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Thirsty and disunited we fall: Arabs and the water problem

July 23, 2020 at 10:00 am

A young Egyptian fisherman pulls his net in the River Nile, south of the Egyptian capital Cairo, on 13 November 2019 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images]

Since 2011, Ethiopia has been building its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and during this time, neither Sudan nor Egypt stopped complaining about it. Being downstream, the two Arab countries fear that their share of the water will be reduced, causing them serious water shortages. Egypt, in particular, depends almost entirely on the Nile River for its water needs. There is hope that talks will resume soon after being suspended a couple of weeks ago, but expectations of a breakthrough are low.

A breakthrough in discussions will not solve the problem entirely, and disagreements and disputes are likely to arise whenever an extended dry season kicks in. What is certain, is that the entire Middle East and North Africa have major water problems.

The Arab countries are among the world’s driest. This is due to several factors, including: little annual rain fall, climate change, rising temperatures, increased demand and overuse of freshwater. In a study published by the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct 3 platform last September, the outlook is grim. Nine Arab countries – Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Oman are facing “extreme water stress” according to the WRI.

Another 18 out of all 22 Arab countries are suffering from severe water shortages and the problem is likely to be felt across these countries, particularly during the dry seasons.

The Arab world’s water problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the most important rivers flowing into Arab countries have their sources outside of their borders. This means that they have little control over them. The Nile, for example, starts in Lake Victoria in Uganda, ending up in the Mediterranean Sea after passing through Egypt. Its tributary, the Blue Nile, springs from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, before merging with the White Nile in Sudan, forming the Nile River. This makes the supply of water to countries like Egypt and Sudan hostage to political relations with Ethiopia in particular.

READ: Egypt must accept that the Nile belongs to Ethiopia and 8 other African states 

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, supplying both Syria and Iraq, spring in Turkey. Turkey built two big dams, the Ilisu Dam and the larger Ataturk Dam, generating many disputes among the three countries, when inaugurated by Ankara in the 1990s. Both Syria and Iraq complain that the dams reduced the water flow by a third, limiting both countries’ water supplies particularly with regards to irrigation purposes. One of the severe consequences of the dams is the increased salinity downstream in both Syria and Iraq, according to a 2002 study. The study further stressed the fact that the Turkish dams are a “real” threat to future water supplies in the two Arab countries.

On the other hand, Israel always had its eyes on the Litani River, rising from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. While the creation of Israel was still in the planning phases, two top Zionist Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, participated in the Paris Conference in 1919, ending World War I. During the proceedings, they presented a map of the country they envisioned, which included the Litani River. Even before it was founded as a country, Israel made this water stream a strategic target, which explains why the invasion of Lebanon in March 1978 was called “Operation Litani”. However, what may have helped save the Litani River and preserve it as Lebanese, was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which divided up colonial control between the French in Lebanon and Syria, and the British in Palestine. Borders were already drawn, and Israel did not yet exist. The extended occupation of southern Lebanon enabled Israel to use much of the Litani River waters for its own benefit, until it was chased out in 2000 by Hezbollah.

Never-ending fight between Egypt/Ethiopia and Sudan over the Renaissance Dam - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Never-ending fight between Egypt/Ethiopia and Sudan over the Renaissance Dam – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In the Palestinian territories, the water situation is made far worse by the discriminatory Israeli water policy against the Palestinian people, especially in terms of individual domestic water consumption. Each Zionist settler, for example, uses up to 600 litres of water per day, while Palestinians do not even obtain the 100 minimum litres recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The water situation in the Gulf region is also dire. The five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council feature high on the list of dry countries. Almost all of them, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, depend heavily on sea water desalination at a huge cost. Despite the accumulated oil wealth, these countries failed to develop a joint policy to deal with their common problem – water deficiency.

In the absence of a pan-Arab water strategy, each country is attempting its own risky and unsustainable remedies. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been buying land for agriculture production in African countries to meet its domestic needs.

Jordan and the Palestinian Authority found themselves forced to buy water from Israel. The three parties signed an agreement in 2013 by which Amman, the Jordanian capital, receives most of its water from the Israeli-controlled Sea of Galilee. In all these arrangements, Arab countries are making themselves potential hostages to other countries’ political situations.

READ: Egypt deserves better

Libya, for instance, was forced to build its own Great Man-Made River due to a lack of freshwater in its most populated regions. The 4,000 kilometres of buried pipelines are transporting freshwater from the little populated south to the coastal region, where most people reside. The project has been providing nearly 70 per cent of the water needs, despite the damages its pipelines and control stations have suffered as a result of the war.

What is really puzzling, is why the League of Arab States, a pan-Arab organisation, failed so far to come up with a common strategy to tackle the water problem. There are dozens of different answers to this simple question, but they have everything to do with politics and nothing to do with water. The absence of a collective Arab will is a serious hinderance in the combined effort to solve common concerns such as water.

Yet, the UAE has just sent a mission to Mars, while it still depends on desalinated water on Planet Earth. Exploring space might be a strategic move, but securing water is an even more strategic one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.