Water Resource Conflicts in the Middle East

By Drake, Christine | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Water Resource Conflicts in the Middle East


Drake, Christine, The World and I


Christine Drake is professor of geography in the Department of Political Science and Geography, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. This is an edited version of an article previously published in the Journal of Geography 96:1 (Jan.--Feb. 1997).

In the Middle East, water may be more important than either oil or politics. While the area's proven oil reserves are estimated to be sufficient for at least a hundred years, water supplies are already insufficient throughout the region, and competition for them is inevitably going to increase in the years ahead. Already there have been a number of clashes between countries over water, and several political leaders have suggested that future conflicts may well center on access to water, both surface and subsurface sources.

Water is, after all, the most basic of resources, critical to sustainable development in the Middle East and the well-being of the area's population.1 (The Middle East is defined here as the traditional Southwest Asian countries, including Turkey, Iran, and also Egypt but excluding the other North African countries and the former Soviet republics.)

GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY

At the root of the problem of limited water resources is the physical geography of the Middle East, for this region is one of the most arid in the world. Descending air (which can hold more moisture) and prevailing northeast trade winds that blow from a continental interior region to a warmer, more southerly location explain why almost all of the Middle East is dry.

Only Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon have adequate rainfall for their needs because of their more northern locations and/or mountainous topography, which intercept rain- and snow-bearing westerly winds in winter. Every other country has at least part of its territory vulnerable to water shortages or is dependent on an exogenous water source (one originating outside its boundaries).

About 35 percent of the Middle East's annual renewable water resources is provided by exogenous rivers.2 Certainly, the two major river systems that bring water into the region, the Nile to Sudan and Egypt, and the Tigris-Euphrates primarily to Syria and Iraq, both have sources outside the arid zone--the Nile in the heart of East Africa (the White Nile) and especially in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile), and the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey (and to a limited extent in Iran). Other rivers, such as the Jordan, Yarmuk, Orontes, and Baniyas, are too small to be of much significance, yet in the case of the Jordan-Yarmuk are large enough to quarrel over.

Droughts are common and a natural part of the climate. In addition, rainfall is seasonal. Thus the problem concerns not only the total volume of water available but also its seasonality--the shortage of water in the dry, hot summers. In addition, most of the Middle East's rainfall is very irregular, localized, and unpredictable. Furthermore, the region suffers from high evaporation and evapotranspiration rates, a factor that diminishes the value of the water that is available.

In the past, people adapted to the seasonality of the rainfall and the periodic droughts and were able to produce enough food to meet local demand. They devised a variety of ingenious ways to store water and meet the needs of both rural and urban populations. But such measures have become inadequate since the middle of the twentieth century and a new balance has to be found among competing needs for water.

CAUSES OF THE CONFLICT

Escalation of the conflict over water issues in the Middle East results from the confluence of a number of factors, especially rapidly growing populations, economic development and increasing standards of living, technological developments, political fragmentation, and poor water management. The inadequacy and relative ineffectiveness of international water laws as a means of settling and regulating freshwater issues as well as the lack of any real enforcement mechanisms compound the problem. …

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