Without the intervention of the world community, the countries of the region cannot solve the resource problem.
Water in the Middle East has always been a source of life, and it is no accident that for many centuries the peoples living in it paid great attention to its extraction, conservation and rational use. It is enough to recall the Sumerians who lived in the south of modern Iraq, known as the skillful builders of complex irrigation systems between the Tigris and Euphrates. Or the Nabataeans, who built a huge network of tanks and underground tanks for collecting rainfall in the Negev desert. The ancient city of Petra, located on the territory of modern Jordan and which at one time became the capital of the Nabatean kingdom, is a convincing confirmation of what our ancestors could achieve through hard work and ingenuity.
Now in the Middle East, in whose countries live more than 350 million people live, water along with hydrocarbons is one of the main factors influencing the political situation and international relations. The lack of renewable water resources is accompanied by an arid climate, low rainfall, high evaporation, the presence of mostly non-renewable groundwater, as well as inefficient farming and management. Seven out of ten countries with the most water scarcity are in the Middle East. These are Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Gaza Strip.
The lack of water in the region has long been one of the causes of internal and interstate conflicts. For example, armed clashes between Syria and Israel over water resources, which often turned into major border incidents using armored vehicles and military aircraft, took place in 1964-1966. Water became one of the main factors in the Six Day War in 1967. Three rivers of the region - Jordan, Yarmouk and Litani - turned out to be a bone of contention in the Arab-Israeli struggle for water.
Currently, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are participating in an unspoken race to deflate the Disi aquifer that Riyadh shares with Amman. The Jordan River, a significant part of which is used for economic purposes by Israel and Jordan, has been a source of tension in relations between the two countries for several decades. In turn, one of the Jordanian tributaries, the Yarmouk river, is considered a source of tension in Syrian-Jordanian relations, and the Oront River (in the Turkish territory it is called Asi) is an irritant in Syrian-Turkish relations. There are many similar examples.
According to experts of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the stocks of non-renewable aquifers in the Middle East, which are the main source of water for some countries, will decrease as demand for it increases. But if it is easier for richer and more stable countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, to solve the problem of the growing water crisis by actively investing in desalination and improving infrastructure in order to reduce water losses during its delivery to consumers, then where conflicts are raging, this problem is only getting worse. This is especially evident now in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where civil wars caused significant damage to the infrastructure of water management and land reclamation, as well as in the Gaza Strip and Jordan, which received a huge number of refugees from Syria and Libya.
The Secretary General of the League of Arab States (LAS), Ahmed Aboul Gate, at the 8th session of the Ministers of Water Resources, held on October 26, 2016 in Cairo, warned of the dangers associated with water scarcity and its impact on political, economic and social problems. As the LAS Secretary General emphasized, in most Arab countries the population is growing, and water is decreasing in volume and deteriorating in quality.
According to American experts from the Brookings Institution, the situation is also aggravated by the inefficient use of water resources due to outdated technologies, especially in agriculture, and their management. Water losses in some countries reach 60% due to the inefficiency of the irrigation system and water supply networks.
IMF First Vice President Mahmoud Mohieldin at a conference on environment and development held on November 9, 2016 in Beirut, also emphasized the severity of the water problem in Arab countries. At the same time, he promised that the World Bank would provide all possible assistance in improving the efficiency of water resources management. However, the situation is complicated by the fact that in the Arab countries the water shortage is inseparable from political and economic and security problems, aggravated after the events of the Arab spring developed into armed conflicts.
One of the countries traditionally the least endowed with water is Yemen. There are no rivers, and the country is completely dependent on underground aquifers and rainwater. If in 1990 71% of Yemenis had access to water, then in 2004 this figure dropped to 67%.
Tribal struggles for water become a daily routine for Yemen long time ago. Up to 80% of conflicts in rural areas concern water. Prior to the current confrontation, an average of about 4 thousand people died annually in Yemen only as a result of resolving disputes over water possession. But this data is clearly incomplete.
The amount of water in Yemen per person per year does not exceed 120-140 m3, while the international norm is 1700 m3. According to expert estimates, the country's underground sources may be depleted in the coming years. According to some reports, 14 of the 16 main aquifers of Yemen have dried up.
