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The politics of water.

Wars have been waged over oil and gold, but it is water that now poses the greatest potential for provoking conflict among nations - and the greatest need for new guarantees of cooperation.

The threat of nations going to war over oil-rich territories is nothing new, but in the coming years it may be that water sparks more political flare-ups than "black gold." In some areas of the world, water scarcity may be to the 1990s what the oil price shocks were to the 1970s - a major source of economic and political instability.

Unique among strategic resources, water not only courses easily across political boundaries, it also gives upstream countries a distinct advantage over downstream neighbors. Tensions between countries that depend on the same water sources are already running high. In a 1989 address before the U.S. Congress, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Egypt's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, spoke frankly of the critical importance of water to his country, which falls last in thc receiving line for the precious stuff of the Nile. "The national security of Egypt," he said, "is in the hands of the eight other African countries in the Nile basin."

Although water is a renewable resource, it is also a finite one. Nature makes only so much available in a given region each year - and supplies can drop considerably below average in times of drought. As human numbers climb, and more and more water is needed to supply farms, factories and households, nature's water bodies are becoming overtaxed. And as competition increases for ever more limited supplies, international frictions over water are worsening.

Nearly 40 percent of the world's people depend on river systems shared by two or more countries. India and Bangladesh haggle over the Ganges River, Mexico and the United States over the Colorado, and Czechoslovakia and Hungary over the Danube. An emerging hotspot is Central Asia, where five newly independent countries splintered off from the former Soviet Union now share two overused rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. It is in the Middle East, however, that water disputes are shaping political landscapes and economic futures most definitively.

The specter of a "water crisis" in the Middle East has become almost legendary. With some of the highest population growth rates in the world and heavy reliance on irrigation for their agricultural productivity, Middle Eastern countries have much at stake when it comes to dividing up the region's supplies. Enough leaders have spoken of the potential for wars over water that new warnings have lost their bite. But these repeated admonitions may, in fact, presage some pivotal events in Middle East politics. Over the next decade, water issues in the region's three major river basins - the Jordan, the Nile, and the Tigris-Euphrates - will lead to either an unprecedented degree of cooperation or a combustible level of conflict.

No Longer "Deep and Wide"

Water scarcity is most acute in the Jordan River basin, which is shared by Israel, Jordan, the occupied West Bank, and part of Syria (see map). Israel's annual water use already exceeds its renewable supply (the amount of water that nature makes available each year) by some 15 percent, meaning that in a typical year Israel has to overdraw its groundwater account to meet its needs. With an expected influx of up to a million immigrants from former Soviet states, Israel's yearly water deficit will only worsen.

The Jordanians use less than half as much water as the Israelis on a per capita basis. But their demands are also bumping up against supply limits, even as the country's population rises by 3.4 percent a year, one of thc highest growth rates in the world. With the nation's water use projected to increase by 40 percent during this decade competition grows keener each year. King Hussein declared in 1990 that water was the only issue that could take him to war with Israel.

As negotiators work to hammer out a peace agreement in the region, the issue of water rights looms large. Most proposals involve Israel returning some of the territory it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - which, since many of Israel's prime water sources are located in the disputed areas, could ultimately mean relinquishing control over substantial water supplies. Some 25 to 40 percent of Israel's sustainable water supply comes from the Yarqon-Taninim aquifer, which runs along the foot-hills of the West Bank and flows westward across the Green Line (the demarcation of pre-1967 Israeli territory) toward the Mediterranean Sea. Though Israel can tap water on either side of the Green Line, the aquifer's main recharge area lies on the West Bank. Israel has severely restricted the amount of water that West Bank Arabs can pump from this underground reserve, even as it continues overdrawing the aquifer for its own uses - an inequity that has greatly angered thc Arab population.

Another portion of Israel's water supply originates in the Golan Heights, which Israel claimed from Syria after the 1967 war and then annexed in 1981. The Golan Heights forms part of the catchment for the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel's largest surface water reservoir and the source for the National Water Carrier, a huge canal and pipeline that transports water from the north to the drier south. Control of the Golan Heights also gives Israel some rights to the Yarmuk River, the last major undeveloped tributary in the basin. So far, Israel has blocked a joint plan by Jordan and Syria to construct a dam on the Yarmuk to increase their supplies, fearing that the dam could reduce flows into the Jordan River, and thus jeopardize its water security.

