Middle East Water Wars: Increasingly, Water Is Becoming a Catalyst for Confrontation across the Middle East Region; a Focus of National Security, Foreign Policy and Domestic Stability

By Blanche, Ed | The Middle East, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Middle East Water Wars: Increasingly, Water Is Becoming a Catalyst for Confrontation across the Middle East Region; a Focus of National Security, Foreign Policy and Domestic Stability


Blanche, Ed, The Middle East


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ISRAEL'S FEUD WITH THE PALESTINIANS OVER dwindling West Bank water resources stymied a European Union effort on 13 April to secure a water management strategy for the Mediterranean region, where 290 million people face shortages by 2025. The same day, Egypt categorically refused to sign an agreement on sharing the waters of the River Nile with nine African nations.

In March, Israeli troops shot dead a 16-year-old Palestinian and critically wounded another teenager in a clash with Jewish settlers over a well near the flashpoint city of Nablus in the West Bank. That's an extreme case, to be sure. But it reflects the swelling tension in the Palestinian territory, which Israel is slicing up with its security barrier and annexing a large chunk of land Palestinians want for a future state.

The Palestinians claim Israel is stealing their water, while the 400,000 Jewish settlers are up in arms because they fear they will be forced to abandon the West Bank as part of a peace deal.

The bloodshed in Nablus, many fear, is a portent of the battle ahead as the water shortage goes beyond crisis, worsened by years of drought, growing Israeli requirements and on the Arab side, poor conservation and planning.

Water drying up

Across the Middle East, the region's main rivers and aquifers are a source of conflict. Turkey's ambitious dam-building programme has cut the water flow of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers through Syria and Iraq. The Nile, at 6,560km the world's longest river, is increasingly in contention between Egypt, Sudan and eight other African nations. The Palestinians and Lebanese accuse Israel of stealing their water.

The much-plundered Jordan River, which flows from the Sea of Galilee (the Israelis call it Lake Kinneret) into the Dead Sea, has been reduced to a trickle. Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental organisation, warned in a 3 May report that large stretches of the Jordan, which the Bible described as "overflowing", could dry up by next year. Israel, Jordan and Syria have diverted some 98% of the river and its tributaries over the years. Only 20-39 million cubic metres flow through it now, a tiny fraction of the 1.3 billion recorded in the 1930s.

Hedi Larbi, the Beirut-based Tunisian director of the World Bank's Middle East Department, noted in a 2009 report on combating water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region: "It is almost a feat that the Middle East, which is plagued by conflicts, has so far managed to avoid major water wars, even though water is a life-and-death economic issue for the people of the region.

"But for many of these nations, which already are treading the razor's edge of conflict, water is becoming increasingly a catalyst for confrontation--and an issue of national security and foreign policy as well as domestic stability."

According to the World Bank, Israelis consume four times as much per person as Palestinians. In October, Amnesty International accused Israel of neglecting Palestinian infrastructure development and leaving 200,000 Palestinians without running water. Israel denied the allegations.

By most estimates, half the water Israel consumed is taken from its neighbours, the Palestinians and the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1980. These sources are drying up and Israel needs to find new sources. One it has long coveted is the Litani River in south Lebanon, which at its closest point flows some 3km from the border with the Jewish state.

Even before Israel was established in 1948, Zionist leaders had their eyes on the Litani, and wanted their future state to extend deep into what is now Lebanon, amounting to around one third of the modern-day country.

The Litani, along with the Syrian headwaters of the Jordan River, were considered to be vital for the economic wellbeing of the future Jewish state. …

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