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GNOSIS 3/2009
The wars for water


The impoverishment of the water resources due to contamination, inconsiderate exploitation and climatic changes, delineates alarming prospects of new conflicts in the not too distant future.
A danger already exists in the Middle East for the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, due to the disparity of use and of exploitation by Turkey, with respect to Syria and Iraq.
But Gianluca Ansalone points out that it is possible to remove these risks, by beginning to consider water as ‘goods’ which must have a market and, therefore, a price, tied to the quantity available. This would not only mean water saving in agriculture, but also a re-routing of the water towards domestic uses and industrial productive activities.


Water has always been a strategic resource. Life depends on it, but also the survival and development of trade, the meeting between peoples and cultures, the rise or fall of Empires.
In the next decade, according to numerous reports of the most authoritative international organizations and research centers, the most likely cause of an outbreak of conflict between States will be the control of the water. And the reason for this is that in the face of the constant growth of the world population, principally, in areas such as South Asia or the Middle East, water resources are deteriorating due to growing pollution, climatic change on a vast scale, scarce attention to effective water saving, and the phenomenon of the “water stress”, which has a direct impact on the lives of the people and of the States.
It is calculated that circa 1.3 billion people on the planet today face difficulty in getting access to drinkable water. A difficulty which, at times, is lethal and determine a tragic toll. There are 2.3 billion victims of contaminated water, most of whom are children.
The demographic growth principally concerns those already arid or semi-arid zones of the planet in which the absence of adequate water infrastructures or a rationed allocation of water creates a natural competition for access to water. There is already alarm over the threat of a massive planetary migration due to the scarcity of water, which could involve a billion people during the next twenty years.

From the people to the States

The claim of sovereignty of the waterways remains, still today – in the world of the globalized economy – the strongest and most authoritative expression of the State sovereignty, understood as legitimate control of a territory and the exploitation of its resources. And, no resource like water is able to fuel tensions or guarantee a harmonious development between Countries and between communities.
The birth of the Modern State, as a legitimate monopoly and organized force has its origins of territoriality and sovereignty in the system that followed the Thirty Year War and the political-diplomatic articulation of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).
If the term ‘globalization’ is commonly meant to denote the progressive attrition of the State sovereignty, of its consistency and of its territorial matrix – following the growing inter-connection between phenomena and the multiplication of transnational flows – with the Treaty of Westphalia, the modern era of the national State is conventionally opened. The State ( or better, States) are from that moment the supreme regulators of the economic, social and cultural life of the communities, ivi including their practices of religious faith. This last control was as a measure to prevent and avert the threat of conflicts of a religious nature, which had bloodied the European Continent for three decades. The State is also the exclusive beneficiary of the control and the exploitation of the natural resources, of the lands and maritime areas, on the basis of the respective technical and territorial expertise.
The stated model – starting from the middle of the 17th Century – is, therefore, a model of exclusive sovereignty over natural resources.
A little over 50 years from that date, we hear of the convocation of the first Courts for water – formal assizes meeting as impartial bodies in Holland, Spain, Belgium and Scotland for the resolution of controversies concerning borders, for the distribution of shared waters and for the determination of the sovereignty over navigable rivers.
Even in the more distant past, a water Code had already been drawn up in the Egypt of the Pharaohs, just as small local “Arbitration Courts” for water existed in the Roman Empire.
The eco-politics, or rather, the geopolitical and strategic governance of the natural resources, has always been a sensitive and vulnerable dossier for the powers of the Empires to manage. Also in the last among the territorial empires, in chronological order, the Soviet Union, numerous cases of revolt have been recorded against local Soviets for the bad management of the natural resources, especially, of the water.
With the increasing environmental awareness at an international level, starting from the 60’s of the 20th Century, pressure on the governments has also increased for the search of a sustainable management model for the natural resources and for its rational employment, coherent with the needs of economic development and human sustenance.
The “Kyoto Model” represents the overcoming of the solely national management of this sovereignty and states the principle of the sharing of the burdens and responsibilities with respect to the use of the environmental resources and to the so-called “ecological stress”. Like ecology, the compartments are numerous in which the globalization has pushed towards the cession of the sovereignty, the attrition of the geographic borders and the starting of common practices for the realization of a “scale of policies”. The CO2 gas emission (greenhouse) represents the first test for accountability of the governments towards the protection of the environment. The excessive use of the resources provokes a condition for virtual penalization of governments, which translates into a lack in future investments.
With respect to these dynamics, the water maintains unaltered, the characteristics of competing sovereignty between Governments and domestic competition with regard to the use of the resources.
In the emerging Countries, agriculture continues to consume over 90% of the water available, a quota that is reduced to 60% in the Western world. This means an availability of a fifth of the resources for industrial uses and a residual 10% for home and health uses.
Water, source of life and conflicts, is the last element of a Westphalia system which globalization has not been able to extricate from the competitive race between Governments.