A third important water source for Israel is thc coastal aquifer bordering the Mediterranean. It lies entirely within the pre-1967 territory, so the question of water rights does not arise. But decades of overpumping have caused seawater to invade this key freshwater source, creating a problem that has been only partially relieved by the replenishment of the aquifer from the ample rains of the past two winters.

Some 20 percent of the coastal aquifer is contaminated by salts or nitrates from urban and agricultural pollution, and water officials predict that a fifth of its wells may need to be closed over the next few years - increasing Israeli dependence on the West Bank Yarqon-Taninim reserve. "It is water, in the final analysis," says Thomas Naff, Middle East water analyst at the Universiry of Pennsylvania, "that will determine the future of the Occupied Territories, and by extension, the issue of conflict or peace in the region."

One River, Nine Countries

Across the Sinai Peninsula, political pressures over the waters of the famed Nile River basin may also be coming to a head.

Egypt epitomizes the dilemmas and insecurities faced by water-scarce countries with rapid population growth and very limited indigenous water sources. Fifty-six million people in Egypt depend almost entirely on the Nile's waters, but none of the Nile originates within the nation's boundaries. About 85 percent of the river is generated by rainfall in Ethiopia, flowing as the Blue Nile into Sudan before entering Egypt. The remainder comes from the White Nile system, which has headwaters at Lake Victoria in Tanzania, and joins the Blue Nile near Khartoum. The world's longest river, the Nile supplies nine countries in all - of which Egypt is last in line.

Under a 1959 agreement with Sudan, Egypt is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Nile water each year; Sudan is allotted 18.5 bcm. To meet its needs, Egypt supplements Nile water with small amounts of groundwater, agricultural drainage water, and treated municipal wastewater. In all, Egypt had 63.5 bcm available in 1990. Unfortunately, even modest projections show Egypt's demand rising to 69.4 bcm by the end of the decade - about 9 percent more water than is available now.

Plans for meeting this demand depend on some questionable components - including the extraction of deep groundwater in the desert, a fivefold increase in treated sewage water, and increased availability of Nile water following completion of a canal project with Sudan. The Jonglei canal would channel water through the Sudd swamps, a vast wetland in southern Sudan that harbors millions of migratory birds each year. Although the project would disrupt portions of this critical habitat, Egyptian officials strongly favor the canal because it would reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation in the swamp and thereby increase the Nile's flow into Egypt. Civil war in Sudan brought construction to a halt in 1983, and, with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army opposed to the scheme, it seems unlikely that the project will be completed in the foreseeable future.

As if the problems of finding more water were not enough, Egypt could actually lose some of its existing supply when Ethiopia begins to develop the Nile's headwaters. Ethiopia recognizes no obligation to limit its use of Nile waters for the sake of Egypt and Sudan. Indeed, it was concern about Ethiopia's water development plans that led Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to observe, shortly after signing thc historic peace accords with Israel, that "the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water."

Fortunately for Egypt, Ethiopia's plans to dam upper Nile waters have yet to materialize. Lake Tana, the Blue Nile's source, is remote, complicating development efforts already hindered by political and economic turmoil. But it is just a matter of time before Ethiopia begins to tap these waters. Indeed, in early 1990, Egypt was reported to have temporarily blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for a project that Cairo feared would reduce downstream supplies. As Egypt's water security becomes increasingly jeopardized by new projects in Ethiopia, tensions between the two countries are sure to build.


The Tigris-Euphrates is the only Middle East river basin with the luxury of having a fair amount of water left after the region's current needs are met. Yet even with this relative abundance - which isn't likely to last - the region has experienced strained water politics. Here, too, the failure of the basin's three countries - Iraq, Syria, and Turkey - to reach water-sharing agreements has created a potentially dangerous atmosphere of mistrust.

The mountains of eastern Turkey give rise to both rivers, with the Euphrates flowing through Syria and Iraq before reaching the Persian Gulf and the Tigris running directly through Iraq to the Gulf. Poor in oil but rich in water and agricultural land, Turkey has undertaken a massive water development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project, that is designed to boost its hydropower capacity by some 7,500 megawatts and its irrigated area by half, as well as to promote economic development in the region. Referred to as the GAP, after the Turkish acronym, the Anatolia scheme includes construction of 25 irrigation systems, 22 dams, and 19 hydropower stations. In May 1993, irrigation was to begin on the first 60 hectares of the Harran Plain near the Syrian border.