According to Western sources, back in 2009, the Minister of Water Resources of Yemen warned the US ambassador that major unrest is expected in the near future. According to the minister, the source of the conflict between urban and rural residents will be the lack of water (water for suppling urban areas in Yemen in the past was withdrawn from rural areas, often by force). The clashes would escalate into widespread violence across the country, which had happened a few years later. Outside of Yemen, just a few people know that the objects of the water supply system were among the main objects for mandatory seizure during the outbreak of civil war.
Two years of armed confrontation in Yemen and a humanitarian catastrophe further exacerbated the shortage of water resources. A huge threat looms over the country's capital, Sana'a. According to Western researchers, the groundwater level there annually drops by six meters. The aquifer, where the water comes from, can dry out at any time. The city has no alternative water supply. According to some of the worst-case scenarios, if nothing is done, Sana’a may be left without water by 2019, and her multimillion population will be forced to leave the city. Voices are already being heard about the advisability of moving the capital.
According to expert estimates, approximately three-quarters of the population of Yemen (approximately 20 million people) are denied access to clean drinking water or proper sanitation. Lack of access to fresh water is a major cause of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality, especially in rural areas. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, 14,000 children under the age of five died every year due to malnutrition and diarrhea. Now these indicators have increased many times.
An alarming situation with water is taking shape in the Gaza Strip. There, like in Yemen, there are no rivers. Water is supplied by the coastal aquifer, and salt water seeps from the Mediterranean Sea into this aquifer, as well as untreated sewage that flows into the sea from Gaza, which, in turn, can trigger pandemic diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever.
Large losses of water in Gaza are associated with a poor system of water pipes. By 2020, if measures are not taken, this Palestinian enclave may become unsuitable for human life. The biggest humanitarian disaster will happen. Already now, according to UN estimates, more than 80% of Gaza residents out of 1.8 million are forced to buy imported bottled drinking water. This takes them a third of family income.
Jordan, one of the driest countries in the Middle East, is facing severe water shortages. It consumes more water than is available from renewable sources. One of the largest consumers of water is agriculture (up to 50%), which accounts for only 3% of GDP. Current water supply per capita is 150-200 m3 per year.
Even before the influx of Syrian refugees into the country, Jordan’s population was projected to increase from 6 to 9 million by 2025, which would lead to a sharp decrease in per capita water supply - up to 91 cubic meters. m. One of the reasons for this may be including the deterioration of water supply networks. In the whole country, 40-50% of the water extracted from the aquifer is lost due to leaks in the pipelines. In northern Jordan, this figure reaches 70%. According to some estimates, the amount of water lost annually could satisfy the basic needs of at least 2.6 million people.
The “Islamic State” (ISIS, banned in Russia) resorts to the “water threat” in Iraq and Syria regularly as soon as it begins to lose and lose its occupied territories. After the capture of the Mosul dam in mid-June 2014, jihadists repeatedly threatened to flood settlements located downstream of the Tigris, including the Baghdad. Al-Hayat, a London-based newspaper, released satellite imagery in November 2016 on January 20, indicating that the Tiger is threatened by oil pollution from IG fields burned by militants in northern Iraq.
According to British expert Matthew Machowski of Queen Mary University of London, specializing in Middle East security studies, water is an important strategic goal for all political forces, groups and tribal unions in Iraq. He believes that control over water resources, especially in the summertime, is a more important issue than even control over oil refineries. The British believes that those who control the dams located on the river above Baghdad control the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s water infrastructure has been in disastrous condition over the years of the war. The land reclamation system is in a deplorable state due to hostilities and mismanagement. This leads to soil degradation and a reduction in agricultural land, which, in turn, is fraught with increasing Iraqi dependence on food imports.
Syria from 2006 to 2011 suffered from a drought, the worst in 900 years. This led to the loss of livestock, a decrease in sown areas, a sharp increase in food prices and the massive relocation of families of farmers and pastoralists (by some estimates, at least 1.5 million people) to the cities. This, as well as a high level of unemployment, caused unrest, which later turned into a civil war, during which there is a fierce struggle between the tribes, including for water. As a result, according to scientists at Stanford University, the area of cultivated agricultural land has been significantly reduced, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the population with water suitable for cooking and household needs. According to the UN, about 15 million Syrian citizens do not currently have access to water. In fact, there are many more. Families are forced to spend a quarter of their meager income on drinking water.
