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Water fight: Part one
Our region, like many in the world, faces a looming crisis: Water scarcity. In the first of a two part analysis, Kipp examines the political and economic elements at play.
July 12, 2010 3:52 by Katherine Azmeh
Growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s, the issue of a future regional water shortage was a frequent topic of debate. The little understood threat of the gulf’s desert ecologies running out of drinking water carried ominous overtones, hinting at some future calamity that governments and citizens were poorly prepared to tackle. The public fretted about the fiscal sustainability of increasing numbers of water desalination projects popping up throughout the Kingdom at what was rumored to be extraordinary expense and investment of energy.
Three decades later, the reality is that a looming water shortage may now be the Middle East’s primary economic and political concern. And alongside the environmental realities of the desert geography, the matter is complicated by massive economic expansion in the region. Increasingly complex issues of politics, population growth, and economic disparity all play a role. The threat of a devastating regional water shortage is prompting analysts to suggest that water resource allocation is the single most urgent and pressing concern for the region.
“Scarcity of water resources in Dubai is evident,” according to research conducted by professors of Geology at UAE University’s College of Sciences. “Dubai is worried about finding sufficient water for each person living in the emirate and has great anxiety about how it will provide a suitable amount of water for its rapidly expanding economic activities,” explain study authors Ahmad Ali Abdullah Murad and Hind Al Nuaimi.
Their views are in keeping with analysts’ estimates that say the gulf’s rapidly expanding population and economies could require additional investments of as much as $100 billion in desalination technology by 2016 in order to meet rapidly escalating demands for fresh water.
Generating adequate power for water desalination and air conditioning is a challenge in itself. This is driving investment in solar thermal and wind turbine stations, particularly in light of the gulf’s desire to develop non-petroleum technologies. In Jordan, for example, the loss of Iraqi oil subsidies after the fall of Saddam’s government resulted in significant impact to the Kingdom’s budget. As their domestic expenditures rose considerably with the reality of purchasing oil on the international market, it prompted vigorous investment in solar technologies.
While the gulf region faces the most immediate shortages, Lebanon and Syria are waking up to their own looming threats. But in both instances, scarcity and allocation are complicated by political discord with Israel, particularly in the case of the Litani River in Southern Lebanon.
Although the entire basin of the Litani is within Lebanon’s borders, the river at one point flows a mere four kilometers from the Israeli border. A study of the potential political conflict over the allocation of the Litani’s fresh water is often discussed in connection with the term, “hydropolitics.” This new phrase highlights the importance of water resources to the stability of the political climate in the region.
So what does this mean? In short, the regional economic expansion, population growth, and construction boom are coming face to face with the geographic limitations of the environment. Scarce rainfall and limited fresh water sources are the environmental realities that face governments, business, and citizens. So critical is the need to find solutions to the issue, that former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested that the United States should intervene diplomatically to solve water disputes regionally.
The relationship between Mideast peace and water supply was also the basis for an analysis by the US-based non-profit Schiller Institute, which in 2000, went so far as to suggest that solving the water shortage in the region would ultimately be the key to Mideast peace.
In part two of our feature on the water challenges facing the region, we’ll examine potential solutions to this pressing issue.