While one of the most pressing political and social issues facing the Arab world rarely makes headlines, it is an issue that some political analysts believe could lead to the next great confrontation in the region. Rapidly expanding Arab populations are making water far more precious than oil.
From a historic perspective, the modern Arab world was built on the back of oil.
Since the first oil well gushed in Bahrain in 1932, countries have argued over boundaries and borders in hopes of gaining a piece of land that might produce instant wealth.
But during a decades-long process, borders have been set, oil fields have been mapped, and accurate estimates have been made of oil reserves in the region.
Now, many political analysts are saying the next source of possible conflict in the region will likely be water. That is because many countries in the Arab world are becoming increasingly concerned about how they will continue to supply water to rapidly expanding populations and industries, not to mention agriculture, which consumes up to 85 percent of the water in the Middle East.
For example, the greatest source of water in the region comes from the Nile River, which runs for more than 6,600 kilometers, flowing through nine Arab and African countries. But, while the amount of water produced by the Nile has remained the same for thousands of years, the populations along its path are expected to almost double over the next 20 years.
In 1955, three Middle Eastern states, including Bahrain, Jordan, and Kuwait were listed by international agencies as water-scarce countries. By 1990, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Tunisia and Israel/Palestine were added to the list. U.N. studies anticipate another seven Middle Eastern countries will be added to the list by 2025 including Egypt, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Syria, and Ethiopia.
Essam Khalifa is an expert on Middle East water issues at Lebanese-American University in Beirut. He says with the exception of Iraq, which has plentiful water supplies from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, just about everyone in the region is suffering from water shortages. And, Mr. Khalifa says the governments of the Arab world are to blame.
Mr. Khalifa says the misuse of water is the result of bad regimes that have continued to force their countries to rely on old equipment and technologies. He says water delivery systems have become antiquated.
Mr. Khalifa says there is a wealth of water available, but the regimes have failed to develop it. For instance, instead of building dams that would help create water reserves, provide electricity and help support growing industry, he says the regimes spent billions of dollars constructing industries that pollute existing water supplies while failing to invest in water development projects.
Many Arab countries, including Egypt, the most populated Arab state, are reluctant to invest in new technologies fearing it would lead to greater unemployment.
Oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have spent billions of dollars developing desalination plants along with other technologies to help insure a continued flow of useable water. Even so, the demand for water in those countries continues to outpace the creation of additional water supplies.
With rapidly increasing populations and industries in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, the threat of serious water shortages has led to increased political tensions. For instance, the decision by Lebanon a few years ago to pump water from the Litani River, led to fears of armed conflict after Israel sought to stop the project.
The Palestinian-occupied West Bank is of extreme importance to Israel because almost half of Israel's water demands are met by underground water resources located in the West Bank. No one disputes that water rights will be a hotly contested issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
But, according to the head of the political science department at Cairo University, Hassan Nafae, water need not be a source of political tension. He says the real problem can be traced to what he called despotic regimes in the region that he says need to democratize.
"The despotic regimes care more about their own security, their own survival, and so they do not pay attention to the issue of democratization," said Hassan Nafae. "They do not pay enough attention to the importance of the issue of development, political participation, and society and so on. So, if you have democratic regimes in the region and you have stability and stabilization in the region, if you bring about democratic regimes, that will help very much to resolve all of the problems including the water problem."
Mr. Nafae says democratic regimes would be more likely to participate in cooperative efforts to develop technical solutions to the issue of water resources throughout the region. In the process, he says this would help to further develop political and economic reliance among the Arab states, rather than political jealousy, suspicion, and fear.
Mr. Nafae also notes that creating avenues for greater cooperation among Arab states has become much more imperative because radical Islamic militants include the issue of water in their literature, as a potential weapon to continue ongoing conflicts in the region.
While creating greater supplies of water is imperative, it will not by itself resolve the pressing issue facing the region. Water experts and political analysts alike, say Arab states must make a concerted effort to control population growth that is expanding at a faster pace than in much of the rest of the world.
But, according to a senior Arab League official who asked that he not be named, Arab regimes are not showing a serious willingness to control their own populations. Consequently, the official said until those regimes either change or democratize, it appears the issue of water will remain a growing source of political and economic tension and turmoil throughout the region.