While conflict, instability, and turmoil engulf Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and threaten to destabilize neighboring states, a potentially more pressing issue can also contribute to instability across the region. This issue is the absolute scarcity of water that sustains the existence of life, the economy, and political stability. Due to a relatively arid and semiarid environment where 85 percent of the land is desert, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the most water-stressed region in the world (World Bank 2007). Containing 6 percent of the world’s population, the MENA has less than 2 percent of the planet’s renewable freshwater supply (World Bank 2007). Although there is some variance in the MENA, with states such as Lebanon and parts of Syria being water rich, the majority is water poor. In fact, the 12 most water-scarce states in the world are located in this region (Al-Otaibi 2015).
Factors Increasing the Demand
Population growth, socioeconomic development, climate change, and ineffective management of existing supplies are likely to aggravate the region’s water crisis. The MENA states confront some of the highest population growth rates in the world. Annual population growth rates in 2015 were 3.01 percent in Jordan, 7.9 percent in Oman, 2.57 percent in Yemen, and 2.32 percent in Saudi Arabia (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division 2016). The MENA’s population is expected to increase from 480.7 million in 2010 to 771.2 million by 2050, a 57 percent increase (ibid.). As the MENA states developed, industrialized, and confronted increased urbanization, residents experienced improvements in their living standards, which further increased demand for water along with energy and food.
While conflict, instability, and turmoil engulf Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and threaten to destabilize neighboring states, a potentially more pressing issue can also contribute to instability across the region. This issue is the absolute scarcity of water that sustains the existence of life, the economy, and political stability.
Complicating this increasing demand is the influence of climate change, which has already been impacting the region with a warming trend since the mid-twentieth century. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2030 the MENA can expect a rise in temperature (between 1 to 2 degrees Celsius and increasing to 3 degrees Celsius by 2065), a decrease in precipitation (between 10 to 20 percent), and an increase in the evaporation rate along with more frequent and prolonged droughts. The region is also expected to experience an increase in flash floods and heat extremes (IPCC 2007; Immerzeel et al. 2011; Droogers et al. 2012). Climate change models suggest that the available supply of water in the MENA is expected to decrease, but they have a difficult time specifying the magnitude of the decline because of the lack of reliable data from the MENA states and uncertainties of the modeling process (IPCC 2007).
There is no doubt that climate change has been and will continue to aggravate the region’s water crisis, but the general expectation is that its contribution is an estimated 20 percent of the shortage, while population growth and economic development drive about 80 percent of the shortage (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations 2015).
Inefficient along with ineffective management of domestic and transboundary water supplies is compromising states’ abilities to adapt to the increasing demand. As with many regions throughout the world, the agricultural sector in the MENA is the greatest consumer of water, consuming on average 83 percent of the domestic budget to grow water-intensive and low-value crops (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2015). There is variance in the agricultural consumption rate within the region, with states such as Jordan, Israel, and Palestine consuming less than 65 percent, and Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen consuming more than 85 percent (ibid.). Historically, farmers have been powerful political forces in the MENA.
Despite its absolute scarcity, municipal water is also heavily subsidized throughout the MENA. Due to its low price, high income households and residents in oil-rich states have high per capita water consumption rates, and they tend to resist government efforts to decrease subsidies on household water (Michel et al. 2012; Zawahri 2012).
As a result of decades of policies that neglected to consider long-term water sustainability, the region’s hydrological systems, transboundary rivers, and aquifers are polluted and endangered.
To meet the ever increasing demand for water, regimes across the MENA have pursued the construction of hydrological infrastructure—such as interbasin transfer of water, dams, and desalinization plants—and mining groundwater aquifers. The general preference of the region’s leadership has been for these short-term projects that can augment immediate supplies to meet today’s needs, while avoiding consideration of the long-term consequences of unsustainable policies. In fact, over 75 percent of the world’s desalinized water is located in the MENA, more specifically in Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Gulf states, and Israel (Al-Otaibi 2015). Energy-poor states are also interested in building desalinization plants to augment domestic supplies of water. Energy-poor Jordan, for example, looks to construct the Red–Dead water canal that contains plans for constructing desalinization plants (Zawahri and Weinthal 2014).
As a result of decades of policies that neglected to consider long-term water sustainability, the region’s hydrological systems, transboundary rivers, and aquifers are polluted and endangered. Municipal and industrial dumping into rivers and lakes, solid waste deposits, seepage from landfills, seawater intrusion into aquifers, and contamination by agricultural runoff are all threatening the water quality throughout the region (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2015). In Gaza, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, groundwater extraction levels are beyond annual recharge rates, resulting in their contamination. In the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, overextraction of one of the world’s oldest aquifer systems by 954 percent resulted in its exhaustion (United Nations World Water Development Report 2015). Transboundary rivers have also been impacted by the pollution and heavy consumption. Due to upstream diversion, consumption, and contamination of the Jordan River system, it is no longer capable of replenishing the Dead Sea, which has been shrinking by one meter per year (Farber et al. 2004). Similarly, the Euphrates, Tigris, and Nile basins are also considered "closed" or nearly so because the basins’ waters are in use and little remains to meet any additional needs.
