KIME Middle East Studies

 중동경제연구소 Korea Institute of the Mideast Economies 

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Water Resources in the Middle East: Conflict and Management

중동의 수자원: 분쟁과 관리

By Seong Min Hong, KIME Presdent


1. Introduction

2. Water Resources in the Middle East

3. Water Conflict and Potential 'Water Wars'

4. Water Management under International Law

5. Concluding Remark


중동지역에 있어서 물의 부족은 중동지역을 지구상에서 가장 다루기 어려운 수자원 분쟁지역으로 만들면서 역사적, 정치적 종교적 긴장 등으로 복합적으로 관련돼 있다.

물의 부족에 부가하여 중동의 물은 주된 세가지 수로: 티그리스-유프라테스강, 나일강 요르단 강으로부터 발원한다. 수자원에 관한 상호의존은 1967 중동전쟁과 이란-이라크 전쟁과 같은 대치상황을 유발함으로써 물이 분쟁을 위한 기폭제가 되고 있다. 이와 관련하여 논문은 중동에 있어서 물전쟁 분쟁과 가능성을 고찰한다. 본고는 또한 국제법하에서 지역의 수자원 관리를 고찰한다.

석유는 항상 중동분쟁의 원인으로 현재까지 인식되고 있다. 그러나 물은 이제 중동에 있어서 석유로부터 분쟁의 원인을 대체하고 있다.

중동에서 수자원 분쟁은 협력과 합의를 통할 해결이 가능하다. 그러나 국제법은 유프라테스나 티그리스강의 물의 배분을 정할 없다. 그럼에도 불구하고 법은 협상을 위한 기본을 제공한다. 하지만 수자원 관리의 문제는 그것을 관리하는 국제법이 개발되어 있지 못하고 모순적이며 강제력이 없다는 사실 때문에 기능을 발휘하지 못하고 있다.

수자원의 관리와 배분은 단순히 분리할 없는 것이다. 개선된 관리는 높은 경제적, 사회적, 정치적 비용과 정상적으로 일치한다는 사실에 기인하고 있다는 것이 이유이다. 특히 관리의 옵션이 해수의 담수화나 물의 수입과 같은 전통적인 자원의 개발을 의미하는 경우에는 더욱 그렇다. 중동에서 수자원 문제와 관련하여 가장 주요한 문제 하나는 이스라엘과 PLO간의 평화협상이다. 이는 중동에서 물문제를 평화적으로 해결하는 중요한 요인이 되고 있다. 

* This paper was read at 2004 International Symposium of KAMES, PUFS, Pusan Korea on 15-17 October 2004.






 Water Resources in the Middle East: Conflict and Management

     1. Introduction

The great civilizations arose on the banks of great rivers. These civilizations built large irrigation systems and made the land productive. The civilizations also collapsed relying on the water supplies failed or were improperly managed. The water resources in the 21st century is considered as the most important increasing worldwide concern about human health, the environment, and the path towards sustainable development. Of all the natural resources needed for economic development, water is one of the most essential, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions.

At any rate, water is the most precious resource on the planet as humanity enters the 21st century. Water is an essential element of daily life. Water is also required for producing many industrial products, for generating power, and for moving people and goods - all of which are important for the functioning of a modern, developed society. In addition, water is essential for ensuring the integrity and sustainability of the Earth's ecosystems.

In the Middle East, water resources shared by Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Syria are not sufficient to meet growing demands for freshwater needs. Annual human use of the region's water resources currently surpasses the safe or sustainable annual freshwater yield. Future deficits are predicted to be quite severe.

The scarcity of freshwater in this region compounded by the historical, political and religious tensions, makes the Middle East one of the most intractable water disputes to be found anywhere on the planet. Adding to its scarcity, much of Middle Eastern water stems from three major waterways: the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile and Jordan River systems. Mutual reliance on these resources has made water a catalyst for conflict, spurring confrontations such as the 1967 War and the Iran-Iraq War.

Regarding water resources, this paper aims to examine the conflict and potential 'Water Wars' in the Middle East. It also reviews the management of water resources in the region under International Law. This paper, thus, consists of 1) Introduction, 2) Water Resources in the Middle East, 3) Water Conflict and Potential 'Water Wars', 4) Water Management under International Law, and 5) Concluding Remark.


2. Water Resources in the Middle East


1. The Crisis of World's Water

Global freshwater consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 - more than twice the rate of population growth. About one third of the world's population already lives in countries considered to be `water stressed' - that is, where consumption exceeds 10% of total supply. If present trends continue, two out of every three people on Earth will live in that condition by 2025.

According to Vital Water Graphics January 2003, agriculture and domestic use each wasted 800 cubic km of water, and industry 400 cubic km in 2000. By 2025, the report estimates, those figures will have risen to 1000, 1100 and 500 cubic km respectively. By then, an estimated 300 cubic km of water will be lost as well through evaporation from reservoirs, up 50% from 2000. AS you see in <Table 2 -1>, the freshwater consists of very small portion among total world water.

