Water in the MENA, a source for conflict or a source for peace?

The scarcity of water is not something new for an arid region like the MENA. Despite MENA countries represent 7 percent of the world population, they count on less than 1.5 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. Furthermore, in the light of the population growth in recent years, the shortage of water has became a serious challenge.

The complexities of managing and sharing common water resources are well known to the region. Continued and constant water scarcity is likely to affect the region’s social and economic potential, increasing land vulnerability to desertification and raising the risk for political conflict around the limited available water. Conflicts over water in both intranational and international settings evolve in complex political and hydrological environments. The potential for conflict is increasing in the region because of the highest demographic concentrations found in the region, such as in the Gaza strip.

Water dependency is clearly rather high for many countries in the area. Transboundary water issues are leading to water conflicts. Countries like Syria, Jordan and Palestine rely on water resources that lie beyond their borders; for example, Palestine is almost entirely dependent on water essentially controlled by Israel. The transboundary nature of the water resources in the Middle East makes cooperative management of these resources critical as they have the potential to induce economic and social development and reduce the risks of conflict. Despite significant investment in the water sector, water management still remains a serious economic and environmental problem in MENA countries, affecting public health and agricultural productivity. The environment as well is suffering due to the overpumping of the aquifers and the deterioration of water quality.

The region is already struggling with other key political challenges, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s foreign and regional politics and the results of the social awakenings. Surely, the region is tinkering on the verge of a socio-economic repression due to a mixture of climatic change effects, economic challenges and post-Arab spring political instability. It is clear how potable water shortages together with lack of proper sanitization, represent key daunting challenges. Even more, the region’s consumption of natural resources is more than double of what regional ecosystems can support, putting the region on a brink of “ecosystem bankruptcy.” The issue of water shortage is strictly linked to national security affairs, since water plays a pivotal role across the various sectors and it is obstinately regarded as a determining factor to the region’s economic development and socio-political stability.

Water control and availability are indeed a crucial factor for safety, as much as military power. The ownership of water resources ensures the development of industry and agriculture and at the same time provides a strong position during negotiations with opponents. Water  need turns out to be a real political weapon, which has always been taken into account during political and economic negotiations. In the Middle Eastern context, the balance of power in terms of water sees some countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, provided with sufficient renewable water resources to the growth of their economy, and other countries such as Syria and Iraq with a quite satisfactory availability of water, but dependent from renewable resources from neighboring countries. Finally, there are countries such as Israel, Jordan and the West Bank who live a truly dramatic situation with a severe permanent water deficit. The shared management of water resources introduces enormous difficulties and uncertainties in the pacification process, compounded by the incessant spiral of violent events with daily bloodshed in the area, with political and social developments rapidly evolving and with the potential to affect the geopolitics of the entire planet. In particular, the Jordan River Basin, together with its tributaries, represents an important water resource in the region and over the years, several attempts were made to find a solution to the complex problem of the share of water. Thanks also to the contribution of foreign governments and international organizations, several plans for water management have been formulated. In 1944, even before the birth of the Jewish state, the Lowdermilk plan (named after Walter Clay Lowdermilk, past president of the American Geophysical Union), backed by the World Zionist Organization, provided for the management of the waters of the Jordan and Litani rivers to irrigate the land of the first Jewish settlers in Palestine. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has had as its referents Syria and Jordan, in 1952, drew up a plan that called for the construction of two dams on the Yarmouk to bring its waters in Jordanian valleys across the East Ghor Canal. In 1953, Syria and Jordan formed an agreement, strongly opposed by Israel, for the division of the Yarmouk waters. In the same year, the first Israeli attempt to divert Jordan waters took place, inside the demilitarized zones in Gesher Bnot Yaacov, with the construction of a channel in order to divert the water of the Jordan towards the Negev desert.

