27 January 1992

MULTILATERAL ISSUES

WATER IN THE MIDDLE EAST

COMMON WATER SOURCES IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Scarcity of water is a central problem throughout the entire Middle East, and what is available is usually shared by more than one country. Political boundaries are meaningless when dealing with the common use of limited resources. Thus, water could serve as a catalyst for cooperation for the advancement of peace and the development of the region and no longer be a focal point for war, crises and tensions.

At present, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states deal with their water shortages by operating desalination plants. Egypt is totally dependent upon the Nile River for its water, with its supply affected both by natural causes and by the states (Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda) which control the river sources and influence the flow of water. Iraq, Syria and Turkey are mutually dependent for most of their water on the Tigris, Euphrates and Orontes rivers, the damming of any one of which could prove devastating for one or more of these countries. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel draw most of their water from the same sources. In the area west of the Jordan River, the residents of Israel, Judea-Samaria and Gaza have shared the same water sources, both before 1967 and since.

WATER-ENHANCING PROGRAMS IN ISRAEL

Water is in constant short supply in Israel. Rain falls only between November and April, with uneven distribution of yearly precipitation ranging from some 28 in. (70 cm.) in the north to less than 2 in. (5 cm.) in the south. Water sources include the Jordan River, Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and a few small river systems, as well as natural springs and underground water tables, which are tapped in controlled quantities to prevent depletion and salination. Annual renewable water resources amount to some 56 billion cu. ft. (1.6 billion cu.m.), of which 75 percent is used for agriculture.

To overcome regional imbalances in water availability, most of the country’s fresh-water sources have been joined in the National Water Carrier, an integrated network of pumping stations, reservoirs, canals and pipelines which transfers water from the north, where most of the sources are, to the agricultural areas of the semi-arid south. As maximum use has been made of all freshwater sources, ways are being developed to exploit marginal water resources through the recycling of waste water, cloud-seeding and desalination of brackish water.

The water-saving measures applied in Israel include:

Heightening public awareness to the need to conserve water;

Regulations on the use of water in both the private and public sectors;

Encouraging the installation of water-saving devices in homes, factories and farms;

Utilization of advanced water-saving devices such as drip irrigation, which directs water flow straight to the root zone of plants, and computerized irrigation systems;

Switching to growing less water-intensive crops as well as to hothouse agriculture;

Enlarging underground reservoirs and building new facilities for collecting rain water.

THE BENEFITS OF COOPERATION

Understanding of the need for cooperation in the use of the water resources of the region was recognized as early as 1953 when the United States proposed the Johnston Plan to allocate the waters of the Jordan River, whose sources are shared by Israel and its neighbors. According to this plan, 46.7 percent was to go to Jordan, 38.5 percent to Israel, 11.7 percent to Syria and 3.1 percent to Lebanon. Israel accepted the agreement, but the Arab countries refused to sign any accord involving Israel as a partner and mutual beneficiary. Although the Johnston Plan was never ratified, Israel and Jordan have been tacitly abiding by its quotas.

In the context of the Middle East peace process, the water issue could serve as an important element in building relations between Israel and the surrounding countries. Joint projects for desalination, the recycling of waste water and making more efficient use of water for irrigation would provide mutually beneficial areas of cooperation for the betterment of the entire region.