CHAPTER XX: Middle East Water

The Geopolitics of Middle Eastern Water

The squabbles between States in Western North America, and between water authorities, seem small-scale compared to the the struggles between nations for control of water resources. Sometimes the fate of a nation has depended on secure control of its water supply.

The most important resource in the Middle East may be water, not oil. In the entire Middle East, the only two countries that are self-sufficient in water are Iran and Turkey; all the others depend on river water that flows into their territory from another country, or on ground water that they are using faster than it is being recharged. 67% of the Arab world depends on water from non-Arab states. These two facts make the Middle East, long-term as well as short-term, one of the most politically dangerous in the world, especially as the hostilities are fanned by religious fanaticism. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian diplomat and Secretary-General of the United Nations, has warned that the next war in the Middle East will be fought about water.

Controlling the Euphrates.
The Euphrates and Tigris both rise in the mountains of eastern Turkey, fed by winter rainfall. 88% of the flow of the Euphrates originates in Turkey. The river provides the only reliable water supply for much of eastern Syria and much of Iraq. By the time it reaches the combined delta of the Euphrates, Tigris, and the Karun flowing down from the Zagros mountains of Iran, the Euphrates has lost a lot of water and begins to drop a large load of silt, well upstream of its final mouth in the Persian Gulf.

But since it rises and has a long upper course in the mountains of Anatolia, the control of its upper reaches has become a question of great strategic importance in the region. Even in ancient times, the river was important strategically.

Southern Iraq has been ruined by millenia of poorly engineered irrigation. The ground water in middle Iraq is already at 7000 ppm, and in the south it is almost as salt as sea water, at 30,000 ppm. Even so, Iraq is the only country in the Middle East that comes close to feeding its own people.

In 1992, Iraq began building the "Third River," a giant canal 550 km long from near Baghdad, toward the delta near Basra. Agriculturally, the canal is meant to drain away saline water that will be leached from over-salinized farmland in central Iraq: the plan is to rehabilitate 3.5 million acres of salted land. Geopolitically and militarily, it will drain much of the marshland in the delta of the Tigris-Euphrates, and making more vulnerable to the Iraqi army the strongholds of the Shiite Arabs of southern Iraq, who are often in rebellion against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Environmentally, this marshland is vital to much wildlife as well as to the local Marsh Arabs, and Max van der Stoel of the United Nations human rights team for Iraq described the canal plan as "the environmental crime of the century." That is a very powerful statement, coming only a year after Saddam Hussein had set fire to the oil wells of Kuwait and released a gigantic oil spill into the Persian Gulf.

By 1969 Iraq was using about 45% of the Euphrates water it received across the Syrian border, and now the percentage is greater still. Nevertheless, results have been mixed: 80% of the irrigated land around Baghdad is affected by salinity. Syria has not done well with its own schemes for using Euphrates water. Its Soviet-designed Tabqa Dam forced the evacuation of 60,000 people and flooded a lot of productive farmland, for uncertain benefits. Much water is lost by evaporation.

Recently a new scenario has unfolded upstream on the Euphrates. The Turks are building a massive project which will have 21 dams in the headwaters of the Euphrates to supply 17 HEP stations and 19 irrigation projects. The project will divert 35% of the water that once flowed across the Syrian border, and could cut Iraq's Euphrates water by 80%.

In January 1990 the Turks completed the Atatürk Dam, 169 m high on the Euphrates, at the time the eighth highest dam in the world, and the fifth in terms of volume. The Turks began to Þll it by cutting off 75% of the flow in the river for a month. This action, of course, drastically reduced water flow to Syria and Iraq, who protested vehemently. The Turks ignored the protests. Within a few days a "high-ranking" Iraqi ofÞcial þew to Ankara for talks. It is hardly surprising, I suppose, that the ofÞcial sent by the Iraqis was their oil minister, since Iraq has a huge oil surplus and Turkey has hardly any.

The Jordan
The Jordan River system involves Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. It provides 60% of Israel's water and 75% of Jordan's. Without irrigation diversion, the Jordan would deliver about 1850 million cu. m per year to the Dead Sea. This is not much: it is only 2% of the annual flow of the Nile, and only 7% of the annual flow of the Euphrates. Yet it is nearly twice the water available from all other sources in Israel, and three times the water available from all other sources in Jordan. As such, it is a vital component in the water budget of both countries.

After the foundation of Israel, and its successful resistance to the immediate Arab attempts to destroy it, Israel found itself sharing the Jordan drainage with Syria as well as Jordan. Talks during the 1950s on shared water usage were predictably unsuccessful.

