In 1985, Egypt’s foreign secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the next war in the Middle East would be fought over “water, not politics”.

Famously, his prediction did not come true. In 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait because of a dispute over the alleged slant-drilling of its oil.

In some places, water probably will become a contributory factor in war

Nigel Inkster, Institute for International Security Studies

Despite repeated assertions to the contrary from Boutros-Ghali, UN secretary general from 1992-96, among others, the most basic of natural resources has not caused a single Middle Eastern war during the past 25 years.

Yet the dual issues of water security, and of security and water, are high on both the regional and international agenda, both as a potential source of conflict and a way of resolving or preventing it.

Greater cooperation

In February, Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan called for greater cooperation between the countries of what he calls West Asia and North Africa – encompassing territories from Pakistan to Morocco, with Sudan and Ethiopia in the middle – in managing their water supplies as a tool for promoting economic cooperation and diplomacy.

“War does not make additional water,” he told delegates at a symposium being held in Switzerland. “But regional cooperation can.”

Analysts, academics, and diplomats remain divided over whether or not water will cause a war within the region, but they do agree on one thing: it will become an increasingly important and scarce resource in the coming decades.

In basic terms, a country’s water security is defined by its access to potable water. A lack of clean water, or limited access to water can lead to disease and social unrest.

Up to 500,000 people are estimated to have died in Iraq in the years between its invasion of Kuwait and its own invasion in 2003 by the US-led coalition because of sanctions, which crippled its desalination and water sanitation facilities.

A catastrophe could happen [in Yemen] because of the water situation … it is the worst in the world

Tony Allan, King’s College London

Water can also be a major problem for states, that are economically dependent on agriculture. Drought and contaminated water can lead to a fall in income for farmers, leaving them impoverished or, if they exist at a subsistence level, starving.

On paper, the issue is particularly acute for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). Approximately 75 per cent of the region’s landmass is arid. It houses 6 per cent of the world’s population, but only 1.4 per cent of its renewable water supply. Of the world’s 15 water-scarce countries, where annual renewable supply is below 1,000 cubic metres, 12 are Mena states.

Meanwhile, per capita use of water is on the rise, and in the Arabian Peninsula in particular, water use exceeds renewable resources, according to Sweden’s Stockholm International Water Institute. This strain is unlikely to end any time soon.

Between 1970 and 2004, the region’s population is estimated to have grown from 170 million to 370 million people, according to the Washington-headquartered Population Resource Bureau. By 2025, it may well have increased to 568 million, while the world’s population – currently around 6.8 billion people – is set to grow to 8.1 billion.

The region’s extra 200 million people, and the world’s total addition of 1.3 billion people, will need more potable water and more food. Food is a major drain on renewable water supply due to irrigation needs.

This, some say, could lead to states going to war over new supplies of water, particularly
in a region noted for its cross-border tensions. “In some places, water probably will become a contributory factor in war,” says Nigel Inkster, director of transnational threats and political risk at UK think-tank, the Institute for International Security Studies.

“If we look further afield, in places such as India and Pakistan it is potentially going to play a role. In Pakistan, extremist groups are increasingly playing on water security and I think that it is going to be an increasingly important security issue.”

However, he remains sceptical over the likelihood of inter-state war in the Mena region. “There is a lot of talk about water wars,” he says. “But it hasn’t happened yet, and in fact water tensions between states [in the region] have led to better practice and less belligerence.”

This sentiment is echoed by Jan Selby, a lecturer on resource politics at the UK’s University of Sussex. The issue of water security and its potential for creating conflict are much more nuanced than is often thought, he says.

Food imports to the GCC

In oil-rich states with small populations like those of the GCC, income from hydrocarbon exports allows countries to meet their need for water through the construction of desalination plants. They also import water ‘virtually’ – through food, which makes up around 80 per cent of consumption.

“In Israel, where agriculture [contributes] less than 2 per cent of GDP, [water] has less and less importance as a resource,” Selby says. “Water for agriculture is becoming less important [to these states], not more. And because of this, states are less likely to go to war over it.”

