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Water In the Middle East Conflict

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Water In the Middle East Conflict

A. Issar: Water as a Parable
A. Issar -Water - Their Well-Being is also Ours
A. Issar - Water - The past is the key to the future
S. Libiszewsky - Water Disputes in the Jordan Basin Region and their Role in the Resolution of the ‎Arab-Israeli Conflict (2 MB PDF)
Water Resources of the West Bank

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Bibliography - Water and Environmental issues in the Middle East

Water is a cardinal issue in the Middle East. Any year there is a drought, it makes headlines. Otherwise, it is always there, lurking in the background, behind the religious and nationalist slogans and rhetoric.  A 1995 ENCOP survey by  Stephan Libiszewski documented the distribution of water resources in the Jordan River Basin: Israel, Palestine and neighboring countries. There is not much water, and what there is, is claimed by all countries.

You can download the entire ENCOP survey - Click Here. (About 2 MB!)

The map below (left) , taken from the survey, show that Israel, Jordan, Palestine Syria and Lebanon share the waters of the Jordan River and its source tributaries. Attempts to use the water for different projects by different countries have resulted in constant friction. The dispute between Israel and Jordan was settled in the peace agreements, which provide for supply of water by Israel to Jordan, and joint development of water resources. Israel pumps water from the Sea of Galilee through its Movil Artzi water carrier to be used for irrigation of the Negev and other areas.

The map below at right, likewise from the survey, shows that Israel uses underground water sources in the West Bank, which are the main sources of water for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area for example.  (See also Water Resources of the West Bank

Map of the sources of the Jordan Map of West Bank Aquifers that supply Israel
Jordan River Basin -  Libiszewski, 1995
Copyright ENCOP - Reproduced by permission
West Bank Aquifers -  Libiszewski, 1995
Copyright ENCOP - Reproduced by permission

The water crisis is not confined, however to Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

Most Mid-Eastern countries suffer from a shortage, and the scarcity of water is used as a political issue and a lever. Adel Darwish reviews some of the different water crises in the Middle East at http://mideastnews.com/water.htm, and shows how they could lead to a war or wars in the near future.

A dispassionate analysis of the water issue and its treatment might yield some surprising conclusions.

The first conclusion is that there has almost always been a water crisis in the Middle East. Population growth always expanded to the limits of the scarcest available resource, which was usually water.  Existing settlements throughout history. were also threatened by climactic changes. The problem was met successfully by ingenuity and adaptation. The Egyptians and Sumerians built elaborate irrigation systems based on the waters of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates. These required planning, central administration and cooperation - this need may have been the major stimulus for the advancement of civilization. Later, the Nabateans who inhabited southern Israel and Jordan, built a great network of cisterns and underground reservoirs to catch rainfall and runoff from flash floods in the Negev desert. The desert city of Petra is an example of what this civilization achieved.

The second conclusion is that whenever other conditions permitted, the water supply has always expanded to meet population requirements. Throughout the period of the British Mandate, experts were convinced that the land between the Jordan and the sea could not comfortably support any great population increase. As the population increased, the standard of living went up however. This did not prevent the experts from issuing increasingly dire predictions that Palestine would run out of arable land and of water. The same pattern of doomsaying continues today of course. The 1946 Anglo-American Survey of Palestine concluded quite self-assuredly that well water would remain the basis of water supply in Palestine, and that irrigation schemes based on pumping water from the Jordan were impractical and costly. They were wrong of course. Now the doomsayers tell us that there are other insuperable obstacles in the way of increasing the water supply. Though the current aridity of the Middle East is no doubt due in part to changes in climate, still, the development of water resources has somehow sufficed - at least barely - until now, to support population growth. The area of Palestine now supports over 9 million persons, more than it ever did in history, and at a higher standard of living than ever before.

The third conclusion is that feasible peaceful solutions to the water problem are at hand, but political considerations and lack of investment capital prevent their implementation.  Desalination programs or import of water from neighbors such as Turkey would cost a small fraction of the Gross National Product of Israel, as argued by Arie Issar.  Below is a graph of current water resources and water use (From Issar, 2000). In Israel and Palestine and in Jordan, as well as in Egypt, water demand is as great as supply. Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have a supply that considerably exceeds demand. Nonetheless, Syria for example, has a water shortage in the areas where water is needed. The water is there, but it is in the wrong place, and moving it is not feasible without investment. Turkey cannot sell water easily to Israel, because the pipes would have to go through Syria.


An integrated regional water plan, made possible by regional peace, would solve the problem with a system of water carriers, desalination and pumping stations, constructed in stages, as shown below and as discussed by Issar, 2000.


The most important conclusion perhaps, is that water is a parable for all the problems of the Middle East conflicts. It is a political problem more than an objective resource problem. If there is a water war, it will not be the water that caused the war, but rather a war that was in search of an issue, and found water. The technical solutions exist, if only our hearts would accept them!

Ami Isseroff



Additional Water Resources: Bibliography - Water and Environmental issues in the Middle East

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