A chronic water shortage affects 5.5 million people in Damascus. They have long been unable to cope with the provision of water. According to experts, Syria faces in front of risk of desertification approximately 60% of its territory due to adverse climatic conditions.
The IS militants, having gained control of the Euphrates, used water as a weapon against Shiites living downstream. Water for jihadists has become a source of requisitions from the local population. It is also a lever of pressure on people with the aim of forcing them to join the ranks of jihadists.
Terrorists use water as a weapon against the population of Aleppo. In the first decade of February, they shut off the water supply from two pumping stations on the Euphrates east of the city.
Most of the water resources in Syria and Iraq come from abroad. This is primarily the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the origins of which begin in Turkey. Ankara traditionally uses the water problem to exert pressure on neighboring countries. Now, taking into account the current situation in the region and Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iraq, this has acquired special significance.
Iraqi Water Minister Hassan Al-Janabi at the last session of the Arab Ministers of Water Resources warned of the dangers posed by Turkey’s control over the two main sources of water in the region and the lack of a permanent watershed agreement. He drew attention to the fact that Turkey, in addition to the two large operating hydroelectric power stations, “Kralkizi” and “Didgle”, almost completed the construction of the “Ilisu” hydroelectric station on the Tigris. Baghdad fears that its dam will create a large reservoir that could deprive Iraq of half its water resources, exacerbating the already difficult situation with water supply in the country.
According to space observation, the Tigris and Euphrates Basin loses water faster than it does elsewhere in the world, with the exception of northern India. In Mesopotamia, traditionally considered the breadbasket of Iraq, the soil, due to a decrease in the volume of incoming water, is becoming more and more salty, not adapted for growing crops.
After the struggle against the terrorist groups IS and al-Qaeda (banned in Russia), the international community, if it really intends to stabilize the situation in the Middle East, will have to solve the problem of water resources in the region. Water there, like oil, has long been an integral part of politics.
The countries themselves are unlikely to be able to agree among themselves and make mutual concessions due to the fact that each of them pursues its own interests. In particular, Turkey does not agree with Iraq and Syria, regularly requesting to limit the withdrawal of water from the Euphrates. Ankara considers the resources of this river to be its national treasure. In the same way, Israel is unlikely to be able to independently agree with its Arab neighbors on the sharing of water resources.
Thus, the Middle East has the lowest per capita level of water consumption. Against the background of depletion and degradation of natural ecosystems, the highest growth rate of population growth is observed, which further aggravates the situation with water. If the countries of the region fail to solve the water problem together, then it will be doomed to continue violence. In the Middle East, politics, security, water and basic human needs have always been closely linked.
Now water has become a kind of oil of the 21st century. Only unlike oil water is needed every day for survival.
What to do
Possible solutions of the problem could be the construction of desalination, pumping and water supply stations, water pipelines and an extensive system of transboundary water utilities, wastewater treatment plants, restoration of damaged water pipelines, other water management and land reclamation facilities, the introduction of “smart” (drip) irrigation technology in agriculture , use for irrigation of treated wastewater, revising the structure of agriculture in the direction of abandoning the cultivation of water-intensive crops.
The poorer countries of the region could be helped by their richer and more successful neighbors in reaching of this goal. For example, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait financially, and Israel, which has the most advanced desalination technologies in the world, could build factories, train personnel to work for them and maintain the enterprises in constant working condition. In addition, Israel and the UAE have gained experience in organizing rational water use, in particular drip irrigation, which they could also share with their neighbors. Significant progress has been made in Israel in the reuse of water. For example, at least 65% of the water used to irrigate crops is waste water.
Cooperation in the field of water supply could be the first step towards the establishment of normal interstate relations in the Middle East, based not on religious or national contradictions and the struggle for territories, but on the natural daily need of people for water.
Saying that nothing is being undertaken in this direction, including by international organizations, is not entirely right.
But this is a drop in the ocean, practically not affecting the solution of the problem. The Middle East needs a regional an integrated water plan, the joint development and subsequent implementation of which could become the basis for subsequent accession, if not peace in the Middle East, then at least relative calm. Collaboration in the successful management of scarce water resources is more beneficial than the continuous struggle of all against all.