Patrick Clawson is senior fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies and senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly. The views expressed here are his alone.
Covenant over Middle Eastern Waters: Key to World Survival. By Joyce Shira Starr. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. 222 pp. $25.
From Scarcity to Security: Averting a Water Crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. By the World Bank. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1995. 32 pp. Free (paper).
Rivers of Eden: The Struggle for Water and the Quest for Peace in the Middle East. By Daniel Hillel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 355 pp. $30.
A Strategy for Managing Water in the Middle East and North Africa. By Jeremy Berkoff. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1994. 72 pp. Free (paper).
Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin. By Miriam R. Lowri. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 291 pp. no price.
Watershed: The Role of Fresh Water in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. By Stephen C. Lonergan and David B. Brooks. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre Books, 1994. 310 pp. no price (call publisher at 613-236-66163)
Joyce Starr of the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies baldly states in her subtitle that resolving Middle Eastern water disputes is the key to world survival. With this, she captures the overheated way in which otherwise sober politicians and analysts of the Middle East approach the topic of water. A shortage of water, it would seem, befuddles the mind no less than an excess of alcohol.
To understand the issue of water shortage requires some counterintuitive thinking. We tend to think of water as something consumed, but water only flows through -- it does not get used up. The urban dwellers' bathwater can, if managed properly, be used to irrigate crops. Much of the water used for irrigation drains back into rivers. This characteristic of water renders ambiguous the concept of "water supply," a notion that politicians, engineers, and the authors of most of the books considered here give too much prominence. Speaking about "the last drop of water," as does one Israeli expert quoted approvingly by Starr, is highly misleading.
Focusing on "water supply" as the crucial variable misleads in several ways. First, the quality of water is no less important than its quantity: there is salt and fresh water, then a whole variety of fresh waters. Few people drink untreated water, even in advanced countries with abundant fresh water. Different qualities are needed for each water use, and different types of treatment are applied to water depending on the source and the intended use. Often, the issue is not how much water is available but instead how much treatment is needed to provide water for the use envisaged.
Secondly, having water on hand when and where it is needed is a major concern. Many regions of the Middle East have ample supplies of water during the winter but lack sufficient quantities during the summer, when crops need irrigating and urban demand runs highest (for swimming pools, lawn watering, and the like). Some Middle East rivers, such as the Jordan's major tributary (the Yarmuk), lose much of their runoff in flooding. Ample storage -- such as diverting flood water into the Sea of Galilee -- does not change the overall water supply, but it can make the difference in alleviating the summer shortage.
Thirdly, and most important, focusing on "water supply" overlooks the basic fact that the amount of water available to the consumer depends on how much he is prepared to pay. Stephen Lonergan (a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, British Columbia) and David Brooks (a well-known Canadian environmental economist) explain how the supply of useful water in the Middle East can be increased by recycling, controlling evaporation from storage facilities, and limiting seepage from water canals.
SOLVING WATER SHORTAGES
Lonergan and Brooks are particularly good at pointing out that human society has developed an efficient system to deal with a scarce resource, which would seem to be readily applicable to water: the market. The market assures that the higher the price, the less a scarce resource is consumed and the more is supplied.1 They point out the vast potential to change water balances if the price is right. Modern fixtures can cut urban consumption in half. Some complex irrigation systems use a fraction of the water required by systems that are cheaper to install and run. And Levantine demand for water could be cut in half merely by changing the mix of crops, reducing the area planted with those that absorb large amounts of water for each dollar of value added (such as cotton) and increasing the area for those that are less water-intense (such as speciality flowers, fruits, and vegetables). Lonergan and Brooks provide many specific examples, often drawn from local sources, of low-cost steps that could be taken by Israelis and Palestinians to economize the use of scarce water.
Likewise, Starr offers surprisingly sensible conclusions at odds with the alarmist tone of her slim volume. She emphasizes the importance of charging the real cost for water; channeling revenues into water management, especially undramatic areas like water piping and sewage infrastructure; and privatizing water and sewage companies.
Fixing the Middle East's water problems does not take much money. The World Bank estimates in From Scarcity to Security that its action plan would require raising annual expenditure across the Middle East on water management from $4.5 billion to $6 billion.
That money would not only provide the Palestinians and Jordanians with sufficient water; it would also solve the water shortages that plague Saudi cities, bring ample clean water to the poor neighborhoods in Egypt, and reduce Morocco's vulnerability to droughts. And the bank estimates that 70 percent of that money can be raised by governments, mostly from fees charged for water, while private investors (for instance, farmers and industrialists) could finance another 5 percent. Those costs could surely be cut by adopting stronger reforms than the bank recommends, that is, by charging prices that are closer to full cost and by improving management through privatization. Only a small part of the cost would have to be met by foreign aid. Even under the World Bank's assumption that aid finances 25 percent of a $6 billion bill, that would be $1.5 billion a year. Given that the Middle East and North Africa received $9.5 billion in aid in 1993 according to the Bank, it would seem that there is ample money to solve the water problem if there is sufficient political will.
