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Technological and management alternatives for the future

There is an entire array of solutions to water resource limits, ranging from agricultural to technological to economic and public policy, but they all fall under the same two basic categories as for any resource shortage: increase supply or decrease demand. Allowance must also be made for anticipated climatic and demographic shifts.

Increasing supply

New natural sources

No new "rivers" will be discovered in the Middle East, but increased catchment of winter floodwater anywhere along the existing river system can add to the region's water budget. This applies to small wadis as well as to large storage projects such as the Maqarin Dam, which alone could contribute savings of about 330 MCM/yr. When it is possible to store water underground through artificial groundwater recharge (e.g. not lost to evaporation), even more water is saved. Less evaporation also reduces the salinity in the remaining water. Israel currently stores 200 MCM/yr from its National Water Carrier project through this method (Ambroggi, 1977).

Underground is the only place to look for any real new water supplies. In 1985, Israel confirmed the discovery of a large fossil aquifer in the Nubian sandstone underlying the Sinai and Negev deserts. It is already exploiting 25 MCM/yr from this source and is investigating the possibility of pumping up to 300 MCM/yr in the twenty-first century (Issar, 1985). Jordan has also been carrying out a systematic groundwater evaluation project in recent years, with the help of the United States Agency for International Development and the US Geological Survey (Starr and Stoll, 1988, p. 32).

Any other regional source of water would have to come at the expense of another watershed. Despite this, at one time or another Israel has eyed the Litani and the Nile, Jordan has looked to the Euphrates, and all of the countries in the area have been intrigued by the "Peace Pipeline," proposed by Turkey in 1987. The western line of this project would deliver 1,200 MCM/yr from the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers to Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (Duna, 1988, p. 119). Despite Turkish Prime Minister Ozal's belief that, "by pooling regional resources, the political tensions in the area can be diffused" (Dune, 1988, p. 121, quoting Prime Minister Ozal), the idea did not gain rapid popularity because of its cost of US$20 billion.

New sources through technology

Projects such as iceberg towing and cloud seeding, though appealing to the imagination, do not seem to be the most likely direction for future technology. The former involves great expense and the latter can at best be a small part of a very local solution. Although a representative of Israel's water authority claims that 15 per cent of Israeli annual rainfall is due to its cloud-seeding programme (Siegel, 1989, p. 12), this has been documented only within the northern Galilee catchment and results seem not to have the consistency necessary for reliable water resources planning.

The two most likely future technologies to increase water supply are desalination and wastewater reclamation. The Middle East has already spent more on desalination plants than any other part of the world. The region has 35 per cent of the world's plants, with 65 per cent of the total desalting capacity, mostly along the Arabian peninsula (Anderson, 1988, p. 4). Israel, too, included plans for both conventional and nuclear desalination plants in its water planning until 1978, when they were abandoned as "technologically premature and economically unfeasible" (Galnoor, 1978, p. 352).

Desalinated water is expensive for most applications. Although drinking water is a completely inelastic good - that is, people will pay almost any price for it - water for agriculture, by far the largest use in the Middle East, has to be cost-effective enough so that agricultural end-products remain competitive in the market-place. The present costs of about US$0.80-1.50/m3 to desalt sea water and about US$0.30/m3 for brackish water (Awerbuch, 1988, p. 59) do not make this technology an economic water source for most uses. Efforts are being made, however, to lower these costs through multiple-use plants (getting desalted water as a by-product in a plant designed primarily for energy generation), increased energy efficiency in plant design, and augmenting conventional plant power with solar or other energy sources.6

One additional use of salt water is to mix it with fresh water in just the right amount so as to leave it useful for agricultural or industrial purposes, in effect freeing up water to be added to the freshwater supply. This method was used in Israel in the 1975/76 season to add 141 MCM/yr to the water budget (Kahhaleh, 1981).

