Water: A New Negotiation Tool in the Middle East

As the Arab Spring plays out, many Middle Eastern nations will soon find themselves in a new geo-political environment conducive to jump-starting peace talks.

One over-arching motivation to pursue peace-talks is Arab governments’ eagerness to ensure a constant flow of water. The economies of Middle Eastern states heavily rely on water resources for crop cultivation, emerging industries, and growing populations; the region's short supply will increase water demand exponentially over the next decades.

For instance, Lebanon receives an annual precipitation of 8,600 Million Cubic Meters (MCM); 50 percent of which is lost through evapotranspiration and another 11 percent through ground water flows to neighboring countries. Only 2,700 MCM of water remains from the original precipitation, and approximately 400 to 1000 MCM of ground water from aquifers. More than 58 percent of the remaining water is utilized in the production of agricultural goods.

A starker picture could be painted of Lebanon’s Arab neighbor, Syria, where 87.9 percent of the 16,690 MCM of water withdrawal in 2003 was utilized by the agricultural sector alone, a 31 percent increase in consumption from the previous decade. Syria’s total annual renewable water resources are estimated at 16,797 MCM, revealing that withdrawal was equal to renewed supply. Moreover, Syria relies on its amicable neighbors for external renewable surface water resources. Out of Syria’s 17,335 MCM of annual surface renewable water resources, 335 MCM comes from Lebanon’s Asi River while 15,750 and 1,250 MCM flows into Syria from the Turkish Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, respectively.

Lake Tiberias in the Golan Heights provides Israel with a third of its industrial, agricultural, and domestic water consumption. Yet, Israel still depends heavily on its Arab neighbors for both its surface and ground water resources. It obtains 305 MCM of surface water from a 160 MCM influx from Lebanon, a 125 MCM from Syria, and a 20 MCM from the west bank. Out of the annual influx of 725 MCM of ground water into Israel, 325 MCM enter from the West Bank, 250 MCM from Syria, and 150 MCM from Lebanon.

Lebanon could create water and hydroelectric energy synergies by damming up the waters of the Litani River, which flows entirely through 170 KM of Lebanese territory, and a number of streams flowing down Lebanon’s mountain chain. Yet this initiative could potentially raise Israeli-Lebanese border tensions, inviting an Israeli aerial bombardment of water-dams to increase flowage into their state.

The Lebanese state should endeavor to reclaim the Shibaa farms, an area along the Golan Heights which is part of a long-lasting territorial dispute with Israel, and its water reserves in order to become an energy hub.

Syria could benefit from investments in its water infrastructure. With an economy largely dependent on agricultural goods such as cotton and wheat, Syria is projected to fall short of water in the forthcoming years. Since the invisible hand does not play its regulatory role in the water market, market-fluctuations and the population boom will culminate in the less desirable but likely policy option of tapping on none-renewable water sources.

Syria received greater water influx from the Euphrates River, symbolizing a gesture of good will on behalf of Turkey as political relations improved between the two. Turkish waters may become the blue-chip brokering a potential peace deal if Lake Tiberias water distribution remains a contentious issue on the Israeli-Syrian negotiation table.

Moreover, with Israel refusing to bestow recognition to a Palestinian state and continuing its occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights and the Lebanese Shibaa farms, it manages the vast water resources located within the borders of this specific conflict zone.

The solution to the water crisis in the Middle East necessitates coordinated initiatives on several levels. The construction of water dams is vital to creating a regional bulwark to avoid the ominous risks of climate change. Lebanon could construct a network of dams, sufficing its local consumption and allowing for a reasonable division with Syria. The latter should invest in desalination plants to cater for burgeoning demand.

By preserving the region’s vast resources, the countries of the Middle East may find themselves engaging in strategic planning for the future of their agriculture-based economies, business enterprises, climate policies, environment, industries, tourism, and the pursuit of a competitive ranking among the world class economies.

Photo CreditJim Shannon