<Table 2 -1> The World's Water











locked in glaciers




lakes and rivers


Source: UNEP, 2003

In recent years the availability of and access to freshwater have been highlighted as among the most critical natural resource issues facing the world. The increase in water withdrawals implies that water stress will increase significantly in 60% of the world, including large parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The UN environmental report GEO 2000 states that global water shortage represents a full-scale emergency, where`the world water cycle seems unlikely to be able to adapt to the demands that will be made of it in the coming decades'(UNEP,1999). Similarly, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) emphasizes that `freshwater is essential to human health, agriculture, industry and natural ecosystems, but is now running scarce in many regions of the world'(WWF,1998).

The water crisis that exists is set to worsen despite continuing debate over the very existence of such a crisis. For many years over the past decades, 6,000 people and mainly children under five have died every day. Descriptions more severe than `a crisis' have been associated with events in which 3,000 people have lost their lives in a single day. What phrase can be used for the recurrence of higher loss of life every day of every year over decades? That the world is in a water crisis is undeniable, and the time to take action is now.

Chapter 18 of Agenda 21 (UN, 1992), adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, defined the overall goal of water policy developments. The Rio Declaration stressed the importance of human being's role as the first principle: Human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. Obviously water is inevitable factor to continue the sustainable development. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) elaborated the five theme areas in Johannesburg, August/September 2002. These include water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. Furthermore water is relevant to all three strands of development - social, economic and environmental. Agricultural sector is still important for water use in the world.

Water resources can only be understood within the context of the dynamics of the water cycle. These resources are renewable (except for some groundwater), but only within clear limits, as in most cases water flows through catchments that are more or less self-contained. Water resources are also variable, over both space and time, with huge differences in availability in different parts of the world and wide variations in seasonal and annual precipitation in many places. This variability of water availability is one of the most essential characteristics of water resource management. Most efforts are intended to overcome the variability and to reduce the unpredictability of water resource flows. Both the availability and use of water are changing. The reasons for concern over the world's water resources can be summarized within three key areas: water scarcity, water quality and water-related disasters. Each is discussed briefly here and expanded on throughout this report.

2. Water Shortage in the Middle East

According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa region contain less than one percent of global water resources, while having five percent of total world population. The number of water scarce countries in the Middle East and North Africa has risen from three in 1955 to 11 by 1990, and another seven more, including Syria and Egypt are expected to join the list by 2025. With population rates among the highest in the world, Middle Eastern countries are consuming water at a much higher rate than can be replenished naturally. <Table 2-2> shows water resources in the Middle East.

<Table 2-2> Water Resources in the Middle East


River Flows

Annual Withdrawal of



Water Resources

Water Use

D Ind Agr


In Out


Total /c Share

km³/yr m³ %

Total /c

km³/yr m³
















































































S. Arabia

































Source: Marwan Haddad, “An Approach for Regional Management of Water Shortages in the Middle East,” Ali I. Bagis, ed., Water as an Element of Cooperation in the Middle East (Ankara: Hacettepe University), 1994, P. 71.

Note : OPT: Occupied Palestinian Territory (The West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). /c = Per Capita, Share = Percent of annual withdrawal to internal renewable resources, Km = kilometer; D = domestic; Ind = Industrial; Agr = Agricultural, In = Into the country from other countries; Out = Out of the country, UAE = United Arab Emirates

This depletion has been compounded by wide spread domestic pollution which has contributed to the general decline in the quality of available water. Expanding initiatives in agriculture and industry have further reduced regional water availability. Driven by increasing populations, many countries have begun to over exploit their agricultural capabilities, resulting in the reduction of arable land. As result, per capita water availability in the Middle East has become the worst in the world representing only 33 percent of Asian and 15 percent of African levels. Nor have current desalination projects in the region proven capable of meeting growing demands. The high energy and large cost associated with desalination has limited efforts to the oil rich Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia. The extent of the emerging water crisis is evidenced in a recent statement by Israel's Minister of Environment, Dalia Itzik, who warned that “within three or four months, and especially next year, if there is drought this winter we might have no water in the taps, but what there is will be undrinkable.”

In the case of Renewable fresh water resources there is no universal uniform on it since there is no international consensus on how to define and measure renewable fresh water resources. As seen in <Table 2-3>, the list of water-scarce countries in 1955 was seven including three Middle Eastern countries: Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait. By 1990, 13 were added among them eight from the Middle East: Algeria, Israel/Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. UN studies anticipate adding another 10 countries by the year 2025 seven of them are from the Middle East: Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria. This means that by the year 2025 some eighteen countries in this troublesome region will suffer from water shortages. 

<Table 2-3> The Annual Renewable Fresh Water Available Per PERSONAL Ranked by 1990 Availability ( in Cubic Meters)

























































Saudi Arabia




























Source: Adel Darwish, Water Wars, 1994.