Another promising technology to increase supply is wastewater reclamation. Two plants in Israel currently treat 110 MCM/yr or 40 per cent of the country's sewage for re-use, and projections call for treating 80 per cent by the end of the 1990s (Environmental Protection Service, 1988, p. 8). The treated water is currently used to irrigate some 15,000 hectares, mostly cotton (Poster, 1989b, p. 42). It is anticipated that full exploitation of purified waste water will eventually constitute 45 per cent of domestic water needs (Environmental Protection Service, 1988, p. 147). This type of project could be developed throughout the region (a World Bank loan helped finance the Israeli project). An obvious limitation of this technology is directly related to the amount of waste water generated by a population in a year.

Decreasing demand

The guiding principle to decrease demand for any scarce resource should be, "Can it be used more efficiently?" This does not always work, however, especially when there is an emotional value associated either with the resource or with the proposed solution. Unfortunately, when dealing with water, emotions usually charge both aspects of the issue. For example, the most direct way to cut demand for Middle East water is to limit population growth in the region. However, in an area where each national group and religious and ethnic subgroup seems to be locked in some demographic race for numerical superiority, this is not likely to occur. Many of the sectors most susceptible to efficient restructuring are also those most laden with emotion.

The agricultural sector

Some aspects of decreasing agricultural water demand are non-controversial and have made the region a showcase for arid-agriculture water conservation. Technological advances such as drip-irrigation and micro-sprinklers, which reduce water loss by evaporation, are about 20-50 per cent more efficient than standard sprinklers and tremendously more so than the open-ditch flood method used in the region for centuries (Environmental Protection Service, 1988, p. 144). Computerized control systems, working in conjunction with direct soil moisture measurements, can add even more precision to crop irrigation.

Other water savings have come through big-engineered crops that exist on a minimal amount of fresh water, on brackish water, or even on the direct application of salt water.7

Economic water efficiency

Water distribution in the Middle East is so riddled with economic inefficiencies that an economist approaching it must feel very much like a drip-irrigation designer watching a field being flood-irrigated. The main problem is that the cost of water to the user is highly subsidized, especially with regard to water that has been earmarked for agriculture. The true cost of water would reflect all of the pumping, treatment, and delivery costs of that water, most of which are not passed on to the farmers. In Israel alone, 20 per cent of the country's energy is used solely to move water from one place to another (Naff and Matson, 1984, p. 12).

Economic theory argues that only when the price paid for a commodity is a reasonable reflection of the true price can market forces work for efficient distribution of the commodity.8 In other words, subsidized water leads to waste in agricultural practices, too little incentive for research and development of conservation techniques and practice, and, finally, too much water being allocated to the agricultural sector as opposed to industry. Take away subsidies and allow the price to rise, it is argued, and market incentives are created for both greater efficiency on the farm and a natural shift of water resources from the agricultural sector to industry, where contribution to GNP per unit of water is often much higher (Wishart, 1989, p. 49). Since in each of the areas discussed between 75 per cent and 95 per cent of water use is allocated for agricultural use, savings could be substantial.

Economic analysis may also create a framework for easing regional water tensions. "Put simply, conflicts over water rights are easier to resolve if transaction costs of resolution are lower, and if opportunities exist for improving the efficiency of water use and discovery" (Wishart, 1989, p.50). In other words, if it is cheaper for people to cooperate and save water than it is to fight, they would rather cooperate.

There are, however, problems inherent in using economic theory as the tool for water conflict analysis, problems that can lead to weaknesses in the economic solutions prescribed. First, water is not a pure economic good. Options to the consumer of most goods include migrating to where it is cheaper if so desired or abstaining from it altogether if the price is too high. Given small countries with tightly controlled borders, the former is not a viable alternative, nor, for more obvious biological reasons, is the latter. Presumably, though, the analysis is restricted to water for agriculture, where there is ample room for reducing demand before running into such dangers.

