Population Growth and Water Resources
in the Middle East
by Leigh Josey, Research Intern
The Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information,
Political strife is nothing new in the Middle East. In fact,
many of the present-day disputes date back 100 years or more.
But the increasing scarcity of renewable water resources and the
simultaneous high population growth add new urgency to the necessity
to devise a settlement.
The Middle East and North African countries (referred to as
MENA) are home to 300 million people. Constituting about 5 percent
of the world total, they have a mere 1 percent of the annual renewable
water resources on the globe. "In the Middle East freshwater
problems have arisen from increasing demand for water generated
by rapid population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and
irrigation needed to satisfy increasing demand for food."
The scarcity of water resources in this area exacerbates the regional
tensions already present among governments, and impedes cooperation
along even technical lines.
The main water systems under dispute are the Nile River, the
Tigris and Euphrates, the Jordan River valley (and its tributaries),
and groundwater resources in the West Bank and Israel. In the
past, there have been multiple attempts at reaching a water settlement,
yet none have achieved a comprehensive agreement.
In the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49, the United
States began meeting with the various water holding, or riparian,
states to work out an agreement. U.S. officials thought that practical
interdependence between states would further political cooperation,
a concept of political functionalism. From the beginning, however,
there were insurmountable disagreements over water allocations
and international legal precedent. Essentially, none of the Arab
states wanted to become dependent on Israeli water policy, and
the Israelis did not want to become subordinate to an international
supervisor. And in an even broader sense, the various states did
not want to enter into multilateral negotiations with their historic
Disinterest in multilateral settlements has led to a series
of bilateral ones. The situation regarding usage of Tigris and
Euphrates river water among its riparian states is a good example.
Both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers rise in Turkey and flow
south/southeast into Syria and Iraq. Syria holds 17 percent of
the basin, and Iraq holds 40 percent. In Syria
alone, the Euphrates accounts for 86 percent of water availability-a
critical amount considering Syrian territory barely receives 250
millimeters of rainfall per year (considered to be the minimum
amount required for rain-fed agriculture.)5 In Iraq, where nearly
two-thirds of the nation is desert, river water for irrigation
is essential to support agriculture. With population growth rates
of 2.6 percent (Syria) and 2.9 percent (Iraq), agriculture is
immensely important to both countries.
Yet among the three nations there are deep political divisions,
thus a lack of real cooperation. Not until 1984 did Iraq agree
to an allocation of 500 cubic meters flow per second from Turkey,
and it was 1987 before Turkey and Syria negotiated the same arrangement.
Neither of these arrangements can truly be viewed as comprehensive,
legally binding agreements. Turkey's superior, upstream position
allows it to essentially dictate water policy, as evidenced by
the Southeast Anatolia Development Project (or GAP). The fact
that Iraq and Syria refuse to cooperate to present a united front
heightens the autonomy Turkey can wield. In fact, Turkey has recently
made Syrian flow contingent upon Damascus' efforts to oppose the
A cursory look at the status of the Nile river system provides
even further evidence of the haphazard nature of standing agreements
between riparian states in the Middle East.
In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed an accord granting 87 percent
of river water rights to Egypt and the remaining 13 percent to
Sudan. No allowances were made for the other water-holding states.
Ethiopia in particular, as it struggles to improve its living
standards, has faulted this arrangement. And although Egypt has
shown recent willingness to discuss new allocations, the enormous
reliance on Nile water among Egyptians to sustain their way of
life raises several concerns.
Although it has little arable land, Egypt relies on agriculture
for approximately 50 percent of its employment and 80 percent
of its export earnings. Furthermore, as a regional consumer and
major producer of rice, irrigation is essential for crop cultivation.
With adequate water availability Egypt has achieved one of the
highest rice yields in the world. Yet the growth rate of the Egyptian
population (between 1.7 and 2.5 percent, depending on the source)
presents the government with a major challenge to find methods
to increase agricultural production to keep up. In order to expand
its agriculture and decrease population density, Egypt has undertaken
significant desert reclamation projects-a water intensive activity
that involves substantial use of the Nile.