Syria and Iraq fear that this huge endeavor could foil their own development plans and leave them short of water. The GAP could reduce the Euphrates' flow into Syria by 35 percent in normal years and substantially more in dry ones, besides polluting the river with irrigation drainage. Iraq, third in line, would see a drop as well. The Iraqi government also worries about Syria's plans to tap more of the Euphrates, both for irrigation and for meeting the domestic needs of a Syrian population that, at current growth rates, will double in 18 years. Damascus, Aleppo, and other Syrian cities have already experienced supply cutbacks in recent years, and all three Euphrates basin countries weathered water shortages in 1989, when drought cut the river's flow in half.

In January 1990, Turkey heightened the anxieties of its downstream neighbors by stopping for one month the flow of the Euphrates below the Ataturk Dam, the GAP's centerpiece. Although Turkey told Syria and Iraq the previous November of its plans to start filling the reservoir behind the dam - and offered to compensate them by increasing downstream flows from November until mid-January - they both protested Turkey's action.

Then-President Turgut Ozal (who died suddenly in April) tried to reassure the two countries that Turkey would never use its power over the river to "coerce or threaten them." The assurance rang a bit hollow, however, given his government's veiled threat in late 1989 to cut the Euphrates' flow because of Syria's support of Kurdish insurgents. And early in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, closed-door discussions reportedly were held at the United Nations about the possibility of using Turkey's dams to cut off a portion of Iraq's water supply as a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Turkey apparently opposed the idea.

Turkey has underscored its role as water broker in the region by proposing to build what it calls "peace pipelines" to drier Middle East nations. A western pipeline would deliver drinking water to cities and towns in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia; another would follow a Gulf route and take supplies to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain.

The pipelines would cost an estimated $21 billion, however, and outside financing from international lenders such as the World Bank would depend on all parties reaching a broader water-sharing agreement. Moreover, at this point the downstream Arab nations do not want to place their water security in Turkey's hands, or to bank on a technological solution that would be vulnerable to attack in so many countries. So, for the time being at least, the "peace pipelines" are likely to remain a pipe dream.

A Zero-Sum Game?

Much of the strain surrounding water in the Middle East stems from the fact that one nation's gain is usually another's loss. If Ethiopia develops upper Nile waters, Egypt will lose out. If Syria and Jordan build a dam on the Yarmuk River, Israel will likely lose out - and so forth. As long as nations remain locked in tension and distrust, such a zero-sum game will persist. But with cooperation, a new realm of win-win propositions could open up, which could help solve common water problems and defuse mounting pressures.

Israel, for instance, has irrigation technology and expertise that could benefit the entire region. In the 1960s, the country's agricultural engineers pioneered the commercial development of "drip irrigation," which conserves supplies by piping only as much water as crops need and delivering it directly to their roots. This highly efficient method is now used on nearly half of Israel's irrigated cropland. Combined with other water-saving practices, it has helped reduce the average amount of water needed for each irrigated acre in Israel by a third - and boosted crop yields at the same time.

Joint efforts to increase the use of water-saving technologies could help solve the water problems of many regions. For instance, Israel and the largely Muslim Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have put religious differences aside in favor of the mutual benefits of trading irrigation technology. Projects in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan reportedly have increased crop yields several-fold while cutting water consumption by up to two-thirds. Spreading Israeli know-how more broadly in the Jordan basin itself - with Israel perhaps getting a share of the water saved as partial payment for its technical assistance - might benefit all parties and lessen water pressures overall. Some Middle East analysts have also suggested storing winter flows from the Yarmuk River in Israel's Sea of Galilee for use in summer by Jordan and possibly the West Bank - a strategy that could eliminate the need for Syria and Jordan to build the expensive new storage dam on the Yarmuk. For its part, Israel would benefit from the sweetening of the slightly salty Galilee water, one of its primary drinking water sources.

