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Middle East Is  Making Waves Over Water Shortage - 2003-02-18

Over the last 70 years, the world's population has tripled while water demand has increased six-fold. Analysts estimate that a little more than half of the world's available fresh water is being used each year and that amount could climb to 74 percent by 2025.

In addition to the shortages, tensions are increasing between countries such as Turkey and Syria that share sources of water. Tensions are also high on the West Bank where Israelis control the water supply.

Some analysts say one of the best ways to ensure Middle East peace is to confront the severe water shortages in the region which they say are approaching crisis proportions. Growing demands are beginning to surpass existing resources. And as the population grows, the situation is getting worse.

According to Sandra Postel, at the Global Water Policy Project and author of the book "Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity," nine countries in the Middle East have a significant water shortage. Tensions in Israel, in particular, are extremely high as the area faces both declining aquifers and shrinking rivers as a result of high demand for water coupled with drought and possibly suspected global warming. What's more, Israel's control of the supply which come from the Jordan River has left Palestinians with just enough water for basic needs.

"The inequity really lies more in the direction of the Palestinians," Ms. Postel said. "They barely have enough water on the West Bank to meet their basic household needs, while the Israeli settlers on the West Bank are getting any where between four to six times more water per person compared with the Palestinians."

Murhaf Jouejati, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington, agrees that the allocation of water in Israel leaves the Palestinians in a very desperate situation. But he says the water issue is a symptom of the region's broader political problems.

"All attempts to solve the water crisis in the Middle East look like they would fail in the absence of an agreement on the larger political conflict," Mr. Jouejati said. "So if we are going to solve the water issue between Arabs and Israelis, it is not going to be through low level or low politics programs. It is going to be through the resolution of the larger political conflict.

Despite the political issues, Mr. Jouejati warns that water problems in the Middle East are serious and will soon lead either to cooperation or a conflict in the region.

"We now have an acute problem that if, unchecked, can really turn into a crisis in the next decade, perhaps leading to wars," he said.

Syria and Turkey have been at odds over water since the 1980s, when Turkey decided to proceed with its infrastructure development project without consulting its neighbors.

The project, whose centerpiece is the 169-meter high Ataturk Dam, includes more than 20 dams and 17 hydroelectric power plants.

As with many nations around the world, Turkey is using irrigation to expand arable land and increase its agricultural output with the goal of increasing development in an area marred more than 15 years by conflict with the country's Kurdish party.

But for Syria -- and further downstream, Iraq -- the soaring Ataturk Dam has been a huge problem because it has limited the flow of the Tigris-Euphrates River which begins in Turkey and flows through Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, as a result of this project, increased suddenly its (water) consumption from 10 percent to 55 percent," Mr. Jouejati said. "And so, as a result of this huge jump, the water became more scarce for the downstreamers Syria and Iraq. So here we have a crisis that, in fact, was caused by an increased Turkish domestic consumption and for Turkish domestic political reasons."

As a result of Turkey's increased water use, arguments over water access between Turkey and Syria has grown.

In the early 1990's, Turkey substantially reduced the water flow into Syria. This caused a near shut down of a key Syrian hydroelectric plant and resulted in severe power outages throughout the country, including the capital Damascus.

In the summer of 1993, portions of Syria outside Damascus had power for only three to four hours a day. Turkey cut off the water supply after it claimed Syria was supporting the Kurdish Workers Party by providing the organization with a safe haven for cross-border operations.

It has been nearly a decade since Syria, Iraq and Turkey have had formal talks on the water distribution issue. And analysts say tensions over the issue continue to grow.

Does this increase the likelihood of a major clash in the near future?

"I don't think it is likely to cause a war in the conventional sense of the word "war" mainly because the hydro-politics don't suggest that would really make sense," Sandra Postel said. "Turkey is the most militarily powerful country of the three and obviously has a lot of backing militarily from other countries and also is in control of the water. It wouldn't make sense for Syria or Iraq to try to solve their water problems by launching a war against Turkey. So I don't think that will be the outcome. I think we focus on war as a concern, but in fact the kind of social and economic and political instability that can result, if countries don't get a sufficient share of water, can be just as detrimental."

Aaron Wolf, a water expert at Oregon State University in Eugene, Oregon, downplays the possibility of a major conflict, saying that the real story of water disputes is one of surprising cooperation.

"I can't picture a basin anywhere in the world worse than the Jordan basin, or the Tigris-Euphrates or the Indus (which stretches from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea)," Mr. Wolf said. "And the fact that violence hasn't broken out in those countries is an optimistic sign. It suggests that water brings people together to collaborate. It's critical enough so that they have to negotiate. It's critical enough so they have to jointly manage (water distribution facilities). And it is common enough to everyone else's experience that they end up negotiating better over water than most any other resource."

Analysts say the question of water ownership has never been so divisive, but there are solutions. They say that instead of continuously reaching out for more water, one way to deal with the problem is to do more with less -- by conserving and recycling water and using it more efficiently.

"The only viable solution for most of the world is to increase efficiency. And there are a number of ways to do it," Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University said. "The bulk of the world's water goes to irrigation. So in a place where people are irrigating inefficiently, it's worthwhile looking at what's cost-effective for that particular site."

For countries with more extreme water shortages, such as Israel, analysts suggest other alternatives such as desalination, or the removal of salt from seawater. The method has been gaining popularity as a solution to the Middle Eastern water problem for more than a decade.

Kuwait, which built its first plant in 1957, was the first country in the world to rely heavily on desalination for drinking water. By 1990 there were about 15,000 desalination plants in the Gulf states, more than in the rest of the world combined. Saudi Arabia alone expects to spend $50 billion on new plants in the next 20 years.

"Desalination is more expensive than most traditional water supply options," Sandra Postel said. "But the costs have come down, which in a dire situation that the Middle East is increasingly moving into, it is more cost-effective than going to war over water."

Whether the feud over water rights will ignite a full-blown crisis has yet to be seen. But analysts agree that poor planning and insufficient water management could do more lasting damage. They say even the Middle East could exist without oil. But water is more than a commodity, it's a necessity.