Geopolitics of the water

There exist numerous shared water basins in the world, or in other words, sweet-water courses which originate within the geographical borders of a Country and which develop their path or terminate within the borders of another State.
The adjacency or contiguity of these basins are criteria recognized by the international law, which encodes the call for good conduct in the use of the water by the so-called “inhabitants along high water courses”(riparian): Countries in whose territory an international basin or river has its origin.
The number of international water basins has grown over the years, principally as a consequence of the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia. In 1978, there existed 214; today, 243. The implication of such inter-dependence is already seen in relation to the number of Countries who claim rights on these basins, a good 145, equal to 90% of the world population. More than 30 Countries in the world are in transboundary water basins.
The capacity to claim or exercise rights on the transboundary rivers by the riparian inhabitants is directly proportional to three factors:the geographic position: for which the riparian States can influence, with their method of use of the resources, the rate of flow or the quality of the water available to the other riparian States;the policy of the use of the water: the bad use or management of the resources can deteriorate the quality of the entire basin, in a way which is more than proportional with respect to the effective quota of use by the riparian inhabitants;the natural variability: for which the effects of natural exogenous factors (porosity of the layers, rainfall, stratification…) or unnatural factors (dumping, pollution…) can determine long-lasting changes in water courses.
The conflict that derives from the overlapping, the intertwinement or the admixture of these three factors has already been shown to be particularly virulent and risks likely disruption in the immediate future.
A typical example of conflict induced by the geographic factor is that of the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, characterized by an obvious disparity of use and exploitation by Turkey, compared to the other two riparian States, Syria and Iraq.
At times, the geographic factor alone is not sufficient to determine the strategic coefficient of control on the water resources of a Country. This is the case of Egypt, which, thanks to the system of the Aswan Dams, is able to manage the flow of the Nile in a more than proportional manner with respect to the geographic position – at the mouth of this historic river; the other riparian States, from the Sudan to the Countries of the region of the Great Lakes, do not have systems of technology for damming, intensive exploitation or deviation of the waters.
The bad management of the waters by just one of the riparian States could lead to the deterioration of the quality of the entire basin, with effects on the use or on the capacity of utilization by the other Countries.
Reference can be made to the Lake of Aral, for which the International community has raised numerous alarms concerning the progressive recession of the water and the growing pollution. But there are the same alarms for the Mekong Basin in Asia or the Danube, by now among the most polluted international rivers in the world.
Finally, the variability of the natural factors has a direct impact on the flow capacity of the basins and on the consequent capacity of use of the water by the Governments. This is the case of the Zambezi River in Africa, of the Jordan in the Middle East and of the Rio de la Plata system in South America.

