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close this bookHydropolitics along the Jordan River. Scarce Water and Its Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict (UNU, 1995, 272 pages)
close this folder3. Towards an interdisciplinary approach to water basin analysis and the resolution of international water disputes
close this folder3.3. Paradigms for analysis of international water conflicts
View the document(introduction...)
View the document3.3.1 Physical sciences and technology
View the document3.3.2 Law
View the document3.3.3 Political science
View the document3.3.4 Economics
View the document3.3.5 Game theory
View the document3.3.6 Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)

3.3.1 Physical sciences and technology

The technical implementers of water policy are the physical scientists, who have traditionally borne the responsibility for making sure that water supply meets demand. These hydrologists, hydrogeologists, engineers, and chemists manage the supply, delivery, storage, and quality of each entity's water to match the needs of each user. On the demand side, agricultural researchers develop new delivery systems, greenhouse technology, and bioengineered crops to lower the need for water on the farm. This section examines the contribution of the physical sciences to alleviation of the water conflict in the Middle East by offering possibilities both to increase supply and to decrease demand.

Increasing supply - New natural sources

No new "rivers" will be discovered in the Middle East, but increased catchment of winter flood water anywhere along an existing river system can add just as well to the water budget. This applies to small wadis as well as to large storage projects such as the Maqarin Dam, which alone could contribute a saving of about 330 MCM/yr by storing winter run-off that otherwise is lost to the Dead Sea. When it is possible to store water underground through artificial groundwater recharge, even more water is saved - that not lost to evaporation in a surface reservoir. Less evaporation also means less of a salinity problem in the remaining water. Israel currently stores 200 MCM/yr from its National Water Carrier project by this method (Ambroggi 1977, 25).

Underground is the only place to look for any major new water supplies within the basin. In 1985, Israel confirmed the discovery of a large fossil aquifer in the Nubian sandstone underlying the Sinai and Negev deserts. Israel is already exploiting 25 MCM/yr from this source and is investigating the possibility of pumping 300 MCM/yr in the twenty-first century (Issar 1985,110). Jordan has also been carrying out a systematic groundwater evaluation project in recent years, and has begun to tap the fossil Disi aquifer along the Saudi border for 80 MCM/yr (E. Salameh in Garber and Salameh 1992, 114).

Increasing supply - New sources through technology

Projects such as iceberg-towing and cloud-seeding, though appealing to the imagination, do not seem to be a likely emphasis for future technology: the former involves great expense and the latter can be, at best, a small part of a very local solution. Although a representative of Israel's water authority claims that 15 per cent of Israeli annual rainfall is due to their cloud-seeding programme (Siegel 1989), this has been documented only within the northern Galilee catchment and results seem not to have the consistency necessary for reliable planning.

The three most likely technologies to increase water supply for the near future are desalination, waste-water reclamation, and water imports.


The Middle East has already spent more on desalinating plants than any other part of the world. The region has 35 per cent of the world's plants with 65 per cent of the total desalinating capacity, mostly along the Arabian peninsula (E. Anderson in Starr and Stoll 1988, 4). Israel, too, included plans for both conventional and nuclear desalination plants in its water planning until 1978, when they were abandoned as "technologically premature and economically unfeasible" (Galnoor 1978, 352).

It is this problem of cost that makes desalinated water impractical for most applications. Although drinking-water is a completely inelastic good - that is, people will pay almost any price for it - water for agriculture, by far the largest use in the Middle East, has to be cost-effective enough for the agricultural endproduct to remain competitive in the market-place. The present costs of about US$0.80-$1.50/m3 to desalt sea water and about $0.30/m3 for brackish water (L. Awerbuch in Starr and Stoll 1988, 59), do not make this technology an economic water source for most uses. Efforts are being made, however, to lower these costs through multiple use plants (getting desalinated water as a byproduct in a plant designed primarily for energy generation), increased energy efficiency in plant design, and by augmenting conventional plant power with solar or other energy sources.

