Global Policy Forum

Clear Gold: Water and Conflict in the Middle East

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By Jon B. Altermam

April 19, 2010

The most likely source of political and social unrest in the Middle East over the next 20 years is not warfare or military coups -- it's water. Military threats get all the press, but water is the real game-changer.

It is no secret that the Middle East is water-starved. Of the 15 most water-poor countries in the world, 10 are in the Middle East. When King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud first brought geologists to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they were there to look for water, not oil. What they found changed the kingdom, and changed the region.

Over the 20th century, wealth -- and water -- changed living patterns in the region dramatically. Populations flooded into cities from the countryside, abandoning grazing and subsistence agriculture. Vegetables began to make a regular appearance in daily diets, and meat consumption grew. Populations grew, too. Governments began to talk about food security, and established elaborate schemes to become self-sufficient in dietary staples such as wheat and dairy products. In time, farming accounted for upwards of 80 percent -- and in some cases, more than 90 percent -- of water use in desert countries.

What made all of this possible was the exploitation of underground water supplies for agricultural use. Deserts and scrubland had little visible water, but massive reservoirs beneath them were able to turn the dun-colored earth green, year after year.

The search for water had dominated lives in the Middle East for millennia, so its reliable supply was one of the most visible signs that Middle Eastern governments were making a difference for their people. Especially in the desert states of the Arabian Peninsula, governments supplied water for free, or nearly so. Suddenly, people could depend on having water to drink and in which to wash, with sanitation improving as a result. As noticeably, flowers and trees began to crop up in the medians of newly built highways. In countries such as Jordan, underground water allowed fruit trees to flourish, and in Yemen, underground water irrigated ever-growing crops of qat, the stimulant leaf around which business and socializing are structured. An agricultural revolution swept the Middle East. Water, which many had always seen as a gift from God, became a right, and water use became patriotic.

Scholars have written about water in the Middle East for years, but many of them have been looking at the wrong end of the equation. Most of their writing has involved sharing the great river basins that dot the region: the Jordan, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. For more than a half-century, diplomats have haggled over these rivers' flows across borders. They have largely been successful: The rivers have not spawned armed conflict.

But the rivers are not at the heart of the story. Rivers are a renewable resource, refreshed every year by winter snows and spring rains. They are visible, as well, and when drought hits a river, its depleted levels are clearly evident early on. It is not so with wells.

The wells that feed much of the agriculture in the Middle East are a finite resource, and they are being exploited far beyond their capacity to restore themselves. Rains that fell on the earth tens of thousands of years ago are being poured into crops of cucumbers and tomatoes, figs and peaches, wheat and alfalfa. Once these underground reservoirs are used up, they are used up.

In the early years of this century, abundant signs have already emerged that the policies of the 1970s intended to create food security have in fact created societal vulnerability. Wells must be dug constantly deeper, and well-water is becoming less pure. Geologists worry that a hard landing is ahead. Yemen's capital, Sana'a, may run out of water in five years; Jordan's capital, Amman, may have only 15 more years of water.

Once the water runs out, there are no good choices. Not only will agriculture collapse, but cities will find themselves hard-pressed to find basic water supplies to serve their populations. Desalination is an option for some, but it is expensive and energy-intensive, especially if the end-users are far from the coast, at high elevations, or both.

When true water scarcity hits, the politics surrounding its use will go into overdrive. Water is political in any arid society, as the powerful farmers' lobbies in the American West can attest. Middle Eastern governments have rarely done well allocating scarce resources, and decades of plenty have made choices easier. That time is coming to an end.

In addition, some of the largest agricultural water users in the Middle East are also some of the most powerful families (if they aren't the ruling ones themselves), making curbs on water use especially hard to impose. Money and geography will soften the blow for some of the wealthier countries, especially in terms of providing relatively limited amounts of water for domestic use. Still, it is hard to imagine a future that does not involve the movement of millions of people, dramatic changes in living patterns, and a strong and widespread feeling of governmental failure.

The situation is not entirely hopeless. Revised agricultural policies, enhanced farming methods, and aggressive recycling of wastewater all would make a difference. So would efforts to improve government oversight of wells, pricing policies that encourage conservation, and renovations to water supply systems. A combination of government action and inaction has led to this problem, but only government action can blunt its most devastating effects.

To be successful, Middle Eastern governments must muster all of their political will, governance skill, and leadership to create new patterns of behavior. It is a high bar for any government to meet, let alone ones whose effectiveness has often been in question. But the alternatives are truly frightening.

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