The Israeli Government had two main objectives: the production of hydroelectric energy and the strengthening of its presence in the unstable demilitarized zones, but the project was strongly opposed by the Syrians and the area became the scene of strong clashes. The most significant effort to find a common position on the exploitation of water resources in the Jordan Valley was completed between 1953 and 1955 by the American mediator Eric Johnston, envoy of President Eisenhower. The purpose of the mediation was to make the use of water efficient, and, above all, fair. The plan (Revised Plan Unified) was expected to divide into units water quotas and the construction of some dams on both the Hasbani, Dan and Banias River to serve the water needs of Jordan. The plan was accepted in principle by the technical delegations of the parties involved; however, despite the efforts of the international community, the agreement was not ratified. Moreover, the Arab countries interpreted the US mediation as an American ploy to force them to recognize the Israeli state and to set aside the Palestinian issue. Therefore, the talks broke down mainly due to the fact that the Arab countries did not intend to increase in any way the prospects for the development of the newly born state of Israel. In June 1967, the Six Days War began, in which Israel managed to secure complete control over all water resources in Palestine, surface and groundwater in the West Bank, the aquifers in the Gaza Strip, Sinai and Golan Heights. The Golan Heights are vital for their extraordinary political, economic and strategic importance. Their high position makes them a valuable point of observation and control over Syria making a surprise attack really difficult, also giving Israel control over the Jordan river, enabling the Jewish state to use water as an unquestionable weapon. Moreover, according to Wolf and Ross (1993) the occupation of the West Bank allows Israel to take possession of a third of Jordan’s agricultural land and a large part of the Yarmouk river, the main source of water in the area. In the 1990s, water resources officially entered the peace negotiations agenda. In 1991, with the start of the peace process in Madrid, five working groups were set up in an attempt to give the Middle East a structure that would have satisfied all parties. In October 1996, the Treaty between Israel and Jordan over water resources was signed. The agreement provided a substantial improvement on the status quo for Jordan, while for Israel it meant above all a transformation of a state of peace into a de facto de jure. Since the 1980s, despite the state of war, the two countries actually pursued common strategies. Israeli water experts confronted with their Jordanian counterparts on the basis of an agreed consumption quota fixed by the experts, which served as a yardstick for mutual adjustments, in case one of the parties exceeded the limit.

Israel and Palestine share two main sources of water. The first one is the Mountain Aquifer, a system that covers about 130 km, from Upper Galilee to the south of Beersheeva. The second source of water, according to International law, is the upper Jordan River and its tributaries, the Sea of Galilee, the Yarmouk river and the Lower Jordan River. After the Six Day War of 1967 Israel has extended the jurisdiction of the legislation to the water resources of the occupied territories in the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the result that all water resources became de facto owned by Israel, in violation of the existing international law. Since then, the underground aquifers and water resources of the Jordan became a significant resource for Israel with the direct management and limiting policy to the detriment of the Palestinian population consumption. The use of water by the Palestinians is controlled and limited by the Israeli government, in a system where public resources are distributed unequally. In the West Bank, Israeli settlers consume an average of 620 cubic meters per person and the Palestinians less than 100. This water management has created the conditions for the impoverishment of the Palestinian economy by placing it in a position of dependence on Israel. According to Amnesty International’s report (2009), about 180,000–200,000 Palestinians living in rural communities have no access to running water, and also in towns and villages that are connected to the water network, the drought is perceived as a challenge. Faced with the scarcity of water and the growth of poverty in recent years, some Palestinians have managed to connect to the Israeli water network illegally and many have stopped paying their water bills. These practices have further exacerbated the problem, undermining the economic viability and the authority of the PWA.

The Israeli-Palestinian water war is not only fought with arms, but water has demonstrated to be a more extensive challenge, which requires diplomatic, legal and administrative management. Being a fundamental resource for human and economic welfare, it is a source of tensions between regional states and could be the cause of armed conflicts in the not so distant future. Many contemporary analysts affirm that the likelihood of violent conflicts over water will emerge in many areas of the world, the Middle East in particular. One of the crucial factors that could inflame tensions over water is that the competition for water will mount, mostly between urban and rural communities. The major source of struggle in the next decades will occur between the rapidly growing urban areas of MENA and the existing dominance of water use and water institutions. What the nations of the MENA are facing and will face in the future is a conflict that will most probably continue to be perceived as a consequence of local social tensions. With few exceptions, the nations in the region have already reached the limits of water supplies. Though some forces, such as full cost pricing of water, technological advances in agriculture and institutional gains to promote integrated watershed management, may mitigate the problems, others such as climate change and higher populations and incomes will exacerbate them. In order for the peoples of MENA to achieve a sustainable freshwater use, the governments need to shift from the current emphasis on increasing supply to alternatives for reducing and reallocating demand.

Governments in the region are addressing the challenge to varying degrees, but they can do much more. Addressing water sustainability requires resources, a plan and an integrated approach. There is a lot that MENA countries can learn from each other’s experience and from the efforts of governments elsewhere around the world. Now is the time for them to formulate strategies and make changes that will safeguard the future. Because of the high dependency on shared water resources, regional cooperation in water governance is also essential. The region lacks comprehensive agreements on the major international river basins. Improved regional cooperation on shared water development and management is vital.

This cooperation should take into consideration the rights of the region’s peoples in an equitable and balanced manner and reform and empower relevant regional institutions and legal frameworks. Effective regional water governance can transform water issues from points of tension into points of progressive international cooperation.


Pilar Buzzetti

Master’s degree in Government and Policies (LUISS “Guido Carli”)




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Harvey, Chelsea. These countries will be hit hardest by water stress in the future. The Washington Post, August 26, 2015.

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