On the issue of water resources in the Middle East and North Africa


Water in the Middle East and North Africa (ME and NA) has always been a source of life. It is no coincidence that for many centuries the peoples inhabiting the region paid great attention to its extraction, conservation and rational use. ME and NA are among the most arid regions of the world. Most of the territory of many countries of the region is occupied by deserts and semi-deserts or steppe spaces scorched by the sun and almost devoid of precipitation. Thus, in Egypt, deserts cover over 90% of the territory, in Jordan — 85%, in Sudan more than 80%, in Syria — about 70%, in Israel — almost 60%.

In recent decades, the problem of providing water resources for ME and NA has become increasingly important. The region is inevitably approaching the line beyond which water shortages will actively inhibit the development of the states located here. The Middle East and North Africa occupies about 10% of the land, about 5% of the world’s population lives here, but at the same time only 1% of the world’s renewable fresh water reserves are located here, that is, the countries of the region are provided with water least of all on the Earth. Freshwater reserves per capita in the region are only one sixth of the world average, and they continue to decline. The situation is aggravated by the rapid population growth, the intensification of the industrial sector and agricultural production, the introduction of new cultivated areas (mainly irrigated), the allocation of land for industrial and civil construction, the pollution of fresh water sources due to the discharge of industrial effluents and untreated waste, runoff from the fields containing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, drainage of wetlands, irrational use of water in general. In addition, the climate, which is mostly semi-arid or arid and highly variable, continues to change, with drought becoming an increasingly common occurrence. At the same time, the available water sources (water layer and hydrological systems) are rapidly drying up. The total renewable water supply in the region is 2.4 billion m³ per year, while consumption exceeds 3 billion m³. The existing deficit is compensated by extracting water (without compensation) from ground and underground sources. Studies show that by 2025, most countries in the region will face a shortage of clean fresh water, and by 2050, scientists predict a halving of water consumption.

In most Arab countries, the population is growing, while water is decreasing in volume and deteriorating in quality. The situation is also aggravated by the inefficient use of water resources due to outdated technologies, especially in agriculture, and their management. Water losses in some countries reach 60% due to the inefficiency of the irrigation system and water supply networks. In some cases, the authorities even contributed to over-exploitation of water resources, without creating incentives to limit water consumption and its conservation. According to experts of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the stocks of non-renewable aquifers in the region, which are the main source of water for some countries, will decrease as demand for it increases.

Seven out of ten countries with the most water scarcity are in the Middle East. These are Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, as well as the Gaza Strip.

And if it is easier for richer and more stable countries, such as KSA, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, to solve the problem of the growing water crisis, actively investing huge amounts of money in desalination of sea water and improving the infrastructure in order to reduce water losses during its delivery to consumers (in this way they receive up to 70% of consumed water), then for most countries of the region such expenses are clearly not affordable. This is especially true for countries where conflicts occur. There, this problem only worsens. Thus, in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where significant damage was caused to the infrastructure of water management and land reclamation, as well as in the Gaza Strip and Jordan, which received a huge number of refugees from Syria and Libya.

The situation is complicated by the fact that water scarcity is inseparable from political and economic problems and security problems. Currently, in the Middle East and North Africa, water, along with hydrocarbons, is one of the main factors influencing the political situation and international relations, and is increasingly becoming a catalyst for confrontation. The rapidly growing demand for water is accompanied by a sharp aggravation of the contradictions between the parties involved in water disputes, which contributes to the transformation of ME and NA into one of the most acute and conflict-forming regions of the world. Thus, serious contradictions in the distribution of water resources exist between Turkey, Syria and Iraq (the Euphrates and Tigris rivers); in the Nile basin (Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan); between Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (Jordan river basin). There may be water disputes between some other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Failure to find solutions to water scarcity makes several countries in the region even more vulnerable. The water scarcity crisis limits the ability of individual communities to maintain livelihood security and political stability. “It is necessary to break this vicious circle in order to ensure restoration, peace, food and water security and sustainable development in the region”. Political observers emphasize that “cooperation in the field of water supply could be the first step towards establishing normal interstate relations in the Middle East, based not on religious or national contradictions and the struggle for territories, but on people’s natural daily need for water”.

