American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

August 2001

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Middle East Water Problems

by William N. Dale

Amb. Dale, a member of this publication’s board of directors and a frequent contributor of commentary, served as minister-counselor and chargé at the American embassy in Tel Aviv from 1964 to 1968.-Ed.

In the Middle East, unfortunately, water is often scarce, and over the last century its consumption has increased faster than the population.

The river Jordan, so famous in history and religion, is now nothing more than a creek. By the time that long-suffering stream reaches its end, most of the water has disappeared into a wide variety of pipes, pumps, and fields to sustain the ever growing demands of the human population in its vicinity. The reasons for the shrinking of the Jordan reflect the overwhelming problem of the whole region in obtaining sufficient water. The plight of the Jordan and other water sources of the area and a brief examination of the recommendations as to what can be done to improve it will reveal one of the more serious situations facing human beings in the twenty-first century. It will involve an overview of the water needs and practices of the entities bordering the Jordan, namely, Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and, since it is a part of the problem, the Gaza Strip.

The first map accompanying this article gives a general view of the region. There is a little rain sometimes along the coast. Further inland is a strip of dry forest upland, grading into semi-desert and beyond that is full desert. To the South lies a huge expanse of desert, stretching from Saudi Arabia into Egypt. Northwards, is a temperate area with more rainfall, but further to the East is the Syrian Desert.

The countries we are considering lie in a transition zone between the hot and arid Southwest Asia and the cooler, wetter North Mediterranean. This causes a wide variation in rainfall and temperature. Customarily, the rain tends to fall in the winter in the highlands while the summers are hot, long and dry. In the generally cloudless summer months, surface water evaporates very quickly. Far less rain falls on the area East of the Jordan valley than to the West. Furthermore, our area contains the extension of the great Rift valley which extends from eastern Africa all the way to northern Israel. Its lowest point is the Dead Sea which is 1,312 feet below sea level, the lowest point on the surface of the Earth. A few years ago my eighty-year-old aunt boldly dashed into its highly saline waters fully intending to enjoy a nice swim. She could only bob around like a cork and finally had to let herself be hauled out in defeat.

The total precipitation for the whole area averages about 4.3 trillion gallons or 16 1/2 million cubic meters a year. That may sound like a lot, but human beings can't readily use most of it. Evaporation and transpiration from plants return much of the moisture from rainfall directly to the atmosphere before it can be captured by man or it penetrates below the soil into the ground water zone. Less than a quarter of the rain falling west of the Jordan is eventually available for human use and less than ten percent of that to the East is available. For the area as a whole, seventeen percent of the rain water can now be used by humans either as runoff or as ground water which the experts estimate is already substantially less than annual consumption and represents a condition of acute water stress. Now, moreover, the region is suffering from the worst drought in a century.

The portion of the rain water that percolates below the root zone for plants becomes ground water in a process known as recharge. It eventually permeates underground rock formations or sand, called aquifers, in which water can collect and move. These aquifers tend to acquire water through recharge in the higher altitudes where there is more rain and discharge it in lower areas in the form of springs, streams or lakes. The second map shows that there are three main aquifers in this region and they tend to drain more into Israel than elsewhere.In terms of water availability, Israel's situation is better than that of Jordan or the West Bank. By limiting the amount of water the Palestinians on the highlands are allowed to extract from wells, the Israelis have increased the ground water flow available to them so that now Israel consumes over sixty percent of the total water of the region, but is still consuming about thirty percent more than the annual supply.

The figures I have quoted may sound formidable. They show that the amount of fresh water currently available in the area is not really enough to sustain the quality of life of the present population at today's level. The overwhelming probability, moreover, is that the situation will not remain as it is today. According to United Nations figures, the population of the area, including Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is now about 14 million. Using medium variant figures for all the countries except for Gaza, where I used low variant figures, the population would rise to just under 23 million by 2025, a huge increase of over sixty percent. Jordan will experience the largest increase—from 6.7 million today to over 12 million in twenty-five years. Israel's population, including the West Bank, will grow from 6.2 million now to 8.3 million in 2025. The Gaza Strip's population would double, rising from 1.1 million now to 2.6 million in twenty-five years. These projections are from 1999, the latest available and they differ somewhat from the figures released by the countries themselves. Also, they do not include mass movements of people due to war or other unforeseeable international events. Even so, they bear two clear messages. One is that the present supply of water and the present conservation practices will not be sufficient to handle the large population increase expected over the next twenty-five years. Second, the problem is already with us.

Water does not disappear; it only changes form. However, it may be scarce in one area and overly abundant in another. In the Middle East, unfortunately, water is often scarce, and over the last century its consumption has increased faster than the population. In addition, intensified agricultural, commercial and residential use of water has led to extensive pollution of surface and ground water due to human waste, insecticides, fertilizer, and land fills. The Sea of Galilee, or as the Israelis call it, Kinneret, has become the major water source for Israel's National Water Carrier which transports unfiltered water South to the semi-desert area of the Negev. This major diversion together with the diversion of the Yarmouk River into the Jordanian East Ghor Canal, have almost eliminated the inflow of fresh water into the lower Jordan River, accounting for my wife's disappointment at the diminutive size of that once famous stream. What water there is now is salty, killing off the fresh water vegetation along its banks. When the Israelis drained the Hula Valley marshes to the North of the Sea of Galilee, the soil became oxidized, the surface subsided, and, again, native vegetation died out. Over pumping from wells in the Azraq Oasis in Jordan to furnish water for the burgeoning population of Amman has caused the two fresh water springs that fed that once beautiful oasis to dry up. The shores of the Sea of Galilee are now a large expanse of mud flats and excessive amounts of salt are imperiling the water quality. The present danger is that the pressure of an increasing population will cause authorities to continue to overpump at an ever increasing rate, reducing further the fresh water in the aquifers. In the last analysis, the specter of mass thirst will likely exert more pressure on politicians than the need to provide water for future generations.

