Water Conflicts in the Middle East

"There Will Be No Solution without the Exchange of ideas"

North Africa and the Middle East will have enough drinking water for generations – if resources are sparingly used and efficiently managed. Fathi Zereini, a Germany-based mineralogist from Palestine, elaborates on the outlook

The Jordan River (photo: dpa)
Hard-fought for resources – Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all claim rights to the waters of the Jordan River

​​In recent years, it has been said repeatedly that future wars will be waged over water, not oil. What is your view?

Fathi Zereini: In actual fact, there is enough water. But water is used as a weapon in political conflicts – in the Middle East, for example, and in Africa. Governments may have those conflicts under control at the moment but we don't know how they might develop.

There are water disputes over the Jordan, over the Nile, over rivers flowing out of Turkey...

Zereini: Water is a source of concern throughout the region. But water problems could be solved by a reasonable policy and effective infrastructure. Most important of all is the need to avoid pointless waste. It is ridiculous to use fossil groundwater from the Sahara to grow cereals in Libya. There is no need to use such unrenewable resources for irrigating strawberries in Saudi Arabia. And Southern Jordan is actually too dry for cultivating potatoes.

If a realistic price was paid for water, all those farm products would be prohibitively expensive. They should be imported from places where there is no shortage of water. However, the people so far have no understanding of water being a commodity with a value. People think: "It's there; and it's ours to do with as we please." Water is wasted – with no thought for the consequences in a hundred, or even ten years' time.

Does irrigation farming need to be throttled back for water resources to suffice?

Zereini: In the Middle East and North Africa, agriculture consumes 70 % of water reserves. This is a massive amount. Tomatoes are sold for cents in the region. Farmers earn next to nothing from selling them, but growing them requires a huge amount of water – which is not paid for. And people who pay nothing, or far too little, for a commodity do not look for ways to use less.

If you insist on a realistic price for water, doesn't that mean that the rich will buy the water and the poor will get nothing?

Zereini: Don't look at it that way, think of the system as a whole. The crux of the matter is what farmers pay for their water and what they get for their products. At that level, it is worth assessing sound business lines. It then becomes obvious that there are areas which are suitable for agriculture and others which should not grow all their own food. We mustn't make the desert flourish.

These are not issues a country can solve for itself?

Fathi Zereni (photo: University of Frankfurt/Main)
The region would greatly benefit from a comprehensive and equitable distribution scheme, says, Fathi Zereini

​​Zereini: No, they are not. Nile water, for instance, is important for many countries. Or consider the Jordan, which is used by Syrians, Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. At present, Israel is the biggest consumer. What is not acceptable, however, is that Israeli settlers irrigate huge plantations and even sprinkle decorative lawns on the West Bank, whereas Palestinians do not have enough drinking water. If everyone seeks only to derive the maximum benefit for themselves, there will be no solution.

In the long run, wasteful misuse hurts everyone. Therefore, everyone needs to get together and give thought to the future. Even war would not solve the conflicts. Should Israel occupy Syria or Lebanon for the sake of water? Should Turkey invade Syria? Military pressure has a short-term impact at most – and destroys more than can be won.

But the governments seem neither willing nor able to cooperate.

Zereini: Responsibility naturally resides first and foremost with the governments. But I think it is also worth involving civil society and launching activities at the sub-government level across the region. We are dealing with long-term perspectives. I can imagine joint projects in the Jordan Valley, locally involving Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians. Where people need to get along with one another, they normally find ways to do so. And when awareness changes at the grass roots, governments will have to respond.

You are thinking of local initiatives, cooperatives ...

Zereini: We need to reach society at large. At present, there is no public awareness of the need to curb consumption. Efforts to conserve water are unknown and societal change is pushing up demand. Modern conveniences such as washing machines, dish washers and flush toilets are making a substantial difference. And huge hotels are being built – with an immense demand for water, of course. Germany, Europe and the donor community as a whole should try to raise awareness of using water more effectively and efficiently – through new technologies, sewage treatment, better irrigation structures.