One additional use of salt water is to mix it with fresh water in just the quantity to leave it useful for agricultural or industrial purposes, effectively adding to the freshwater supply. This method was used in Israel in the 1975/76 season to add 141 MCM/yr to the water budget (Kahhaleh 1981, 40).


The other promising technology to increase supply is cleaning and reusing waste water. Two plants in Israel at the time of writing treat 110 MCM/yr or 40 per cent of the country's sewage for reuse, and projections call for treating 80 per cent by 1990 (State of Israel 1988, 8). The treated water is currently used to irrigate some 15,000 hectares - mostly cotton (Poster 1989b, 42). It is anticipated that full exploitation of purified waste water will eventually constitute 45 per cent of domestic water needs (State of Israel 1988, 147). This type of project could be developed throughout the region (a World Bank loan helped to finance the Israeli project). The obvious limit of this technology is the amount of waste water generated by a population.


Other sources of water could come from neighbouring watersheds that currently have a water surplus. At one time or another, Israel has eyed the Litani and the Nile, Jordan has looked to the Euphrates, and all of the countries in the area have been intrigued by the "Peace Pipeline" proposed by Turkey in 1987. The western line of this project would deliver 1,200 MCM/yr from the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers to Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (C. Duna in Starr and Stoll 1988, 119). Despite Prime Minister Özal's belief that "by pooling regional resources, the political tensions in the area can be diffused," at a cost of US$20,000 million this project probably will not be diffusing tensions in the near future.

Other recent proposals include bringing Turkish water to Israel in barges (Starr 1991), or towed in plastic "Medusa bags," each with a volume of 1 MCM (Cran 1992). Boaz Wachtel (1992) has devised a branch of the "mini-peace" pipeline to come from Turkey, through Syria, to the Golan Heights. This last branch would be in an open canal, doubling as an antitank barricade, then dropping water to both Jordan and Israel for hydropower.

Some proposals have focused on economic incentives as a means of overcoming the political reluctance to transboundary water transfers. Countries upstream to Egypt may have a legal say in any transfer of Nile water, for example. Dinar and Wolf (1992) suggested a technology-for-water exchange between Israel and Egypt, and calculated the economic "pay-off" that would be generated to induce such co operation. Another cost-cutting option might be to use facilities that are already in place, such as the TAP line, an abandoned oil pipeline that extends from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf.

Once additional water is introduced to the Jordan basin, arrangements can be made for exchanges within the basin from one region to another for the most efficient overall distribution. Nile water, for example, could be brought to Gaza and/or the Israeli Negev Desert for less expense than most alternative sources (Kelly 1989; Dinar and Wolf 1991). Increased water from the northern Jordan could then be made available to other parts of Israel, the West Bank, or Jordan. Similar exchanges could be arranged for Litani or Turkish water as well.

Decreasing demand

The guiding principle to decrease demand for any scarce resource should be, "Can it be used more efficiently?" This does not always work, however, especially when there is an emotional value associated either with the resource itself or with the proposed solution. Unfortunately, when dealing with water, emotions usually charge both aspects of the issue. For example, one way to cut long-term demand for Middle East water is to limit population growth in the region. However, in an area where each national group and religious and ethnic subgroup seems to be locked in a demographic race for numerical superiority, this is not very likely to occur. Many of the sectors most susceptible to efficient restructuring are also those most laden with emotion.

Some aspects of decreasing agricultural water demand are noncontroversial and have made the region a showcase for arid-agriculture water conservation. Technological advances such as drip-irrigation and micro-sprinklers, which reduce water loss by evaporation, are about 20-50 per cent more efficient than standard sprinklers and very much more so than the open-ditch flood method used in the region for centuries (Hillel 1987). Computerized control systems, working in conjunction with direct soil moisture measurements, can add even more precision to crop irrigation.

Other water savings have come through bioengineered crops that exist on a minimal amount of fresh water, on brackish water, or even on the direct application of salt water (C. Hodges in Starr and Stoll 1988, 109-118).

