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1: Fresh water - A scarce resource in arid lands

International efforts
Fresh water - A limited resource
A personal history
Traditional wisdom
Problems of major continental aquifers
The Aral crisis - Ecocide in arid lands
Hydropolitics along the Jordan river basin and the Dead Sea

Iwao Kobori

In connection with the importation of useful things and conveniences into towns, one must see to a number of matters. There is the water (problem). The place should be on a river, or springs with plenty of fresh water should be facing it. The existence of water near the place simplifies the water problem for the inhabitants, which is urgent. The existence of (water) will be a general convenience to them.

Ibn Khaldun, The Muqqadimah


The International Conference on Water and Environment (ICWE) held in Dublin in January 1992 provided the major input on freshwater problems to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), calling attention to the serious problem of optimizing the use of freshwater resources in the years ahead.

The Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development

Scarcity and misuse of freshwater pose a serious threat to sustainable development and protection of the environment. Human health and welfare, food security, industrial development and the ecosystem on which they depend, are managed more effectively in the present decade and beyond than they have been in the past.

The problems highlighted are not speculative in nature; nor are they likely to affect our planet only in the distant future. They are here and they affect humanity now. The future survival of many millions of people demands immediate and effective action.

The conference participants call for fundamental new approaches to the assessment, development and management of freshwater resources, which can only be brought about through political commitment and involvement from the highest levels of government to the smallest communities. Commitment will need to be backed by substantial and immediate investments, public awareness campaigns, legislative and institutional changes, technology development, and capacity building programmes. Underlying all these must be a greater recognition of the interdependence of all peoples, and of their place in the natural world.

The Conference also stated that concrete action is needed to reverse the present trends of over-consumption, pollution, and rising threats from droughts and floods. Recommendations for action at the local, national, and international levels were set out based on four guiding principles:

Principle No. 1: fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development, and the environment.

Principle No. 2: water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners, and policy makers at all levels.

• Principle No. 3: women play a central part in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water.

Principle No. 4: Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.

Based on these principles, the Conference developed a series of recommendations that also form a framework for the planning of the International Hydrological Programme.

Freshwater issues also came up at the International Conference on an Agenda of Science for Environment and Development into the Twenty-first Century (ASCEND 21) which was convened by the International Commission for Scientific Union (ICSU) in Vienna in November 1991 in order to make a contribution to the formulation of the future directions of world science as well as to the preparation of UNCED. Amongst the major problems that affect the environment and hinder sustainable development, and that are to be of the highest scientific priority, the problem of water scarcity was also pinpointed. ASCEND recommended, inter alia:

• Strengthened support for international global environmental research and observation of the total earth system;

• Research and studies at the local and regional scale on the hydrologic cycle, impacts of climate change, coastal zones, loss of biodiversity, vulnerability of fragile ecosystems, and on the impacts of changing land use, of waste, and of human attitudes and behaviour;

• Special efforts in education and in building up of scientific institutions, as well as involvement of a wide segment of the population in environment and development problem solving.

After UNCED, Agenda 21 was concluded and chapter 18 (Protection of the quality and supply of fresh water) was presented to all nations concerned. Chapter 18 contains the following text:

Protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources: Application of integrated approaches to the development, management and use of water resources

18.1 Freshwater resources are an essential component of the Earth's hydrosphere and an indispensable part of all terrestrial ecosystems. The freshwater environment is characterized by the hydrological cycle, including floods and droughts, which in some regions have become more extreme and dramatic in their consequences. Global climate change and atmospheric pollution could also have an impact on freshwater resources and their availability and, through sea level rise, threaten low-lying coastal areas and small island ecosystems.

18.2 Water is needed in all aspects of life. The general objective is to make certain that adequate supplies of water of good quality are maintained for the entire population of this planet, while preserving the hydrological, biological and chemical functions of ecosystems, adapting human activities within the capacity limits of nature and combating vectors of water-related diseases. Innovative technologies, including the improvement of indigenous technologies, are needed to fully utilize water resources and to safeguard those resources against pollution.

18.3 The widespread scarcity, gradual destruction and aggravated pollution of freshwater resources in many world regions, along with the progressive encroachment of incompatible activities, demand integrated water resources planning and management. Such integration must cover all types of interrelated freshwater bodies, including both surface water and groundwater should consider water quantity and quality aspects. The multisectoral nature of water resources development in the context of socio-economic development must be recognized, as well as the multi-interest utilization of water resources for water supply and sanitation, agriculture, industry, urban development, hydropower generation, inland fisheries, transportation, recreation, low and flat lands management and other activities. Rational water utilization schemes for the development of surface and underground water-supply sources and other potential sources have to be supported by concurrent water conservation and wastage minimization measures. Priority, however, must be accorded to flood prevention and control measures, as well as sedimentation control, where required.

