In late May, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a warning to his neighbours. Speaking at a conference in Baghdad on regional water resources, he said that the Middle East risked conflict and even war if it did not address the issue of water shortages.

Al-Maliki’s comments were likely directed at Turkey and Syria to the north and west, and also his own government, which is becoming increasingly concerned over the possibility of internal conflict over water resources. Central to their concerns are the diminishing amount and deteriorating quality of the water Iraq receives from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Al-Maliki also announced the formation of an Iraqi Water Council, to oversee the country’s resources.

Water security in the Gulf

As the dust settles on the political unrest of 2011 and new governments and leaders are elected in Libya and Egypt over the next two years and South Sudan joins a group of countries looking to renegotiate the distribution of the Nile, there is likely to be renewed focus on resource security. Rivers including the Euphrates, Tigris, Nile and even the Jordan river, which cross national boundaries and are a major source of water supply, could well become flash points for rising regional tensions. Equally, governments’ ability to manage their rivers and negotiate with their upstream neighbours could well, as is the case in Iraq, lead to growing unrest at home.

These tensions alone are unlikely to spark conflict, says Aaron Wolf, a former water resource negotiator, currently a professor of geography at the US’ Oregon State University. “Water is used regularly as a political weapon,” he says. “It is used to divert attention from issues … I don’t think it will be the cause of violence, but it will be the cause of tension.”

“Whether or not water will lead to war is impossible to know, but it is fair to say that diplomatic relations are suffering and that there is a clear link with regional and domestic security,” says Mark Zeitoun, a leading member of the London Water Research Group.

The events of 2011 may have the most profound effect on relations around the Nile, the longest river in the world at 6,650 kilometres and the main source of water in Egypt and Sudan. Of the 57.4 cubic kilometres of renewable water supply available to Egypt annually, 55.5 million cubic kilometres come from the Nile, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Sudan consumed about 37 cubic kilometres of water annually as a unified state, 18.5 cubic kilometres of which came from the Nile. The total flow of the river is 84 cubic kilometres, meaning that Egypt and Sudan have an effective monopoly over the water that largely comes from Lake Victoria, shared between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The river also runs through Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia before reaching either country. Under a 1929 agreement between Britain and Egypt, the North African country was given full control of the river, while a 1959 agreement set up the current sharing agreement with Sudan.

Upstream countries, particularly Ethiopia, have long staked a claim to greater use of the Nile’s water and the right to build dams for hydroelectricity, but Egypt has gone as far as to threaten war against its neighbour if it were to block the flow of the river.

In 1999, the Washington-headquartered World Bank helped set up the Nile Basin Initiative, bringing water ministers from all the Nile countries together in the hope of brokering a new agreement over the use of the river’s water. But Egyptian intransigence has made progress impossible to date. In May 2009, member states gathered to discuss a new framework treaty on the use of the Nile’s water.

The Egyptian water minister at the time, Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, vetoed the treaty. “It doesn’t matter if [the other states] are convinced,” he said at a July 2009 meeting. “It matters that we are convinced.”

Two things may change this attitude: the secession of South Sudan in July 2011 and the upcoming presidential election in Egypt. The language in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which led to South Sudan’s independence, is vague on water rights. The exact details of how much water each country has the right to are still being negotiated. In September 2011, South Sudan applied for membership of the Nile Basin Initiative and Juba has indicated its support for the cooperative framework agreement tabled by upstream Nile states, which would see rights to the river renegotiated.

Egypt elections

Meanwhile, all the candidates for the Egyptian presidential elections, including runoff candidates Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq,  have indicated a willingness to cooperate over the Nile, possibly because they recognise that they have little choice.

“All of a sudden, Egypt is much weaker,” says Zeitoun. “Just a few weeks after the fall of Mubarak, you had Ethiopia announcing its new east Nile dam. That was no coincidence.”

Addis Abba announced in March 2011 it was planning to build a new $4.8bn dam. In September that year, Cairo, under new leadership, said that the dam could open a new chapter in relations between the countries.

Wolf believes that the future of the Nile will be decided by the June runoff elections in Egypt. “I think it really depends on who wins the election and how they approach things because they are basically on the verge of an agreement,” he says.

Meanwhile, Al-Maliki’s May comments spell out a bigger issue of internal conflict. Iraq has the greatest abundance of water supply in the region, but also one of the largest populations, which depends on the Tigris and Euphrates for drinking water.

Iraq water supply

Like Egypt, the country lies south of the main sources of the Euphrates and Tigris and the rivers pass through Turkey, Syria and Iran before reaching Iraq. But unlike Cairo, Baghdad does not have a legal say in what happens to the water before it reaches the country. Iraq has become vocal in its claims that its neighbours were drawing too much water and that Turkey in particular was passing recycled water of low purity and high salinity over its borders.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Water Resources forecast in 2010 that discharge from the Euphrates will more than halve by 2025, to 8.45 cubic kilometres in 2025 from around 19 cubic kilometres currently. Supply from the Tigris is predicted to drop even more sharply, from 49.2 cubic kilometres in 2009 to 9.16 cubic kilometres in 2025. The country’s ability to negotiate with its neighbours, however, is hamstrung by a lack of decent data on the water sector. Furthermore, any discussion over the use of water from the Euphrates will require input from Syria. Damascus has more pressing concerns than Iraqi demands for water. Turkey is likely to benefit from the distraction.

“There has been a minor level of cooperation from Turkey, while they have been building the facts on the ground,” says Zeitoun, referring to massive investments from Ankara into dams and irrigation projects. “The scale of investment is massive.”

The most contentious dispute over water resources in the region is the Jordan river. The waterway passes through Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Jordan and Israel. Israel is still technically at war with Lebanon, has no direct diplomatic relations with Syria and is technically at peace with Jordan, while the Israel-Palestine question is the region’s most longstanding diplomatic challenge.

Jordan river

“The Jordan river is the system that is causing the most problems,” Wolf says. “The most tension is between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Per capita water use in Israel is as much as four times that in the West Bank. Israelis use up to 300 litres of water a day, while Palestinians are rationed to 70 litres a day, despite their claim to a major underground aquifer and access to the Jordan river.

Until Israel, Palestine and their neighbours can resolve their diplomatic issues, tensions are likely to remain, Zeitoun says. “Water security doesn’t come from power plays, but rather from cooperation and co-dependence,” he says. “But without equitability, sharing can only lead to tensions.”

Key fact

Of the 57.4 cubic kilometres of water supply available to Egypt, 55.5 million cubic kilometres comes from the Nile

Source: UN