The water scarcity phenomenon in the Middle East and its sociopolitical effects.

susan eberhard

 The following are outlines for the two discussion articles. After each article are the questions that I prepared to ask the class. Finally, there is a summation of our discussion.


Rivers of Conflict, Rivers of Peace

Struggle over water supplies – tensions and conflict between communities and nations.

Arid regions of the world – water scarcity is fact of life (there is no substitute for water) search for water dictates community politics and relations.

***Tech solution: Societies perceive a mutual benefit in sharing resources…becomes vehicle for cementing cooperative relationships. Suggested as a solution for international conflict during the tech sharing of WW2

REALITY: track record of this proposal not promising; often conflict is part of cultural identity and must be resolved politically first.

Middle East – one of most water-poor regions. World’s lowest per capita water consumption. ALSO: one of the fastest-growing populations. Rivers that transverse boundaries are sources of contention.

Transboundary river basis:

Jordan River – Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank

Euphrates River – Iraq, Syria, Turkey


River basins should be developed as a single whole regardless of political divisions

Water is a shared resource…common property.

Non-excludable, non-rivalrous…but unlike public good. Use of cp resource by one group does not detract from the benefits enjoyed by all.

As a measure of economic efficiency, the basin should be treated as a unit: optimal pattern of water utilization.

IDEALLY unitary basin-wide development of water resources under a system of supranational authority

Geography – yes

History – no

States are reluctant to let go of control of land resources that lie within their boundaries

….maximize individual gains. More inclined to exploit transnational resources. Don’t care about other beneficiaries

THEREFORE the goal is to reach cooperative, basin-wide solutions to provision of common property resource and enhance benefits to all

Historically this has not been successful:

Hydro-static facts:

-water flows, no respect for political boundaries

-upstream states have advantage over downstream, can affect flow and quality of water; no interest in international unitary basin development


Israel has strategic advantage following June 1967.

Before that, there were attempts by the US to form a unified development plan, between Jordan and Israel. There were serious disagreements over water allocations and their destinations, views of rights, needs, and international legal precedents. Arab states worried about being dominated by Israel. The League said no-go.

Maqarin Dam Project, proposed, abandoned due to Syria.

…regional conflict hinders the resolution of water disputes in international river basins

SO:: resolution of riparian dispute requires the prior resolution of political conflict

Strict control of water usage on the West Bank by Israel


Turkey has greatest water endowment…actively engaging in damming the river

Great need for cooperation inhibited by tense political relations

Turkey’s GAP (massive resource management scheme) program that serves to dam the river will significantly hinder water supply downstream

Syria’s ability to generate hydropower affected

Unable to extend irrigation


Forfeit its intake

Decreased quality

Will be hard to meet consumption demands; needs fresh water for its saline soils

Iraq and Syria who are losing from Turkey’s GAP program must curtail it, but they cannot reach agreement with each other

Turkey has absolute advantage: position and military might



Implementation with regard to west bank will have to be preceded by a final settlement on the question of Palestinian statehood

Turkey pursues GAP unhindered.

Technical solutions if water proves to be too little

Cloud seeding, desalination, wastewater reuse and dam building benefit if sought mutually

Imported water…not the best. Need to seek solution for mutual benefit

Trade of oil for water?

ESSENTIAL FIRST STEP: political settlement of Arab-Israeli conflict.



What do you think of the “technical solution”? Would it ever achieve world peace? The author argues that the necessary first step is the political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Do you agree?

What do you think about the trade of oil for water?


Questioning the water war phenomena in the Jordan Basin

Scarcity – a perceived or known shortage of water resources so as to constitute a factor capable of impeding a state’s economic progress.

An aspect of the domain of interstate relations where one state withholds supply from another to score political objectives by undermining the others capacity to achieve economic goals.


-increased research and understanding of the relationship between environmental scarcity and international security

and environmental degradation and human security

-states with artificial boundaries that breach the basins unitary water system

represent ethnic, religious, nationalist differences

basin states heavy reliance on water outside their borders

-decline of east-west rivalry

water war thesis: water availability and quality are directly linked to the social and economic well-being of societies and states…linkage between water and conflict?

War of 1967 Arab-Israel conflict

Israel seized west bank, Gaza strip, Golan heights -- sources of more than 40 percent of the basin water

Was water the main factor of the war?

-Samman – water is like blood. It is the reason why Israel started two wars

-It was not THE factor, but it was an influence

-it was not a factor. It just increased the intensity (like nuclear weapons of cold war) IDEOLOGICAL CONFLICT, not resource conflict

claims verification test.

Commodification of water: reduce interstate tension over water and overcome the scarcity predicament. HOWEVER it is an ill-fated measure that will delay political solution to the water problem and hamper progress toward improved relations

Problem cannot be isolated from national and strategic interests.

Pricing in a market environment…commercial viability of this resource?

Water traders and consumers benefit from the enterprise?

GOAL: cause demand levels to drop to match supply levels

Solution according to the world bank: place a monetary value on water.

“absolute necessity to reduce waste”

becomes worthwhile for the middle class to invest in water

poor saves water

could it alleviate possibilities of conflict?


-cost of substituting it for imported food

virtual water

-one cannot value water more than the cost of replacing it

desalination is the cap

state/basin-wide authority would be the supplier

citizens would be consumers

pay cost of production at the source and the conveyance all the way to the point of delivery

controls demand and creating the incentive for conservation

SACRIFICE to free market economy: jobs and way of life of farmers

Pricing may be too costly in political terms in that it undermines the very ethos upon which a nation and its identity are founded

Can the country’s economies cope with a water market?

Gov continues to subsidize water supplied to domestic and agricultural consumers.

CONCLUSION solutions to disputed borders, territories, and issues of sovereignty must be settled to the satisfaction of all interested parties to ensure that water resources do not become a pretext for disagreement/imposition of solutions.



Are there links between environmental scarcity and international security? Environmental degradation and human security?

Was water A main factor or THE main factor of the 1967 war?

The World Bank wants to commodify water. Their goal is to cause demand levels to drop to match supply levels. What are the prerequisites for a successful water market? Do we need to eliminate all possibilities of conflict? What are the national/regional implications of setting a water market in motion under current sociopolitical conditions? Will water be too costly, and what are the implications of that?



 First, I gave a summary of the situation to the class. I spoke at length about the geography of the region and how nations upstream have control over the quality of the water for those downstream. This led into a discussion about that. We talked about how the dominant countries in the two basins, Turkey and Israel, both control the upstream areas of the river. I also brought up the commodification of water, and the implications of that. Water, as a human resource, is very difficult to put a price on, and doing so invites negative societal repercussions. We spoke about alternative solutions to the problem of water scarcity. Professor Everbach gave a description and analysis of the process of cloud seeding. Finally, we talked about how the first author argues that the necessary first step to solve the problem of water scarcity is the resolution of political conflict, to which we had no answer, and could not foresee happening in the immediate future.


Works Cited

Lowi, Miriam R. "Rivers of conflict, rivers of peace." Journal of International Affairs. New York: Summer 1995. Vol. 49, Iss. 1; p. 123 (22 pages)

Murad Shaheen. "Questioning the water-war phenomena in the Jordan basin." Middle East Policy. Washington: Jun 2000. Vol. 7, Iss. 3; p. 137 (14 pages)




Susan Eberhard

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 4/12/06