18.4 Transboundary water resources and their use are of great importance to riparian States. In this connection, cooperation among States may be desirable in conformity with existing agreements and/or other relevant arrangements, taking into account the interests of all riparian States concerned.

18.5 The following programme areas are proposed for the freshwater sector:

(a) Integrated water resources development and management;
(b) Water resources assessment;
(c) Protection of water resources, water quality and aquatic ecosystems;
(d) Drinking water supply and sanitation;
(e) Water and sustainable urban development;
(f) Water for sustainable food production and rural development;
(g) Impacts of climate change on water resources.

International efforts

Besides those general reminders, independent organizations have executed their own programmes, for example the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). UNEP has been one of the main organs to deal with "desertification" and many other activities including water problems. UNEP is not an executing agency, like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), but has given many recommendations for research and project-making. Concerning desertification, other agencies such as the United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office (UNSO) or the Club du Sahel and the ComitÚ Permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la SÚcheresse dans le Sahel (CILSS) are also interested in water problems. Needless to say, water shortage is one of the main causes of desertification. FAO, as a representative agency for agriculture, considers water for agriculture as one of the important research items, next to soil.

UNESCO created its Arid Land Programmes (1955-1985) and subsequent global programmes such as the IBP (International Biosphere Programme). The Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB) also includes many topics on arid lands and water.

For potable water and sanitation, the role of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) should not be forgotten. Of course, for meteorological data and analysis of climate change, the role of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is very important.

Since UNCED, the process of each government's reconsideration of Agenda 21 for individual action plans has become a political issue. Although we achieved consensus about Agenda 21, the subsequent practical actions need much funding from each UN member. Especially on issues such as arid lands, that are addressed in the Agenda's chapter 12 on desertification, we have to overcome various barriers including politico-economic issues.

The United Nations University (UNU) started operations in 1975 and is a young family member in comparison with other UN organs, but it has pursued a good number of programmes from the beginning, and its series of publications and independent books on water issues are well disseminated.

We also have a good team on the subject of arid lands. Recently, a group on hydropolitics has become active in organizing a series of forums on various international water bodies. For this purpose, UNU networks extensively with global academic institutions and individuals. Furthermore, UNU, with its complete academic freedom and neutral atmosphere, should be able to contribute in a useful way within the realm of the UN family.

Besides the international organizations mentioned above, we must refer to international organs such as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), within which we have research centres, such as the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), that are working for the improvement of crops in arid and semi-arid areas.

If we talk about non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we have several international groups such as IHP (International Hydrological Programme), IWRA (International Water Resources Association), IIID (International Institute of Irrigation and Drainage) and IDDA (International Drylands Development Association), and of course in each region and country there are many associations as well. In Japan, few associations of arid land studies exist, but the liaison committee of the Water Sciences Associations in the Japan Science Council is to coordinate those international and national activities. We must also mention grass-roots activities sponsored by non-profit NGOs who carry out several water-related projects (for example in the Sahel).

Table 1 Global Population and Water Use Trends



Water use 1900 1950 1990
Population (billions) 1.6 2.5 5.3
Water withdrawal per capita (m│/year) 360 540 570
Water withdrawal total (km│/year) 600 1,400 3,000

Source: Raskin et al. (1995).

Fresh water - A limited resource

Fresh water is a fundamental resource, integral to all environmental and societal processes. However, fresh water is only a small component of the total water resources. Lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater aquifers account for less than one-third of all fresh water, with the rest locked in glaciers and permanent snow covers (Raskin et al. 1995). Arid and semi-arid lands are essentially a diverse group of regions with a variety of social, economic, cultural, and environmental problems, the common feature being a shortage of water at certain times. The danger in treating arid lands as a single geographical region is that an experience in a single arid land might be inappropriately applied to another arid land with dissimilar characteristics.

The mobilization of freshwater resources for human use has grown rapidly during the past century. This growth in water use was closely tied to the Industrial Revolution, which ushered in a period of unprecedented growth in population, consumption and resource use. Referring to table 1, total water use since 1900 has increased by a factor of five, owing to increases in both population and use per capita. Since 1950 alone, global population and water use have more than doubled, while economic output has increased by a factor of five.