The water in the near and Middle East

Among the regions that will soon undergo the effects of an elevated “water stress”, the Middle East stands out for its dangerous position and for the strategic implications which a war for water would have. Moreover, in the Middle East the water in itself, a strategic factor, able to trigger off an already heated competition caused by geopolitical, religious and military dynamics.
The system of the Tigris-Euphrates, the Jordan and the Nile are historical cases and strategic nodes of a strong geopolitical-water conflict which, as the former Secretary General of the UNO, Boutros Boutros Ghali warned, could lead to open warfare.
It is no accident that these three basins are found in the near and Middle East, where the water disputes are intertwined with a scenario of strong regional instability. Water is, at times, at the center of these tensions, sometimes it undergoes the form of blackmail and reciprocal veto between the parties.
The water situation in the Middle East has been deteriorating during the last decades, due to the high rate of population growth. The multiplication of the needs has determined a growing competition between economic sectors, in terms of access to the resources and fuelling the social and inter-state conflict (1)
Taking for granted the division of the world in nation States and, therefore, in areas of exclusive jurisdiction, it is possible to define three different levels of inefficient distribution of the water: global, regional and domestic (2) .
The global level of the distribution depends, obviously, on the different climatic zones of the earth.
The bad distribution at a regional level is a common trait in those arid and semi-arid zones of the planet in which water resources are concentrated in the territories of one or more States.
The domestic level regards the internal allocation of the water resources, often problematic or inefficient, due to lack of technical know-how or wrong policy choices.
In the Middle East, these three levels of inefficiency co-exist. And that which further complicates the situation is the fact that the most important superficial water courses cross the territory of more than one State.
The water policies usually correspond to the level of economic development. In the more advanced Countries of the planet, such policies have undergone a profound evolution in recent years, passing from a quantitative management of the water to a qualitative management (3) . In the Middle East and, in general, in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world, a more prudent management of the water resources has difficulty in materializing due to the urgency of the needs and the multiple pressures to which the water sector is submitted. In these Countries, the water belongs to the State, which deals with the treatment and distribution through public bodies.

The Tigris-Euphrates Basin

In the case of the international water basins, the conflicts (latent or manifest) are inevitable, insofar as the upper riparian States undertake actions able to invalidate the exploitation of the waters by other riparian States. Such conflicts are often exacerbated by the fact that neither institutional mechanisms of consultation nor coordination exist, nor any legal body which could regulate the sharing out or the use of the water resources common to more than one Country (4) .
Such an absence of coordination (above all, in the Middle East) is attributable, first of all, to the lack of reciprocal political trust; in this situation it is clear that the water functions as a political deterrent.
The principal water basins of the region, (the Jordan, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile) represent the different faces of the same war of the water. In all three cases, only one State has assumed the role of hegemony: Israel, Turkey and Egypt respectively, operate in the conviction that their needs and their rights of States ‘more equal than the others’ give them the precedence with respect to the other riparian States.
The Tigris-Euphrates water basin concerns, fundamentally, four Countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran (5) . The competition for the exploitation of the water resources concerns, however, only the first three.
In the last ten years, the geopolitical turbulence that has concerned Syria and, above all Iraq has, in fact, left the way open to Turkey and its plans of water hegemony on the system of the two rivers.
The most important project up to date is the Turkish one GAP (Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi) which concerns the agricultural and industrial development of the south-east of Turkey, through the construction of dykes and artificial water basins. Turkey, in its role of upper riparian State is exercising what the politicians of Ankara have always claimed to be “the sovereign right to exploit the water resources of its own territory” (6) , a right which historically, the other riparian States have always contested.
The GAP project involves the construction of 22 dams, 19 hydro-electric generating stations and an irrigation network which covers an area of 1.7 million hectares. The estimated total cost is 32 billion dollars.
The project covers an overall area of 75.000 square kilometers, almost 9.5% of the total surface of the Country. Approximately 6.000 people live in that area, of whom, only 9% constitutes Turks, while the remaining part is composed of Kurds and other minorities. At the end of the programme, the irrigable area will pass from the present 2.9% of the total surface to 22.8%.