The Israelis completed a ten-year water scheme, the National Water Carrier, in 1964. This lay entirely within the Israeli borders at the time, and diverted water from the Jordan just upstream of Lake Tiberias (one-third of Israel's water consumption). The water is then channeled south into southern Israel, along the coastal plain and into the Negev Desert. Obviously, this water would otherwise have flowed south into what was then Jordanian territory. The only water returned to the River Jordan was irrigation run-off.

Meanwhile Jordan began to divert the Yarmuk into northern Jordan in the East Ghor canal along the east side of the Jordan Valley: this was completed in sections until 1966. Next, the Arab nations allied against Israel approved a scheme to divert Jordan water upstream in Lebanon, through the Golan Heights, eastward to the Yarmuk River that forms the boundary between Syria and Jordan, where it would be stored for irrigation mainly in Jordan. The plan would have diverted 77% of the total flow of the Jordan/Yarmuk, leaving Israel with 23% and a useless National Water Carrier. At the same time the Arabs also set up a unified military command to deal with any Israeli interference with the plan.

With nothing less than national survival at stake, the Israelis slowed the construction by military strikes that reached a peak in early 1967 with air attacks on Syria. It is very likely that control of the Jordan and Litani was a principal factor behind the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israel took the Golan Heights as well as the West Bank. Although the Heights are very significant militarily, they are also important in controlling sources of fresh water. Possession of the Golan Heights makes it impossible for Syria or Jordan to divert the Jordan headwaters.

Water loomed largely in the Camp David talks on Middle East peace in the late 1970s: one of Israel's unalterable conditions for a settlement on the West Bank is that Israel should retain full control of its water.

Israel uses water at a rate similar to that of other fully industrialized nations, more than 500 m3 per person per year. It gets more than 40% of its water from the West Bank, which is therefore a critical source of water for the country. All three aquifers on the West Bank and in Israel are fully used or overdrafted, and there is danger of salt contamination from seawater seepage into the aquifers in the coastal plains.

Israel currently uses 95% of its renewable freshwater resources, and additional water from recycling and desalinization is probably not going to meet future growth in water demand, estimated at a further 50% of current usage by 2000. Israel has reached a water barrier at which water allocation per person must be reduced. The Jordan River is already used as much as it can be: the water in its lower course below Lake Tiberias is too saline to use for irrigation. Near Jericho, its salinity is several thousand ppm. (The Dead Sea itself reaches 250,000 ppm, seven times saltier than ocean water.)

All things considered, it is little wonder that in 2000 the major problem in "peace" talks between Israel and Syria is the possession of the Golan Heights. Given the history and geography of the Jordan springs on the Golan Heights, it is very difficult to see how any Israeli government could agree to Syrian control over the area, and difficult to see how Syria could sign an agreement that would agree to permanent Israeli control.

The Nile and the Aswan Dam

Egypt's irrigation system, population, and standard of living were much the same in the early 19th century as they had been 2000 years previously. If Egypt's economy was to receive a major boost from irrigated agriculture, the main Nile would have to be dammed.

Work on the first Aswan Dam began in 1898. It was only 20 m high, but it successfully dammed one of the largest and most famous rivers of the world, and it marks a transition into the modern age of dam building, and all the great irrigation projects of the 20th century.

The Aswan Dam brought such benefits to Egypt's agriculture, and was so strongly designed, that it was raised twice more. More dams were built in the Delta in the 1940s, bringing the total number of dams and barrages to nine. However, Egypt's population had multiplied 5 times between 1870 and 1970, and the available food per capita had dropped, rather than increased.

In 1952 a massive new High Aswan Dam was planned to add even more water storage and hydroelectric power to the Egyptian economy. Construction began in 1964 and was complete in 1968. The reservoir behind it is Aswan Lake, which extends upstream beyond the Sudanese border (the water body on the Sudanese side is technically called Lake Nubia, and the Egyptian side is Lake Nasser). The entire reservoir became the second largest man-made lake in the world: 300 miles long and 2000 square miles in area.

The most immediate result of the filling of Aswan Lake was to flood about 100,000 people out of their homes. Many of these were not Egyptian, but Sudanese, many miles upstream of the Dam. On the Egyptian side, the entire population of the town of Wadi Halfa was moved 480 km.

In the Egyptian desert, perhaps 10 cu km/yr of water are evaporated from the surface of Aswan Lake. That's a problem, but not the major problem. 13 million cu m of sediment that once flowed down the Nile each year are now trapped in the lake. Eventually the lake will fill, becoming useless as a reservoir. But long before that happens, the other results of sediment trapping behind the dam will have to be faced. The silt once supplied nutrients to the soil as well as sediment to the Nile Delta: millions of tons of chemical fertilizer must now be used to balance that loss, an industry that consumes much of the hydroelectric power the dam produces.