The myriad natural and human uses of fresh water are linked by the unitary character of the water cycle (Rogers and Lydon 1995). The use and misuse of water in one location can have far-flung effects, altering downstream resources, affecting the reliability of water flows, and degrading water quality and aquatic ecosystems. As the competition for limited resources increases with expanding water use, water quality often deteriorates and ecosystem maintenance is compromised. In the absence of policies to address these tensions, water competition can evolve into discord between groups dependent on the same resources. Inadequate or degraded water is a matter of life and death in developing regions, where perhaps 25,000 people die daily from water-related diseases. Finally, global climate change has the perilous potential to alter precipitation patterns, to increase the incidence and severity of water problems in coastal areas.

Reconciling the objectives of socio-economic development, environmental quality, and ecosystem preservation into a resilient foundation for the future is the essence of the concept of sustainable development. There are three dimensions to sustainable water development: these are (a) meeting human requirements today and in the future, (b) ensuring water security and conflict resolution, and (c) satisfying ecosystem requirements.

Freshwater resources in arid and semi-arid lands have three components: rainfall, surface water, and groundwater. For these variable water supplies, data collection and analysis are important tasks for enhancing water supplies by such means as irrigation, desalination, precipitation enhancement, and water storage.

Furthermore, management of water resources, especially of interstate aquifers, is an essential issue to the people concerned (from decision makers to farmers). This issue may include hydropolitics on international river basins or lakes.

A personal history

During over 50 years of field research, my concern has always been water problems in arid lands. The reason is very simple: without solving water problems, no progress has ever been made in arid lands. Starting from field experiences in Mongolia, crossing the steppe and desert areas of Eurasia, and on to Africa and the Americas, I have observed many regional critical issues about freshwater resources.

For example, in 1944 in Manchu-Mongolia, I learned about the scarcity of domestic water, including drinking water. In 1956-1957, I observed in situ traditional systems of water harvesting (dew irrigation, flood irrigation. .. ), unique underground water supply systems (qanat or karez), large irrigation systems (Nile, Tigris, Euphrates), and lack of sufficient infrastructure for potable water and sewage. In 1958, when I was able to participate in the first Tokyo University scientific mission to the Andes, the world of cold deserts gave me a comparative view of another area of water problems. In 1961, when I visited the other side of the Jordan River and the Sahara, observations in these extremely arid lands, especially in oases with qanat or foggara, gave me a still ongoing research target.

After those experiences, I organized three missions for the comparative study of subterranean irrigation systems on the old continent of Eurasia (1977-1980 and 1988-1990), and I am now engaged in another Sahara project to look for the influence of technology transfer on the evolution of oases. Since my affiliation with the UNU (from June 1995), I have been engaged mainly in the hydropolitics of international water basins and related environmental issues.

Through those experiences, I learned much about the wisdom of the inhabitants of arid and semi-arid lands and also found several questions to be answered with ongoing development projects.

Traditional wisdom

Dew Irrigation and Flood Irrigation

Using condensed dew water from the surface of piled stones arranged in a circle, arid-land inhabitants were able to cultivate vegetables inside the circle. Constructing small dykes dams in the flood plain, they could catch the flood water and send it to the fields. Those traditional methods can still be seen in Mesopotamia or Arabia.


Since 1956, I have been working mainly on this topic. The research field has already covered, inter alia, Xinjiang, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Majorca, Andalusia, Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

Qanat is genuine civil engineering to transport groundwater via underground channels to the surface in the villages. The diffusion of qanat (also known as karez or foggara) is found mainly in the arid and semi-arid regions of Eurasia and, to a limited extent, in South America, but the origin of the technique is still obscure. However, even now, in small parts of the Sahara, Iran, Afghanistan, Turfan, and Oman, the system is still useful and operating to get fresh water using only gravity. Nevertheless, because of difficult construction works and the need for much manpower for maintenance, the qanat system is now almost extinct. However, the technique is very sustainable and gentle to the environment. The modernization of digging technology may sustain the qanat system in suitable areas.

Problems of major continental aquifers

There are enormous aquifers to be exploited in the Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula. For those aquifers, especially the Sahara ones, UNESCO and FAO have done continuous research since the 1960s (Tunisia, Algeria), and the Observatory of the Sahara and Sahel (OSS) has recently started an enormous monitoring network that includes all available, already existing, national and international monitoring stations. Generally speaking, the problem of the continental aquifer is the number of years that the groundwater can be exploited.