The issue of irrigation is a significant one throughout the
Middle East, since nearly the entire region is dependent upon
water for its agriculture. "Producing 1 ton of cereal requires
between 500 and 2,000 tons of water (wet paddy being the most
wasteful)." But 1 ton of cereal is estimated to provide only
enough food for four people per year. With regional population
growth rates high (about 3 percent, or one and a half times that
of the Western world), the water volume required simply to produce
food is quite large. 17 As a result, 80 percent of all water use
in the Middle East is for irrigation.
Many other water demands are pressing, too, such as for domestic
and industrial use. Water must be accessed and used responsibly
(especially with regard to human and industrial waste management).
The urbanization trend that often accompanies high growth also
increases strain on infrastructure, requires the building of new
water carrying systems and the renovating of old ones. In areas
with high refugee populations, specifically with large numbers
of women and children, the need for fresh water and sanitation
are even greater for good health and hygiene.
Those living in the Jordan Valley deal with these issues daily.
The Jordan River is a main source of fresh water for Israel, the
West Bank, and Jordan. Additionally, Syria and Lebanon have some
rights to Jordan waters because they hold (or have held) some
portion of its principal tributaries. (Here the legal issue of
Prior Usage rights becomes most contentious.) Between Israel and
the Occupied Territories there is also the matter of allocation
of groundwater resources, illustrated by the fact that Israel
has controlled water distribution in the West Bank since the 1967
Aside from the effects of the political unrest engulfing the
region, water disputes are fueled by simple logistical problems.
For example, accessing water requires drilling and maintaining
wells and pipelines. Israeli settlers' consumption practices are
such that a significant portion of West Bank water is inefficiently
used. In Palestinian areas, very old pipelines and irrigation
systems waste water due to lack of repair. Furthermore, the drilling
of new and deeper wells by the growing number of Israeli settlers
has often upsetting existing structures and may have altered aquifer
characteristics. Non-Israeli residents have not been legally allowed
to build new facilities. The result has been uneven access to
water resources in the West Bank and downstream Jordan River.
This has affected agriculture tremendously, benefiting the Israeli
minority of land-holders over the Palestinian majority. Moreover,
the inability of the governments of Israel and the Palestinian
Authority to negotiate mutually beneficial usage has harmed many
more people than settlers and farmers.
Population growth rates, (Figure 1) are relatively high overall.
Additionally, Israel receives many immigrants, as does Jordan,
and the populations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have significant
casualty rates due to the intifada. The unrest puts additional
strain on the water supplies available for the Palestinian people,
leaving an acute, immediate need for increased water supply compared
with their neighbors. Water policies restricting access, and the
unplanned nature of living in refugee camps and impermanent housing,
creates a consistent challenge in providing a continuous supply
of clean water and sanitation.
Although these same issues exist in the more or less fixed
refugee population in Jordan, significant progress has been made
as a result of the Oct. 26,1994, peace treaty between Israel and
Jordan. The treaty lays out a path for cooperation and mutual
respect, including provisions for territorial water rights. Both
parties recognize their own water supplies are insufficient. The
treaty's proposal for regional cooperation to ensure a sustainable
supply may be the solution to both nations' futures.
The agreement between Jordan and Israel provides a model for
other governments. Without cooperation there can be no definitive
settlement, and without a settlement there can be no equitable
use of such an extremely limited resource. As one scholar put
it, "It is the growing pressure on these water resources
which has caused the difficulties which are observed at the present
day." The expansion of populations adds pressure, but is
too often the only focus of the water issue. Anthony Cordesman,
an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
notes in regard to regional growth rates that "we are talking
about challenges and not crises. There are no magic limits to
The more likely cause of crisis is the lack of collaboration
regarding the allocation of the limited water sources in the Middle
East. Governments will have to come to terms with one another
through international law or other means, but they will have to
settle the issue before they can establish peace and prosperity
in the region.