Due to the combination of population growth, industrialization, climate change, and mismanagement of existing supplies, the region is already confronting severe shortages of water that will only get worse in the future.
Over 60 percent of the MENA’s water supply is located in transboundary rivers, such as the Euphrates, Jordan, and Nile, which cross through states with a history of animosity and conflict (United Nations World Water Development Report 2015). The region’s states are heavily dependent on their transboundary water resources to meet domestic demand for water and energy. Over 80 percent of Syria’s water comes from the Euphrates River, while over 90 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The Jordan River is the only perennial basin for Israel, Jordan, and Palestine and the Nile is Egypt’s lifeline. A history of political instability, both domestically and regionally, has compromised the ability to cooperate in attempts to achieve an effective management regime to govern the MENA’s transboundary water resources. The region has few ratified treaties governing shared water resources, and many that do exist tend to govern the basin in a fragmented manner, with bilateral or sub-basin accords governing multilateral basins. For instance, while the Jordan River is shared by Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, it is governed by a series of bilateral accords between a few of the riparians. Similarly, flowing through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, the Euphrates River is governed by bilateral protocols. Bilateral or sub-basin accords that result in fragmented, or divided, governance contradict the tenets of Integrated Water Resources Management advanced by hydrologists, environmentalists, and engineers who argue that to provide riparians with a collective good, basin states must recognize the watershed as an ecological whole and respect the interdependence between different users. Another weakness of the region’s treaties is a tendency to focus on quantitative allocations and discount groundwater resources and to ignore the impact of climate change (Zawahri 2008).
Due to the combination of population growth, industrialization, climate change, and mismanagement of existing supplies, the region is already confronting severe shortages of water that will only get worse in the future. From 2005 to 2030, annual water demand across the MENA is expected to increase by 47 percent (2030 Water Resources Group 2009). Others argue that by 2050, the total demand will increase by 50 percent (Immerzeel et al. 2011; Droogers et al. 2012).
Multidimensional Water Security
In this region of the world that is already plagued by severe water shortages, any decrease or variability in supplies or increase in demand can contribute to intrastate and interstate tension and compromise states’ ability to comply with existing treaties or protocols governing the region’s transboundary water resources (Zawahri 2017). To appreciate why the probability of interstate and intrastate tensions can arise, it is important to recognize that water has a multidimensional security perspective. As a recent report by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded, "water problems—when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure" (Intelligence Community Assessment 2012, iii).
Water is an essential resource that is needed to sustain human life. Among the Arab population in the MENA, about 75 percent live under water scarcity levels and half live under extreme water scarcity (United Nations World Water Development Report 2016). For example, the per capita water availability in Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and many Gulf states is below 200 cubic meters per year (m3/yr) (Droogers et al. 2012). Anything below 500 m3/yr is considered a water barrier to growth because when less water is available to people, their lives become focused on water scarcity and economic development will be limited (World Bank 2007). Clean household water is necessary for human health, poverty reduction, and social dignity; otherwise, contaminated water can endanger the well-being of families through waterborne diseases and inflict financial health costs along with other economic losses, as the sick family member is unable to work and requires medical care.
Leaders throughout the MENA have done well in providing citizens access to water. On average, across the region over 90 percent of urban area residents have access to piped water in their homes (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program Data for Water Supply and Sanitation 2017). However, securing a connection to household water lines does not guarantee regular delivery of water, nor does it secure safe water quality. Because of its scarcity, water is often limited to either a few hours a day or a few days a week, and its quality is often unfit for human consumption (Zawahri et al. 2011). Throughout the region, rural areas are not as well served as urban centers; 47 percent are served in Yemen (with only 26 percent receiving piped household water), and 65 percent are served in Morocco (with only 23 percent receiving piped household water) (WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program Data for Water Supply and Sanitation 2017). Rural households also confront poor water quality (Zawahri et al. 2011). According to the World Bank, the degradation of the MENA’s water supply is a drain not only on human welfare but also on the national economy (World Bank 2007).
Due to the absolute scarcity of water and the heavy dependence on transboundary sources, water is viewed by leaders in the MENA as integral to national security and political stability (Zawahri 2008). During uprisings that swept across the Arab world in 2011, demonstrators protested against their governments’ failure to provide society with safe access to basic resources, food, and jobs (Zawahri 2012). It is important to note that water was not the one direct cause of the uprisings in the MENA, but it was certainly a ‘threat multiplier’ that both directly and indirectly contributed to popular protests. As a recent report by the U.S. intelligence community concluded, "when populations believe water shortages are the result of poor governance, hoarding, or control of water by elites," social protests that can destabilize states can occur (Intelligence Community Assessment 2012, 3). Destabilizing social protests are also likely to occur if the water shortage coincides with financial crises, ineffective political institutions, and an inability to provide immediate tangible relief to society (Ibid). From 2006 through 2011, Syria experienced a severe drought that contributed to crop failure and threatened individual food security, which resulted in migration from rural to urban areas. It also represented an example of President Bashar Al-Assad’s failure to provide his people with basic essential resources. It has been argued that the poor response to the drought contributed to the popular protests and ultimate civil war in Syria (Sowers et al. 2013).