The Middle East is also a region where figures of water withdrawal as percentage of renewable water supplies are among the highest in the world, while the renewal rate is rather slow because of the arid nature of the land.

3. Water Conflict and Potential 'Water Wars'


1. Water Conflict in the Middle East

Shortage of water could lead to major political conflicts around the world. Over 20 countries depend on the flow of water from other nations for much of their water supply. For instance, the Nile flows through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. If population rises as expected in these countries from 150 million today to 340 million in 2050, the UN has suggested that competition for increasingly scarce water resources may lead to regional conflict. Many as essential thus see investment in international diplomacy alongside aid.

The crisis over water in the Middle East is escalating. Despite existing agreements, dwindling resources - increasingly affected by pollution, agricultural/industrial initiatives and population growth - have elevated the strategic importance of water in the region. The number of water-scarce countries in the Middle East and North Africa has risen from 3 in 1955 (Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait) to 11 by 1990 (with the inclusion of Algeria, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen). Another 7 are anticipated to join the list by 2025 (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria).

Adding to its scarcity, much of Middle Eastern water stems from three major waterways: the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile and Jordan River systems. Mutual reliance on these resources has made water a catalyst for conflict, spurring confrontations such as the 1967 War (fomented by Syria's attempts to divert water from Israel) and the Iran-Iraq War (which erupted from disputes over water claims and availability). Recognition of water's role as an obstacle in interstate relations has spurred numerous attempts at resolution, including diplomatic efforts (most notably the 1953-1955 U.S.-brokered Johnston negotiations) and bilateral and multilateral treaty efforts, ranging from the 1959 Agreement for the Full Utilization of Nile Waters to the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Treaty. Increasingly, however, and despite these agreements, nations have begun to come into conflict over water. The natural scarcity of regional supplies, historically a point of contention, has been reduced to crisis proportions by a variety of factors.

Influenced by declining availability and reductions in overall quality, crisis zones have begun to emerge along the major rivers of the region. Evolving conflicts - between Turkey and Syria over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; in the Jordan River Basin between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan; among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile River; and within Saudi Arabia - are manifestations of water's growing role as a strategic and political force.

 Facing historical, psychological and political barriers that have impeded cooperation and deadlocked diplomacy, nations in the region are sliding toward conflict over water. Water's growing role in the emerging hydro politics of the region has stressed the need for a new approach to safeguard this diminishing resource. The integration of water into developing strategic cooperation frameworks becoming visible among regional states could facilitate the protection and preservation of water resources. This interaction could eventually pave the way for the long-term security of Middle East water. In light of the formidable barriers that have prevented agreement to date, such an approach may represent the only method by which to turn back the tide of the new water politics of the Middle East.


  1. Turkey - Syria (The Tigris and Euphrates)

The tigris and euphrates form a complex water system. The Tigris and Euphrates are two of the longest and most famous rivers in the world. Both rise in the high mountains of northeastern Anatolia and flow down through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and eventually join to form the Shatt Al-Arab 200 km before they flow into the Gulf. Between them they account for about 28.5 per cent of Turkey's total surface water flow. However the geography of the two rivers is very different.

The contribution from each riparian country also varies sharply. Contribution of Turkey, Syria and Iraq to the Euphrates and their demands is shown in Figure 1.

(Figure 1) Contribution of Turkey, Syria and Iraq to the Euphrates and their Demands (in Billion cubic meters per year)

0x01 graphic

Source: Republic of Turkey, Water: A source of conflict of cooperation in the Middle East? 05-10-01.


Despite the signing of a protocol ensuring Syrian access to Euphrates water in 1987, Turkish development efforts have increasingly threatened to marginalize and even eliminate Syrian access to water. Most notably, the Southeast Anatolia (GAP) Project has provided Turkey, situated at the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates River system, extensive control over the flow of Euphrates water. Turkish disruption of the flow of the Euphrates in January 1990 to fill water reservoirs in front of the Attaturk dam highlighted Syrian vulnerability to Turkish control over upstream water resources. Further complicating the issue is Syria's continued support for the extremist PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party) in its insurgency against Turkey, a move that has prompted Turkey to threaten a blockade of water.

In the future, Turkish-Syrian disputes over water could escalate into regional conflict. Both Syria and Iraq, situated downstream from Ankara, have become increasingly threatened by Turkey's large-scale consolidation efforts. Once fully operational, the GAP Project may reduce Euphrates water to Syria by 40% and Iraq by up to 80%. Such activity, critical for Syria, will also be significant enough to substantially affect Iraq, currently somewhat autonomous because of its access to Tigris River water. In addition, aggressive Turkish acquisition efforts, currently concentrated on the GAP Project, are anticipated in the future to focus upon Tigris River water as well. Though currently divided in their opposition to Turkish efforts, such activity could nudge Syria and Iraq - despite their differences - into a strategic alliance, possibly destabilizing the region and precipitating a regional conflict.