Instead of being watered with a hose, for example, crops could be drip-irrigated. We need to tell people that they have to be economical with water, that they need to safeguard water quality, that they must not pollute ground or surface water with waste. We need to move beyond the idea, commonly found in government circles, that grand technological schemes can deliver limitless amounts of water.

So the levels of water consumption found in Western Europe will never be available sustainably in North Africa and Middle East?

Zereini: No, but if we behave prudently, we will avoid any acute drinking water shortages, even in the future. For agriculture, we need to think of alternatives, such as using wastewater. But we should also provide alternative livelihoods. Structural change may be difficult, but it is possible. Think of the coal-mining areas of Germany. Why should people have to live as farmers in countries that are climatically unsuitable for agriculture?

But that kind of structural change will require international cooperation and integration in much more than just the water sector.
Yes, there is obviously a wider context. But there are excellent opportunities for solar and wind power in the Middle East – and that can be considered in one go with water distribution. The Europeans can play a leading role here. They have experience, expertise and capital.

The European Union is certainly trying to exert influence on the other Mediterranean countries. But it has not had much success so far.

Zereini: In Arab eyes, the EU is largely pursuing its own interests. Just consider the refugee issue, for example. But walls cannot be erected against poverty. Power relationships also play an important role. Turkey is on good terms with the EU and is a member of NATO. In Turkey, dams are built and major European or American investments are realised – in the full knowledge that they are more or less at the expense of neighbours like Syria and Iraq.

You don't think the European Union's policy approach is coherent enough to promote substantial progress?

Zereini: Development aid from Europe generally comes with conditions attached. Look at the post-election situation in Palestine, for example. Suddenly the message is: the money will stop unless you do this, that and the other. Europeans always come across as wanting to get their way without really tackling the region's problems.

Do you see any chance of cooperating constructively with Hamas, the islamist party that won the majority vote of Palestinians recently?

Zereini: Anything is possible in politics. Arafat used to be called a terrorist but was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Begin was considered a terrorist but then managed reconciliation with Sadat. In Palestine, we have the Oslo Accord and I assume the nations signed up to it are committed to it. But success depends on what is delivered.

The Palestinian people want to see progress – for example, the ability to go from village A to village B without spending three hours at an Israeli checkpoint. If they see progress, they will re-elect the people who brought it about. But if they feel that their freedom of movement is increasingly restricted – in the Gaza Strip, say – or that medical supplies remain inadequate, they will vote for the opposition.

Palestinians and Israelis, however, need to talk. They have no other option. Europeans and Americans have means to exert pressure both on the Palestinians and on Israel. But permanently one-sided pressure produces counter-reactions. 15 years have passed since Oslo and people in the Palestinian territories are getting poorer and poorer. This is no peaceful development.

As long as the region's top politicians insist on viewing everything in terms of black and white, good and bad, there is hardly a chance of drafting coherent plans for the entire region.

Zereini: We need to think long term. We need to work on a project or concept of how the region should develop in the decades ahead. We need to discuss that issue at greater length with the national governments and civil society. Donors have levers and they should make constructive use of them. But they need to be credible. At present, they emphasise their own particular interests far too much.

Given the depressing state of political relations, is there anyone who might take part in that kind of long-term dialogue at all?

Zereini: There are people in the countries concerned who share my view, who know that things cannot go on as they are at present. The book on the issue I published in 2004 with Wolfgang Jaeschke contains essays by authors from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and many other countries. In autumn, our society will stage an international conference near Beirut.

Cooperation must not be confined to the government level; it needs to encompass the academic community. What scientists discuss today is conventional wisdom tomorrow. Other societal groups should also be involved. Major infrastructure projects are important for the image and ego of governments. But it is the slow process of changing awareness that really makes a difference.

Interview conducted by Hans Dembowski

© Development and Cooperation 2006

Prof. Dr. Fathi Zereini teaches mineralogy at Frankfurt University. He is also president of the German-Arab Society for Environmental Studies.

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