A New Challenge: Water Scarcity in the Arab World

By Swain, Ashok | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

A New Challenge: Water Scarcity in the Arab World


Swain, Ashok, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


PRECIOUS WATER: GROWING DEMAND AND INCREASING SCARCITY

Water is crucial for humans' survival and for the development of their economies. It is also a crucial element in the protection of the environment. The availability of fresh water has already been an important concern in many parts of the world. The world's population is now increasing about a quarter of million people per day. With this phenomenal population growth, there is, in addition to the water requirements for domestic use, an increasing demand of it for energy generation, agricultural intensification and industrial production. As a result of the growth in the human population, the per capita water supply on the earth has been reduced from 33,300 cubic meters per year in 1850 to 8,500 cubic meters per year in 1993.(1)

Nearly 40 percent of the world's population, most of it in the developing countries, is already facing serious water shortages. More and more nations are gradually joining the list. By the middle of the next century, it is anticipated that nearly 65 per cent of the world population's may experience conditions of water stress and water scarcity.(2) Water scarcity has been already a serious problem in most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the hydrologists, if the annual per capita fresh water availability of a country goes below 500 cubic meters, the country reaches the category of "absolute water scarcity." After crossing this mark, the country is almost certain to face inherent water deficit problems, which may threaten public health and socio-economic development. In the beginning of the 1990s, eight countries in the Middle East crossed this red line.(3) Many others are on the edge of it. At the same time, all of the countries in this region are also experiencing massive population growth. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences where human numbers are surging forward at an annual growth rate of nearly 3 percent and the availability of water resource remains limited. Thus scarce water resource carries the potential to breed conflicts at various levels of society.(4)

In the mid-1980s, U.S. intelligence services estimated that there were at least ten places in the world where war could break out over the shortage of a supply of fresh water - the majority of them were in the Middle East and North Africa.(5) These water wars have not taken place yet, but the threat is very much there. Many of the countries in this water-scarce region depend heavily on imported surface water, which comes through internationally shared river systems.(6) In a situation of increasing water demand, international rivers may become the battleground for conflicts among the riparian states. Many river conflicts are already active among the countries of the Middle-East and North Africa. The water conflicts in this volatile region have the real potential of turning violent and causing large-scale human death and suffering.

PLUNDERING THE WATER, ISRAELI STYLE

The struggle over the control of the Jordan River basin is one of the most discussed subjects in the 'water conflicts' literature. The riparian states of the Jordan river basin are Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The Jordan River rises on the slopes of Mount Hermon in Syria and Lebanon, and moves to the south and passes through Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) to empty into the Dead Sea. The Jordan River receives water from its major tributary, the Yarmuk River, whose catchment area lies in the Huran Plain and the Golan Heights as well as in some parts of Jordan. There are also other smaller tributaries to the Jordan River that originate in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. From its origin to the entry of Lake Tiberias, the Jordan River is called "upper Jordan" and the stretch between the Lake and the Dead Sea is called "lower Jordan".

The conflict over the Jordan River basin surfaced immediately after the establishment of Israel. Control over the water bodies was one of the major reasons for the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 and the water issue also probably influenced Israel's decision to invade Lebanon in 1982.

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