The second problem is more serious because it has to do with a force much more fundamental than economic theory, that is, the emotions of a nation. All of the countries in the area were built from the farm up, and the agriculturalist, whether the fellah or the kibbutznik, holds a special mystique on both sides of the Jordan. Both Arabic and Hebrew ideologies are rife with slogans of "making the desert bloom" and "nations rooted in their land." In this context, water invariably becomes the "lifeblood" of a nation. One result of this has been a certain political and financial leeway granted to agriculture in the area.

Even while recognizing its limits, one can still use economic analysis as a useful tool to provide some guidelines to increase hydrological efficiency. And it has been suggested that following these guidelines can be especially crucial as water limits begin to be reached.

Public policy

Where the "invisible hand" of economic forces fails to guide a more efficient water use, authoritative guidelines of public policy can take over. Government agencies could, after all, simply implement one analyst's prescription of cutting water to agriculture by 35 per cent if they wished (Naff, 1990). The "if they wished" is the problem. The same national water ethics that give agriculture great economic clout in the region, also give it great political clout. The Water Commission in Israel, for example, is the ultimate authority for all water planning and operations in the country. It, in turn, is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture. Clearly there is room for improvement even in terms of national public policy. But the real opportunities come from the international policy sector.

Water policy in this region is currently drawn up within the boundaries of a nation rather than within those of a watershed. Because the flow of water does not respect political boundaries, it should be clear that regional management, at least at the watershed level, would be a much more efficient approach. In fact, the only point on which the water policy analyses surveyed here do agree is on the need for planned water sharing and joint water development, as Eric Johnston had envisioned 35 years ago.

Regional cooperation would open the door to a host of new water distribution alternatives.9 For example, surface water from the Yarmuk or the upper Jordan could be provided to the West Bank, allowing increased development in that area, while alleviating Israeli fears of overdrafted Palestinian wells. Or Israel and Jordan might cooperatively develop both banks of the Jordan, eliminating the current redundant costs of separate delivery systems within each country. And, the larger the region cooperating, the more efficient can be a regional plan. It is cheaper, for example, to bring water from the Nile to the Negev than it is to pump it from the Kinneret, as is the current practice (Kelly, 1989, p. 305).

Despite Kally's contention that "the successful implementation of cooperative projects... will strengthen and stabilize peace" (1989, p. 325), this does not necessarily seem to be the case. It seems at this point inconclusive whether greater interdependence is actually an impetus to greater cooperation or is, in fact, the opposite, leading to greater conflict. Many of the hostilities that have occurred in the region over water seem to have come about precisely because the water destined to a downstream user was controlled by an upstream party. Many "cooperative" projects might only provide additional opportunity for suspicion and potential for contention. Lowi (1993) suggests that issues of regional water sharing cannot be successfully broached until the larger political issues of territory and refugees are resolved.

However, the fact that projects would have to be weighed in terms of the conflict-alleviating tendencies of more efficient water distribution, as opposed to the possible conflict heightening of greater hydrological interdependence, should not be a reason to abandon the concept. Nor should the concept of a regional planning approach be tarnished because of uncertainty about specific projects.

Climatic and demographic shifts

An analysis of such a fragile "hydropolitical" situation as exists in the Middle East is actually more complicated than so far discussed. This is because so few of the parameters that are examined remain stable for any length of time. Aside from the volatile nature of politics in general, and Middle East politics specifically, two other factors complicate the present precarious situation, one climatic and demographic.

Many climatologists are currently investigating the kinds of changes that might occur in regional climatic and weather patterns, given the projected increase of a few degrees Celsius in the average global temperature. One climate scenario suggests a possible northward shift in the distribution of winter rainfall away from the Jordan basin. Difficult though they are to predict on a regional scale, the effects of shifting annual precipitation patterns in the Middle East could have profound impacts on the politics of the region, depending on how dramatic the changes are that actually develop. As global and regional modelling and forecasting efforts improve, appropriate planning measures will have to be taken.