As states seek to secure sufficient water supplies to meet ever-growing demands, competition over transboundary resources may not lead to direct "water wars," but it can fuel existing conflicts between riparian states and contribute to bilateral or regional tension. Another factor contributing to tensions is the fact that transboundary rivers across the world have been used as a political lever in the game of regional and international politics (Zawahri 2008). In other words, transboundary rivers can be a weapon in the hands of riparian states that can be used to inflict costs on their riparian neighbor. The water weapon is the purposeful manipulation of the complex relationships that rivers impose on states in order to inflict direct or indirect losses on a riparian neighbor. The exact features of the water weapon vary according to a state’s location along the river, and it is stronger in the hands of the upstream state.
As states seek to secure sufficient water supplies to meet ever-growing demands, competition over transboundary resources may not lead to direct "water wars," but it can fuel existing conflicts between riparian states and contribute to bilateral or regional tension.
To prepare for floods and droughts or generate hydropower, the downstream state depends on its upstream neighbor for delivering hydrological data. The upstream state can withhold hydrological data, accidentally forget to provide data, or deliver poor quality data, which can result in substantial social, economic, and political losses downstream. Given the construction of sufficient hydrological infrastructure, the upstream state can stop the river for a couple of hours, slow it down for a day, or open its spillway gates to submerge downstream territory. Prior to the current civil war, the variability in the river’s flow and the lack of hydrological data decreased Syria’s ability to operate its dams along the Euphrates. Turkey has constructed the Karakamis dam 4.5 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border. This dam has the capacity to discharge 20,000 cubic meters per second (m3/sec) once its gates are opened (Zawahri 2008). If Turkey opens the Karakamis’ spillway gates, it can flood downstream lands because the topography is flat.
Once the upstream state develops the river, it becomes dependent on its downstream neighbor to dredge the shared river, maintain its drainage networks, and manage minor floods; otherwise, it can incur losses (Zawahri 2008). The downstream state can refuse to dredge the river or accept the upstream state’s drainage, which can result in drainage congestion, waterlogging, and salinization of soil in the upstream state. Alternatively, the downstream state may keep its barrages closed to minor floods, aggravating their impact on the upstream state. A stronger method available for the downstream state to signal its discontent with its upstream neighbor involves the manipulation of an alternative shared river flowing in an opposite direction. For example, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are not the only rivers crossing the Turkish-Syrian border; there is also the Asi (Orontes) River. While Syria is downstream and Turkey is upstream along the Euphrates, this relationship is reversed along the Asi—which flows from Syria into Turkish-controlled Hatay (Iskandaron). When Turkey uses the Euphrates to flood its downstream neighbor, Syria reciprocates by releasing waters from the Asi (Zawahri 2008). As tension between riparian states increases over their shared water resources, we can expect states to increase their use of the water weapon.
Water and War
Rivers and hydrological infrastructure can become defensive and offensive weapons during wars (Intelligence Community Assessment 2012; Zawahri 2008). In direct defiance of international law, warring factions in the wars currently raging in the MENA have targeted hydrological infrastructure, resulting in great harm to innocent civilians (Sowers et al. 2017). Warring factions in these wars have also used water as a weapon. For example, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, it fought to secure control of hydrological infrastructure, and it used water as a weapon. ISIS has opened dikes to flood the oncoming Iraqi army (Rosner 2016). In return, the Iraq government considered opening the floodgates to the Haditha dam to block ISIS advances (Karimi and Karadsheh 2014). When ISIS captured the Nuaimiyah Dam on the Euphrates in 2014, it used the reservoir’s waters to flood downstream land and cut off water to millions of people in Karbala, Najaf, Babylon, and Nasiriyah (Vidal 2014). After ISIS gained control of the Mosul Dam, heavy bombing and strikes by U.S., Kurdish, and Iraqi forces managed to retake it in August of 2014 (Ibid).
Hydrological infrastructure can be directly targeted by terrorist groups to inflict losses on enemy regimes even in the absence of war. In fact, states across the MENA fear the targeting of their hydrological infrastructure by terrorists and adversarial states. The U.S. Navy has a fleet stationed in the Gulf to protect Saudi Arabia’s desalinization plants (Goure and Grant 2009).
Meeting Future Shortages
To meet the challenge of adapting to a decreasing supply of already scarce water, the MENA states will need to reform their water policies to improve the management of existing supplies. Shifting policies to improve the efficient use of existing water supplies—such as increasing prices of water for the municipal and agricultural sectors, providing incentives to farmers to shift to less water-intensive crops, or using treated wastewater in irrigation—are generally perceived as upsetting delicate state–society relations (Zawahri 2012). Nevertheless, through negotiations between the regime and elites, whereby the regime can persuade the elites to either pay more for water or improve the efficiency in using water, it is possible to change policy within the MENA. Energy-poor MENA states can use the help of the international donor community to improve their infrastructure to minimize water loss and to formulate water policy that can improve efficiency.
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