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New Study Predicts Tensions Over Middle East Water Shortages

Palestinians throw stones at Israeli troops during clashes in the West Bank village of Iraq Burin, near Nablus, 15 May 2010 (file photo). Residents of the village said they are trying to prevent Jewish settlers from bathing in a water cistern Palestinian
Palestinians throw stones at Israeli troops during clashes in the West Bank village of Iraq Burin, near Nablus, 15 May 2010 (file photo). Residents of the village said they are trying to prevent Jewish settlers from bathing in a water cistern Palestinian

Water is a scarce resource in the desert regions of the Middle East. Though disputes over water have come close to triggering wars between nations of the region in the past, diplomats intervened to keep tensions to a minimum. Now a new study suggests that over the next 20 years, water shortages could trigger unrest within national borders instead of between the nations of the Middle East.

In the past, Middle East scholars have often pointed to shared river basins and disputes over underground water rights as causes for potential conflict between nations. That may not be surprising, because 10 of the 15 most water-poor countries in the world are in the region. But according to a new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, in Washington, limited supplies of underground water within national borders of the Middle East pose a more immediate challenge.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at CSIS and author of the new study, says water is a fundamental part of the social contract in Middle Eastern countries.

"Water is deeply tied in to how all these governments work," noted Alterman. "Water is a way to reward people; water is a way to build allegiances, and water is a sign that a government can actually do things. If the water goes away then suddenly the whole deal that holds the government together goes away. That is a fundamental problem for these governments and the people who live under them."

Alterman argues that the water problem in the Middle East grew out of the "green revolution" that swept the region between 1980 and 1992. During that period, underground water was heavily used to sustain agriculture, feed the growing populations and to irrigate the desert as a form of national pride. He says the depletion of such groundwater resources will have lasting consequences for how Middle Eastern governments function and deal with their citizens.

Alterman says another problem related to water supplies is the movement of peoples from rural areas the cities. This migration, he says, further reduces groundwater supplies and increases tensions among ethnic or national factions.

"The first thing is to understand that there is a problem," added Alterman. "The principal problem, the real problem, is access to water within countries. Countries' water resources are going dry. It requires individual national governments to think not only about supply but also of ways to diminish the demand for water."

To help out on the supply side of water resources, a Center for Strategic and International Studies study suggests that governments should consider using treated wastewater for irrigation. On the demand side, the study recommends that countries impose strict water pricing systems and offer incentives for conservation. It will be also crucial to educate people about appropriate use of water.

If serious action is not taken, Alterman warns, for example, that Sana'a, Yemen will run out of groundwater in 2017, resulting in political and social unrest.

General Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, argues global cooperation is needed to prevent instability in Middle East over water shortages.

"This needs to be a global issue, not just an individual country issue," said Zinni. "I do think there have to be regional approaches and regional strategies. I know some have advocated very specific, small number of strategies, maybe one for every nation or society. I don't think that will work. These water resources span a number of societies. These are regional and maybe super-regional issues."

Zinni points out, for example, that sharing water resources will be a major issue in any peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The former U.S. Middle East envoy also cites past disputes between Syria and Turkey over waters from the Euphrates River and the ongoing tensions between Egypt and some African countries over water from the Nile River basin.

"I think, given other tensions, that [water shortages] could erupt and just throw another log on the fire in many cases [cause additional problems]. I think the U.S. role in trying to help develop regional strategies, bring parties together, share technology, global attention, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations that deal with water issues - somehow gaining their cooperation and involvement in this process too," added Zinni.

General Zinni echoes the conclusion of the new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies: that skilled governance and diplomacy will be needed to prevent water shortages in the Middle East from triggering widespread conflict.