Q&A: Plenty of Water in the Desert, if Only ...

Baher Kamal interviews leading water expert Habib Ayeb
Inter Press Service

Habib Ayeb (Photo: Casa Árabe/Alberto Gallego)
Habib Ayeb (Photo: Casa Árabe/Alberto Gallego)

MADRID — Most policy makers draw a bleak picture of dramatic water scarcity in the Middle East, warning of water wars to come. But there is plenty of water in the desert, says Tunisian geographer and water expert Habib Ayeb.

Ayeb (52), is professor at the University of Paris and the Cairo-based American University, and author of several publications on the subject, including 'Consecuencias Económicas y Ecológicas de los Conflictos en el Mundo Arabe' (Economic and Ecological Consequences of Conflicts in the Arab World) due out later this month. Ayeb was in Madrid this week to lecture at La Casa Arabe (The Arab House) on water resources and their impact in the Middle East.

"Water availability in the region is comfortable if we add underground water to rains and rivers," Ayeb said. "The total quantity of water in the region exceeds 2,000 cubic metres per person per year, while the scarcity edge is around 500 cubic metres per person per year."

Ayeb says the water problem in the Middle East is due to "hydro-politics" that leads to control by regional "water superpowers" and the lack of rigorous international treaties to provide access to water.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: How do you explain such a divorce between the hydrological reality in the Middle East and what you consider apocalyptic alarms?

Habib Ayeb: We have to look at some outstanding geographical and geo- political facts in the region.

First, the Middle East is part of the big desert platform that covers an area going from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of the Taurus and Zagros mountains in Iran and Iraq.

Second, the Middle East imports water from abroad. The Nile River takes its waters from the African Great Lakes, while the Tigris and Euphrates are born in Turkey.

These rivers contribute close to 160,000 million cubic metres per year, which is much more than the real needs of the whole Middle East population of around 150 million. There is plenty of water there.

IPS: What is the problem then?

HA: The problem is that water distribution is uneven, unbalanced. Some countries have considerable water resources, reaching up to 4,000 cubic metres per person per year in Iraq, compared to some 200 cubic metres in Gaza for instance. The West Bank and Israel do not actually have much more water. This huge imbalance explains a part of those catastrophic alerts.

IPS: Is water a political issue?

HA: I cannot see any other issue more political than water.

IPS: Could the water map in the region tell the final borders of Israel and the much speculated about Palestinian State?

HA: Not really. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have enough water of their own. They both have to rely on external water resources.

IPS: But some say that the World Jewish Congress and the Zionist Agency Conference, both held in Switzerland in the late 18th century, drew a map of Israel that implicitly leads to the Nile.

HA: This is about the Zionist project. It is there. However, I do not believe that Israel will be permitted to enlarge its borders much further from what it has now.

IPS: But you said that Israel does not have sufficient water of its own and that it has to rely on external resources. Could Israel access the Iraqi Tigris and Euphrates waters?

HA: Not directly. We know about the practice of 'hiring' agricultural lands by one country in another country. Many do it now. Israel may be allowed to 'hire' vast agricultural lands near to the two rivers, to be cultivated and its products be exported to it. That can happen in this new Iraq.

This practice of 'hiring' farming lands is known as the phenomena of 'virtual water', ergo, water 'bought' by one country from another country in the form of agricultural production irrigated with the waters of the 'selling' country.

IPS: So you do not see any water wars to come in the Middle East.

HA: Not really. The main reason why such water wars did not take place is that no country has any interest in launching them. Israel, Turkey and Egypt, who gather the main available water resources in the region, did not have any interest in provoking wars that would not lead them anyway to increase their water resources. On the other hand, 'victim countries' like Palestine, Jordan or Iraq do not have the means to declare wars against Israel or Turkey.

IPS: But there are regional water sharing agreements.

HA: The water problem in the Middle East is aggravated precisely by the lack of agreements that are fully accepted by all parties. There are some international regulations, but they are not politically binding. And they are ambiguous. This leaves to each country the right to interpret them and use them as it deems appropriate for its own interests.

Some of these regulations define a watercourse as one that crosses two or more countries, and is navigable. The first section of such definitions is clear. The second, however, gives room for all kinds of interpretations, also depending on many factors like the season, shipping, obstacles to navigation, etc.

IPS: Can you give examples?

HA: Take the case of Turkey, which considers that neither the Euphrates nor the Tigris are international rivers, because they are not navigable in all of their courses. Thus Turkey feels free to use their waters as it wants and wishes, and eventually to ignore past agreements with Syria and Iraq.

Turkey is militarily and economically stronger than Syria and Iraq and therefore it can afford to get along with provisional agreements on water sharing, but not a definite treaty.

After many failed negotiations, Ankara was ready to sign a three-party protocol in 1987 with Syria and Iraq, which committed Turkey to 'ceding' to them 500 cubic metres per second from 'its' Euphrates waters.

IPS: A solution was found then.

HA: Well, this has not been working properly. Turkey has been building huge dams, such as Atatürk, started in 1983, and the big hydrological project in the Anatolian region - the GAP (Güneydo_u Anadolu Projesi), which Syria and Iraq fear will impact on their share of 'Turkish" waters.

Syria, on its side, built in 1975 the Tabqa dam on the river, a project that raised the danger of an armed conflict between it and Iraq. Baghdad considered that Syria was stealing part of its water, while Damascus deemed that it was actually ceding to Iraq part of its own share.

IPS: Could its neighbours deprive Iraq of water?

HA: This already happened in 1991, during the first war on Iraq. Iraq's share of waters was cut down to 50 percent. Water has always been a political- economic-military tool. There is a dangerous lack of 'water justice' in terms of fair water sharing and fair access to it.

There are many ways of denying access to water. Pricing is one. If you charge for water you allow access only to those who can afford to pay, while denying it to the most vulnerable people.

Lack of water justice affects all developing countries. There is a net separation line between water surplus countries and water deficit countries. It coincides with the line between the North and the South.

13 March 2009 — Return to cover.