2) Jordan - Israel - Palestinian Authority

The Jordan River Basin has also emerged as a flashpoint for conflict over water. Resources in the area, suffering serious overuse as a result of pollution and population growth, have increasingly impacted interstate relations. Between Jordan and Israel, water resource issues are reaching a fever pitch.

Despite the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian Treaty - which established comprehensive guidelines regulating the distribution, preservation and availability of water from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers - conflicts over water have risen to the forefront of relations between the two countries. Jordan, fed only by underground sources and the Jordan River, has experienced an escalating water deficit - one that is expected to reach 250 million cubic meters (nearly 1/3rd of current annual consumption) by 2010. At the same time, Israel - currently utilizing almost all-available water from its National Water System (consisting of the West Bank Mountain Aquifer, the Coastal Aquifer and the Lake Kinneret Basin) - has been forced to resort to over exploitation of available resources for expanding agricultural and industrial ventures.

As a result, water has become a critical bone of contention between the two countries, a tension exacerbated by the recent effects of the region's harsh climate. Facing a looming deficit in water availability brought about by lingering drought conditions, Israel halved its annual allocation of 2 billion cubic feet of water to Jordan in March 1999. Jordan, hit hard and lacking adequate desalinization capabilities, has in turn found itself unable to sustain current levels of consumption, declaring drought conditions and mandating water rationing in May 1999.

In the north of the country, growing Syrian designs over the Golan Heights, where Israel has remained firmly entrenched since the 1967 War, threaten to jeopardize another source of dwindling Israeli water, the Lake Kinneret Basin. At the same time, the possibility of Palestinian control of the West Bank suggests, at the very least, a further reduction of available water to Israel, currently utilizing the majority of the West Bank Aquifer. Due to an amalgam of factors, Israeli security prerequisites for dealing with the Palestinian Authority - the ability to protect its water sources from hostile action, pollution or co-option - are not currently met, making water a critical emerging issue of dispute between the parties. These fundamental disagreements have deadlocked talks between the parties and edged them closer to confrontation.


3) Egypt - Sudan - Ethiopia

The beginnings of a crisis have materialized along the Nile as well. Ethiopia, making movements toward state building for the first time in a generation following the overthrow of the communist Mengistu regime in 1991, has focused upon water distribution as an issue of paramount concern. The North African country, currently ravaged by conflict with Eritrea, possesses neither the economic stability nor the investor confidence to facilitate desalination efforts. Consequently, Ethiopia has increasingly objected to the water use of neighboring Egypt, claiming present allocation - regulated by a 1959 agreement over Nile water - to be extremely unequitable. Asserting the 1959 agreement to be preferential to Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia has hinted it may resort to a unilateral exercise of sovereignty or a military confrontation with Egypt.

This growing vulnerability is likely to become a major source of political tension in the near future. Since Egypt has retained an aggressive military stance with relation to water, domestic Ethiopian development efforts (such as growing attempts to dam the Blue Nile) are likely to result in increasing regional tensions. In addition, Sudan has become an increasingly unstable factor in the Middle Eastern water calculus. Ravaged by civil war and guided by a radical Islamic fundamentalist regime, Sudan has manifested expansionist desires over Nile water, threatening to withdraw from the 1959 Agreement in August 1995. These movements have increasingly jeopardized the stability of neighboring nations, endangering Ethiopian and Egyptian access to water. As a result, tensions along the Middle East/North Africa boundary are on the rise, as water exacerbates and destabilizes the fragile regional status quo.


4) Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is another country rapidly approaching a dramatic crisis over water. In Saudi Arabia's case, however, the crisis stems from the country's lack of rivers and permanent bodies of water, as a result of which it relies heavily upon underground water sources for its agricultural and potable water supply. At present, 90% of Saudi Arabia's non-renewable deep-well water is utilized for agricultural purposes. These resources, already precariously low, have been significantly eroded in recent years as a consequence of the Gulf conflict. Iraq's burning of oil wells during the Gulf War further contaminated underground water resources already degraded by pollution seepage from agricultural activity, creating a deficit that has failed to be resolved to date, despite significant Saudi desalinization attempts.

Disputes are also becoming visible between Saudi Arabia and Jordan over the Qa Disi Aquifer. Though currently utilized almost exclusively by Saudi Arabia, Jordanian vested interest in the aquifer, which runs beneath both countries, has increased in recent years, with Jordan's Minister of Agriculture publicly accusing Saudi Arabia of overuse of the aquifer as far back as November 1992. Expanding Jordanian utilization of the aquifer, which is likely in light of Jordan's looming water crisis, may emerge as a contentious issue between the parties in the near future.


