BOOK REVIEW: John Bulloch and Adel Darwish

28 January 1994

THE authors contend that water has been and will remain a source of conflict and armed struggle in the Middle East. That water is a source of tension in the region is unarguable, but to claim that water disputes will cause war is to ignore the evidence of the past 25 years. More importantly, it is to ignore the changes in the international relations of the region about which the authors claim to be authorities. Their contention is also backward looking in that it ignores the emerging awareness of the value of water in the region. Water has certainly become a high priority in all Middle East countries as well as in the strategies of key international agencies such as the World Bank. However, the increase in the priority given to water issues has not led to greater tension, but has rather tended to focus attention on the need to adjust.

The book is dangerous because it contains a number of errors, for example: 'Already it is clear that the flow of the White Nile will be diminished by the construction of new dams in Ethiopia' (page 27). Not even an automatic spell checker could have transformed 'Blue' to 'White'; it requires real attention to mistake-making to introduce such errors. Later we learn that the Yarmouk flows into Lake Tiberias (page 53).

There is no space to list the many other errors of fact, but the main danger of the book lies not so much in factual errors as in the area of comment. It is the thesis of the book that tension over water will lead inexorably to conflict. The case is argued despite the evidence of massive and peaceful adjustment to water deficits in the Middle East region. It is true that over the past 25 years a number of statements have been made by political leaders for internal political reasons which appear to contradict their actual policies of adjustment. Such behaviour should not surprise professional journalists, nor should they base a whole book on the occasional hydro-paranoid statements of political leaders coping with exceptional economic challenges such as those facing Egypt and Jordan.

Water is an essential part of any economy. It enables livelihoods and it improves the amenities available to the residents of all countries. The region has sufficient water for municipal and industrial uses and is only short of water for agriculture. If it is the case that Egypt should go to war over water when it cannot meet the water needs of a self-sufficient agriculture then it should have done so years ago - at the point when it started 'importing' water as food in substantial quantities in the early 1970s.

In practice, Egypt has adjusted progressively to its food and water gaps by importing water in food for the past 20 years. This 'import' now amounts to approximately two thirds as much water as it uses in its own agricultural sector. Arguing that minor reductions in flow as a result of dam construction in Ethiopia would lead to war is banal. Indeed, to ignore the level of adjustment achieved by the Egyptian economy with respect to its water deficits reveals a determination to be misleading rather than merely careless. The scale of the adjustment was described at great length by this writer to one of the authors.

The analysis of the hydro-politics of the three Euphrates riparians is also simplistic. The description of the closure at the Ataturk dam in January 1990 shows no grasp of the engineering concerns nor of the hydrological impact of the closure. To discuss a minor interruption of flow without putting it into the context of the massive overall reduction in the flow of the Euphrates since the 1970s is like emphasising the failure of one train to run on a system which has had its total traffic reduced by half.

Nowhere is the basic question even asked - is there sufficient water in the system to meet the feasible future needs of the three riparians? That the answer to this question for the foreseeable future is yes, in terms of resources, demography and technology, is nowhere discussed. In the light of new technologies, a yes answer can be given with even more certainty, which makes the contentions of the authors gratuitous and, again, certainly misleading.


The section on the Jordan river has some interesting passages on the various periods of tension which have shaped the present allocation of water in its basin. But the discussion is marred by arrant nonsense such as 'the six-day war was caused largely by competition for waters of the River Jordan' (page 34). And, by quoting old statements by officials without saying precisely when they were made it is impossible for the reader to determine whether the authors are trying deliberately to confuse or are merely weaving disparate opinion and comment into an apparently coherent fabric to further a particular argument. The authors are most unworldly in accepting statements from leading political figures and officials as if these same officials had not moved on or changed their opinions in line with evolving circumstances. The same Israeli official quoted as being able to identify a worst scenario as war (page 34) is currently among the leading exponents of dialogue on the basis of principles of equity and demand management. He was also the water commissioner who announced in the spring of 1991 that Israel will, over time, cut its allocation to irrigation by 65 per cent.

Possibly the most foolish part of the book comes towards the end where it is contended that Egypt seriously considers itself to have some sort of hegemony in the Nile basin (page 186). Egypt has achieved remarkable economic progress in delivering food to its people despite its apparently alarming water gap. Why would it fight an unaffordable war which would devastate its own economy and impair its relationship with the international community, on which its economic stability substantially depends, in order to establish some sort of short-term control over a volume of water too small to be pivotal in its agricultural sector? Meanwhile, the authors adopt the habit throughout the book of using such terms as 'absolute water scarcity' (page 189) without there being any understanding on their part of what they mean by 'absolute' or even by 'scarcity'. Water is but one resource in an economy, albeit a very important one.

It has been demonstrated in the Middle East, however, that it is possible to substitute for indigenous water very effectively. Those analysing the water problems of the region ought to tighten up their economic analysis so that they can track the political economy of water effectively and thereby understand apparently contradictory public and private statements and decisions. The authors give no attention to the current efforts to devise new measures for water allocation and management that emphasise demand management through regulatory and financial instruments. This glaring omission merely provides further confirmation of their poor grasp of the subject. The book will mislead those wanting to understand the current water management options and provide no signposts at all for those wanting to predict the policies of governments and relevant agencies in future.


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