Reflections on Water
Water is an obvious problem in the Middle East, an area by any measure arid. Water, not fertile land, nor other natural barriers, presents the principal constraint on agriculture in most of the region. Several countries depend heavily on water that originates in another state's territory (most notably Egypt, where more than 95 percent of its water comes from outside its borders). The region's rapidly growing population makes increasing demands for water even as most countries are at precisely that stage of economic growth (the lower end of middle income) when water demand rises most quickly.
Traditionally, analysts and politicians conclude from these strains that water is a major source of tension, and potentially, a grounds for conflict. A whole historiography, for example, maintains that the Six-Day War in 1967 was actually a fight over water: the Arab plan to divert the Jordan's headwaters led to Israeli retaliation which in turn led to Syrian mobilization, and so on.1 A selection of articles on the future of water management in the Middle East bears such titles as "Water Wars", "The Water Crisis: The Next Middle East Conflict," and "Water Conflict."2
The books under review reflect the significant progress beyond that blinkered view. For one thing, the "water shortage" theory reflects a poor understanding of the water cycle. For instance, most of the water "consumed" by urban residents typically becomes waste water that can be treated and used for agriculture. Water "supply" is as tricky a concept as "consumption": a hard winter rain can turn rivers into torrents, but unless captured by dams, it is of little use to farmers who need to irrigate their crops in summer. The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies volume includes, in its 173 page section on water, several essays that explain these sort of issues in clear terms for the layman, including Peter Beaumont on the Tigris-Euphrates and John Waterbury and Dale Whittington on Ethiopia's impact on the Nile. But the most important concept in the Yale volume is "virtual water," nicely summarized in J. A. Allan's essay. The production of every ton of a food commodity like wheat requires 1,000 cubic meters of water, which is enough to meet the annual drinking water needs of 1,000 people.3 By importing more of such water-intensive commodities as wheat—which incidentally are subsidized by most exporting countries—the Middle East could solve much of its water shortage.
Researchers have also made important advances in understanding the history of water management. Mostafa Dolatyar and Tim Gray walk through the politics of the Jordan River basin, the Euphrates-Tigris basin, and the Arabian peninsula, demonstrating that for all the talk about conflict, cooperation has in fact been more common, even among governments that deeply dislike and distrust each other. And where water has been most scarce—in the Jordan River basin and the Arabian peninsula—cooperation has been greatest; only in the Euphrates-Tigris basin, where water supplies are relatively ample, have the states had the luxury of refusing cooperation. And the prospects for future cooperation are even better than in the past, because as Dolatyar and Gray demonstrate, Middle Easterners are joining the rest of the world in placing increased importance on environmental protection. This focus on the entire ecosystem portends greater willingness to make sacrifices to benefit the region as a whole.
Dolatyar and Gray offer many other reasons for optimism about water management in the Middle East. Perhaps most striking and encouraging is to find an official of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Dolatyar) and a British academic writing a sober analytical account of what are some of the most emotional issues in the Middle East. For instance, while the Dolatyar and Gray analysis is in many ways unsympathetic to Israel, it is a solid piece of scholarship and more balanced than that of many American academics. The authors not only recognize the claims of each party; they also emphasize the scope for cooperation among all the Jordan River riparians, Israel included. Rather than a polemical statement of one side or another's rights, they carefully explain the competing principles about water, leading to the sensible conclusion that each side must compromise. In short, Dolatyar and Gray have written an important and hopeful book that deserves a wide audience.
Nowhere are the political problems relating to water as difficult to resolve as in the Palestinian-Israel theater. Alwyn Rouyer retells the long history of conflict, though generally in such a one-sided way as to be unreliable, e.g., he asserts the plainly wrong fact that Israel is to this day characterized by "the absence of a concept of individual property ownership" of land, which "remain[s] the property of the Jewish people and the state of Israel." Of marginally more interest is his 73-page account of the water issue since the 1991 Madrid peace conference. Rouyer is more interested in recording each side's declarations of their rights and providing his own recommended solution than he is of telling what has happened on the ground.
Martin Sherman is no more neutral than Rouyer, but his pro-Israeli account of the Palestinian-Israeli water issue has the great merit of extraordinarily rich data and of explaining the technical aspects. Every analyst and policymaker dealing with Israeli-Palestinian water disputes should read Sherman's clear but detailed accounts of exactly how the aquifers in the West Bank and Israel function and are affected by wells. They should go on to read his analysis of the alternatives for resolving Israel's water disputes with its Arab neighbors, for Sherman captures well the shortcomings of each conceivable alternative, including his preferred option of Israel retaining control over its water sources under land inhabited by Arabs. For instance, he explains why becoming totally water self-reliant—with a heavy use of desalinated seawater—would require considerable outlays to reorient Israel's water supply network, which now relies on water from the Jordan and from aquifers partly under the West Bank.
Sherman is certainly correct that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian disputes over water will be painful. But he is overly pessimistic when he implies that the pain will be too great for Israelis to bear; the peace process has already overcome worse barriers. As Dolatyar and Gray show, history has been on the side of cooperation over water, not of conflict.
1 For example, Miriam R. Lowi, Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 115-144. She relates that the January 1964 Arab League summit conference established the "Authority to Exploit the Waters of the Jordan River and its Tributaries," charged with diverting the headwaters of the Jordan from Israel; it also decided to set up a joint Arab military command under Egyptian leadership to defend the diversion works from Israeli attack. Then the September 1964 summit conference approved plans for the diversion and directed that work begin within a month. Before the end of 1964, the first clash with Israel over the diversion came. Battles continued over the next two and a half years, with especially serious ones in July-August 1966 (including aerial dogfights). In spring 1967, Jordan announced work on the main diversion dam was proceeding, leading to escalating tensions and the May mobilization of Syrian and Egyptian forces, which was the start of the slide into the June 1967 war.
2 Joyce Starr, Foreign Policy, Spring 1991; George Gruen, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1992; Peter Glieck, International Security, Summer 1993; Sharif Elmusa, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1997.
3 One cubic meter is the equivalent of 1,000 liters, or 2.7 liters per day – the amount that physicians recommend for daily adult consumption of liquids. Obviously, household use includes a lot more water - up to 10 times as much in very poor countries and up to 100 times as much in the United States (with its profusion of dishwashers, showers, and lawn sprinklers).