The only downside to this, Inkster says, is that importer nations are vulnerable to swings in the cost of commodities.

“You can only import food when it is available,” he says. “[In 2007-08], we saw a dramatic price spike coupled with a fall in the availability of food and that is about to happen again.”

Both agree that poorer and less economically diversified countries suffer far more acutely from a lack of water, and may find that water supply becomes a flashpoint for conflict between their central governments and marginalised rural populations, which depend on water for subsistence.

Rural tensions

“When increasing amounts of water are used for the urban population and for industrial agriculture, it is taken away from traditional agriculture and this affects peripheral, rural populations,” Selby says. “There are all sorts of water inequalities within the Middle East, and I see water as an increasing site of local tensions in both urban areas and peripheral rural areas.”

Tony Allan, a professor at the UK’s King’s College London and the inventor of the ‘virtual water’ concept, breaks the region down into four kinds of economy. First are those countries that are oil-rich and can afford to ‘import’ large volumes of virtual or embedded water in food, and desalinate the volumes needed for day-to-day use, such as the Gulf states and, potentially in future, Iraq.

Then come those that are sufficiently diversified and economically well-off to also avoid water stress with food imports and desalination. Allan says that these include Israel and Jordan.

Of the states that lack major oil and gas resources and are less diversified, most, he says, are making concerted efforts to diversify their economies, like Egypt, so that they can afford to ‘import’ water virtually.

Allan singles out the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen as being the sole occupant of the fourth category. “Yemen is at the opposite pole; it has no or little oil and lacks groundwater resources,” he says. “A catastrophe could happen because of the water situation there. It is an absolutely extreme case, the worst in the world.”

The country suffers from a weak central government, conflicts with southern secessionists, northern tribes and the extremist group Al-Qaeda, and falling oil revenues. Growing unrest over a lack of access to water and poor management of existing resources, which has seen Sanaa and Aden temporarily run out of supplies in the past, could prove a tipping point for civil unrest.

Another country where this could become an issue does not yet exist. In January 2011, South Sudan will hold a referendum to see if its people want to become independent of the current Khartoum-dominated north.

If the south secedes, as most observers believe will be the case, then water could become a source of conflict for a number from different groups.

Selby thinks that existing internal tribal tensions over land and water rights could cause problems, while attempts by the new central government to control agricultural policy could also prove contentious as new irrigation and land use projects incur the wrath of the rural population.

Meanwhile, tensions could also rise between the newly separated north and south over the use of water from the Nile river. 

In 1929, the British government gave Sudan and Egypt rights to over 75 per cent of the Nile’s water. After Egypt became independent in 1959, this ruling was upheld.

For much of the 50 years since then, Cairo has maintained control over the way the river’s water is used for irrigation and hydroelectric projects. When Boutros Ghali conjured the spectre of water wars in the mid-1980s, it was likely control of the Nile as much as a fear of drought elsewhere that drove his thinking.

Water rights

“This clearly changes the political balance in the Nile basin,” Selby says. “You no longer just have just two downstream states that have common interests.”

Egypt is already building new relationships with the southern leadership. The major issue, Selby says, would be the addition of a new bone of contention to a already fractious relationship between the north and south.

The question of water rights also looms large over relationships between the Palestinian leadership of Gaza and the West Bank, and the Israeli government.

Israel currently controls the occupied territories’ water supply, and the Palestinian National Authority has been vocal in its criticism of the amount of water it is allocated.

In August, Shaddad Attil, head of the Palestine Water Authority, complained to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown that Palestinians do not receive a quarter of the per capita water supplies available to their Israeli counterparts.

Although there is not likely to be a “water war” between the two, the added aggravation of water supply could add weight to already strained relations as they hold the first round direct negotiations in two years.

Today, water security does not top the priorities of the region’s leaders. But if they want to avoid conflict over water in decades to come, they will have to accelerate economic diversification, says Allan. They will also have to improve the efficiency of water use and hope that farmers abroad manage to increase crop yields, producing more food from the same amount of water.

“Farmers have done the trick so far,” he says. “Farmers will do the trick. But we must take care of them and support them.”