And yet, to say that nothing is being done in the matter of water use and conservation of water resources, including by international organizations, is not entirely true. “But this is a drop in the bucket, practically not affecting the solution of the problem”. Experts emphasize that ME and NA “need a regional integrated water plan, the joint development and subsequent implementation of which could become the basis for the subsequent reign, if not peace in the Middle East, then at least relative calm. Cooperation in the successful management of scarce water resources is more beneficial than the continuous struggle of all against all”. Thus, in cases when conflicts begin to disappear, the priority should be the restoration of basic water supply and sanitation services.

A very important element in solving the problem of water supply should be joint work to solve it both within individual countries and between them. Joint actions and partnerships are of great importance given the scale and commonality of the problems, the relatively small size of many countries in the region and the transboundary nature of such fundamental issues as climate change and shared water resources.

Possible solutions to the water problem could be the construction of desalination, pumping and water supply stations, water pipelines and an extensive system of transboundary water utilities, wastewater treatment plants, restoration of water facilities and land reclamation, the introduction of “smart” (drip) irrigation technology in agriculture, use for irrigation of treated wastewater, a review of the structure of agriculture in the direction of refusing to grow water-intensive crops.

In this, the Arabian monarchies could help financially many countries in the region, and Israel, which has the most advanced desalination technologies in the world, could build factories, train personnel to work for them, and maintain the enterprises in constant working condition. In addition, in Israel and the UAE, experience has been gained in organizing the rational use of water, in particular drip irrigation. Significant progress has been made in Israel in the reuse of water. For example, at least 65% of the water used to irrigate crops is waste water.

In the meantime, the water crisis in the region has reached an unprecedented high level. Against the background of depletion and degradation of natural ecosystems, the highest growth rate of population growth is observed, which further exacerbates the situation with water. If the Middle East and North Africa cannot solve the water problem together, they will be doomed to continue violence.


The most significant water resources of the Middle East are in the east and southeast of Turkey, in the northern regions of Iraq and Iran. They are “transported” to water scarcity zones through a system of rivers and underground sources. The basis of this system is the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which largely supplies water to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the “controlling stake” is in the hands of Turkey, on the territory of which two rivers have their origin. In Ankara, the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates are considered “their natural resources”. Since the 1980s Turkey implements the ambitious project “Southeast Anatolia”, which includes 22 dams, 19 power plants and other structures. Implementation of the project will increase the area of ​​irrigated land by 1.7 million hectares. At the same time, the volume of water entering Syria and Iraq will decrease by almost half. The political importance of the project is very great. In Ankara, control over water flows to neighboring countries is considered as a key element of the “future power” of the Turkish state and a “regulator” of neighbors’ policies. This policy of Ankara causes discontent in Damascus and Baghdad, as it threatens the national interests and security of Syria and Iraq. According to experts, the three countries themselves are unlikely to be able to agree among themselves and make mutual concessions due to the fact that each of them pursues its own interests. In addition, the distribution of the water of the Oront River (in the Turkish territory it is called Asi) is a matter of dispute between Syria and Turkey.

Iraq’s water infrastructure has been in disastrous condition over the years of the war. The land reclamation system is in a deplorable state due to hostilities and mismanagement. This leads to soil degradation and a reduction in agricultural land, which is fraught with increasing Iraqi dependence on food imports. In addition, the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates very quickly loses water. In Mesopotamia, traditionally considered the breadbasket of Iraq, the soil, due to a decrease in the volume of incoming water, is becoming more and more salty, not adapted for growing crops.

In Syria, during the armed conflict that began in 2011, the problem of water supply sharply worsened, and the area of ​​cultivated agricultural land was significantly reduced. According to the UN, about 15 million Syrian citizens do not currently have access to water. Water has become a source of requisitions from the local population for ISIS militants (prohibited in the Russian Federation). Terrorists used water as a weapon against the population of Aleppo. The deterioration of access to water and sanitation services has led to an increase in the incidence of waterborne diseases in the country.

The issue of the distribution of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates between Syria and Iraq has not been resolved either. Currently, this issue is not seriously discussed between Damascus and Baghdad, but in the future it will undoubtedly worsen.

