Water geopolitics in the Middle East

Shehab Al-Makahleh
Shehab Al-Makahleh
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In the 21st century, the Middle East will witness a new and unalike kind of war. Despite economic pressures, ethnic and sectarian dissections, terrorism activities, religious radicalism, organized crime and environmental crisis, the likelihood of water war has escalated in recent years in the region due to the scarcity of this natural resource and due to the drought waves for decades.

Water scarceness is of boundless geopolitical significance. Nihilists and visionaries likewise are susceptible to assume that water has or would have profound geopolitical insinuations. Water resources are a fundamental factor for local clashes in the region, fuelled by deteriorating economic development plans in the Middle East, which would exacerbate water war dynamics.

The Arab world is 14 million square kilometers, of which 87 percent is desert. About 50 percent of renewable Arab water resources are located outside the Arab region. This is evident in the trajectory of international rivers, such as the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Studies show that the share of Arab citizens in renewable water will shrink from 1200 cubic meters annually to 400 cubic meters per capita per year by 2025. Furthermore, 15 Arab nations have fallen below water poverty line, meaning that they will not be able to meet their basic water requirements by 2025.

Since water and food security are interrelated, and since economic, military and security aspects are of due importance for any country, a lack or absence of any of these elements would lead to either internal war or a regional war; thus, affecting the face and future of the region. In a panoramic view, the picture is becoming increasingly murkier as the Arab population continues to grow, while water resources are destroyed by armed conflicts or become scarce due to droughts which have depleted groundwater resources.

Renewable and non-renewable water resources have shrunk. This has been the case in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt; however, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been spending huge amounts of money on desalination process which would be adequate as long as oil and gas prices are high.

The Levant and Iraq have been amongst the worst affected by scarcity of rainfall and water shortages in the past two decades. Turkey insists that any agreement on sharing of the Tigris and the Euphrates water Syria and Iraq depend heavily on political harmony between the three countries. Of course, the Kurdish issue is the essence of any water deal between the three states as well as oil and gas cooperation.

Countries in charge should all sit and discuss water security for the generations to come to avert them any wars that would lead to enormous toll of deaths if conflicts break out

Shehab Al-Makahleh

The Israelis also recognize that the dearth of water resources is weakening their position strategically. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had been stressing on the interdependence of security and water. Shimon Peres, former head of the State of Israel, believes that water is more important than land, and that control of water sources makes Israel a geographically closed and independent country as no other neighboring country would dare threaten Israel’s sovereignty.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said that in fact (the Six-Day War) began the day Israel decided to turn the Jordan River water inside Israel by diverting the branches of the river to exercise more pressure on Jordan later on and to twist the government’s arm to accept Israeli conditions and terms.

The Israelis are also cognizant of the complexity of their water crisis. The water level of the Sea of Galilee has dropped to the lowest level in a century, and the salt water infiltrates heavily into the underground crevices. Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are among the countries most forced to settle water issues and reach an understanding on sharing their water resources. Jordan is one of the countries most affected by the water crisis, and the water agreement between Amman and Tel Aviv was essential in the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement. The question here is: Will Israel respect this deal in the future?

Regional water wars

At present, many factors can lead to insecurity and be the main causes of instability and war. Religious or ethnic differences, poverty, hunger and lack of resources are the most important. The geographical distribution of water is one of the major geopolitical dimensions of natural resources. This distribution is an important factor in the ability of governments to control these assets. Political reasons of war on natural resources including water is a sufficient drive to ignite new conflicts among Middle East countries as such a valuable resource is key to prosperity and development at all levels.

Will there be a war on water in the Middle East?

The 21st century is undergoing demographic increase in the Middle East, posing pressure on water. Economists believe that scarcity of water in the region is more threatening than anywhere else in the world. For millennia, this scarcity has played an essential role in determining political relations in the region. Ideological, religious and geopolitical differences have also been associated with water-related tensions.

Though competition over water resources in the Middle East region is very old, rivalry has intensified in recent years. To cite as an example, the Sudanese-Egyptian-Ethiopian competition over the Nile Water and the Syrian-Turkish-Iraqi rivalry over the Tigris and the Euphrates water can trigger a regional war for many years.

Future of Water Security

Climate change, low rainfall and poor water resources management, and the absence of a sound economic plan for water and soil use are among the factors that will lead to increased competition for wars over water resources. Israel is also trying to control Palestinian and Lebanese water sources in order to increase water productivity. Thus, water crisis and the inability of the countries of the region to manage such a calamity would be conducive to internal conflicts, which may affect food security and other vital interests of the region, leading to further battles on water.

To conclude, the countries in charge should all sit and discuss water security for the generations to come to avert them any wars that would lead to enormous toll of deaths if conflicts break out.


Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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