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Water pacts re-examined amid Arab Spring

June 14, 2012 at 2:48 PM   |   Comments

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BAGHDAD, June 14 (UPI) -- Amid the profound political changes sweeping the Arab world, there are moves to rewrite contentious water-sharing agreements that are becoming a major source of friction in the Middle East as water supplies shrink.

In May, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned his neighbors, with Turkey and Syria his main targets, that the region faces conflict unless the issue of dwindling water resources is addressed by regional governments.

Baghdad is increasingly angry and frustrated at the failure of Turkey, in the north, and Syria, to the west, to resolve a growing crisis over the reduced flow and the deteriorating quality of water from the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers they allow Iraq.

Maliki's biggest fear is that the water shortage, which has been worsening for a decade or more, will trigger violence within Iraq.

"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," the Middle East Economic Digest observed.

The water issue is a constant factor in the tension between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The business weekly said "the most contentious dispute over water resources in the region" centers on the Jordan River, which flows through Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, Jordan and Israel.

Israelis use 66 gallons a day, while Palestinians are limited to 15.4 gallons, even though they claim a major underground aquifer and access to Jordan River.

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 flashpoints for rising regional tension.

"Equally, governments' ability to manage their rivers and negotiate with their upstream neighbors could well, as is the case in Iraq, lead to growing unrest at home," the weekly warned.

Thirteen of the 20 states that make up the Arab League rank among the world's most water-scarce nations.

In the Persian Gulf, the oil-rich Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia are investing heavily in new-generation desalination plants equipped with advanced technology to meet an ever-growing demand for water due to population growth and major economic expansion.

Without rivers and little rainfall, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula have little choice but to opt for highly expensive desalination systems.

But the other Arab states, with the possible exception of Iraq whose oil production is steadily rising, cannot afford to do that, making agreements on sharing riverine water flows with their neighbors strategically important.

Iraq has been badly hit by Turkey's massive dam construction in Anatolia that has reduced the flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris which rise close to each other in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Turkey.

A major stumbling block to a meaningful dialogue on the issue for Iraq is the dearth of data on the water sector.

"Iraq really doesn't know how much water it has or how much it needs," says Casey Walther, who until January was water projects coordinator in Iraq for the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"Negotiators from Baghdad arriving at summits have found it almost impossible to get what they want out of talks because they can't accurately state what they actually need."

In the emerging new Egypt, following the 2011 downfall of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, one of the key issues that has to be tackled soon is the long and acrimonious dispute over the Nile.

Eight upstream states, led by Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile rises, have been demanding a more equitable share of the Nile's waters that have been controlled by Cairo under British colonial era agreements.

Mubarak refused to surrender Egypt's right to 75 percent of the Nile's flow under agreements these states argue have become historical relics.

The Nile is Egypt's lifeline. With a population of 82 million expected to hit 101 million by 2025, it's going to need much more water than it currently gets.

Egypt's new rulers may be more accommodating but to do that they'll have to find another source of water while Ethiopia and the upstream states build dozens of dams to satisfy their burgeoning populations.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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