The Nile

The Nile and all its tributaries, are shared by nine Countries with different levels of social and economic development, which put forward demands that are often incompatible with the river (7) .
Egypt and the Sudan are the principal consumers of the waters of the Nile (8) . Egypt does not contribute to the flow of the river, having no water sources, but being the Country with the largest population in the region, it exploits, by far, the most significant quota. The Country is also the strongest political, economic and military entity.
For a long time, the economic sustainability of Egypt depended on the cooperative management of the Nile waters, but this process of convergence is now decelerated by the civil war in the Sudan and the instability in the Horn of Africa (9) .
The Nile is formed by two principal tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The sources of the While Nile are found in the east highlands of Burundi. The sources of the
Blue Nile are in the region of Lake Tana, in the north east of Ethiopia. The two rivers converge in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The most important tributary of the Nile in the lower tract of its course is the River Atbara; after the confluence with the River Atbara, the Nile does not receive more water and flows directly into Egypt to then flow into the Mediterranean.
The growth of the population, the consumption of energy, the expansion of agriculture will create enormous stress in the coming years for the availability of water, with the aggravation that some riparian States of the Nile are among the poorest Countries in the world. Furthermore, the majority of these Countries are shattered by civil wars or border clashes. In this area, more than in others, the optimal management of water will necessarily be realized through a stabilization of the political situation.
Apart from the sharing of the Nile waters, there is very little that these Countries have in common. The extreme heterogeneity, coupled with the Egyptian need for security has, until now, rendered the negotiations to reach an agreement of cooperation rather difficult.
Great Britain, as a colonial power, tried to protect the historical Egyptian rights and the priority of Cairo in the use of the Nile waters. The Anglo-Italian Treaty of 1891 on the partition of the spheres of influence in East Africa provided that no type of project must be implemented in the area of the River Atbara which, in any way, would modify the course, volume and flow of the Nile In the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902, Addis Ababa agreed not to undertake hydraulic projects on the Blue Nile, on Lake Tana and the River Sobat.
In an Exchange of notes with the Government of His Majesty, data 1925, the Italian Authorities accepted not to undertake any project on the upper courses of the White Nile and the Blue Nile, recognizing the Egyptian and Anglo-Sudan sovereignty of the two rivers. In an agreement of 1906, The Administration of the Belgium Congo committed itself not to invalidate the integrity of Lake Albert without the consensus of the Sudan.
The agreement on the Nile waters of 1929 between Egypt and Great Britain (10) assured Cairo of a constant flow in the January-July period and, above all, attributed to the Egyptian Government a power of veto and monitoring on all the possible projects planned by the other riparian States.
The most important agreement for the partition of the Nile remains that of 1959, on the basis of which the flow of the river must be 84 square kilometers at Aswan; the dam of the same name, on the basis of the treaty, would be completed as soon as possible (after the halt of the crisis of three years before), while the Sudan could construct a dam at Roseires. On that occasion an Inter-parliamentary Technical Commission was instituted between the two Countries (11) .
Another technical Commission, this time more extended, was instituted by all the riparian Countries (except Ethiopia) in 1967. In 1978, Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi founded the Organization for the Development of the Basin of Kagera, in which organization also Uganda became a member in 1981.
The so-named group of “Undugu” – (in Swahili - “brotherhood”) which once, still included all the riparian States except Ethiopia – was constituted in 1983 under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity, meeting regularly and exchanging hydrological information of the different areas and on the possibility of connecting up the various electric grids.

