The challenges of water management in the Middle East: geopolitical stability and sustainability (2/3)

Fabienne Durand (*)

More than ever, water becomes an issue of power, political stability in the Middle East. This situation of sometimes exacerbated tensions is the result of three major changes. The first change concerns the delineation of borders, which is the result of secret negotiations between the French and the English authorities during the Sykes-Picots Agreement of 16 May 1916, at the time of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, described by Tsar Nicholas I as “an old sick man, seriously ill, fallen into disrepair”.

The boundaries were set according to property and water issues. As early as in the 1920s, they were challenged by Lebanon and by the Zionists of Yishuv, the first Jewish community to settle in Palestine before the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

As early as 1919, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, wrote a letter to the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in which he stressed the importance of water: “The whole economic future of Palestine depends on its water supply (…). It is essential that the northern border of Palestine include the Litani valley over a distance of 25 miles, as well as the western and southern slopes of Mount Hermon”.

This search for water security was mentioned with regard to the Six-Day War, perceived as a conflict for the water security of Israel. Water was one of the issues in the conflict, just as it was at the heart of the negotiation process that led to the first Oslo Accords in 1993. This is how Israel, with its deployment in the Golan Heights where the pipeline from Lake Tiberias to the eastern margins of the Negev, a strategic margin near the Sinai, is seeking water security, essential to the survival of the country.

Similarly, Turkey, through the construction of dams and hydroelectric power plants under the GAP project, is seeking to stabilise the region, to the detriment of the Kurds. Finally, Egypt, where the population is concentrated at 95% on only 5% of the territory, is also seeking to actively mobilize water resources since the construction of the Aswan Dam, and more recently by creating new spaces based on the mobilization of water resources, as in the Toshka valley in Egypt, to better allocate a population.

Water is thus at the heart of asymmetric rivalries between states, as well as territorial claims, because of its spatializing function, mentioned by Pierre Blanc, a researcher at CIHEAM and IRIS, who explains the delineation of borders through the search for water security in this natural and hostile environment.

The second change concerns population growth and urbanization. The increase in population results in increased water and food needs and increases anthropogenic pressure on agriculture, which consumes 80% of water resources. The situation is critical in Egypt, the third most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria and Ethiopia, where the population has risen from 20 million at the time of Nasser to 97 million today. It is the most populous country in the Arab world, and reflects the demographic vitality of the Middle East, where population growth exceeds 2% per year with a fertility rate of 3.4 children per woman, while the fertility rate is 2.7 on the world scale. Moreover, water security is, especially for this country, a matter of national security. Egypt thus uses a threatening rhetoric against the countries located upstream of the Nile.


* Political scientist & consultant in communication on sustainable development and global warming.