Water scarcity in the Middle East is hardly a new topic of interest and concern. However, recent analyses and forecasts about water resources in the region and in the world, have led many scholars and scientists to seek solutions to a looming monumental problem. Some feel that the problem of water scarcity, especially for some Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, poses a near-term catastrophic prospect. As examined earlier this month by Olivia Jones writing on the SUSRISblog the water supplies in the Middle East and North Africa are predicted by the year 2050 to be half what they are today, based on an assessment from the Frost & Sullivan consulting firm.
In a SUSRIS interview with Dr. Jon Alterman, Director and Senior Fellow at the CSIS Middle East Program referencing his study entitled Clear Gold - Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East, said that water was the most likely source of political and social unrest in the Middle East over the next twenty years. He cited the case of Yemen, with a population of 23 million, could be out of water in the next ten years.
“When a country like Yemen runs out of water people have to go to where the water is. Some Yemenis will move down from the highlands to the coast, others will seek to move somewhere else in the region and relocate. They have a largely young population. They will be angry over their dispossession, going into places like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other elsewhere. That can’t have a stabilizing effect.”
Besides the short-term issue of Yemen, Alterman touched on the potential problems of water in Saudi Arabia. He says that the country has become tied to patterns of water use which aren’t sustainable in the long term. They “have built tremendous desalination plants all around the Kingdom to deal with sharply increasing water demands rather than systematically reducing the amount of water that people use – partly for agriculture, partly for landscaping, and partly for personal use,” he added. However, not all countries have enough wealth to find alternative water sources.
Given the critical importance of water availability and the prospects for disruptions as supplies grow scarcer SUSRIS will continue to report extensively on this issue. Today we are pleased to provide for your consideration a comprehensive assessment of the management and politics associated with water scarcity in the Middle East by Dr. David Long, renowned scholar, author, diplomat and Saudi specialist. In his paper, Long provides the historical background on the politics of water in the region and brings the reader up to date. He notes that water availability and usage vary from country to country, based on things like topology, demography, climate change and desalination, concluding that: “If there is any basic conclusion that one can make, it is that the problems encountered in managing Middle East water distribution differ from country to country. Multiple countries might have to deal with the same types of problems, but strategies for dealing with it will have to differ according to overall conditions in each country.” As to the consequences of water scarcity, Long and Alterman are in agreement as to the repercussions, with Long writing:
“While any political uprisings over water scarcity would most likely be domestic and aimed at whatever regimes are in power at the time, there is a possibility of multinational conflict among countries that share water from one of the major rivers. There are no such conflicts at the moment, but there is a precedent of past clashes over water distribution from the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan and the Litani Rivers. For example, there is precedent for conflicts between Israel and Jordan over distribution of water from the Jordan, and between Israel and Lebanon over distribution of water from the Litani River. And as water resources in those countries continue to become more scarce, the likelihood of conflicts over distribution of water from those rivers could increase.”
Overview of the Politics of Middle East Water Management and Politics
David E. Long
Introduction: Ancient Reality and a Modern Creeping Crisis
For those used to simply turning on the faucet to get fresh water it is very difficult to appreciate the value of water in an arid region like the Middle East. The first time I personally experienced what it was like to be bone dry thirsty was driving off road in the desert of the Sudan. We had lashed two jerry cans of water to the top of the vehicle along with cans of gas and oil but one was nearly empty and the other had tipped over the previous night when we stopped to make camp. So we drove until we found a small oasis where a donkey was walking back and forth pulling up a leather bag of smelly, brackish water. It was the most beautiful tasting stuff I had ever had tasted.
The Middle East has been an arid place at least since the Stone Age, and the scarcity of water has been a reality throughout recorded history. It is not surprising, therefore, that throughout the Old Testament water is associated over and over with life, and the lack thereof with death. Isaiah 41:17-18 states:
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue fails for thirst, I the Lord will hear them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
Islamic scriptures also recognize the vital importance of water in an arid land. The ancient custom of showing hospitality to wayfarers in the desert is also found in the Qur’an. Among the stated recipients of Zakat, obligatory Islamic charitable giving that is one of the five Pillars of the Faith, are wayfarers in need. This is a reflection not simply of hospitality, but of the assumption that anyone in the desert in need of water could die, and the next time around the person offering hospitality could be the one vitally in need of food and water.
It has only been in the past century that modernization has enabled water to be so taken for granted in the Middle East as it has been in the West. And it has only been in the last half century that modernization has created an unprecedented shortage of an historically scarce resource.
A Modern Creeping Crisis
In modern times, the Middle East is facing a far greater water crisis than at any time in its history. It stems from a multiple combination of demographic, climatic, societal, economic and political factors. Demographically most countries in the region have experienced populations in recent decades. Traditionally, large families were the norm due to high death rates, but life expectancy has been greatly increased with availability of modern health systems. Climatically, most of the entire region is arid desert with a minimum of rainfall. Rapid urbanization has also greatly increased the per capita demand for water.