2. The Potential Wars in the Middle East


1) The basic argument for Water Wars

The 261 international watersheds, covering a little less than one half of the land surface of the globe, affect about 40% of the world's population. Water is a vital resource to many levels of human survival for which there is no substitute; it ignores political boundaries, fluctuates in both space and time, and has multiple and conflicting demands on its use. The problems of water management are compounded in the international realm by the fact that the international law that governs it is poorly developed, contradictory, and unenforceable. 

Aaron T. Wolf stressed at the ADC New Millennium meeting on International Water Management in the 21st Century, Valencia, Spain, 18-20 December 1997 that the basic argument for `water wars' is as follows: Water is a resource vital to all aspects of a nation's survival, from its inhabitants' biology to their economy. The scarcity of water in an arid and semi-arid environment leads to intense political pressures, often referred to as `water stress,' a term coined by Falkenmark (1989). Furthermore, water not only ignores our political boundaries, it evades institutional classification and eludes legal generalizations.  Interdisciplinary by nature, water's natural management unit, the watershed - where quantity, quality, surface- and groundwater all interconnect - strains both institutional and legal capabilities often past capacity.  Analyses of international water institutions find rampant lack of consideration of quality considerations in quantity decisions, a lack of specificity in rights allocations, disproportionate political power by special interest, and a general neglect for environmental concerns in water resources decision-making.

Furthermore, international law only concerns itself with the rights and responsibilities of states. Some political entities that might claim water rights, therefore, would not be represented, such as the Palestinians along the Jordan or the Kurds along the Euphrates. In addition, cases are heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) only with the consent of the parties involved, and no practical enforcement mechanism exists to back up the Court's findings, except in the most extreme cases. A state with pressing national interests can therefore disclaim entirely the court's jurisdiction or findings. Given all the intricacies and limitations involved, it is hardly surprising that the International Court of Justice has decided only a single case regarding international water law.

The datasets of conflict are explored for those related to water - only seven minor skirmishes are found in this century; no war has ever been fought over water. In contrast, over 3,600 treaties have been signed historically over different aspects of international waters - 145 water-related treaties were signed in the same period. These treaties, collected and catalogued in a computerized database along with relevant notes from negotiators, are assessed for patterns of conflict resolution. War over water seems neither strategically rational, hydrographically effective, nor economically viable. Shared interests along a waterway seem to consistently outweigh water's conflict-inducing characteristics. Furthermore, once cooperative water regimes are established through treaty, they turn out to be impressively resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile riparian, and even as conflict is waged over other issues. These patterns suggest that the more valuable lesson of international water is as a resources whose characteristics tend to induce cooperation, and incite violence only in the exception.

2) Potential Water Wars

Oil has always been thought of as the traditional cause of conflict in the Middle East past and present. Since the first Gulf oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, countries have squabbled over borders in the hope that ownership of a patch of desert or a sand bank might give them access to new riches. No longer. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated - unlike the water resources, which are still often unknown. Water is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict in the Middle East.

The potential water wars in the Middle East, where water resources are severely limited, have been mentioned about water crisis in the world. The crisis over water in the Middle East is escalating. Despite existing agreements, dwindling resources - increasingly affected by pollution, agricultural/industrial initiatives and population growth - have elevated the strategic importance of water in the region. For Middle Eastern nations, many already treading the razor's edge of conflict, water is becoming a catalyst for confrontation - an issue of national security and foreign policy as well as domestic stability. Given water's growing ability to redefine interstate relations, the success of future efforts to address water sharing and distribution will hinge upon political and strategic approaches to this diminishing natural resource. 

When President Anwar Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he said Egypt will never go to war again, except to protect its water resources. King Hussein of Jordan has said he will never go to war with Israel again except over water and the Untied Nation Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has warned bluntly that the next war in the area will be over water. From Turkey, the southern bastion of NATO, down to Oman, looking out over the Indian Ocean, the countries of the Middle East are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra millions born each year, not to mention agriculture, the main cause of depleting water resources in the region. All these nations depend on three great river systems, or vast underground aquifers, some of which are of `fossil water' that cannot be renewed. 

4. Water Management under International Law


1. The Development and Cooperation of the Euphrates-Tigris Basin

Iraq was the first riparian to develop engineering projects in the basin. The Hindiya barrage on the Euphrates was constructed between 1911 and 1914 to prevent flooding and transfer water to canals for year-round irrigation. In the 1950s Iraq built a second Euphrates barrage at ar-Ramadi. Like the Hindiya Barrage, its main objective was flood control and irrigation.

Both Syria and Turkey were slow to develop use of the waters of the two rivers before the 1960s. During the second half of the 1950s the Russians conducted research on the Syrian reach of the Euphrates and proposed a dam at Tabqa. In 1966 a Syrian-Soviet agreement led to construction of the Tabqa High Dam. The dam, renamed al-Thawrah (the Revolution), was completed in 1973. A current Syrian water development called the Great Khabur Project is aimed at using the Khabur River for irrigation. Syria is also conducting technical studies for another irrigation project on the Tigris.

