Water evaporates stability in the Middle East

Solutions to water scarcity could help solve the political turmoil of Middle Eastern nations.

Hadley Gustin

As students of the University of Minnesota, we find many of our classes to be spread out over the grounds of the east and west banks. In traveling between these locales, we cross the Mississippi River; our great campus divide is a relative abundance of flowing water. The Mississippi River is a beautiful site, and it also serves as a symbol of solace, reassuring the general populace that there is no need to question the availability of fresh water. Here in the United States, there is very little concern over the accessibility of resources, especially those that are nonrenewable. Oil is the perfect example: According to a 2007 government estimate, Americans use nearly 21 million barrels per day. Despite all the hype over the prospect of alternative energy, the United States still lacks full support from its citizens to dramatically alter its energy policies. Perhaps this is due to the unsettling realization that people will have to make changes on an individual level if America is to truly âÄúgo greenâÄù; including responsibilities to consistently turn off lights when leaving a room, take shorter showers and increase recycling. For many, the effort is not worth making despite an upsurge in media coverage, scholarly debate and government initiatives toward environmental policy reform. However, renewable energy options are on the agenda of many policymakers. When it comes to issues such as water scarcity, most American communities like the Twin Cities donâÄôt blink an eye. With a wealth of accessible freshwater bodies to meet the peoplesâÄô demands, the implications of water insufficiency seem to be a waste of time. But what if another dust bowl caused massive droughts and migrations across the United States? Would American constituents then sweat over solutions on how to scale back their seemingly unlimited consumption of water? Fortunately, today, this is not an issue for most Americans, but for those in the Middle East it is a different story. Regrettably, Middle Eastern nations are currently experiencing many problems with water paucity; as the global population continues to grow exponentially, these crises will only worsen. In April of 2006, an article in The Middle East magazine stated that âÄúin 1990, 20 countries were listed as water-scarce by CNIE, an organization which monitors water supplies.âÄù With eight of these nations being Middle Eastern, it is a wonder that immediate resolutions were not enacted to stem further escalation of this problem, the root of tensions in the region. The projections for 2025 are even worse with an additional âÄú10 to 15 water-scare nations globally.âÄù Of these newcomers, âÄúEgypt, Libya, Morocco, Oman and SyriaâÄù are from the Middle East. If this predicament does not improve, we will see less regional stability. However, at present, the most notable conflicts in the Middle East are between the Israelis and Palestinians and between the Sunnis, ShiâÄôites and Kurds in Iraq. While both disputes are distinct, they also share the critical dilemma of water shortage. The disparities between Israel and Palestine are largely a result of the fact that âÄúIsrael has restricted Palestinian water usage and exploited Palestinian water resources. Presently, more than 85 percent of the Palestinian water from the West Bank aquifers is taken by Israel.âÄù Thus, despite the ongoing ideological battle for Jerusalem and the Holy Land, there is something much greater at stake: the availability of fresh water. Without an increase in clean water for Palestine, the decrease in agricultural food production will persist. This will be detrimental for the more populous, up-and-coming generations and compounds the need for water with the need for food. Iraq has a similar situation with water dearth. Though, conversely, it has more to do with the deterioration of antique aqueducts than a majority peoplesâÄô domination of the countryâÄôs freshwater supply. Particularly, in the areas closest to Iran, people are migrating away from their homes and ancestral lands in search of useable water sources. Dale Lightfoot, a professor of geography at Oklahoma State University, noted that âÄúmigrations [will affect] the relative stability of the Kurdish-controlled region that largely escaped violence in southern Iraq following the United StatesâÄô 2003 invasion.âÄù Because IraqâÄôs Sunni and ShiâÄôa Arabs have access to the majority of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Kurds are at the greatest disadvantage. However, much of the ShiâÄôite population resides along the central and southern parts of the border with Iran. Therefore, migration from this area could potentially rise in the future which will no doubt further tensions with the Sunnis. In order for peace to prevail in these politically fragmented areas of the Middle East, practical solutions maximizing access to clean water need to be endorsed. They must address and regulate the greed of those groups in power like the Israelis and the Sunnis/ShiâÄôites of Iraq so water resources can be evenly divided between the various ethnic and religious populations. A critical first step will be for Western nations, especially the United States, as we are largely responsible for the present political disintegration in the Middle East, to support increased water rights for minority inhabitants. By directly confronting the situation of water paucity, the United States and its allies âÄî nations whose militaries are now fighting in and policing these areas âÄî will finally be on the path to initiating a lasting settlement between the diverse peoples of the Middle East. Hadley Gustin welcomes comments at [email protected]