The Jordan

The Jordan Basin is a valley that extends from Mount Hermon in the north, to the Dead Sea in the south. The overall area of the basin includes Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank.
The Jordan has its sources on the slopes of Mount Hermon from which originate three branches: the Dan, the Hasbani and the Banias, which have their point of confluence about 25 kilometers north of Lake Tiberiade. The river flows in the northern part of Israel, through Lake Huleh and, immediately after, Lake Tiberiade.
Also the Yarmouk makes up part of this water basin; it marks the border between Syria and Jordan for about 40 kilometers and then further, the border between Israel and Jordan.
The West Bank has three basins of subterranean water (the so-termed Mountain Aquifers) of great geological importance, and disputed between Israel – which actually exploits a good part of the water yield through a system of wells – and the Palestine Authorities. The basins are exactly below the hills of Judea and Samaria, while the wells of accumulation are right on the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank.
Following the negotiations of Madrid in 1991, a multilateral Working Group was instituted on the questions relative to the water. The Forum is still in existence, but has a little or no impact ability. France, Norway, Germany, Japan, the World Bank, many ONG and also the United States are members of the Forum.
At a bilateral level, the most important event, in recent years, on the subject of water resources, is represented by the Peace Agreement between Israel and Jordan of the 26th October, 1994. In Art. 6. of the Agreement the willingness of the two Countries to cooperate in matters of water management is explicitly stated, with common projects and interventions to improve the quality of the water.
To be able to meet with the previsions of the Agreement, Jordan completed the construction of an aqueduct (the King Abdallah Canal) from Lake Tiberiade to Amman; the aqueduct has a capacity of 90 million cubic meters per year.
The Declaration of Principles (DOP), usually identified as the Agreement “Oslo I” was signed by the OLP and by Israel on the 2rd September, 1993. In this Agreement water was mentioned and the peaceful sharing of available resources. From a legal point of view, the biggest difficulty lies in the fact that, on the basis of the Rules of Helsinki and of the Convention of the United Nations of 1997, the Palestinians should be recognized as riparian inhabitants of the Jordan Basin; a status, however, which has never been recognized by the Israeli.
Even before the birth of the State of Israel, in 1944, the Lowdermilk plan, supported by the World Zionist Organization, provided for the utilization of the Jordan and Litani waters to irrigate the land of the first Hebrew colonies in Palestine.
The plan, elaborated by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) had as referents Syria and Jordan: it proposed the construction of a first dyke on the Yarmouk and another one to divert the water of the same river into the Jordan valleys through the East Ghor Canal. In 1953, Syria and Jordan made an agreement for the partition of the waters of the Yarmouk – an agreement opposed by Israel.
The most concrete effort to find a common position was made between 1953 and 1955 by the American Ambassador, Eric Johnston, right arm of the Secretary of State, Foster Dulles, a trusted man of President Eisenhower.
The Johnston Plan provided for a share-out in use quotas for the Countries which had access to Lake Tiberiade. The dykes would be constructed on the Hasbani, on the Dan, on the Banias to irrigate the Israeli Galilee, and on the Maqarin to serve the water needs of Jordan. The aim of the Johnston mediation was to render the use of the waters, equal, economic and efficient. The Plan was accepted, in general, by the technical delegation of the parties concerned, but was not ratified either by the Israeli Government or by the Council of the Arab League.
At the bottom of the rejection were, essentially, political reasons: in fact, the majority of the Countries of the League did not recognize the existence of Israel.
The Johnston Plan failed. The Arab Countries understood that the road map of adjustment of the water resources had to have a typically political nature, but they were worried over the fact that the United States had promised Israel an absolute frontier guarantee if they had accepted the Plan and made, therefore, certain concession to Jordan in terms of water supply.
So, water against territory and political recognition.
In the 60’s, it was the engineers who got the upper hand of politics. Jordan completed the King Abdallah Canal, while Israel concluded the ambitious project of a national aqueduct, the National Water Carrier, finished in 1964); both Countries received conspicuous financial help from Washington.
In 1967, the situation became particularly complex: Syria, supported by Nasser, adopted a Plan of Water Diversion, the aim of which was to divert the waters of Hasbani and Banias up to the principal course of the Yarmouk, consequently, reducing the flow by 35%. The first installations in the area of the deviation were blown up by the Israel Secret Services in April, 1967, just two months before the outbreak of the Six Day War.

Will it be a political or technical solution
to avert the wars for water?