Similar win-win solutions likely exist in each water-scarce river basin. For the Nile system, storing more of the rivers' water in reservoirs in the Ethiopian highlands, where evaporation is much lower than at Egypt's Aswan Dam, could result in more water for all three Blue Nile basin countries - Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Egypt. Such a scheme would need careful study, since it would inevitably alter the ecology of the Ethiopian Highlands and likely curtail Egypt's hydropower production at the Aswan Dam. But the benefits could be substantial. According to an analysis by water resource economist Dale Whittington and his associate Elizabeth McClelland of the University of North Carolina, enough water could be saved to nearly quadruple Ethiopia's irrigated area without reducing supplies to Egypt and Sudan.

Of course, a chicken-and-egg problem plagues all of this. Cooperation can breed win-win solutions to water problems, which in turn can defuse tensions, but tensions have to be defused before nations will cooperate. Recognizing that peace without water security can only be a tenuous truce at best, some nations have at least gone to the bargaining table. Unfortunately, they have yet to make much progress.

Efforts to reach a water-sharing agreement in the Jordan basin date back to the early 1950s. In 1953, a basin-wide plan to share the waters of the Jordan system was drafted by a U.S. engineering firm and brought to the Middle East via a special envoy of President Eisenhower. Four rounds of difficult and fractious negotiation over a two-year period eventually resulted in all sides agreeing to the technical details of the plan. But, as Middle East water analyst Miriam Lowi of Princeton University has written, the talks broke down for political reasons, mainly because of the Arab parties' unwillingness to enhance in any way the development prospects of the new state of Israel. The negotiations ceased in 1955. At various points since then, mediation efforts regarding specific issues, such as the proposed dam on the Yarmuk, have taken place, but no resolution of water disputes in the Jordan basin has been reached.

The Nile basin countries have had a forum for cooperation through a group called Undugu (Swahili for "fraternity"), in which all the Nile states have participated. Yet meaningful collaboration - particularly among Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan - does not appear likely in the near future. At the African Water Summit, a high-level meeting in Cairo in June 1990, Ethiopia was unwilling even to share basic hydrological data with its neighbors. For Ethiopia, cooperation is contingent on a decision to renegotiate the 1959 water-sharing agreement between Egypt and Sudan. Because that treaty allots so much of the Nile's water to these two downstream countries, which contribute very little to the river's flow, Ethiopia views the compact as unfair and unworkable.

A similar logjam exists over sharing the Euphrates. Turkey and Syria signed a protocol in 1987 that guarantees to Syria a minimum flow of 500 cubic meters per second, about half of the Euphrates' volume at the border. Syria wants its guaranteed share increased, a request that Turkey has so far denied. Just last year, Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel reportedly remarked about Syrian requests for more Euphrates water, "We do not say we should share their oil resources. They cannot say they should share our water resources."

In January, Demirel met with his Syrian counterpart, Prime Minister Mahmud Al Zobi, to discuss a number of bilateral issues, including water. Syria's requests for a permanent agreement guaranteeing it more Euphrates water - which became more urgent with the filling of the Ataturk reservoir - were not met. But a joint communique issued after the talks said that "the two sides agreed to reach before the end of 1993 a final solution determining the allocation [of supplies] to the parties from the waters of the Euphrates River."

One possible trump card in Syria's hand is that Turkey needs a water-sharing agreement with its downstream neighbors in order to secure financing from the World Bank and other lenders to complete its Southeast Anatolia Project, which is estimated to cost as much as $29 billion. The benefits to Syria and Iraq of an agreement that builds water security are obvious. But whether a mutually agreeable solution will be found by year's end remains to be seen - and at this point seems doubtful.

Enter the Lawyers

At the moment, international law offers little help in resolving water conflicts. Despite much effort, no water law acceptable to all nations has yet been devised. Upstream countries, given their natural advantage, have been reluctant to accept the notion that international waters should be managed co-operatively and shared equitably. Indeed, some still hold the view that nations have "absolute sovereignty" over water within their borders and have little obligation to their neighbors.

However, an international code of conduct for shared watercourses has been steadily evolving, primarily through the work of two organizations: the private International Law Association, which in 1966 laid down the "Helsinki Rules" (which have since been revised), and the United Nations International Law Commission, which in 1991 issued its draft recommendations. Both put forth a number of important principles, including four obligations: to inform and consult with water-sharing neighbors before taking actions that may affect them (such as Turkey shutting off the Euphrates' flow); to exchange hydrologic data regularly; to avoid causing substantial harm to other water users; and to allocate water from a shared river basin reasonably and equitably.

