In any discussions about the future of the Middle East, oil often tops the agenda. Yet, another critical resource, with perhaps greater regional consequences and relevance, is freshwater. Water is in high demand in this arid region—utilized at a much higher rate than it is replenished. By 2010, the water deficit (difference between supply of water and demand) is estimated to be at around 1 billion cubic meters. Complicating matters is the fact that the region’s water sources are shared, sometimes by political foes. As our next president considers how to defuse conflicts in this challenging region, water can provide a unique avenue for diplomacy and investment. After all, water is crucial for the enhancement of the Middle East’s municipal, industrial, and agricultural sectors. The United States can lead the international community in collecting needed funds for water augmentation related projects that may help bring an end to key conflicts in the region.
Israel and the Palestinians
Despite the over-reported acrimony, relations between Israelis and Palestinians remain relatively cordial when it comes to water. In fact, compared to the other final status issues (Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, and borders) the two water negotiating teams have come a long way. Water, as in many other protracted conflicts, has often helped to keep the parties talking. Still, several outstanding issues remain and the United States can help resolve them.
The two riparians share several water sources, notably the Mountain Aquifer. For the most part, the rainwater that replenishes this aquifer falls in the West Bank, but naturally flows into Israel. The Palestinians complain they have been denied access to their fair share of these waters.
The two parties already negotiated an interim water allocation agreement in 1995, granting the Palestinians additional water and drilling rights. The agreement also foresaw future Palestinian water needs in the West Bank. However, only a final status peace agreement will ultimately satisfy long-time Palestinian demand for definitive water rights. Indeed, after the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks, final water allocations were never stipulated. Should the two sides find a way to come back to the negotiating table, any future treaty will likely codify water allocations to the Palestinians from existing shared sources. However, since the Mountain Aquifer is already over-utilized, some of the Palestinian water may be expected to come from Israel’s current allocations. But since water is already scarce, both sides will have to look to augmenting water supplies through desalination and wastewater reclamation.
In anticipation of dwindling water resources, Israel has already started to embark on an ambitious desalination project. The first of these plants, the Ashkelon Seawater Reverse Osmosis Plant, with a capacity to desalinate about 100 million cubic meters (MCM), currently produces an equivalent of five to six percent of Israel’s total water needs. The price per cubic meter is about 52 cents. Currently, the price of water in Israel from regular water sources is about $1 per cubic meter.
Since the West Bank does not have access to the Mediterranean Sea, any desalinated water provided to the Palestinians would have to come from plants on the Israeli coast. Should a peace agreement one day be reached, it is believed that international donor grants would reduce the amount of money the Palestinians would need to expend on desalinated water. Donor funds could also reduce the amount of money spent on expensive pipelines necessary to bring the water across Israel into the West Bank.
Desalination will also be needed to supply the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. Currently, Gazans consume water with high concentrations of saline as well as nitrates from an overly utilized Gaza Aquifer. While this process can be reversed to some degree with investment in an updated water and sewage system, the Palestinian population requires at least an additional 30 to 40 MCM per year. This can only be obtained with desalination, and plans have already been drawn for such a plant by USAID. Recent violence, however, has halted the progress on this project.
Sewage reclamation and recycling could also become an important way to increase water supplies for the Palestinians. Reclaimed wastewater is critical in that it has numerous agricultural uses, and frees up water for consumption. While Israel already has one of the most ambitious wastewater reclamation efforts in the world, the Palestinians will require a great deal of assistance in this endeavor. U.S. and international assistance could help bring about the water systems that will be an integral part of any future peace plan.
It is certain that the above-mentioned water augmentation projects, particularly those incorporating Palestinian needs, cannot fully be implemented in a hostile political climate or in a political environment where other outstanding issues remain. That stated, resolving the water dispute and the water scarcity problem will be important to a future peace agreement and the stability of the parties’ relations.
Israel and Jordan
While Israel and Jordan successfully negotiated a water agreement in 1994, several water issues still remain. By 2010, Jordan is set to experience a deficit of about 200 MCM per year. Jordan is also suffering from a large amount of water loss due to pipe bursts and leaks, as well as water pilfering. In light of these critical challenges, Jordan recently launched a national campaign to yield additional amounts of water through wastewater reclamation, upgrading the country’s water distribution structures, and reducing wasted water. While the campaign is supported by private sector participation, international involvement is also necessary. Already USAID, in conjunction with France and Germany, has helped Jordan conserve its water. Continued investment and assistance will be critical to Jordan’s future, as well as that of its neighbors.
Both Israel and Jordan are already suffering from reduced water flows in the Jordan River, which separates the two countries and provides freshwater to both peoples. Accordingly, U.S. and international investment in desalination capacities will prove helpful.