The Middle East, the population of which is growing at a vertiginous rate, will very soon experience a total shortage of water if the methods used in agriculture and the present deficiencies in the management of resources are not altered (12) .
At the moment, the Governments of the Countries concerned do not seem able to put into effect a significant action in this sense: this is due to resistance of the society in seeing the water priced, and for the unpopularity that such a measure would have at a political level, drawing away the support of the population from the governments (13) . In these conditions, the only solution for these States is to find new sources of water.
Today, scientific research is able to profit by technology to relieve the water shortages, both with conventional and non-conventional methods (14) . Among these are the construction of desalination plants, cloud seeding procedures or the transfer of water through canalization systems or aqueducts (15) .
The problem of water resources could also be faced with an economic approach, which looks at water as ‘goods’ which must have a market and, therefore, a price tied to the quantity available. This would involve not only a saving of water in agriculture, but also a diversion of its uses towards domestic uses and industrial productive activities.
A correct management of the water needs a joint intervention, as much at the offer level (desalination, importation of water, recycling of used water), as at the demand level (saving of the resources, differentiation in the uses). The Middle East Governments must place at the top of their political agends the question of the re-allocation of the water resources from agriculture (which consumes, in some cases, 90% of the water available, contributing in an ever decreasing way to the national GDP) to the industrial sectors and to domestic use. This would allow an economically fruitful investment of the water resources with potential advantages for the development and social growth.
A rational management of the water resources (in accordance with the demand) consists in three fundamental aspects (16) :
- manage the competition among the demands that come from the different social groups, in order to put into effect a policy of allocation perceived as fair;
- facilitate the entrance and application of new technologies (something that favours the efficiency of the use of the water);
- promote the political and socio-economic changes that allow the achievement of a major allocative efficiency.

(1)To identify and better understand the problem, we furnish the following data: water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. 97% of this water is unusable because it is salt water; of the remaining 3% only 0.4% is effectively available, since the rest is found in the glaciers, in the atmosphere or in subterranean depths that are impossible to reach, and of the usable quota , less than 1% in found in the Middle East. Ref: World Bank, World Development Report. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
(2) Ref: H. I. Shuval, La Guerra de l’Eau. Une Approche pour résoudre les Conflits Liés à l’Approvisionnement en Eau. Les Cahiers de l’Orient, in:
(3) Ref. Ed. by A. Ferragina “The Water in the Mediterranean Countries , Problems in the Management of a Scarce Resource”. Bologna, IL Mulino, 1998.
(4) Ref: J.A. Allen. Water, Peace and the Middle East – Negotiating Resources in the Jordan Basin. London, Tauris Publishers, 1996
(5) Technically, also Saudi Arabia would make up part of the Basin, but is has no natural accesses to the courses of the two rivers.
(6) Ref: The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Turkish National Policy for Utilizing the Waters of the Euphrates-Tigris Basin, in:
(7) The Countries in question are Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ruanda, Burundi and the Congo-Kinshasa (former Zaire).
(8) The Egyptian population in 2010 will be 70 million and already Cairo is one of the most populated capitals in the world. Ref: FAO, Water Resources of the Near East region. A Review, Roma, FAO, Rome, Aquastat, 1997.
(9) The only agreement relative to the Nile presently in force is the bilateral Treaty of 1959, between Egypt and the Sudan.
(10) Which represented the Sudan, Kenya and Tanganyika
(11) P.P. Howell and J. A. Allen: The Nile, Sharing a Scarce Resource, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
(12) Work already cited, FAO, Aquastat
(13) Ref: T.F. Homer-Dixon, Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from cases. International Securities, Vol. 19, N° 1, 1994.
(14) Among these last, there are also systems of water entrapment, more functional methods of savings in agriculture etc. Ref: Soffer, page 236.
(15) As it occurs today, for the oil.
(16) Ref: L. Ohlsson. Environment, Scarcity and Conflict – A Study of Malthusian Concerns. Goteborg, Goteborg University, 1999, page 189.