Concerns regarding water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the most water-stressed region in the world, have triggered a new debate about whether water should be treated as a security issue. The Middle East, which encompasses 4.9 percent of the total area of the world and is home to 4.4 percent of the world’s population, possesses water resources amounting to just 116 cubic miles—1.1 percent of the world’s total renewable water supply. With the exception of Iran and Turkey, which are water self-sufficient, all other Middle Eastern countries either source water from rivers that originate in another country or from underground sources, some of which are not refilled or restored at adequate withdrawal rates.
Disputes over water resources have increasingly become regional and international security issues. Moreover, very few long-term or serious efforts have been made to deal with the impending water crisis. Examining some of the most contentious water-related issues in the region, focused around Egypt’s Nile River, the Jordan River basin, and the Tigris-Euphrates river system, suggests a way to change poorly managed and archaic policies that pose longstanding threats to water security and conflict resolution in the region.
First, the Nile. Running from Uganda and Ethiopia through Sudan and into Egypt, the Nile lies at the center of a dispute among all four of the countries through which it flows. More than half of Africa’s total population—nearly 600 million people—depend on the Nile Basin for water resources to support their livelihood. These Africans have been and will continue to be traumatized by water conflicts along the Nile Basin without progressive change.
Despite the fact that the Nile originates beyond Egypt’s borders, Cairo has maintained legal control over the lion’s share of its waters for decades. Exclusive ownership over the Nile’s water was granted to Egypt in a 1929 treaty between Egypt and Britain’s East African colonies. These colonies, including Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, gained independence from Britain in the 1960s. The treaty awarded 57 percent of the waters to Egypt, giving Cairo the upper hand over its neighbors when it came to launching any major water projects on the river. A subsequent treaty between Egypt and Sudan in 1959 raised Egypt’s share to 66 percent. The two signatories divided up virtually all the Nile’s water, without so much as consulting Ethiopia. After the 1959 accord, both Egypt and Sudan built mega-dams to exploit the water for irrigation and agricultural use.
A second water crisis lies further east. The Arab-Israeli conflict has led to heightened tension between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories with respect to authority over the water resources of the Jordan River. The Jordan River rises at the Syrian-Lebanese border, where the Hasbani River of Lebanon and Banias River of Syria meet. From there the river flows south through northern Israel into the Sea of Galilee, eventually emptying into the Dead Sea. Geopolitically, the Jordan River is considered the border between the Israel and the West Bank. From its source north of the West Bank to its Dead Sea destination 124 miles away, the Jordan River covers 223 miles because of its winding course.
This winding course mirrors the tumultuous history of Israeli-Palestinian relations on water rights. The water disputebetween Israel and Jordan was settled in a 1995 peace agreement, which assured Jordan’s continued access to the Jordan River resources in the eyes of both states. This agreement thus determined that both Israel and Jordan were responsible for the joint management of water resources. The treaty gave Jordan a specific allotment from the Sea of Galilee, and was intended to foster cooperative efforts to develop, conserve, and expand water resources for both countries. These efforts, however, have been largely unsuccessful. Moreover, capricious precipitation patterns and the high volatility of stream flows—both likely to increase with climate change—highlight the lack of a clear mechanism for sharing shortages. They also point to an increased potential for future conflict.
Some experts have noted that effort to gain access to the Jordan, Yarmuk, and Litani rivers, as well as to underground aquifers, propelled Israel to seize both the Golan Heights in 1967 and southern Lebanon in the 1980s. They have also helped drive Israel to establish settlements in the West Bank. These efforts have led to yet another controversial issue: the disparity in water consumption between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Mountain Aquifer, which provides nearly a quarter of Israel’s water needs, is fed by rains that fall on the mountains of the West Bank. Israel has used its political clout and military power to not only secure West Bank water resources for itself, but also to prevent Palestinians from drilling new wells. As a result, Palestinians living in the occupied territories face a serious water shortage, which will only worsen without significant policy changes.
The Syrian-Israeli dispute has the potential to further destabilize a region already roiling in deep disarray. The conflict may also compromise U.S. national security interests if it adversely affects neighboring countries such as Jordan and Egypt, whose cooperation is important to the United States. Furthermore, instability and potential state failure are likely to increase regional tensions, while distracting these countries from further collaboration with the United States.
A third lingering water dispute in the MENA region relates to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which originate in Turkey and flow through Syria and Iraq. While mountain snowfall in Turkey contributes 88 percent of the Euphrates’ water, neither Syria nor Iraq contributes substantially to the flow. Both countries depend on these rivers—Syria on the Euphrates and Iraq on both—but face water supply shortages as Turkey’s demand for water increases upstream. Since the mid-1960s, Turkey has built several giant dams on the Euphrates. These dams have not only reduced downstream water flows but also led to increased water consumption in Turkey itself. Both Syria and Iraq are thus greatly concerned about the dams’ future impact on their populaces, and have even labeled Turkey’s claims of absolute territorial sovereignty over the two rivers violations of international law.
Nevertheless, some experts have noted that a water war between Turkey, Syria, or Iraq is unlikely in the short-to-medium term. Each state has many other geopolitical concerns besides water, which limits the impact of water issues on relations between them. At the same time, however, it is important to heed other observers’ suggestions that the Tigris-Euphrates river basin—significantly affected by border disputes, conflicts over the Kurdish issues, and the lingering crisis in Syria—could potentially lead to trans-boundary water disputes. Still others warn that the danger of interstate conflict over declining water supplies may escalate, ultimately drawing countries like Iran and Russia into broader regional conflicts. In Yemen, the problems of power-sharing arrangements, sectarian tensions, and water shortages have generated widespread instability that has, among other things, contributed to state failure and widening tensions in the region. Tensions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia—both regional U.S. allies—over Yemen have placed the United States in an awkward political situation predicated on its support for the Saudi air campaign in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthis.
Despite the differing intricacies of the interstate water conflicts found in the MENA region, a few conclusions can be drawn for the future. First, all the riparian states in the Nile River region must come to the simple realization that equitable and reasonable distribution of water is key to resolving the water crisis in northwest Africa and, thus, reducing civil conflict. Thus, consensus must form around new policies and technologies directed at reducing water waste and incentivizing efficient access to the Nile in all these countries. Second, if no progress can be made between Israel and Palestine, water diplomacy and trans-border cooperation between Jordan and Israel must be strengthened to exemplify the capabilities of diplomacy in this hotly contested area of the Middle East. Third, long-term solutions with regard to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are indispensable to any peace plan involving those within the two-river system, given their central location in the wider region and the current volatility of Iraq. In the absence of progress toward more comprehensive political and diplomatic solutions to the three cases outlined above, water conflicts are likely to arise—and may drag outside powers with geopolitical interests in the MENA region into future regional wars.