The High Aswan Dam increased the irrigated area in Egypt by 15%, and two or three crops a year are grown‹the average Egyptian field produces two crops a year; but there have been problems. The miles of slow-moving or stagnant water are ideal breeding-grounds for mosquitoes that carry malaria, and the snails that are reservoirs of the parasite that causes bilharzia, or schistosomiasis. Malaria used to be considered controllable by insecticides and medication, but new virulent strains are now appearing. Water hyacinths are invading irrigation canals too, a problem that did not occur with one-crop irrigation.

The usual problems associated with irrigation agriculture in other regions began to appear in Egypt very quickly after the Aswan Dam was completed. By 1975 about 35% of Egypt's farmland was already affected by salinization to some extent, and much more was affected by waterlogging. Egyptian agricultural production is being damaged by these two factors. It will take enormous capital investment to drain the land properly, something that had never been necessary before.

The Nile mud along the valley is not being replaced annually during the flood season. The loss of fertility could be counteracted by using greater amounts of fertilizer (at a price). However, there was another unforeseen result. The Egyptians had used Nile mud for over 6000 years for making building bricks, either sun-dried or kiln-fired. Almost every building in the country was made of brick, except for very special structures such as the Pyramids.

The Egyptians continued to mine mud for brick-making after 1966, but now they were removing a non-renewable resource. That resource was also the best topsoil for Egyptian agriculture. The mud-brick industry was large, employing something like 300,000 people and using 12,000 kilns. By 1980 the Egyptian Government was looking at alternative sources for raw materials for brick-making. Unfortunately desert shales are too salty to make good bricks, and the processing makes them expensive to use. By 1985 the problem was perceived as so serious that President Mubarak decreed that all mud-brick factories should close.

There was immense cultural damage from the High Aswan project. The rising water table deposits salts in the foundations of the great temples and monuments of the ancient Egyptians, slowly destroying their structure. The lake reached its working level of 170 m in 1977, and a wall of the Karnak Temple at Luxor collapsed in 1978. Others show visible deterioration.

The Nile Delta continues to subside under its own weight, as it always has, but there is no replacement volume. The river's own distributaries are eroding into the Delta, and there is greatly increased erosion along the Mediterranean coast. Furthermore, the decreased fresh-water flow in the river is leading to salt-water encroachment into the Delta and into its ground water, which is the primary source of drinking water in the region. Any significant salt water incursion will also kill off the freshwater fisheries of the Delta, which provide protein for Delta inhabitants.

The Nile was the only major source of water flow and nutrients into the eastern Mediterranean. Since the closure of the High Aswan Dam, that flow has dropped to one-third of its previous level. The loss is enough to raise the salinity of the southeast Mediterranean, as well as cutting down the nutrient levels. The change in water conditions essentially killed the sardine fishery, with yields dropping from 18,000 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes by the mid-1970s. Fish from Aswan Lake could partly replace the sardines: the Lake as a whole produces about 24,000 tonnes of fish a year. However, much of the fish is shipped on non-refrigerated trains to Cairo, and spoils if there are delays en route.

In 1980, a major study reported that the benefits of the new dam to date could be estimated at $1.1 billion. However, the associated costs were $0.8 billion. The Egyptian government feels the need to justify the Dam, and it has some very good arguments. In particular, the flood years of 1964 and 1975 caused no problems at all.

Even more important, the drought years of 1968 was buffered by the water storage capacity of the Dam soon after it was built. Egypt was also buffered against the desperate drought years that crippled the Sahelian countries during the 1970s and 1980s. The great triumph of the Dam came in the 1980s. The Sahel was ravaged by drought, with widespread starvation accentuated in Ethiopia by the fanatical genocidal government of President Mengistu. But the waters of Aswan Lake paid for all its environmental problems as they saved Egypt from agricultural failure.

Overall, the Aswan Dam provided a temporary solution to the food crisis in Egypt, for 20 years: the rice area was doubled, and corn production increased by 70%. But the population continued to increase at nearly 3% per year, and farmland was lost at 20,000 hectares a year to urbanization. The extra mouths meant that Egypt began once again to import food in 1975, and by 1985 was importing half its grain. At that point, Egypt had a population of 48 million and was increasing at a million every 9 months.

These data mean that the Egyptians failed to use the breathing-space offered by the Dam to bring under control the greatest menace to their future prosperity: the problem of over-population. The Egyptian government also spent a great deal of money in the 1960s and 1970s on armaments instead of civil engineering, with the result that irrigation systems were not maintained properly, and many of the potential advantages of the Dam were not realized.