The problem can be illustrated by the following example. The search for alternative water sources has led the country of Libya to pursue an ambitious plan, using the continental aquifer for one of the longest long-distance water transfers, from the middle of the Libyan Sahara to coastal cities along the Mediterranean - a project that is now partially completed and that will exploit the fossil groundwater by focusing on water demand while disregarding its non-renewability.

The Aral crisis - Ecocide in arid lands

Although I have seen many arid lands, my observations at Mouinak on the southern shore of the Aral Sea made the biggest impression on me. Because of misuse of water in the Amudaria and Syrdaria rivers (that is, excessive construction of canals to irrigate cotton fields since the 1960s), the influx from the two rivers to the Aral Sea decreased dramatically and fishermen were obliged to abandon their livelihoods. Abandoned fishing boats remain on the dried-up beach as historical ruins. A decrease in water and a shortage of drainage canals produced saline soils, and, during the windy season, the salt is blown toward the surrounding villages. The mortality rate of children is very high, and the shortage of fresh water gives the inhabitants desperate sanitary conditions. This is one of the worst man-made degradations in arid lands. The urgent need for the Aral area - fresh water!

It may be difficult to restore the sea level to the elevations of the early 1960s. The best way for the international community to help the people may be to cooperate for the rehabilitation of degraded lands and to support the establishment of a freshwater supply for the inhabitants. For this purpose, experts from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are now carrying out a feasibility study around Nukus on the possibility of utilizing fresh groundwater as a drinking-water supply.

Hydropolitics along the Jordan river basin and the Dead Sea

Although the area is not so vast, one of the world's most acute freshwater issues will be the Israel-Palestine one. To be sure, since 1993 when the Peace Treaty was signed, bilateral communication has been improving and traffic between Israel and Jordan is now open. However, despite the transboundary Jordan River Project (which includes the Yarmouk River), the imbalance of the water supply between Palestinians and Israelis presents a big problem for the future. The recent Israeli Jordanian rapprochement included an agreement on rights to the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers, paying no heed to Palestinian rights to these waters. The Peace Treaty represents a further denial of the Palestinian water needs, and only exacerbates Palestinian fears that their minimal water requirements will remain unmet.

The Palestinian-Israeli water dispute could be resolved - but only if the issues of water allocation, water supply, and water conservation are addressed as an interrelated whole. Each party's rights, needs, and interests must be met; if they are not, any settlement will prove to be unsustainable. In terms of rights, the needs and interests of Palestine must be met, because water availability currently fails to meet even minimal requirements for social and economic well-being (Issac and Selby 1996).

Also, from early in the twentieth century there has been the ambitious plan to divert water from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. This kind of megaengineering is now feasible with the use of new technology. For example, an important contribution on this topic of a Mediterranean Sea-Dead Sea canal, using newly developed reverse osmosis technology, has been proposed recently (Murakami 1995). However, we have not yet done an environmental assessment, and the fundamental issue in the region remains the imbalance of the water supply.


We now have a large variety of advanced technologies. In connection with water resources, progress in remote sensing technology and geographic information systems (GIS) is giving us more global access to hidden resources. Progress in environmental engineering gives us more chances to recycle used and waste water. Desalination technology is advancing quickly, and utilization of solar energy for water lifting is a dream no more.

However, the scarcity of fresh water in arid lands is an inescapable reality. Under those physical circumstances, the legal aspects of water rights are very complicated. In some regions, there is no perception of the economic value of irrigation water. Furthermore, women carry a disproportionately high burden in transporting water in arid lands. To meet the rapid growth of the world population, we are now obliged to spend more efforts to conserve precious freshwater resources for our children. This is a matter not only of technical decision-making but also of political decision-making for the eternal peaceful use of fresh water. In this sense, international and national organizations concerned with freshwater resources are now becoming very important and responsible. On every level (global, continental, zonal, regional, national, local), we have to learn from our ancestors' wisdom and combine it with today's sophisticated technology to meet the challenge of sustainable development of freshwater resources.


Issac, J., and J. Selby. 1996. The Palestinian water crisis: Status, projection and potential for resolution. Natural Resources Forum 20(1): 17-26.

Murakami, M. 1995. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. United Nations University Press, Tokyo.

Raskin, P., E. Hansen, and R. Margdis. 1995. Water and Sustainability: A Global Outlook. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.

Rogers, P., and P. Lydon (eds.). 1995. Water in the Arab World: Perspectives and Prognosis. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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