The water problem is rightfully considered one of the main components of the Arab-Israeli conflict. First of all, we are talking about the distribution of the waters of the Jordan River basin and a number of other water sources located in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and in Syria. The most acute water problem is in Jordan and Israel. If the current growth rates of their population and economy continue, then in 20-30 years all the fresh water of Israel and Jordan will be used only as drinking water. Under a peace treaty between the two countries (1994), Israel annually allocates 50 million m³ of water to Jordan with a subsequent increase to 100 million m³. However, between the parties there were unresolved issues regarding the distribution of the waters of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers. One of the reasons for Israel’s reluctance to return Syria the Golan Heights occupied in 1967 is that this region is rich in water resources, which are used not only by Israel, but also by Lebanon, Palestinians, Jordan, Syria. Lebanon and Israel argue about the distribution of the waters of the Lebanese river Litani. The Israelis believe that Lebanon is well provided with fresh water and therefore part of the waters of Litani can be used for the needs of the northern regions of Israel, with which Beirut does not agree. Israel also claims the waters of the Vazzani and Khasbani rivers, originating in Lebanon. The water issue is acute between Israel and the Palestinians. A number of issues regarding the distribution of the waters of the border rivers between Syria and Jordan are unresolved. There is every reason to believe that Israel is unlikely to be able to independently agree with its Arab neighbors on the sharing of water resources.

Jordan faces severe water shortages. The country consumes more water than is available from renewable sources. One of the largest consumers of water is agriculture (up to 50%), which accounts for only 3% of GDP. Current water supply per capita is 150-200 m³ per year. Even before the influx of Syrian refugees into the country, Jordan’s population was projected to increase from 6 to 9 million by 2025, which would lead to a sharp decrease in per capita water supply — up to 91 m³. One of the reasons for this may be the deterioration of water supply networks. In the whole country, 40-50% of the water extracted from the aquifer is lost due to leaks in the pipelines. In the north of Jordan — up to 70%. The amount of water lost annually could satisfy the basic needs of at least 2.6 million people. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are participating in an unofficial race to deflate the Disi aquifer, which Amman shares with Riyadh. The distribution of the waters of one of the tributaries of the Jordan, the Yarmouk River, brings tension to relations with Syria.

A difficult situation with water supply is in the Gaza Strip, where there are no rivers. Water is supplied by the coastal aquifer, into which salt water seeps from the Mediterranean Sea, as well as untreated sewage that flows into the sea from Gaza, which, in turn, can trigger pandemic diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Large losses of water in Gaza are associated with a poor system of water pipes. Currently, according to UN estimates, more than 80% of the 1.8 million residents of the Palestinian enclave are forced to buy imported bottled drinking water.

The problem of “vanishing” of water resources against the background of a not decreasing population growth is rightfully considered the most important problem of Egypt, and providing the country with a sufficient amount of Nile waters is one of the highest areas of national security for Egypt. Here at the forefront is the question of the distribution of the Nile waters. In this matter, Cairo has always taken and continues to take a tough stand to uphold its interests. Meanwhile, Egypt is located in the lower reaches of the Nile, and therefore depends on the countries located in the upper reaches of the river. To date, the greatest threat to Egypt is the construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile by Ethiopia. According to experts, this will drastically change the situation with the spillway into the Nile itself, will negatively affect the irrigation process in Egyptian agriculture and will aggravate the problem of food security in the ARE in the short term. At the same time, the dam is vital for the economic and social development of Ethiopia. Cairo is trying to influence this process in the right way for itself, using a combination of methods of subversive warfare and diplomatic pressure. Recently, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been negotiating with the mediation of the United States with a view to reaching an agreement on the distribution of the Nile, which in general is difficult enough.

One of the countries with the least water supply is Yemen, where there are no rivers, and the country is completely dependent on underground aquifers and rainwater. Tribal struggles for water have long become everyday routine for Yemen. Up to 80% of conflicts in rural areas concern water. The amount of water in Yemen per person per year does not exceed 120-140 m³. According to expert estimates, the country’s underground sources may be depleted in the coming years. The armed confrontation in Yemen and the humanitarian catastrophe further exacerbated the shortage of water resources. Three quarters of Yemen’s 20 million people lack access to clean drinking water or proper sanitation, which is the main cause of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality, especially in rural areas.

The Arabian monarchies, with the exception of Oman, are characterized by an absolute shortage of water resources. The lack of renewable water resources in this region is accompanied by an arid climate, low rainfall, high evaporation, and the presence of mostly non-renewable groundwater. With sufficient financial resources, the GCC states solve the problem of water supply mainly through the construction of desalination plants.

Institute of the Middle East.

On changes in the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa (December 16 — 22, 2019 / December 23 — 29, 2019). Annex.

part 1 — http://www.iimes.ru/?p=64828

part 2 — http://www.iimes.ru/?p=65060


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