While they may be laudable ideals, these principles offer little practical guidance so far. What constitutes "reasonable and equitable" use - the crux of any water-sharing agreement - is open to widely differing interpretations. Population size, geography, climate, historical use, and availability of other water sources are among the many factors that could be taken into account in determining equitable allocations among countries, but a clear formula for doing so does not exist. In allocating the waters of the Nile, for instance, Egypt's priorities would undoubtedly be very different from Ethiopia's.

A logical next step might be for an independent panel of international water specialists to develop clear guidelines for equitably distributing water supplies in specific regions. This panel could set a standard of fair allocation against which any individual country's negotiating demands could be evaluated. It could establish objective criteria for allocating scarce waters, and create a model framework for resolving disputes in other river basins as they arise. The independent panel's work could begin with the Jordan, Nile, and Tigris-Euphrates river systems.

In the absence of a formal body of clear and enforceable law, the resolution of international water disputes depends on the negotiation of treaties among neighboring countries. Among the most notable to date is the Indus Waters Treaty signed in 1960 by India and Pakistan, which still offers some relevant lessons.

Conflict over the Indus began when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. The international boundary delineating India and Pakistan cut right through the river and the world's largest contiguous irrigation network, which encompassed 37 million acres. The next year, the Indian province of East Punjab attempted to claim sovereign rights over the water within its territory by stopping the flow into two large canals that fed Pakistan's irrigated land. East Punjab's decision sparked a water dispute that nearly escalated into a war.

For the next eight years, the two countries went round and round in difficult negotiations. The World Bank played a key mediating role, helping to devise a water allocation strategy that both nations could agree to, and drumming up international funding needed to implement the water-sharing agreement. Bank mediators were not able to convince Pakistan and East Punjab to manage the basin jointly - and therefore optimally - but the agreement did divide water use equitably and establish a permanent commission to ensure its continued success. As a result, the Indus agreement has endured as a testament to the benefits of international water-sharing arrangements: for more than three decades it has helped promote agricultural and economic development in the region by assuring relatively secure water supplies for both parties.

No Time to Waste

Water shortages are worsening rapidly in many regions, as population growth and rising water demands stretch supplies to their limits. Tensions over water scarcity could reach a feverish pitch this decade not only in the Middle East, but in Central Asia, where five countries newly independent from the former Soviet Union face an ecosystem and an economy suffering from lack of water. As Soviet republics, they had hoped Moscow would help by diverting some of Siberia's water wealth to their parched lands and shrinking Aral Sea. With that hope gone, and ethnic and political rivalries running strong, confrontations over control of water seem inevitable.

The immediate challenge for the international community is to recognize water scarcity as an increasingly powerful force of political and social instability, and, accordingly, to raise it to a higher place on the crowded policy agenda. The Middle East and Central Asia are obvious hotspots, but where else might the destabilizing influence of water scarcity rear its head? There is China, which is home to 22 percent of the world's people but only 8 percent of its fresh water - yet has a population growing by 15 million a year. And there are India and Bangladesh, both poor, agrarian countries that cannot agree on how to divide the waters of the Ganges River.

Once likely flashpoints are identified, it then becomes possible to encourage cooperation before conflicts break out. If countries can begin to share hydrologic and water use data, to undertake joint projects to conserve water and use it more efficiently, and to share technological and policy innovations, some new foundations of trust and collaboration can be built. Groups such as the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, and independent non-governmental organizations can serve as impartial brokers and help devise win-win strategies.

No country can be economically or socially stable without an assured water supply. Even with an all-out effort to use their resources more efficiently, countries in water-scarce regions like the Middle East will ultimately need to fundamentally restructure their economies and greatly reduce population growth if they are to balance water demands with available supplies. Those difficult tasks will be easier to accomplish if water-sharing agreements are firmly in place.

History suggests that to the victors go the spoils. If so, wars over water might create some winners. But in today's interdependent world, any spoils of victory would soon be offset by the costs of regional instability. It may just be that the mutual gains possible from cooperation on water issues will move some long-standing rivals toward the larger goal of peace.

Sandra Postel is vice president for research at the Worldwatcb Institute, and author of Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
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Author:Postel, Sandra
Publication:World Watch
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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