A second, more imminent, change is already beginning to occur in the region, which will dramatically affect water distribution and usage. Israel expects at least 1 million Soviet immigrants in the coming decade, possibly 2 million. Jordan is absorbing 300,000 Palestinians who left Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Furthermore, if political negotiations were to result in an autonomous Palestine on the West Bank, that entity might absorb a percentage of the 2.2 million Palestinians now registered worldwide as refugees (Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989, p. 206). Based on current consumption, Israel would require an additional 94 MCM/yr (or a little over 5 per cent of its current water budget) just to provide for personal use by 1 million immigrants. Jordan would need an additional supply of 17.5 MCM/yr for its refugees, and the West Bank would need an additional 25 MCM/yr (a 23 per cent increase in its water budget) to provide for the personal water needs of 1 million immigrants.10

These numbers represent simple extrapolations based on current water use. However, given the fact that hydrological limits in the region are currently being reached and that annual supplies are routinely being surpassed, questions about the absorptive capacity of the region's water resources for immigrants and refugees must be raised.


The inextricable link between water and politics suggests several options for easing regional tensions related to water issues.

First, efficient water use should be enhanced as much as is politically, economically, and technologically possible. Increased efficiency should strive for the following:

• Regional water resource planning on the watershed scale. In the case of the Jordan River, representatives from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank should be working together on watershed management planning. For greater efficiency, the geographical scale of planning could be increased. Planning options multiply as the planning scale and the sources of water resources increase. Allowances should be made for changes in climate and demographics.

• Increased economic efficiency through a shift of water used from agricultural to industrial sectors. Although some observers have recommended a shift of as much as 35-40 per cent (Naff, 1990), the states involved have security concerns that may preclude their becoming major food importers, even if it were more economical to do so. These concerns will likely be weighed when determining how much of a shift is warranted.

• Increased support for research and development of water-saving technology. This should include such small-scale applications as low-flow shower nozzles and toilets, and such large-scale projects as sequential re-use and wastewater treatment for the agricultural and industrial sectors. The Maqarin Dam should be built. Special emphasis might be placed on small and large-scale desalination technology. A regional desalination project, based on the goals of the agro-industrial complex and using a combination of solar, natural gas, and hydropower (rather than nuclear), might be implemented to achieve many of the regional benefits that were foreseen in the original plan.11

Secondly, issues of water scarcity must be included in regional political negotiations in order for any resulting agreements to have long-term viability. This is particularly true of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where any separation of the two entities generates intricate problems of hydrological viability for both parties.

Third parties such as the United States, Russia, and the European Union have vital roles to play in these strategies: information barriers can be more easily broken down on neutral territory; funding for cooperative projects will most likely have to be raised outside of the region; and opportunities for dialogue will have to be provided and encouraged to facilitate the pace of peace negotiations.


The Jordan River watershed, with all its competing national and economic pressures, provides a clear example of the strategic importance of water as a scarce resource. If emphasis is placed on easing regional water tensions, some breathing space might be gained, allowing for more complex political and historical difficulties to be negotiated. Because the water problems to be solved involve all of the parties in conflict, and because these issues are so fundamental, the search for regional solutions might actually be used as a tool to facilitate. People who cannot talk together about history or politics might talk about water if their lives and economies depended on it.

The present "hydropolitical" situation in the Middle East is one of intricate problems and delicate solutions. The equitable distribution of scarce water resources in the Jordan River watershed is particularly precarious. Both the dangers of conflict and the opportunities for cooperation are growing, as annual supplies are being surpassed.


I would like to thank the United Nations University for its sponsorship of the Central Eurasian Water Forum, and Professors Kobori and Glantz for their careful editing of this volume. This work is drawn from Wolf (1995).


1. For an update on the Middle East peace talks as related to water resources, see gingham et al. (1994).

2. Flow data are taken from Bakour and Kolars (1994), Garbell (1965), Inbar and Maos (1984), Naff and Matson (1984), p. 182.

