Historically in the Middle East there has always been a struggle for nations to ensure adequate water supplies for their own citizens.
The fragility of water resources in the Middle East, particularly in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian West Bank territories, highlights the strategic role that water has played and still plays in the ebb and flow of regional politics.
There are numerous examples of countries, in times of war, regarding water facilities as legitimate targets for acquisition or destruction. Add to the equation examples of neighbouring riparian states simply arguing over water rights and it brings into sharp focus the importance and volatility of one of life’s essential resources.
In c 2400 BCE the Sumerians diverted water from the Tigris to the Euphrates to gain independence from Umma.
Plans to share the 32 billion cubic metres annual flow from the Tigris and Euphrates river system created tension between riparian states Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
During the 1960s Syrian instigated raids by Fatah guerrillas targeted Israeli water installations, most notably the Jordan-Negev water carrier. At the same time Syria started the process of diverting the River Banias although the Israeli air force subsequently destroyed the construction machinery needed to carry out the work.
More recently the Iraqi destruction of Kuwaiti desalination plants during the first Gulf War again highlighted the strategic nature of such installations.
Israeli Occupied Golan Heights
An examination of some of the reasons behind current tensions in the Middle East quite clearly shows that water plays a pivotal role. For example around half of the flow from the upper River Jordan originates in Lebanon and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Lake Kinneret Provides Much of Israel’s Drinking Water
Although the military advantages of the Heights are important to Israel, much of the seasonal water that rises there flows directly into Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and provides much of Israel’s drinking water. It’s hard therefore to see any negotiated peace treaty between the countries without an agreement to share the water resources.
West Bank Mountain Aquifer
Israel also takes around 300 million cubic metres of water a year from the West Bank mountain aquifer, which the Palestinians say is crippling their agricultural economy. According to the BBC correspondent Martin Asher this figure represents around 80% of the aquifers flow, leaving the Palestinians a meagre 20%.
Martin Asher continues by saying, “Israel says the proportion of water it uses has not changed substantially since the 1950s. The rain which replenishes the aquifer may fall on occupied territory, but the water does flow down into pre-1967 Israel.”
In an interesting study of water and war in the Middle East, Aaron T Wolf suggests that water was not a factor in the 1948, 1967 and some of the other Arab Israeli conflicts. He argues that the only instance when territory was needed in order to access water was a failed attempt by Israel to forcibly change the border with Lebanon to allow them access to the Wazzani Springs.
Twenty-five years ago former United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros- Ghali argued that, “the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics.” Although that has not happened, unless riparian states agree to an equitable share of water resources for all countries, the spectre of war over water remains a possibility.
More recently Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “future population growth will continue to put further strain on water supplies, creating the potential for further disputes.” There is little argument among interested parties that Boutros-Ghali’s statement still holds true today.
- Amery A and Wolf A T (editors), Water in the Middle East, University of Texas Press (2000)
- Asser M, Obstacles to Arab-Israeli Peace: Water, BBC