Turkey began constructing the Keban Dam on the Euphrates in 1966; production of electricity began in 1974. Turkey built the Karakaya Dam on the Euphrates in 1986, as part of the Southeastern (Grand) Anatolia Development Project (GAP). Ataturk Dam, the heart of the GAP, was completed in 1992.

The 20th century has witnessed various bilateral attempts at cooperation within the Euphrates-Tigris basin. In 1920 the French and British governments, as the mandatory powers in Mesopotamia, signed a treaty regarding utilization of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. The Turco-French Protocol, signed in 1930, committed the Turkish and French governments to coordinating any plans to use the waters of the Euphrates. The principle of mutual cooperation over water development was extended IN A Protocol annexed to the 1946 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborly Relations between Turkey and Iraq (UN 1963). The agreement encompassed both rivers and their tributaries. At that time Turkey and Iraq agreed to share related data and consult with each other in order to accommodate both countries' interests. The 1946 treaty mandated a committee to implement these agreements. Although none of this has yet occurred, Caponera (1993) pointed out that, if fully implemented, the 1946 Agreement would constitute a good basis for ensuring optimal cooperative water management between Turkey and Iraq.

The Joint Technical Committee for Regional Waters was established between Turkey and Iraq in 1982; Syria has participated since September 1983. The Joint Committee deals with all water issues among the basin riparians. It helps to ensure that the procedural principles of consultation and notification are followed as required by international law. For example, in the Committee's November 1989 meeting, Turkey informed its neighbors that the Euphrates' flow would be interrupted for one month and that, prior to the interruption.

International law cannot decide the allocation of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. Nonetheless, law provides a basis for negotiation. Equitable utilization is inherently flexible. It will not produce definitive solutions and allocations, but will serve as a foundation for negotiation and cooperation. An international watercourse agreement would lay down rights and obligations of riparians more precisely. In addition to the agreement a joint watercourse institution is necessary to realize cooperation among the watercourse states.


2. Water Management in the Region

Political and economic stability in the Middle East will depend increasingly on water availability. Annual per capita fresh water availability in MENA countries was only about 1200 cubic metres - compared with a world average of about 7000 to 7500 cubic metres. Almost all fresh and renewable waters such as rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater, which are termed `conventional water' or `traditional water,' have already been exploited or will be fully developed in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa by the end of this century.

The World Bank has made the politically-charged issue of scarce water resources one of its so-called millennium development goals. Although the MENA region accounts for five percent of the world population, it has only one percent of accessible fresh water worldwide, according to the World Bank. Fresh water is a scarce resource, constituting just 2.5% of the planet's total moisture (with two-thirds of that supply trapped in glaciers).

Moreover desertification, rising populations and demand coupled with poor management leave MENA region facing immediate difficulties. The available fresh water figure for Yemen was about 500 cubic meters - less than half the water poverty line of 1000 cubic meters. And nearly 70% of municipal water in cities like Amman went unaccounted for, while Egypt recovered only two percent of its irrigation costs. Despite the many political complications in the Middle East, there is a recent history of tacit, although limited, cooperation over multinational river development even among the bitterest opponents on the Nile, Euphrates, and Jordan Rivers:

Water policies and management issues have taken place over the last decade or so, particularly since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The history could even go back further, to the Mar del Plata Action Plan of 1977, but perhaps the best starting point is the Dublin Conference of 1992,from which emerged the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development that was a contribution to the preparation of the Earth Summit in Rio. This statement contains much of merit, including the four Dublin Principles that have become the cornerstone of much debate on international approaches to water policies.


3. International Water Law and Water Agreement

1) International Water Law

In the last few decades, a broad system of principles and practices has evolved, resulting in a high number of bilateral and multilateral treaties in many international river basins around the world. By 1990, more than 280 international treaties dealing with trans boundary water issues had been signed. Based on them, international organizations and other institutions have attempted to derive more general principles and new concepts governing shared fresh-water resources. The work of the International Law Association (ILA), a private organization, and the International Law Commission (ILC) of the United Nations are among the most important and authoritative examples. Despite not being legally binding on states, the "Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers" of 1966 codified by the ILA and the "Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses" drafted by the ILC in 1991 are generally accepted as part of customary international law.

Efforts to codify international law concerning watercourses date to the beginning of this century, but the most important efforts are recent: The International Law Association's (ILA) 1966 Helsinki Rules and the United Nations' 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (hereafter, the Helsinki Rules and the UN Watercourse Convention). The ILA, a non-governmental scholarly organization, adopted the Helsinki Rules in 1966 (ILA 1967). Delegates to this meeting proposed that international waters have to be shared equitably and reasonably. In 1970, the United Nations General Assembly gave the International Law Commission (ILC) the task of codifying and developing the law regarding "non-navigational use of international watercourses" (Resolution 2669; ILC 1994). The ILC's work ultimately resulted in the UN Watercourse Convention, opened for signature in 1997 (UN, 1997). Like the Helsinki Rules, the UN Watercourse Convention provides for the equitable and reasonable utilization of international watercourses. Both sets of rules list factors for determining what is reasonable and equitable, including: geography, hydrology, climate, past and present utilization, economic and social needs of the riparians, population, costs of alternative measures, other resources, practicability of compensation in instance of dispute, and how the needs of one riparian may be fulfilled without substantial injury to another riparian.