3. Not included in this list are the Carmel aquifer, lying wholly in Israel, with a safe yield of 375 MCM/yr, or the sandstone Gaza aquifer, whose 80 MCM/yr yield is currently being seriously overmined.

4. The factors comprise a basin's geography, hydrology, climate, past and existing water utilization, economic and social needs of the riparians, population, comparative costs of alternative sources, availability of other sources, avoidance of waste, practicability of compensation as a means of adjusting conflicts, and the degree to which a state's needs may be satisfied without causing substantial injury to a co-basin state.

5. See, for example, proposals by Kally (1989). Kally contends that "the successful implementation of cooperative projects... will strengthen and stabilize peace" (p. 325). This concept of inducing increasing integration even between actors with some hostility toward each other is also a strategy employed in the United States by the US Army Corps of Engineers, recommended for international settings by Corps representatives.

6. For good information on non-conventional desalination projects, see Murakami (1995).

7. For interesting examples of direct sea-water irrigation, see Hodges et al. (1988).

8. Wishart (1989) provides a good economic analysis of Jordan River water.

9. Most of the following projects are described in detail in Kally (1989).

10. All of the numbers provided here are direct extrapolations of the data provided in the section of this paper entitled "Current water use."

11. For the past decade, the Israelis have sought to build a canal from the Mediterranean Sea that would provide 800 MW of hydro-power by dropping 800 MCM/yr of salt water 400 m at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Such a Med-Dead Canal would also make possible power generation in "solar ponds," a new technology that takes advantage of heat trapped in the lower layer, which has much higher salinity than that of the Mediterranean. If the focus of the canal project became desalination, rather than strictly power generation, and if Negev and Sinai land were to be set aside for reclamation, many of the regional benefits for immigrant/refugee absorption and for political cooperation of the agro-industrial complex could be realized.


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11. Alternative strategies in the inter-state regional development of the Jordan Rift Valley

Canal schemes for co-generation
The Peace Drainage Canal scheme and eco-political decision-making
The Aqaba hybrid scheme
Techno-political assessment of the Peace Drainage Canal and the Med/Red-Dead Sea canal

Masahiro Murakami


By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank will have depleted virtually all of their renewable sources of fresh water, if current patterns of consumption are not quickly and radically altered. As water shortages occur and full utilization is reached, water policies tend to be framed more and more in zero-sum terms, adding to the probability of discord.

Water conservation and management (including water-pricing scenarios) are essential confidence-building measures to manage the water resources in the region. In these circumstances, non-conventional strategic alternatives, including desalination and the re-use of treated waste water, will become increasingly and significantly important in water resources development to supply new additional fresh water in the twenty-first century.

Energy supplies are closely related to desalination and wastewater treatment for re-use because these treatments consume substantial amounts of electricity. Taking into account recent advances in membrane separation technologies, many countries in the Middle East are also trying to introduce large-scale desalination by the year 2000. Although this is likely to be dependent on low-energy types of reverse osmosis membrane, the energy cost will be 30-50 per cent of the total (Murakami, 1991,1995). Consequently, the potential use of off-peak electricity will be a key element in minimizing the cost of water management and operation.

The Jordan Valley, which includes the two inter-state regions of the Dead Sea and Aqaba, has become the focus of international cooperation and economic development for peace and confidence building in the aftermath of the "Declaration of Principles" between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on 13 September 1993 and the "Treaty of Peace" between Jordan and Israel on 26 October 1994. It is now possible to conceive of an integrated, stepwise regional development plan for the lower Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and Aqaba, including some new, non-conventional alternatives, given the limitations imposed by political frameworks and boundary conditions that exclude the two upstream riparian states of Syria and Lebanon. This chapter assesses three techno-political strategic alternatives to supply fresh and safe drinking water - canal schemes for co-generation, the lower Jordan Peace Drainage Canal, and the Aqaba hybrid sea-water pumped-storage scheme for co-generation - taking into account the incentives for eco-political decision-making, inter-state regional economic development, and the desire for peaceful cooperation.

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