The geopolitics of the Nile
The popular myth about Egypt is that Aswan Dam provides abundant water for the Nile Valley. The reality is that the dam was built using over-optimistic figures for Nile flow, and the water allocations expected from it were equally over-optimistic. The number used for design purposes was 84 cu km/yr, the average flow from 1900-1959. However, there is a good deal of variability. Here is more realistic data on the flow of the Nile:

Maximum (1916) 120 cu km/year
1871-1898 102
1954­1967 98
1899­1971 88
1900­1979 84 (basis for design of the Dam)
1972­1986 77
1977­1987 72
1984­1987 51
Minimum (1984) 42

The treaty between Egypt and the Sudan for sharing Nile waters allows 55.5 cu km/yr for Egypt, 18.5 cu km/yr for Sudan, and 10 cu km/yr for evaporation from Aswan Lake, for a total of 84 cu km/yr. The problem is obvious: if Nile flows continue at their present rate, everyone along the river is in trouble, and the Egyptians, as downstream users, are particularly vulnerable.

Aswan Lake never actually filled to its planned capacity. The 1978 level of 178 m was reached because there were large flood years in 1974 and 1975. After 1978 a series of dry years began. The price of saving Egypt in the 1980s was that the Lake was drawn down from an active storage of 104 cu km in 1978 to 81 cu km in July 1979 to 17 cu km in August 1987, when the Lake stood at 158 m. By March 1988, the Lake was in deep trouble; or rather, shallow trouble. The failure of the 1988 spring rains in Ethiopia meant that the flood down the Blue Nile was again below normal. By mid-summer 1988, Aswan Lake had dropped close to the 147-m level at which hydroelectricity could no longer be generated. Egypt burned oil (at a price) to replace some of the lost energy. The six-day work week was cut to five days, shops closed an hour earlier each day, and "prime" TV shows were shown at off-peak hours. However, the agricultural water was the greatest resource at stake.

By June, future water supplies for Egypt depended critically on the 1988 summer rains upstream. At that point, Egypt would probably have decided to draw the Lake down into "dead" storage, giving up hydroelectricity altogether, but keeping water flowing in the irrigation canals.

At this critical point, with the Lake level at 148 m, torrential rains began falling upstream in Ethiopia and the Sudan. Although both upstream countries suffered, the rains saved the Egyptians from a very difficult decision. By the first week in August 1988, the Lake had risen to 155 m, and by the end of the year was over 160 m, within "normal" operating range.

Between 1970 and 1986 the water released into Egypt from Aswan Lake varied between 54 and 62 cu km, with an average around 57 cu km. This volume is greater than the amount allowed to Egypt by treaty (55.5 cu km). because the Sudan always used at least 5 cu km less than its allocated share, and the countries upstream of these two (Ethiopia, Uganda, Zaire, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi) took very little.

The margin for Egypt was very narrow indeed. If Egypt had taken (or needed) the 5 cu km/yr that the Sudanese did not use, Aswan Lake would have dropped to its dead-storage level by 1983, and would never have risen above it again, even in the wet year of 1988. The lesson was not lost on the Egyptians: but their dilemma was what to do about it. It is difficult to see how the evaporative loss from Lake Aswan can be lowered in any cost-effective way. As Sudan develops its own agriculture, and as Uganda, and in particular Ethiopia begin to develop dams and irrigation schemes upstream, the demands on the Nile will begin to exceed its capacity.

Of all possible scenarios for upstream use of Nile water, Egypt's major fear is the effect of dam-building in Ethiopia, which could be disastrous for Egypt if the Ethiopian dam operations are run independently, rather than cooperatively with those of Sudan and Egypt. A study by the US Bureau of Reclamation in the early 1960s envisaged four major dams on the Blue Nile on Ethiopian territory, which between them would use up 6 cu km of water. Many people believe that Egypt would strike militarily at Ethiopia rather than be deprived of any Nile water. Similar situations apply to Uganda, where irrigation is not necessary for subsistence crops, but would make large-scale cotton and sugar-farming possible. Uganda could take several cu km/yr from the Nile in the long run. Egypt does have an Army brigade trained in jungle warfare, which seems to make no sense at all until you have read this paragraph.

The only rational short- and medium-term policies for Egypt are to decrease the present and future demand for water. First, the Egyptians must get control of their population growth, which is increasing demand for food (=water). Second, they must make better use of the water available. Irrigation practices are in general old-fashioned and wasteful. Both these measures could be achieved by education and rather low-cost technology, though there are likely to be political and administrative difficulties. Third, the river water could be used more completely, though this would impose even more of a burden on the ecology, agriculture, and water supply of the delta, and would further degrade the offshore fisheries.