The growing crisis has not been the result of no awareness. The slow but steady growth of region-wide shortage of water has been observed for decades by people who follow the supply and demand for water in the region. The relative lack of national and regional political action to address the problem, however, has in many ways been much like addressing the long-term crisis coming for the global supply and demand for fossil fuels. In both cases, there has been a notable lack of attention given by both public sectors and private sectors in the Middle East to warnings of the growing crises and the geometric rise of financial, economic and social costs the longer it takes for policies to address the long-term costs. The reality is that although the current state of water resources in the Middle East has not yet reached major crisis proportions (Yemen is currently the only country facing near-term catastrophe), it is well on the way. For the most part, however, it has not yet a major domestic or foreign policy issue.
This is not to say that regional and international governments have totally ignored the problem. As the problems of water resources and management have grown, national and international research and studies have increased markedly. At the same time, however, it is difficult for a long-term crisis to compete with current major social, political and economic issues that demand immediate action. Given those circumstances, reactive domestic and foreign political issues generally take precedence over pro-active policy requirements. The danger is that by the time the water problem has reached major crisis proportions throughout the region, the social, political and economic costs will have become enormous while available national, regional and international policy solutions will have become appreciably lower.
Although the region as a whole can be considered arid, water availability and usage vary from country to country, based on topology, demography, climate change and desalination.
Although the region as a whole can be considered arid, there are major topological differences in the availability of water resources. Virtually every country, with the possible exception of Lebanon, has large areas of desert. Nearly all of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula are desert lands, and deserts make up large portions of southern Israel, eastern Jordan and Syria, and northwestern Iraq. Eastern Syria and western Iraq are basically extensions of the deserts in northern Saudi Arabia.
In desert areas, the annual rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. When rains do come, much of the water flows down dry river beds (wadis) or sinks into the sand, and relatively little of it can be stored or utilized. Traditionally, desert populations subsisted on water found in oases. Some are quite large, such as al-Hasa Oasis in the Eastern Provence of Saudi Arabia and the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Springs and wells supply drinkable water and can support limited irrigation of plants and fruit-bearing palm trees, but in general the availability of water in desert climates is severely limited.
Some Middle East countries depend heavily on rivers flowing through or bordering countries. The main source of water in Egypt comes from the Nile; In Iraq, the alluvial plain through which the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow have since ancient times been the main source of water and location of irrigated agriculture. The Euphrates flows through arid northeastern Syria before entering Iraq and provides water and some agriculture there as well. The Jordan River, which rises in Lebanon, is an important source of water for both Jordan and Israel as well as Lebanon. The Litani River, located entirely in Lebanon, is also an important source of water in the southern part of the country. The Arabian Peninsula, by contrast, has no permanent flowing rivers. Water from occasional rain storms that occur in the desert are usually carried off in wadis (dry riverbeds).
There are highland areas in several Middle East countries with sufficient rainfall for limited agriculture as well as some human consumption. The Lebanon Mountains lying west of the Biqa‘ Valley reach a height of 10,000 feet and the highest elevations are snow-covered during the winter. On the eastern side of the Biqa‘ Valley, the Anti-Lebanon Mountains straddle the Lebanese-Syrian border and also receive some rainfall. Iraq also has high mountains on its northeastern border with Iran that provide some water for irrigation and grazing in the valleys.
In Arabia, paralleling the Red Sea coast and inland from the Tahama, a semi-desert coastal plane, a string of mountain ranges extend all the way from the Jordan to Yemen. They reach a height of 10,000 feet in southwestern Saudi Arabia and over 12,000 feet in Yemen. In the east, Oman also has highlands, notably the Hajar range, the highest point of which, Jabal al-Akhdar (Green Mountain), rises some 10,000 feet. The southern ranges collect moisture brought by monsoon winds from off the Indian Ocean, particularly in Yemen. As noted below, however, Yemen is facing one of the worst water crises in the entire Middle East, due to the combination of a number of factors.
There is one other source of water in the deserts of central Arabia, fossil groundwater aquifers dating back to the ice age. The Saudis have tapped them for a number of years, using much of the water for irrigated agriculture in eastern-central Arabia. Because they are only marginally renewable, however, the Saudis have been forced to take draconian means to end the use of groundwater for irrigation.
Demography is a major factor in the growing water crisis. Two major demographic factors have exacerbated the expanding water crisis: the population explosion in nearly all Middle East countries, and rapid urbanization. The population of Egypt has doubled over the past 30 years and the birthrate in the Arab Gulf states, though now subsiding somewhat, has been even greater. As this has occurred, there has been increased urbanization, putting strains on water supplies.