2) The Water Provisions of the Jordan-Israel Treaty of Peace

Since the early 1980s, progress has been made on the ground between Israel and Jordan. Meeting in the field, close to the diversion point from the Yarmuk River into the Jordanian King Abdullah Canal (KAC, earlier known as the Ghor Canal), water experts from the two sides met to consider Jordanian requests for increasing the diversion into the KAC. Trustful and solid relations developed in what came to be known as the “Picnic Table Talks ”, and Israel consented to alleviate some of the water short-age in Jordan by increasing the quantities diverted. This, however, did not change Jordan 's position that it was entitled to more water from the Yarmuk, as well as from the Jordan, including from the Sea of Galilee. Jordan stood by the position that it is riparian to the entire Jordan River (from its headwaters in the Banias, Hasbani, and Dan springs) and saw Israel 's diversion of water from the Sea of Galilee into its National Water Carrier as a breach of internationally accepted principles. Israel, on the other hand, maintains, as it did then, that Jordan is riparian only to that portion of the Jordan along their common border, and therefore has no legitimate claim to the Jordan River upstream of its confluence with the Yarmuk.

This was the situation when the two countries entered direct negotiations, following the procedure established in the Madrid peace conference of 1991. Many rounds of negotiations ensued, in Washington and later in the region. In the beginning, there were two Arab delegations to the Washington rounds: a Jordanian delegation with Palestinian participation, and a Palestinian delegation with Jordanian presence. This resulted from Israel 's refusal at the time to recognize the Palestinians as a separate entity. Jordan delayed its agreement to the “Agenda ” for the final peace talks until Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo I Accord on the White House lawn on September 13,1993. The `Agenda' had been ready a year earlier, but was signed only the day after the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, at the State Department in Washington. This led to intensification of the negotiations, which moved to the region, and culminated in the Peace Treaty. The state of belligerency between the two countries came to an end with the signing of the Peace Treaty, celebrated by a ceremony in the Arava/Araba Valley just north of Aqaba/Eilat, on October 26, 1994 (referred to herein as `the Treaty). It is a comprehensive agreement, covering all areas of concern between the two countries, including water.


3) The Palestinian-Israeli Water Agreement in Oslo II

Oslo II is an interim agreement signed between the Palestinians and Israelis in September 1995, named with reference to “Oslo I,” the initial Declaration of Principles which initiated the peace process in September 1993.Article 40 of the Agreement 's Annex III, entitled “Water and Sewage,” was initialed by the water negotiators —Mr. Nabil Sharif for the Palestinians and Mr.Noah Kinarti for Israel —in the early morning hours of September 18,1995.It was the first portion of the overall Interim Agreement to be concluded between the two sides.


4. Water Problem between Israel and Palestine in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The most important thing in the region is peacemaking between Israel and PLO. To make mutual benefits for a water-related cooperation between Israel and Palestine, they have to cease the political conflict. This is the key factor to manage the water peacefully. Peace pipeline in the Middle East is shown in Figure 4-1.


(Figur 4-1) Peace pipeline in the Middle East.

0x01 graphic

Source: Libiszewski, 1995 Copyright ENCOP - Reproduced by permission


Indeed, both the Oslo and the Cairo Agreements provide for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the field of water management and joint development of additional water resources (e.g. Annex IV, Art. 2.B of the Declaration of Principles). But the sharp separation of technical dimensions of water management from the political question of water distribution is blocking any progress in this field.

Considering the genetic account of water disputes in the Jordan Basin region and the analysis of current peace negotiations it can no longer be doubted that water has played and still plays an important part in the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, as always in multi causal conflicts, the interesting question does not so much concern the presence of a certain factor in the causal process. Presumably no one at all will deny the involvement of water in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather it is its relative weight within the mix of causal factors that must be evaluated.


5. Concluding Remark

Human beings in the 21st century is facing formidable challenges: rapid population growth; increasing demands for water to satisfy people's needs, both in agriculture and in expanding urban centers; failing water quality, pollution, and associated health and environment impacts; groundwater depletion; and international conflict over trans-boundary water resources.

Oil has always been thought of as the cause of conflict in the Middle East till now. Since the first oil well discovered in Bahrain in 1932, the Middle Eastern countries have squabbled over borders. Now, most borders have been set, oil fields mapped and reserves accurately estimated unlike the water resources. Water is taking over from oil as the likeliest cause of conflict in the Middle East.