Yet, in planning for water use, that one prime objective stands out: sustainable development. This is an intergenerational process which requires people and governments to utilize their water resources in a way that will maintain them for generations to come. Action to handle the increase in population of this region must begin now, in spite of the violence currently dividing its peoples and it should be conducted on an international basis. Methods do exist to conserve water. One involves management of the demand. Governments can take further steps to manage the watersheds of rivers like the Jordan, capture rain water more effectively, improve water distribution systems and reuse water more than they do now. In planning future water management, both Jordan and Israel should transfer water from agriculture to pursuits requiring less water, such as manufacturing, to the extent they can do so.

The Israelis have already made much progress in reusing water. Sixty-five percent of the water used to irrigate crops there is reclaimed waste water. But people can use waste water more effectively than they do today for many other purposes such as toilet flushing, car washing. and lawn sprinkling. The supply of water can be almost doubled by reclaiming it. However, the use of reclaimed water often requires dual water piping systems - one for potable water for drinking, cooking and bathing and one for reclaimed water. Builders in Irvine, California, are already building apartment houses with such dual water systems. Recently, authorities in Cary, North Carolina (USA), have begun to utilize similar methods to solve their water problems brought on by a massive increase in population.

Making the most of the limited water supply requires measures at the governmental level, as well. Although it is not a popular step, authorities can raise the price of water to help conserve its use. Governments can also take steps to encourage water saving plumbing fixtures, such as stingier shower heads, rules to limit watering of lawns to evening and early morning, and requiring restaurants to serve water to guests only on demand. Public awareness of the need to conserve water is the key to limiting demand, and when widely and conscientiously practiced, it can make a considerable difference. Israeli experts estimate that if its population would take fully to heart the measures discussed above, the country could achieve up to a sixty-two percent reduction in the demand for water for domestic use.

Researchers have discovered that one important factor in water consumption is leaks in the distribution systems. On the West Bank, twenty-six percent of the water distributed in the town of Ramallah and fifty-five percent of the water distributed in Hebron is lost due to leaks in the old piping systems and to unmetered users. Experts estimate that fifty percent of the water entering the water distribution systems of Jordan disappears in the same way. In 1993, the Israelis lost eleven percent with their more up-to-date water distribution systems. The region as a whole could save a substantial amount of water through renovation of these systems while, at the same time, repairing leaky sewers. Finding the will to make repairs, especially when it is expressed in monetary terms, is quite another matter.

Another way to increase the supply of water is to build small dams and retention basins to catch the runoff after storms in the region's innumerable dry runs or wadis. The Palestinians have undertaken feasibility studies for such dams but they haven't enough money to build anything. The Jordanians have built several pilot projects, but many of the most desirable wadis are located too far from habitable areas to make dams practicable. The Israelis, however, have constructed a considerable number of them and have plans to Abuild many more. Unfortunately, the high evaporation rate in this all too sunny clime may cause a loss of water which would be saved if it were allowed to percolate into the ground water aquifers without dams.

The direct trapping of rain water or water harvesting is the source of forty-five percent of the water which rural Arabs on the West Bank consume. The Palestinians build cisterns on the roofs of their houses to catch rain water during the winter months which they conserve for use during the long, dry summers. Normally, these cisterns can supply enough water for a family of five to last all summer. Also, farmers excavate small reservoirs to capture and store water for watering livestock. This inexpensive water harvesting system has prevailed for many years and will continue for many more, but it is vulnerable to drought and this year the Palestinians are suffering greatly from lack of water.

Also on the supply side, much interest has developed in schemes to bring water into this area from outside. One scheme that has attracted much attention lately involves piping water from the upper Euphrates River in Turkey to Israel. Unfortunately, the problems entailed in such a project would probably be almost insurmountable. It would require negotiations with Israel's intermittent enemies, Syria and Iraq, who are the downstream consumers of the Euphrates water. Unless the water pipe was located offshore, it would have to cross both Syria and Lebanon, where it would be subject to sabotage at every turn for the worse in the local political situation. It is hard to consider the Turkish pipeline as a practical alternative until regional peace arrives sometime in the future. As well, the cost of such a pipeline would be extremely high. Meanwhile, plans exist to bring water from Turkey to Israel by tanker beginning next year.

Desalination, the removal of salt from sea water, is another way to increase the supply of water for the region. Several desalination plants are already in operation in Israel and more are in the planning stage. The desalting process requires large amounts of energy and cost is a barrier to more rapid construction. At most desalination plants now contemplated will meet only five percent of Israel's needs. The most efficient plan would be to use the fresh water created by desalination for drinking, cooking, bathing and industrial uses requiring pure water, while reserving reclaimed water for non-potable needs.

In this connection, the project for bringing sea water from the Red Sea down to the Dead Sea appears to have more advantages and, since Israel and Jordan are no longer at war, entails fewer problems than the other projects to bring water from outside the region. Hydroelectric plants could generate large quantities of power, utilizing the flow of sea water descending from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Provided the requirements for water during the long construction phase can be met, the countries of the region, no doubt with external help, could build a major desalination center which might help in a major way to meet the water needs of the region.

Also, this project would replenish the water of the now shrinking Dead Sea and could become a major source of valuable minerals. The desalination could be done at the very location where industrial or other processes require pure water, making it cheaper. Finally, this project would have to engage both Israel and Jordan, bringing them together in a peaceful endeavor of major proportions Until that happy day arrives, however, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians will have to try harder to conserve water by some of the means we have examined above.

Other articles by Amb. Dale can be found here.

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