoided? Well, in the Middle East, as in most places, 90 per cent of the available water goes to grow crops. If you run out of water, you import your food. And, since the 1970s, Middle Eastern cereal imports have risen eightfold to compensate for water shortages. Allan calls this "virtual water".

There have been many books in recent years on Middle East water. Most have been predicated on a simple notion that water shortages will trigger conflicts, and they have been structured geographically, taking the crisis on each river basin in turn. Allan organises his book thematically, looking first at the resource itself and its allocation, second at how economic and environmental imperatives get ignored and finally at law and international relations.

He is always looking at Middle East water in a global context because, though the water itself may be rather hard to move except through gravity, its products (such as food) are not, and nor is the cash to finance the large infrastructure projects needed to manage it (dams and irrigation schemes).

He is scathing about the dinosaurs who still want to invest their cash in one more giant water management scheme - rather than the much more productive route of weeding out the massive waste in current water use. Worst are Colonel Gadaffi, whose multibillion-dollar Great Man-Made River Project taps ancient water beneath the Sahara desert, and Egypt, with its New Valley project, which aims to divert "spare" water from Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan Dam on the Nile, and use it to irrigate valleys in the Western Desert. The first will dry up one day, and the second is born out of a few years of high-river flows in the 1990s that are unlikely to be repeated.

Allan also explores the environmental and social impacts of policies that presume that every last drop of water in the Middle East should find its way into a pipe or canal for distribution for some economic purpose. Take the case of the Iraqi marshes at the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates, home of the fabled Marsh Arabs. The region is drying up, but there is a dispute about how much this is due to dams being built on the rivers in far away Turkey and how much to canals and other water diversion projects developed by Saddam - ostensibly for irrigation but also, many claim, as a means of drying out and wiping out the dissident enclave.

Similarly threatened is the Sudd wetland on the Nile in southern Sudan, one of the largest wetlands on the planet. Hydrologists point out that as the Nile makes its way through the wetland's myriad meandering channels, several cubic kilometres of precious water are lost each year through evaporation.

Only persistent civil war in the region has prevented Sudanese and Egyptian engineers completing the Jonglei canal to bypass the Sudd and reduce evaporation loss. A giant digging machine, five storeys high and weighing 2,300 tonnes, has been sitting in the desert since 1984, when rebels took its operators hostage. With a peace plan recently unveiled for the region, perhaps digging will soon resume.

John Waterbury is the modern biographer of the Nile, the largest river in the Middle East. He too is a critic of the fatuous "water wars" analysis. His slight but perceptive book analyses the motives and priorities of the ten nations along the river's course, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which takes little interest in the matter, to Egypt, for whom the river has traditionally been its lifeblood.

Egypt, though the nation furthest downstream, has the right in international law to the great majority of the Nile's water. Meanwhile Ethiopia - whose land supplies most of the rainfall that fills the river - is entitled to none of its flow. This appears politically, hydrologically and morally unsustainable. But it has been sustained for almost a century now, and rumbling demands for a new treaty to govern the river remain only rumbles.

A water war in the making? You might think so. But, despite the throwback of the New Valley project, Egypt's economy is industrialising and moving away from reliance on the Nile. So renegotiation of rights to the Nile's flows is possible. Water war may again be averted.

Fred Pearce is an environment writer and author of The Dammed.

The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy

Author - J. A. Allan
ISBN - 1 86064 582 8 and 813 4
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £39.50 and £16.99
Pages - 382

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