Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel, and the Middle East’s water crisis

James Zogby
Thursday 30 Sep 2021

Discussing the possibility of drought in the Arab world.

A recent report published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlights the growing threat posed by the water crisis and drought confronting the future of millions of Arabs across the Middle East. It is crisis that is the result of both climate change and the callous and selfish policies pursued by some governments.   

For millennia, the history of the peoples of this region has been defined by its waterways — from the Tigris and Euphrates in the East, the Nile in the West, and the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River flowing through its heart. Dozens of civilisations and hundreds of millions of souls have been nourished by these waters. Crops were grown, fish were caught, people drank, bathed and washed clothes in them, and they figured prominently in various religious texts. The waterways were a constant — taken for granted, because they were always there and, it was assumed, would always be there. But this is no longer the case.  

A combination of climate change and unilateral initiatives by three regional governments have had a dramatic impact on the supply of water available to their neighbours. If these challenges are not addressed, the results will be devastating to the livelihood and survival of hundreds of millions and the resultant tensions have the potential to fuel even greater conflicts than we see at present. 

It should be noted that the three countries involved are the non-Arab states of Turkey, Israel and Ethiopia, while the affected populations are the Arab peoples of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan. 

With rising temperatures and reduced rainfall, several Arab countries have already experienced severe drought — the worst in 900 years. These climate changes have resulted in increased evaporation, lower water levels and spreading desertification. The consequences can be seen not only in the drying up of once irrigated farmlands and the dislocation and impoverishment of small farmers, but also in the increased intensity of dust storms, with effects felt as far away as the Arabian Peninsula.  

There is ample evidence that drought was one of the precipitators of the conflict in Syria. Several years of dangerously low levels of rain coupled with government mismanagement and lack of foresight resulted in hundreds of thousands of Syrian farmers being forced to leave their lands and flee to cities. The pressure that they and the influx of over a million Iraqi refugees placed stress on resources, preparing the ground for civil strife and extremism, ultimately erupting into mass protests. The regime’s brutal response to this unrest only fuelled the population’s anger at their dislocation and poverty. 

Syria’s water problems were not only the result of drought and the regime’s behaviour. They were exacerbated by the Turkish dams on the Euphrates River that reduced the flow of water into the country by 40 per cent. 

The bottom line is that not only have water shortages been a precipitating factor in Syria’s long war, but also that the pressures created by people internally displaced by war coupled with the persistent lack of water resulting from Turkey’s expanding dam projects threaten to create even greater hardships and concerns for the survival of Syria’s people. 

Iraq, which has also experienced rising temperatures, lower levels of rainfall and spreading desertification, has been even more dramatically impacted by the Turkish dams of both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is estimated that the Euphrates’ dams have resulted in an 80 per cent decline in Iraq’s water supply. Much of Iraq’s date crop, once famous world-wide, its citrus orchards, and rice fields have also dried up. Iraq is losing an average of 100 square miles of arable land each year. 

In addition, the dangerously low level of fresh water in the rivers, a major source of drinking water in the country, has now been compromised as the back flow of salt water from the Gulf is seeping into the rivers rendering them unsafe for consumption and irrigation.  

With Turkey planning to construct 22 more dams on both rivers, the situation downstream will only worsen. It is estimated that the new dams on the Tigris will reduce the water flowing from that river into Iraq by more than 50 per cent.   

Facing the same water problems as its Arab compatriots in the Levant, Egypt and Sudan are now struggling with how to confront the threats to their well-being that will result from Ethiopia’s new dam project — the largest on the African continent. Egyptians depend on the Nile for 97 per cent of their water and it is estimated that they will lose about 20 per cent of its waters to the Greater Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Sudan estimates that it will lose almost 50 per cent of its supply. With water already a scarce commodity and with both countries confronted by climate change-induced desertification, their rapidly growing populations and struggling economies will soon face monumental challenges and growing unrest.  

For its part, Israel has long been diverting the waters from the Sea of Galilee to support its agriculture and population. In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration not only objected to Israel’s unilateral actions, warning that it was increasing tensions with Syria and Jordan, it also took the step of suspending US aid. Israel, however, did not relent. Some analysts see Israel’s water diversion schemes as a precipitating factor leading to the 1967 War.  

In 1967, Israel overran the West Bank, seizing all of Mandatory Palestine and the Golan Heights. This enabled it to intensify its exploitation of the waters of the sea, the Jordan River and the waters of the West Bank’s aquifers. Today, Israelis drain more than 80 per cent of the West Bank’s aquifers and their diversion of Galilee and Jordan River’s waters have resulted in shrinking that historic river to five per cent of its original volume. To add insult to injury, Palestinians and Jordanians are now forced to buy water from Israel at inflated prices.  

All of these situations pose real threats to human life, because of the poverty and dislocation they create and the danger they pose to greater conflict.  Each could be resolved through negotiations. For decades, Syria and Iraq have sought compromise with the Turks. At a minimum, Egypt and Sudan have appealed to Ethiopia to stretch out the time for the filling of GERD to 10 to 15 years, so that they could make needed adjustments downstream. And water was one of the “final status issues” that Israel agreed at Oslo they would refrain from impacting through unilateral actions. 

But Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel have pursued their own agendas and refused to act in a manner that would promote regional cooperation and stability. The consequences of their short-sighted actions will be felt in the near term. 

For millennia the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Jordan Rivers fed civilisations that flourished along their banks. Now the selfish actions of a few states are serving instead to fuel conflict because they are threatening the lives of others.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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