The rapid population growth has been in part due to modern medicine, both in raising life expectancy and in lowering child death rates. Added to this is the fact that given before modern medicine there was a high death rate, having large families was a traditional means of insuring that one’s family, a major cultural unit in Middle Eastern society, would continue to thrive and there would be children to take care of their parents and grandparents in their old age. Although large families have become far more difficult to maintain economically, deep seated traditional cultural values such as having many children change far slower than economic needs and technological changes stemming from modernization.
The population explosion has been even greater in the oil producing states of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, when the UAE (then the Trucial States) first entered the oil age in the 1960s, it had an estimated population of less than 100,000; today the Emirati population is over 1 million and resident expatriates number about 4 million. Saudi Arabia in the 1960s had a population of about 3 to 4 million and public health care was still rudimentary at best. Today, Saudi nationals number just under 19 million and resident expatriates number about 8 million; and public health care is for state of the art.
The population explosions have declined throughout the region in recent years. But with such a huge increase in populations, the demand for water is likely to continue to outpace supply unless rapid steps to improve water management are put in place regardless of the decline in birth rates.
Urbanization in the Middle East has also put strains on water supplies. For example, in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, most people lived in towns and villages where many people got their water from wells. Today, over half the population is urbanized. Riyadh grew from 200,000 in 1970 to over 4.5 million today, and the government is creating new cities such as King Abdallah Economic City which is designed to have a population of 2 million.
The rapid urbanization has thus greatly increased the per capita use of water not only because of the population explosions but also because cities have had to modernize their water and sewage systems for growing populations . Up to the 1970s, the water system in Jiddah, then the largest city in Saudi Arabia with a population of 250,000, consisted of water trucks called “wayats” (from the “White” brand trucks imported from the US). The trucks brought fresh water from the Wadi Fatima, located at the edge of the escarpment mountain range behind Makkah. It was then pumped into tanks on the tops of houses from where it could flow down by gravity to spigots inside. Even then it was not sanitary and had to be boiled before drinking.
Although there is much controversy about the impact of climate change on water needs in arid areas, it appears that over time, precipitation throughout the Middle East is likely to diminish and temperatures to increase. Over time, therefore, rising temperatures in already hot climates are likely to have a very negative effect on the availability of water. It is more likely, however, that unless water conservation policies are adopted and strictly enforced, major water crises will have already become a major problem.
Ironically, oil producing states in the GCC countries, which have few natural water sources, have used oil income and oil and gas resources to invest in sea water desalination as an alternative source of water. Operating these plants to create drinking water requires a large amount of energy, however, and in recent years the GCC states have been turning to solar energy as an even cheaper and cleaner alternative for operating desalination plants.
Managing Middle East Water Markets: One Size Does Not Fit All
If there is any basic conclusion that one can make, it is that the problems encountered in managing Middle East water distribution differ from country to country. Multiple countries might have to deal with the same types of problems, but strategies for dealing with it will have to differ according to overall conditions in each country. There are some countries with great rivers within their borders and other countries with no rivers. There are some countries with great oil wealth and high per capita income that can increase their water resources through desalination. Other countries with little or no oil wealth and much lower GDPs will have to look for other solutions.
On the demand side, some countries have a higher population density in proportion to available water resources than other countries. And some countries’ resource management tolerates far more avoidable waste of water resources than other countries.
What all Middle East countries have in common, however, is that they all have to some degree experienced a period of rapid population growth over the past half century or more, giving rise to a growing demand for a decreasing amount of available water. And in addition to the vast increase in human demand for water, modernization has increased the demand for water for agriculture and industry. In short, the Middle East is facing an explosion of a gigantic creeping water crisis and the longer it takes to address this reality, the greater will be the social, economic and ultimately political costs throughout the region.
Looking to the Future
It will be difficult to succeed in avoiding a severe water crisis even if water management policies soon become more effective. As time goes by, maintaining cost-effective policies while balancing multiple demands will require ever more complex calibrations. On the other hand, national “damage control” policies are better than no policies at all.
Countries in the region are becoming increasingly concerned about the long-term consequences of the growing crisis. For example, Saudi Arabia has begun to limit the use of fossil aquifer water for agriculture and to conserve and recycle water resources. And as noted, all the GCC countries have been looking at solar energy to operate desalination plants. Other Middle East countries, however, do not have the capital that the oil producers have for creating alternative sources of water, and little has been done so far by them in conserving and recycling waste waters. There is still a long way to go.