The issue of water in the Middle East can only be solved through cooperation and agreement. However, such cooperation and agreement depends on an official body of law in order for a treaty to survive political disagreement between the riparian states. But international law cannot decide the allocation of the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. Nonetheless law provides a basis for negotiation. Equitable utilization is inherently flexible. It will not produce definitive solutions and allocations, but will serve as a foundation for negotiation and cooperation. An international watercourse agreement would lay down rights and obligations of riparians more precisely. In addition to the agreement a joint watercourse institution is necessary to realize cooperation among the watercourse states.

In the 21st century, it is clear that growing concerns in water sub sectors represent only one symptom of a much larger global crisis facing our social, economic, natural resource management, and environmental systems. The problems of water management are compounded in the international realm by the fact that the international law that governs it is poorly developed, contradictory, and unenforceable.

Issues of water management and water distribution are simply not separable. The reason for this lies in the fact that improved management is normally coupled with high economic, social and/or political costs. This is especially the case when management options imply development of unconventional resources like sea water desalination or water imports from distant regions or restructuring of water-intensive branches like irrigated agriculture. Regarding the water resources in the Middle East, the most important thing in the region is peacemaking between Israel and PLO. To make mutual benefits for a water-related cooperation between Israel and Palestine, they have to cease the political conflict. This is the key factor to manage the water peacefully in the Middle East.




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* Reference

Almost 50% of the world's coasts are threatened by development. Fish-farming, on land and at sea, now produces 30% of global supplies. Agriculture uses about 75% of global water consumption and industry 20%. UN Environment Programme, Vital Water Graphics, published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), January 2003.

UNESCO, “The World's Water Crisis,” The UN World Water Development Report Water, 2003, P.5.

ibid. P.10.

See “From Scarcity to Security: Averting a Water Crisis in the Middle East and North Africa”, World Bank Report, 1996.

Jerusalem Post, 11 July 2000.

Ibid. 05-10-01.

Postnote, Access to water in developing countries, No. 178, May 2002, P. 3.

Ilan Berman and Paul M. Wehbe, The New Water Politics of the Middle East, September 1999.


Republic of Turkey, Water: A source of conflict of cooperation in the Middle East? 05-10-01.

The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) is a multi-sector and integrated regional development effort approached in the context of sustainable development. Its basic objectives include the improvement of living standards and income levels of people so as to eliminate regional development disparities and contributing to such national goals as social stability and economic growth by enhancing productivity and employment opportunities in the rural sector. The GAP had originally been planned in the 70s consisting of projects for irrigation and hydraulic energy production on the Euphrates and Tigris, but transformed into a multi-sector social and economic development program for the region in the 80s. The project area covers 9 administrative provinces (Adiyaman, Batman, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Kilis, Mardin, Siirt, Sanliurfa and Sirnak) in the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris and in Upper Mesopotamia. See More details about GAP, 05-10-01.

Ilan Berman and Paul M. Wehbe, The New Water Politics of the Middle East, 1999. 05-10-01.


Ilan Berman and Paul M. Wehbe, The New Water Politics of the Middle East, 1999. 05-10-01



Aaron T. Wolf, Water Policy. Vol. 1, No. 2, 1998. pp. 251-265.

Adel Darwish, Water Wars, Geneva conference on Environment and Quality of Life, June 1994. 05-10-01.

TWM, The natural solution to water-related disputes, 05-10-01.

Ibrahim Kaya, The Euphrates-Tigris basin: An overview and opportunities for cooperation under international law, No. 44, Fall/Winter 1998. 05-10-01.

Article 3 of this treaty provided that the two governments should set up a commission responsible for examining irrigation plans in the region.

Overall, Iraqi and Syrian proposals for water allocation might be summarized as follows: 1) Each riparian will notify the other riparians of its water demands on each river separately; 2) Total potential water supply of each river will be calculated, 3) if the total demand exceeds the total supply of a given river, the `overdraft' amount will be deducted proportionally from the demand of each riparian state (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1995).

Stanley Fischer et al, The Economics of Middle East Peace, London: MIT The Press 1993, P.246.

Masahiro Murakami, Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies, The United Nations University, 1995, 05-10-01.

Water Project list is introducing by and see about Water-Resources Data in Areas of Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian Interest, 05-10-01.

Aljazeera, “Middle East faces water crisis”, Sunday 21, September 2003.

Masahiro Murakami, op.cit., 05-10-01.

ibid. P.17.

Stephan Libiszewski, “Water Disputes in the Jordan Basin Region and their Role in the Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”, ENCOP: Environment and Conflicts Project Occasional Paper No. 13, August 1995, 05-10-01.

Uri Shamir, "Water Agreements Between Israel and Its Neighbors," Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Bulletin Series 103, pp. 275-276.

Ibid. 280.

Stephan Libiszewski , op.cit. 05-10-01.


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