The Drought Crescent: Water Politics In The Middle East

Via Conde Nest’s Traveler, an interesting report on Jordan which sits at the center of nations competing for scarce water resources amid a controversial plan to tap the Red Sea.  As the article notes, these lands were part of what was once called the Fertile Crescent, where three great rivers—the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates—enabled the first civilizations to bloom:

Mapping Jordan's Water

“….In a neighborhood defined by conflicts about land and resources, Jordan is a relative oasis of political stability where water, not oil, holds the key to prosperity. From Neolithic hunter-gatherers, who built the first stone houses near permanent springs ten thousand years ago and began experimenting with crops, to the Nabateans, who built an empire based on the provision of water and food to desert travelers, to the Romans, whose sophisticated hydrology permitted construction of monumental cities such as Jerash, to the Umayyad Caliphs, who built swimming pools and bathhouses in the now-barren Eastern Desert, the connection between water and human endeavor is evident—and relevant—here as nowhere else.

…The shrinking Dead Sea is the most visible symptom of the water crisis facing forty-seven-year-old King Abdullah and the engaging Queen Rania as they work to build a future for a youthful populace. (More than sixty-five percent of the population are under twenty-five.)

While Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel has created a favorable climate for investment, lack of water impedes development. According to the international Water Poverty Index, Jordan is the world’s fourth most water poor nation in terms of per capita water availability. You wouldn’t know it in the big hotels, where the taps run freely, but the average Jordanian has access to just 160 cubic meters of freshwater per year—far below the water-poverty level of 1,000 cubic meters and sixty-four times less than the amount of water available to the average U.S. citizen.

And supplies are running out. The 6.2 million population, swelled by 1.8 million Palestinian and at least 500,000 Iraqi refugees, consumes twice the amount that Jordan’s surface water and twelve aquifers can sustainably provide. Low rainfall, surface evaporation, and overextraction—much of it in the form of illegal wells dug by farmers, who account for sixty-five percent of consumption—is causing water tables to drop and salinity levels to rise. Traveling around the country, I see tubing, like black IV lines hooked up to intensive-care patients, carrying water from feeble springs and overpumped aquifers to towns, farms, and bedouin communities. To make things worse, Jordan lacks control over its national water network. It shares its two most important surface-water sources, the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, with Syria, Israel, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, while the Disi Aquifer, a vast pocket of fossil water in a sandstone formation in the south of the country, is shared with Saudi Arabia. Water-rights violations by its neighbors are a continual frustration and an issue complicating Jordan’s quest for regional peace. Meanwhile, domestic wastage and theft have become so prevalent that the country is creating a special court solely for water disputes.

…Wadi Arabah, the southern border zone between Jordan and Israel, is the site of the Jordan National Red Sea Development Project, a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline and desalination plant linking the Red and Dead seas. A plan to create drinking water while recharging the Dead Sea sounds like the logical solution to Jordan’s water crisis, but environmental groups in Jordan and Israel have warned for years that the Red-Dead scheme is an ecological Catch-22.

“Jordan is trying to position itself as a boutique destination, and to keep that vision you need to preserve the soul of the landscape,” says Chris Johnson, the Brit who is the director of Wild Jordan, the RSCN’s ecotourism arm, when I meet him later and mention an Israeli investor’s proposal to use freshwater to develop safari parks, resorts, and other tourist complexes along the conveyance path. “And how can you dump millions of gallons of concentrated seawater into the Dead Sea and not change its composition?”

The Jordanian government counters that the water deficit has become intolerable, impeding development and fueling citizen mistrust of both the water supply and its caretakers.

“Time is running out,” says His Royal Highness Prince Feisal Bin Al Hussein, King Abdullah’s forty-five-year-old brother, who last year was named head of a panel charged with reducing water waste and finding a viable alternative water source for the population. The Red-Dead Conveyance, as the pipeline is called, which has King Abdullah’s blessing, will not only give Jordan direct control over its own water security but could potentially stabilize the region by providing the Israeli and Palestinian governments with freshwater to increase their economic capacities. “Water should not be an issue we need to fight over,” the prince says. “It’s an issue that can bring us together.”

This entry was posted on Saturday, September 5th, 2009 at 10:48 am and is filed under Israel, Jordan, Jordan River, Syria.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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