One option worth considering is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Peace Conduit and Desalination Project. The project entails the transfer of seawater from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea via a 111-mile conveyance system. Given that the Dead Sea is 1,312 feet below sea level, the height difference can be utilized hydrostatically to desalinate the incoming seawater and supply Jordan, Israel, and perhaps even the Palestinians with freshwater. The project could also be used to reverse the declining levels of the Dead Sea, which has been another major concern. The brine produced from desalination could be discharged into the Dead Sea—reversing the deficit between inflow and outflow.
Israel and Syria
Israeli-Syrian talks regarding the Golan Heights over the years have largely failed over the inability to agree on access to Lake Tiberias (also known in Hebrew as the Kineret). Syria has consistently called for Israel’s full withdrawal to the infamous June 4, 1967 line and claims ownerships to the Tiberias waters. Israel rejects Syria’s demands, particularly since Israel derives about one-fourth to one-third of its water from the lake.
During the March 2000 peace talks between Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and U.S. President Bill Clinton in Geneva, Israel indicated that it sought to keep 400 to 500 meters of territory on the northeastern shore of the lake. Assad rejected the offer and died soon thereafter, leaving future negotiations in the hands of his son, Bashar.
While talks between Syria and Israel took place with the help of Turkey earlier this summer, Lake Tiberias will continue to pose a challenge to peace. American guidance in any future talks would need to include one of two approaches.
In the first scenario, Syria would be encouraged to soften its negotiation position with regard to the lake in exchange for economic incentives. In this scenario, Turkey would be pivotal; it could release additional allocations of water from the Euphrates to compensate for any demands Syria would want to make from the lake.
A second scenario envisions Israel softening its negotiating position. In this case, America’s assistance in water augmentation efforts would be necessary. Washington, together with the international community, could guarantee funds for Israel to create additional water through desalination and wastewater reclamation. Equally important would be America’s assistance in monitoring each side’s compliance with the agreement.
Of course, it is doubtful that the U.S. would engage with Syria, particularly in light of its designation as a state sponsor of terror. Syria’s relationship with Iran and Hezbollah will also have to be severed in lieu of any agreement with Israel.
The Turkey-Syria-Iraq Connection
As security in Iraq improves, the United States can increasingly focus its efforts on reconstruction and development. Indeed, the Iraqi government’s future success lies in its ability to provide basic public goods—food, electricity, and water. While it is endowed with an array of rivers and lakes, two major rivers that originate outside of Iraq are of greatest relevance to Iraq’s water wealth. The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers flow downstream from Turkey, then through Syria, and eventually reach Iraq.
Over the years Turkey has utilized its geographic position, along with its military and economic power, to dictate the way these rivers are shared with its downstream neighbors. Turkey launched a massive project that includes dams and irrigation projects on the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris—known as Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP) or the Southeastern Anatolia Project. Turkey’s goal is twofold: developing and harnessing the agricultural and hydropower potential of southeastern Turkey, while also contributing to the development of the predominantly ethnic Kurdish area.
The side effects of this grand project have been felt downstream. Syria and Iraq complain that Turkey has monopolized international waterways that need to be equitably shared and negotiated under international water law. In response, Turkey claims that while oil belongs to the Arabs, water belongs to the Turks. As such, Turkey has maintained an overall steady flow downstream, arguing that Syria and Iraq are entitled to what they need rather than what their rights might dictate. The political dispute and the uncoordinated actions of the three states have escalated several times in recent decades.
Turkey will need to allow water to flow freely to the south if stability in Iraq is ever to be achieved. However, even with ample water, much of the infrastructure for supplying water to Iraqi households is precarious. Refurbishment and expansion in some of Iraq’s burgeoning population centers will require additional and reliable sources of water. Agriculture will also be key to Iraqi development. Indeed, Iraq has the second largest agricultural potential in the Middle East and North Africa. It will therefore require additional water when assessments of its irrigation systems are addressed.
Much of this water will have to come from the Euphrates and Tigris. Thus, coordinated actions between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey will be crucial. Washington will be well advised to work with these states to forge an acceptable and equitable water sharing agreement. Iraq’s stability may very well depend on it.
The Next Administration
While water scarcity can lead to armed conflict, it often induces cooperation. If the next administration seeks to further engage the region, water solutions can be an effective diplomatic conduit. Diplomatic solutions to water conflict, however, must be accompanied by an investment strategy. As the United States and the international donor community assess how to utilize their monies for regional cooperation and development, investing in desalinization and other water augmentation efforts is a viable and practical option.
Water is an integral part of any peace agreement in this arid region. Efficient and practical solutions to lingering water disputes could only help stabilize relations between otherwise historic foes.
Shlomi Dinar is assistant professor in the Department of International Relations and Geography at Florida International University in Miami. He is author of International Water Treaties: Negotiation and Cooperation along Transboundary Rivers (Routledge, 2008).