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Paris Conference Underscores Severe Water Shortage in Middle East - 2003-11-06

A two-day conference in Paris underscored a grim water supply forecast for the Middle East and North Africa, where water is already scarce.

The Middle East region accounts for five percent of the world's population, but only one percent of the world's water resources. Surging population growth and mismanagement of scarce water resources have made the situation worse. And Arab-Israeli tensions add a hostile political element to the regional water supply issue, particularly over shared resources like the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.

On Thursday, several Arab experts and officials accused Israel of using too much of the water from those sources, to the detriment of Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. They included Ali Maher El Sayed, Egypt's former ambassador to France.

Mr. El Sayed said that Israel may use ideological, biblical and security concepts to keep territories it captured in previous Middle East wars. In reality, he charged, Israeli actions are primarily shaped by an effort to control water supplies.

Israel's ambassador to France, Nissim Zvili, dismissed such criticism as stupid. But he shared at least one conclusion offered by Arab speakers at the Paris conference.

"The water problems of the Middle East will only be solved in the framework of a regional agreement, because from one side - in the south of the Middle East, for example in Lebanon - water is going out to sea, and from the other side, from Jordan and some areas of Israel, there is a lack of water," he said.

Experts also discussed ways to increase regional water supplies, including better recycling of waste water, and water desalination techniques.