As a result of using a combination of these conservation methods, Israel's irrigated area has increased from 172 million hectares in 1973 to 220 million hectares in 1988, with total production increasing by 100 per cent, while water consumption for agriculture remained nearly constant (State of Israel 1988, 144). It has been speculated that the irrigated area in the West Bank could, similarly, be doubled without increasing the demand for water (Heller 1983,130). Meanwhile, these techniques have been spreading throughout the region, and it is reasonable to assume that increased water efficiency will continue to be an important aspect of Middle East agriculture.

Encouraging cooperation in research and development between the countries in the region, possibly in cooperation with other areas facing similar problems, such as the arid south-west United States, can help with this diffusion of technology. Some such programmes exist, but they usually exclude pairing of any two countries with hostile relations, creating a serious technological barrier precisely where the free flow of information and technology is most important. Starr and Stoll (1988) have advocated regional research centres for the Middle East, sponsored by the United States.

Emotional charge enters into the water debate when it is suggested by economists or planners that greater hydrologic efficiency might be gained if less water were used in agriculture in general, as described in the section on economics, below.

Variability in supply and demand

It should be emphasized that an analysis of such a fragile "hydropolitical" situation as exists in the Middle East is actually more complicated than so far discussed, because of tremendous variability in the system. Some fluctuation is natural. Even in "normal" years, rainfall is extremely variable in both space and time. Almost all of the year's rain falls in the four winter months, and varies from the lush Mount Hermon and Golan Heights, to the desert areas around the Dead Sea. Further, average annual rainfall can vary from year to year by as much as 40 per cent (Stanhill and Rapaport 1988). These fluctuations introduce tremendous challenges to water managers and the water delivery and storage infrastructure on which they rely.

Middle East hydropolitics are made even more difficult to plan for by human-induced variability. Aside from the volatile nature of politics in general, and Middle East politics specifically, two other factors complicate the present precarious situation - one climatic, and one demographic.


Many climatologists are currently investigating what changes will occur in regional weather patterns, given an anticipated rise in average global temperature (see, for example, Lonergan and Kavanagh 1991). One possible climatic scenario is a northward shift in the distribution of winter rainfall, away from the Jordan Basin. Difficult though they are to predict on a regional scale, the effects of shifting annual precipitation patterns in the Middle East could have profound impacts on the politics of the region, depending on how dramatic the changes are that actually develop. As global, and finally regional, modelling and forecasting improve, this subject will have to be investigated further in order for appropriate planning measures to be taken.


A second, more imminent, change is already beginning to occur in the region, which could dramatically affect issues of water distribution and usage. Israel expects at least a million Soviet immigrants in the coming decade, possibly two million (Bank of Israel 1991). Jordan recently absorbed 300,000 Palestinians who left Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Furthermore, if political negotiations were to result in an autonomous Palestine on the West Bank, that entity might absorb a percentage of the 2.2 million Palestinians registered worldwide as refugees (Jaffee Center 1989). Heller (1983) has suggested that 600,000 refugees might immigrate to the West Bank under such conditions.

Based on current domestic consumption, Israel would require an additional 94 MCM/yr, or a little over 5 per cent of the current water budget, just to provide for personal use by one million immigrants. Jordan would need 17.5 MCM/yr additional supply for its refugees, and the West Bank would need an additional 15 MCM/yr, or a 14 per cent increase in its water budget, to provide for the personal water needs of 600,000 immigrants.

Admittedly, these numbers represent simple extrapolations based on current water use. However, given not only that hydrologic limits are being reached but also that annual supplies are routinely being surpassed, questions as to the absorptive capacity of the region's water resources for immigrants and refugees should at least be asked.


Water supply in general, and groundwater availability and flow in particular, are difficult to evaluate. Estimates of rainfall, evaporation, transpiration, run-off, and percolation to the water-table each can be in error, even by orders of magnitude. Because each measurement adds reliability to available data, the difficulty in measuring and evaluating water resources may add impetus to dialogue within a watershed. Both Kolars (1992) and Starr (1992) have suggested cooperative water data gathering and sharing as an important starting point for regional cooperation.