Why have these simple steps to economize water not been taken? Because of immense vested interests. The World Bank's study notes that the cost of irrigation water in Jordan is $1 per cubic meter, compared to a price of 2.5 cents; in Israel, the cost is about the same and the price is 40 cents. No country in the area charges farmers what it costs to provide them water, and Israel alone charges urban consumers the full-cost price. These facts explain much about why water is in short supply in the Middle East. The Middle East does have a water crisis: but it is a crisis of water wasted because it is so heavily subsidized by governments. Any plan to deal with its water problems must make price reform the first and most important step.
Despite its reputation in liberal circles for hardnosed insistence on market principles, the World Bank soft pedals the underpricing problem in From Scarcity to Security. It does not even mention too low prices in a listing of seven issues underlying the region's water crisis, nor does it mention raising prices in its proposed twenty-two-step action plan. The bank is too cautious about taking on the vested interests that are the cause of the Middle East's water problems.
In addition to underpricing, the poor institutional management of water ranks as a major problem. Middle Eastern governments generally insist that water be provided by government agencies with a record of bad management. Although experience the world over points to decentralization's resulting in better and lower-cost service, water service agencies are typically highly centralized. Bekoff's monograph is the best account of these institutional issues; unfortunately, he misleadingly presents these as the principal water problem of the Middle East.
Daniel Hillel, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Massachusetts, takes up the grandiose schemes (canals linking the Dead Sea with the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea) that present another danger to sound water management. While no fan of these projects, Hillel is too gentle in criticizing their impracticality. In the first place, they are uneconomical. Many would pay their costs only under highly optimistic assumptions; none would provide a rate of return equal to what could be earned by investing the money elsewhere.
Secondly, myriad political obstacles can arise to foil these great waterworks. For example, the proposed "peace pipeline" that would take water from Turkey to the lands to the south (the Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian theater and potentially to the Gulf Arab states) is politically impossible. Israel is not about to depend on water that Damascus could shut off. Nor will the Syrians allow Turkish water to transit their territory when they claim the Turks do not send enough Euphrates water across the Turkish-Syrian border. Starr brings these problems to life when she recounts the Middle East water summit she had organized for 1991 and then explains how Syrian intransigence sunk her entire project.
More generally, fears of what one's opponents are doing on their side of the frontier have greatly complicated sound water management. Take the Arab-Israeli water dispute, which has dragged on in part because of mutual suspicions and recriminations. The outline for resolving the issue was set out already in 1953-56 by Eric Johnston's U.S.-sponsored missions to establish a division of waters among Israel, Jordan, and Syria. The plan he proposed closely anticipated the water treaty Israel and Jordan signed in 1995. At the time, however, neither side was prepared to sign on to the Johnston plan, as Miriam Lowri, previously at the Department of Near Eastern Studies of Princeton University, explains in her excellent account. Instead, each side went ahead with its independent plans, leading to disputes in 1964-67 about Jordanian irrigation, Israel's national water carrier, and the Arab plan to divert the headwaters of the Jordan. When Egypt supported Syria in these disputes in the spring of 1967, a spiral began that led to the Six-Day War in June 1967.
Water disputes in the Middle East are by no means confined to those between Israel and Arabs. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq bitterly quarrel over the Tigris-Euphrates system. Egypt and the Sudan dispute the Nile's waters. Hillel's excellently written account analyzes these problems in the context of placing water and water disputes in Middle Eastern history from ancient times. He shows that control over water was central to prosperity in days gone by, when, unlike today, society had neither the technology nor the robust social institutions (like a well-developed market system) to adapt to shortages.
Water management in the Middle East faces the problem, Lowri explains, that "neither side [of the Arab-Israeli dispute] has been willing to engage in any activity that could help the adversary become stronger," even if the activity benefited both sides simultaneously. Lowri concludes pessimistically that the Arab-Israeli dispute (or, by extension, other deep-rooted conflicts) will not end by mutually beneficial small steps. Resolution of the high politics of the conflict must come first (or at least simultaneously). Perhaps, as Hillel expects, pragmatic cooperation over water can be a steppingstone to true reconciliation, but high political passions must be at least temporarily cooled. When the political climate is right, water issues long thought intractable can rapidly be solved, as the 1995 Jordan-Israel water treaty showed.
When it comes to water, Middle Eastern leaders not only beggar their neighbors; they also beggar their children. Hillel analyzes the destructive practice of tapping into underground water, stored over millennia. The multibillion-dollar Man-Made River scheme of Libya's Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi is a particularly insane example of this practice. By tapping underground resources hundreds of miles away in the Sahara, Libya's coastal regions are being converted into farmland. For a few decades, Libya will grow at enormous expense what it could import more cheaply. And at the end of that period, the land will revert to desert.
Libya's water programs typify Middle East water use problems. Politicians and engineers concentrate on how to increase supply. Then extra water is wasted on uneconomic uses. The economists' advice -- raise prices to promote more efficient use -- would be cheaper and more effective.
1 For further discussion of this topic, see Howard A. Cohen and Steven Plaut, "Quenching the Levant's Thirst," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1995, pp. 37-44.