One current reason for delay in addressing better and more comprehensive government management of water resources has been the spread of political unrest throughout the region. There has been concern expressed in the West about how the domestic popular uprisings might impact on the Middle East water problems. The short answer is that the uprisings are still too current to do more than speculate what longer-term directions they might take. Middle East water problems are basically long-term problems, and although specific recent Middle East political uprisings are likely to be relatively short-term phenomena, they have created what is likely to be a long-term desire and ability to use of mass personal communications to attract large dissident groups demanding rapid solutions to complex, long-term issues.
It might be more useful, therefore, to turn the question around and ask what might be the likely impact of future failures of Middle East government management to avoid major water crises. Given the rapidity in which it is now possible for anti-government rage and frustration to be quickly organized into open opposition, it is not improbable that a major water crisis would become the rallying cry for immediate regime change no matter what political regime is currently in power.
Because the relatively recent realization of people and leaders throughout the Middle East of the magnitude of the threat of the regional water shortage crisis to their country’s social, economic and political stability, each country will have to face beginning roughly at ground zero in creating a strategy for how to deal with the crisis. One of the ironies of this situation is that some of the countries with the least natural water resources, i.e. the GCC oil producing states, have the capital and, with the exception of Bahrain, have a sufficiently stable political environment to make more rapid adjustments than their less affluent neighbors. At the opposite pole, Yemen, which normally has relatively greater natural water resources, but has political conflict impeding its ability to manage addressing the crisis, finds itself likely to be the first country in the region in which water shortage could become the main rallying cry for political uprisings extending the current political chaos.
Finally, while any political uprisings over water scarcity would most likely be domestic and aimed at whatever regimes are in power at the time, there is a possibility of multinational conflict among countries that share water from one of the major rivers. There are no such conflicts at the moment, but there is a precedent of past clashes over water distribution from the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan and the Litani Rivers. For example, there is precedent for conflicts between Israel and Jordan over distribution of water from the Jordan, and between Israel and Lebanon over distribution of water from the Litani River. And as water resources in those countries continue to become more scarce, the likelihood of conflicts over distribution of water from those rivers could increase. Likewise, the growing water scarcity in Egypt, which gets most of its water from the Nile, could be seriously threatened by countries upstream. Ethiopia plus Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Congo and Tanzania are seeking to amend the 1959 treaty which favored distribution to Egypt.
- Bleak Forecast Underscores Need for Water Use Policy Changes – SUSRISblog – August 5, 2011
- Mena water supply forecast to halve by 2050 – Rory Jones- The National – Aug 3, 2011
- “Clear Gold” – Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East: A Conversation with Jon Alterman – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – Jan 25, 2011
- Middle East Notes and Comment – Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – Middle East Program – January 2011
- Clear Gold: Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East – CSIS
- Middle East Program Launches “Clear Gold” Report (Video) – SUSRIStube.com
- Introducing the issue of water concerns in the Middle East – Yemen (Video) – SUSRIStube.com
- Introducing “Clear Gold: Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East (Video) – SUSRIStube.com
- Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia – Toby Jones – Book – Amazon Info
About David Long
David E. Long is a consultant on Middle East and Gulf affairs and international terrorism. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1962 and served in Washington and abroad until 1993, with assignments in the Sudan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. His Washington assignments included Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism for Regional Policy, a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and Chief of the Near East Research Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research Bureau. He was also detailed to the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, 1991-92, and to the United States Coast Guard Academy, 1989-91, where he served as Visiting Professor of International Relations and in 1990-91 as Acting Head of the Humanities Department.
A native of Florida, he received an AB in history from Davidson College, an MA in political science from the University of North Carolina, an MA in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the George Washington University.
In 1974 -1975, Dr. Long was an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies. While on leave of absence from the State Department, he was the first Executive Director of the Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1974-1975. In 1982-1983, he was a Senior Fellow of the Middle East Research Institute and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1987-1989, he was a Diplomat in Residence and Research Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown.
Dr. Long has been an adjunct professor at several Washington area universities, including Georgetown, George Washington and American Universities and the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has also lectured extensively in the United States and abroad on topics relating to the Islam, the Middle East and terrorism.
His publications include The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (co-editor with Bernard Reich, 4th ed. 2002), Gulf Security in the Twenty-First Century (co-editor with Christian Koch, 1998), The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1997), The Anatomy of Terrorism (1990), The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies (1985), Saudi Arabian Modernization (with John Shaw, 1982), The Hajj Today: A Survey of the Contemporary Makkah Pilgrimage (1979), Saudi Arabia (1976) and The Persian Gulf (1976, revised 1978).
- The Hajj and Its Impact on Saudi Arabia and the Muslim World – David Long – SUSRIS – Oct 13, 2010
- The Haj 1431/2010 – SUSRIS Special Section
- David Long Interview – The Hajj in Perspective – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – Nov 13, 2010
- Ministry of Hajj – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Books by David Long: