Technological and management alternatives for the future
There is an entire array of solutions to water resource limits,
ranging from agricultural to technological to economic and public policy, but
they all fall under the same two basic categories as for any resource shortage:
increase supply or decrease demand. Allowance must also be made for anticipated
climatic and demographic shifts.
New natural sources
No new "rivers" will be discovered in the Middle East, but
increased catchment of winter floodwater anywhere along the existing river
system can add to the region's water budget. This applies to small wadis as well
as to large storage projects such as the Maqarin Dam, which alone could
contribute savings of about 330 MCM/yr. When it is possible to store water
underground through artificial groundwater recharge (e.g. not lost to
evaporation), even more water is saved. Less evaporation also reduces the
salinity in the remaining water. Israel currently stores 200 MCM/yr from its
National Water Carrier project through this method (Ambroggi, 1977).
Underground is the only place to look for any real new water
supplies. In 1985, Israel confirmed the discovery of a large fossil aquifer in
the Nubian sandstone underlying the Sinai and Negev deserts. It is already
exploiting 25 MCM/yr from this source and is investigating the possibility of
pumping up to 300 MCM/yr in the twenty-first century (Issar, 1985). Jordan has
also been carrying out a systematic groundwater evaluation project in recent
years, with the help of the United States Agency for International Development
and the US Geological Survey (Starr and Stoll, 1988, p. 32).
Any other regional source of water would have to come at the
expense of another watershed. Despite this, 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 (Duna, 1988, p.
119). Despite Turkish Prime Minister Ozal's belief that, "by pooling regional
resources, the political tensions in the area can be diffused" (Dune, 1988, p.
121, quoting Prime Minister Ozal), the idea did not gain rapid popularity
because of its cost of US$20 billion.
New sources through technology
Projects such as iceberg towing and cloud seeding, though
appealing to the imagination, do not seem to be the most likely direction for
future technology. The former involves great expense and the latter can at best
be 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 its
cloud-seeding programme (Siegel, 1989, p. 12), this has been documented only
within the northern Galilee catchment and results seem not to have the
consistency necessary for reliable water resources planning.
The two most likely future technologies to increase water supply
are desalination and wastewater reclamation. The Middle East has already spent
more on desalination 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 desalting
capacity, mostly along the Arabian peninsula (Anderson, 1988, p. 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, p. 352).
Desalinated water is expensive 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 so that agricultural end-products remain
competitive in the market-place. The present costs of about
US$0.80-1.50/m3 to desalt sea water and about US$0.30/m3
for brackish water (Awerbuch, 1988, p. 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 desalted water as a by-product
in a plant designed primarily for energy generation), increased energy
efficiency in plant design, and augmenting conventional plant power with solar
or other energy sources.6
One additional use of salt water is to mix it with fresh water in
just the right amount so as to leave it useful for agricultural or industrial
purposes, in effect freeing up water to be added 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).
Another promising technology to increase supply is wastewater
reclamation. Two plants in Israel currently treat 110 MCM/yr or 40 per cent of
the country's sewage for re-use, and projections call for treating 80 per cent
by the end of the 1990s (Environmental Protection Service, 1988, p. 8). The
treated water is currently used to irrigate some 15,000 hectares, mostly cotton
(Poster, 1989b, p. 42). It is anticipated that full exploitation of purified
waste water will eventually constitute 45 per cent of domestic water needs
(Environmental Protection Service, 1988, p. 147). This type of project could be
developed throughout the region (a World Bank loan helped finance the Israeli
project). An obvious limitation of this technology is directly related to the
amount of waste water generated by a population in a year.
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 or with the proposed solution. Unfortunately, when dealing with water,
emotions usually charge both aspects of the issue. For example, the most direct
way to cut 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 some demographic race for numerical superiority,
this is not likely to occur. Many of the sectors most susceptible to efficient
restructuring are also those most laden with emotion.
The agricultural sector
Some aspects of decreasing agricultural water demand are
non-controversial 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 tremendously more so than the
open-ditch flood method used in the region for centuries (Environmental
Protection Service, 1988, p. 144). 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 big-engineered crops that
exist on a minimal amount of fresh water, on brackish water, or even on the
direct application of salt water.7
Economic water efficiency
Water distribution in the Middle East is so riddled with economic
inefficiencies that an economist approaching it must feel very much like a
drip-irrigation designer watching a field being flood-irrigated. The main
problem is that the cost of water to the user is highly subsidized, especially
with regard to water that has been earmarked for agriculture. The true cost of
water would reflect all of the pumping, treatment, and delivery costs of that
water, most of which are not passed on to the farmers. In Israel alone, 20 per
cent of the country's energy is used solely to move water from one place to
another (Naff and Matson, 1984, p. 12).
Economic theory argues that only when the price paid for a
commodity is a reasonable reflection of the true price can market forces work
for efficient distribution of the commodity.8 In other words,
subsidized water leads to waste in agricultural practices, too little incentive
for research and development of conservation techniques and practice, and,
finally, too much water being allocated to the agricultural sector as opposed to
industry. Take away subsidies and allow the price to rise, it is argued, and
market incentives are created for both greater efficiency on the farm and a
natural shift of water resources from the agricultural sector to industry, where
contribution to GNP per unit of water is often much higher (Wishart, 1989, p.
49). Since in each of the areas discussed between 75 per cent and 95 per cent of
water use is allocated for agricultural use, savings could be substantial.
Economic analysis may also create a framework for easing regional
water tensions. "Put simply, conflicts over water rights are easier to resolve
if transaction costs of resolution are lower, and if opportunities exist for
improving the efficiency of water use and discovery" (Wishart, 1989, p.50). In
other words, if it is cheaper for people to cooperate and save water than it is
to fight, they would rather cooperate.
There are, however, problems inherent in using economic theory as
the tool for water conflict analysis, problems that can lead to weaknesses in
the economic solutions prescribed. First, water is not a pure economic good.
Options to the consumer of most goods include migrating to where it is cheaper
if so desired or abstaining from it altogether if the price is too high. Given
small countries with tightly controlled borders, the former is not a viable
alternative, nor, for more obvious biological reasons, is the latter.
Presumably, though, the analysis is restricted to water for agriculture, where
there is ample room for reducing demand before running into such dangers.
The second problem is more serious because it has to do with a
force much more fundamental than economic theory, that is, the emotions of a
nation. All of the countries in the area were built from the farm up, and the
agriculturalist, whether the fellah or the kibbutznik, holds a
special mystique on both sides of the Jordan. Both Arabic and Hebrew ideologies
are rife with slogans of "making the desert bloom" and "nations rooted in their
land." In this context, water invariably becomes the "lifeblood" of a nation.
One result of this has been a certain political and financial leeway granted to
agriculture in the area.
Even while recognizing its limits, one can still use economic
analysis as a useful tool to provide some guidelines to increase hydrological
efficiency. And it has been suggested that following these guidelines can be
especially crucial as water limits begin to be reached.
Where the "invisible hand" of economic forces fails to guide a
more efficient water use, authoritative guidelines of public policy can take
over. Government agencies could, after all, simply implement one analyst's
prescription of cutting water to agriculture by 35 per cent if they wished
(Naff, 1990). The "if they wished" is the problem. The same national water
ethics that give agriculture great economic clout in the region, also give it
great political clout. The Water Commission in Israel, for example, is the
ultimate authority for all water planning and operations in the country. It, in
turn, is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture. Clearly there is room for
improvement even in terms of national public policy. But the real opportunities
come from the international policy sector.
Water policy in this region is currently drawn up within the
boundaries of a nation rather than within those of a watershed. Because the flow
of water does not respect political boundaries, it should be clear that regional
management, at least at the watershed level, would be a much more efficient
approach. In fact, the only point on which the water policy analyses surveyed
here do agree is on the need for planned water sharing and joint water
development, as Eric Johnston had envisioned 35 years ago.
Regional cooperation would open the door to a host of new water
distribution alternatives.9 For example, surface water from the
Yarmuk or the upper Jordan could be provided to the West Bank, allowing
increased development in that area, while alleviating Israeli fears of
overdrafted Palestinian wells. Or Israel and Jordan might cooperatively develop
both banks of the Jordan, eliminating the current redundant costs of separate
delivery systems within each country. And, the larger the region cooperating,
the more efficient can be a regional plan. It is cheaper, for example, to bring
water from the Nile to the Negev than it is to pump it from the Kinneret, as is
the current practice (Kelly, 1989, p. 305).
