The water factor. Hydro-geopolitical tensions in the Mediterranean – part 1

Thousands have lived

without love, not one without

water (W.H. AUDEN)

Water is life[1]. Quoting Barbara Kingsolver, it is “the world’s circulatory system”[2]. Taking this into account, water, especially fresh one, gained the epithet of “blue gold”. It does not come as a surprise, then, that among the countries with the slowest economic development, there are those poor of freshwater, with high rates of population living in dry areas. However, the hydro-deficit is perceived also in the high industrialized countries, especially in the densely populated urban-industrial areas.

Over the last decades, the water demand has been increased by three determining factors: the demographic boost, which increased the human pressure on the ecosystem; the economic development, which encouraged a higher use per capita; urbanization which, getting more and more intense – the urban population itself will surpass 5 billion people within 2035[3] – will lead to the transit of huge water supplies from the furthest areas to the urban ones in general. A similar scenario will pave the way to geopolitical conflicts – the majority of which has been already ongoing for a while – aimed at the control of hydric resources, expanding the branch of so called “hydro-geopolitics[4]”. In this sense, the Mediterranean Sea, with its 46.000 miles of coastline, represents a privileged observation point, where the tensions often presented by the governments as having an ethnic or religious origin, are actually proper water wars. The aim of this work is to highlight the main cause of the current regional hydro-geopolitical tensions, that is to say draining, dedicating a specific focus to the Israeli-Palestinian case study.

  1. Draining as a cause

In 2010, around 640 conflicts in the world were counted, out of which 40 were armed and aimed at the control of the water[5]. Clearly, what has a big impact on the development of these fights, is the availability/scarcity of water per capita. One of the most stricken areas is the Mediterranean one, especially in its Middle-Eastern and North-African parts. Therefore, Turkey, Iraq and Kurdistan and Syria contend the Tigris and the Euphrates, whereas Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt have conflicting relations because of the lands where the Nile flows.

In fact, while the demand for hydric supplies constantly rises, the availability decreases due to the clear draining of the region’s lakes and rivers. With a successful biblical comparison, the American journalist Megan Goldin, noticing that the extension of Tiberias lake is reducing, asserted that “walking on the Sea of Galilee is a feat that a mere mortal can accomplish today[6]”. To supply with water the Galilee Sea is the river Jordan which flows in from the north and flows out from the south, still running for around 100 miles before reaching the Dead Sea. Considering that the Jordan reduces its flow rate after the passage through Israeli territories, Dead Sea is drying out faster than Galilee Sea. Over the last 50 years, its level decreased of 25 meters and – according to some esteems, it could run out completely within 2050[7]. A similar situation is the one faced by Tigris and Euphrates which originate in Turkey and flow through Syria and Iraq towards the Persian Gulf. Also here the flow rate has massively decreased due to the huge dams built in Iraq and Turkey and the so called fertile crescent saw the reduction of 80% of the damp areas which once made the area of the river delta thrive. Nevertheless, the Nile – the longest river in the world – today struggles to get to the sea. The launch of the Assuan has reduced from 32 to 2 billion of cubic meters the water pouring out in the Mediterranean. The main cause of this drop is represented by the steady and growing water withdrawals for the irrigation system[8].

Omitting the analysis of the causes of these draining phenomena, which are mainly anthropic, the immediate consequence of the dynamics just described – and specifically of the availability/quality of the water – is the reduction of the chance of producing enough food to satisfy the needs of the populations residing in that specific area, that will consequently face not only an environmental deterioration, but also of the general life conditions.



(Translation by Valeria Guerrieri)


[1] The importance of water for our planet is made clear in the following data. Salty water from the oceans cover three-fourths of the earth surface, representing 92.7% of the planet hydric resources; an additional 2.7% made up of fresh water is found as a solid in the glaciers and ice caps; the majority of the remaining quantity is to be found in the freshwater lakes and – only marginally – in the rivers, damp areas and in the atmosphere.

[2] B. KINGSOLVER, L’acqua è vita, in «National Geographic Italia», vol. 25, 4, 2010, p. 4.

[3] Cfr. UNITED NATIONS, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York 2010, p. 39.

[4] P. GLEICK, Water and Conflict: Fresh Water Resources and International Security, in «International Security», vol. 18, 1, 1993, p. 83.

[5] Cfr. A. GIORDANO, Cultura dell’acqua e paesaggi mediterranei, in A. GIORDANO, P. MICOLI, Paesaggio culturale, sostenibilità e spazio euro-mediterraneo, Società Geografica Italiana, Roma 2010, p. 264.

[6] M. GOLDIN, Israel’s Shrinking Sea of Galilee Needs Miracle, in «Reuters», 14 agosto 2001.

[7] Cfr. C. RICHARDSON, The Restoration Potential of the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq, in «Science», vol. 307, 2005, pp. 1307-1310.

[8] Cfr. S. POSTEL, Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?, W.W. Norton&Company, New York 1999, pp. 88-102.

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