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Prospect of a parched future.

WATER IS ONE commodity where the Middle East is desperately short and countries in the region are now trying to act to avert a water supply crisis by cutting consumption and boosting output at desalination plants, and harnessing underground water resources and river supplies. Water shortages during dusty hot summer months are now a feature of almost all Middle East cities from Istanbul to Jeddah.

According to the director of water projects in Jeddah, Mohammed al Faar, the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture and Water is implementing a water network expansion plan which when completed will cover areas in the south to the far north of the city.

Istanbul's water problems are assuming huge proportions. Its population is set to explode to 23m over the next two decades and the city has a leaky water pipeline system which wastes two-fifths of water channelled into it. According to Ergun Goknel, general director of Istanbul's Water and Sewage Administration, Istanbul has always suffered from a water shortage.

The city's water comes from distant lakes and rainwater collected in underground aqueducts built by the Romans. Istanbul uses 1.5m cubic metres of water a day and disposes of the same amount of sewage. Now the city plans to invest $14bn to meet its long-term water needs.

Alarmists have for years now been predicting "water wars" between Israel and the surrounding Arab states over access to the waters of the Jordan river and between Turkey and its Arab neighbours over the Tigris and Euphrates. These are certainly matters of contention, but they are resolvable. Sharing out water resources is one of the issues on the agenda of the Arab-Israeli peace talks. And if Turkey can agree on a plan with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan to link their respective electricity networks by 1997, there is no reason why they cannot devise a plan to cooperate on harnessing water resources.

Water is a particularly sensitive issue, however. The completion of the massive Ataturk Dam at the headwaters of the Euphrates last year prompted Turkey's prime minister, Suleiman Demirel, to claim that his country could do what it liked with the water. Talks between Ankara, Baghdad and Damascus broke down in October amid bitter recrimination.

The water crisis in the region means that development of resources will attract massive state investment, foreign aid and private sector funding as countries scramble for self-sufficiency over the next two decades. The European Investment Bank recently extended a $6.6m loan to the Water Authority of Jordan to finance the improvement of the water distribution networks in Irbid and Ramtha. The improvements to be completed by 1995, will lead to a marked reduction in water losses, which presently reach 40%.

Further afield Colonel Gaddafi of Libya dreams of linking his "Great Man-Made River" (GMR) with the Nile from the canal of Al Nawbariyah or from Lake Nasser. During the Middle Ages, Libya was lush with green vegetation and enjoyed an advanced underground water system -- the very GMR which Gaddafi is trying to harness today at a cost of $14bn.

The water crisis prompted the Gulf states to hold their first water conference in Dubai in October last year which was attended by over 500 officials and experts. The aim was to cooperate on water security by rationalising consumption and upgrading the efficiency of desalination plants, which provide the GCC with 70% of its drinking water.

The Gulf states have a strategic plan to build more desalination units in anticipation of increased demand as population grows. But one estimate puts the price tag of building the additional Gulf desalination plants at $150bn and it will cost millions of dollars to man and maintain them each year. The problem is that the Gulf states have very limited natural water resources such as artesian wells and underground water because of low rainfall. Water consumption in the Gulf is also profligate by world standards at up to 200 gallons a day per capita. The hot desert weather, excessive irrigation and heavy use by industry are some of the reasons for this excessive consumption.

The GCC countries' drive towards food self-sufficiency has also been undertaken at an enormous cost to finite water resources. Experts such as Professor Tony Allan of London's School of Oriental and African Studies question whether Gulf natural resources, including water, will be sufficient to justify policies of food self-sufficiency. Agriculture accounts for up to 90% of water consumption in some Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are also facing competing demands for water resources from the industrial and domestic sectors.

The GCC states are also studying other options. For a long time Turkey has proposed pumping fresh water via a pipeline through Iraq to the Gulf states. However, Sheikh Zayed, the president of the UAE, was the only Gulf ruler to take the proposal seriously and a preliminary feasibility concluded that the $25bn cost alone would be prohibitive.

The GCC states are also studying a Lebanese proposal to pump 760m cubic metres of water a year through a 1,500 kilometre pipeline to Syria, Jordan and the six GCC states. A Lebanese water official, Fathi Shatila, stressed that the cost of $7bn would be less than a third of the proposed Turkish water pipeline, which is also seen as a security risk because of its route through Iraq.
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Title Annotation:water in the Middle East
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Looking longingly northwards.
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