Despite Kally's contention that "the successful implementation of
cooperative projects... will strengthen and stabilize peace" (1989, p. 325),
this does not necessarily seem to be the case. It seems at this point
inconclusive whether greater interdependence is actually an impetus to greater
cooperation or is, in fact, the opposite, leading to greater conflict. Many of
the hostilities that have occurred in the region over water seem to have come
about precisely because the water destined to a downstream user was controlled
by an upstream party. Many "cooperative" projects might only provide additional
opportunity for suspicion and potential for contention. Lowi (1993) suggests
that issues of regional water sharing cannot be successfully broached until the
larger political issues of territory and refugees are resolved.
However, the fact that projects would have to be weighed in terms
of the conflict-alleviating tendencies of more efficient water distribution, as
opposed to the possible conflict heightening of greater hydrological
interdependence, should not be a reason to abandon the concept. Nor should the
concept of a regional planning approach be tarnished because of uncertainty
about specific projects.
Climatic and demographic shifts
An analysis of such a fragile "hydropolitical" situation as exists
in the Middle East is actually more complicated than so far discussed. This is
because so few of the parameters that are examined remain stable for any length
of time. 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 demographic.
Many climatologists are currently investigating the kinds of
changes that might occur in regional climatic and weather patterns, given the
projected increase of a few degrees Celsius in the average global temperature.
One climate scenario suggests a possible 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
regional modelling and forecasting efforts improve, appropriate planning
measures will have to be taken.
A second, more imminent, change is already beginning to occur in
the region, which will dramatically affect water distribution and usage. Israel
expects at least 1 million Soviet immigrants in the coming decade, possibly 2
million. Jordan is absorbing 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 now registered worldwide as refugees
(Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989, p. 206). Based on current
consumption, Israel would require an additional 94 MCM/yr (or a little over 5
per cent of its current water budget) just to provide for personal use by 1
million immigrants. Jordan would need an additional supply of 17.5 MCM/yr for
its refugees, and the West Bank would need an additional 25 MCM/yr (a 23 per
cent increase in its water budget) to provide for the personal water needs of 1
These numbers represent simple extrapolations based on current
water use. However, given the fact that hydrological limits in the region are
currently being reached and that annual supplies are routinely being surpassed,
questions about the absorptive capacity of the region's water resources for
immigrants and refugees must be raised.
The inextricable link between water and politics suggests several
options for easing regional tensions related to water issues.
First, efficient water use should be enhanced as much as is
politically, economically, and technologically possible. Increased efficiency
should strive for the following:
· Regional water resource planning on the
watershed scale. In the case of the Jordan River, representatives from
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank should be working together on
watershed management planning. For greater efficiency, the geographical scale of
planning could be increased. Planning options multiply as the planning scale and
the sources of water resources increase. Allowances should be made for changes
in climate and demographics.
· Increased economic efficiency through a shift of water
used from agricultural to industrial sectors. Although some observers have
recommended a shift of as much as 35-40 per cent (Naff, 1990), the states
involved have security concerns that may preclude their becoming major food
importers, even if it were more economical to do so. These concerns will likely
be weighed when determining how much of a shift is warranted.
· Increased support for research and development of
water-saving technology. This should include such small-scale applications
as low-flow shower nozzles and toilets, and such large-scale projects as
sequential re-use and wastewater treatment for the agricultural and industrial
sectors. The Maqarin Dam should be built. Special emphasis might be placed on
small and large-scale desalination technology. A regional desalination project,
based on the goals of the agro-industrial complex and using a combination of
solar, natural gas, and hydropower (rather than nuclear), might be implemented
to achieve many of the regional benefits that were foreseen in the original
Secondly, issues of water scarcity must be included in regional
political negotiations in order for any resulting agreements to have long-term
viability. This is particularly true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where
any separation of the two entities generates intricate problems of hydrological
viability for both parties.
Third parties such as the United States, Russia, and the European
Union have vital roles to play in these strategies: information barriers can be
more easily broken down on neutral territory; funding for cooperative projects
will most likely have to be raised outside of the region; and opportunities for
dialogue will have to be provided and encouraged to facilitate the pace of peace