The challenges of water management in the Middle East: geopolitical stability and sustainability

Fabienne Durand (*)

In the Middle East, water has always been seen as a scarce and sacred resource. It is present in Sumerian and Akkadian myths. And the symbolism of water nourished the belief systems of the Hebrews and Arabs. Water is at the origin of the foundation of great hydraulic civilizations, which are water civilizations, either due to their control of this rare resource in a desert environment, like the one of the Nabataeans, or due to the capacity to mobilize this same resource, but in abundance, by the populations of the Fertile Crescent.

As early as the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt a “gift of the Nile”. The Arab civilization, dominant in the Middle East, is a water civilization, which reached its peak in the 9th-12th century, partly due to water control.
Water is at the same time a renewable, non-substitutable resource, essential to life in a desert area characterized by water stress. In this region, water availability is the lowest per capita in the world, with less than 1% of the world’s water resources.
The question of water arises as an endogenous desire in this arid region, which is also the “crossroads of all desires”, according to Philippe Moreau-Deffarges. This issue raises many paradoxes and major challenges in terms of geopolitical stability and sustainability.
As an arid region, the Middle East is a delicate bioclimatic environment. Contrary to the common perception, there is no shortage of water. The multiscalar approach shows that it is unevenly distributed in this region, which implies an adaptation of human societies to this natural constraint, which is increasingly suffering from global warming, modifying the precipitation regime and the water cycle at the surface of the planet.
Indeed, the Middle East forms a long arid strip, accidentally interrupted by areas of heavy rainfall (around 500-700 mm/year), such as the mountains of Lebanon, the West Bank or Yemen. In some hyper-arid areas, annual rainfall is less than 50 mm/year, as in the Golan Heights, and can fall below 10 mm, like in Koufra, Libya, or Aswan in Egypt. On the other hand, water is very abundant in most of the region, located south of the isohyet indicating 300 mm/year. However, the effect of precipitation is limited, as it mainly affects the winter season from October to February. As a result, stream flows and floods remain irregular throughout the year, as well as being irregular over the years. Water is abundant in the Nile region, in the Mesopotamian basin, drained by the Euphrates and Tigris, and in smaller rivers, such as the Jordan or Yarmouk. In addition to these rivers, there are aquifers in Libya, the Nubian Sandstone aquifer, Gaza, and in the West Bank, the Mountain Aquifer.
In addition to inequalities in the distribution of water resources, there are also inequalities in the appropriation of the resource. There are differences in the level of water consumption in the Middle East, resulting from socio-economic development gradients, or dissimilar territorial development strategies, as between Egypt, which has based its agriculture on the Nile and has made agrarian and water issues the priority since Nasser, and Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile was born, which seems to ignore any water development, although essential to development. These inequalities in mobilization are coupled with a balance of power between the states of the region. Water was initially a factor of civilization and social and political structuring, but has become a factor of division, rivalry and conflict, rather than conflict, due to water pressure.
After the Cold War, the term “water war” was used as a new paradigm for reporting conflicts in the world, namely in this desert place. In fact, there is no “water war”, but rather a power struggle between States, due to inequalities in distribution and appropriation, which are an objective reality, to which are added more subjective factors based on representation, the perception of the precariousness of water supply that is facing rapidly increasing needs due to the economic development and population growth.
More than ever, water has become an issue of power, political stability and, above all, economic, social and environmental development.
* Political scientist consultant in communication on sustainable development and global warming.