Jordan River Valley
America's - and the West's - vital interest in the Middle East is often cited as access to oil - a fair statement. American dependence on foreign oil has grown since the first wake-up call, that being the oil embargo of 1973-1974 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Today, the United States imports an estimated 65 percent of its oil. Although only 15 percent of that oil comes from the Middle East, oil is a fungible commodity - what matters is how much oil is available on the market at any given time. The Middle East is the world's major repository for oil.
That said, the Middle East itself is more concerned with another tap - the water tap. One only has to look at a map to realize that the world's oil supply is under some of the most inhospitable and arid terrain on the planet. To the residents of this area, water is the vital fluid. Oil generates income, but water is necessary to sustain life.
Access to water resources in the Middle East is a political and foreign policy issue for countries in the region, just as access to oil is a political and foreign policy issue in the west. A look at four specific water systems or areas might be useful.
The Euphrates River
The Euphrates River, or the Furat in Arabic and Turkish, flows from its origins in Turkey through Syria and into Iraq. At the city of Al-Qurnah, it joins the Tigris River to form the Shatt Al-'Arab, which flows to the Persian Gulf and forms Iraq's southern border with Iran. The entire length of the Euphrates waterway is just under 3000 kilometers, and impact the politics of the three nations who share the river. Most of the water, about 88 percent, originates in Turkey, and the remainder from two rivers that enter the Euphrates in Syria. There is virtually no water added to the river in Iraq.
Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project
Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project, known by the Turkish acronym GAP, is causing concern in Syria and Iraq about the future of their access to the waters of the Euphrates. GAP, a concept as early as the 1930's, was begun in 1997. The project includes more than 20 dams and 17 electric power plants, which will eventually supply over half of Turkey's electricity requirements. However, filling the reservoirs behind these dams will reduce the flow of water downstream to Syria and Iraq. For example, the Ataturk Dam, which is the fourth largest dam in the world, will create a reservoir of over 11 trillion gallons. The Turks began filling the reservoir is 1990, stopping the flow of the Euphrates for a month. Although the Turks released water from other dams to compensate for the reduced flow, both Syrian and Iraq have complained.
Turkey blamed Syria for not properly managing the flow to Iraq, but GAP was the major concern to the two Arab countries. Engineers from Syria and Iraq claim that the Ataturk Dam will reduce flow from the Euphrates by 40 percent to Syria and by 90 percent to Iraq. These levels are somewhat lower than the flows guaranteed by the Turks to Syria in a 1987 agreement (about 400 cubic meters per second versus the 500 cubic meters as specified in the agreement). Syria-
Syria considers the Euphrates River to be its principal source of water. Many observers consider the disputes over the level of flow of the Euphrates to be the primary cause of conflict between Damascus and Ankara. In the early to mid-1990's, the water flows from Turkey to Syria were decreased enough to stop operation of seven of the ten turbines at the hydroelectric plant at Tabaqah, causing severe power outages throughout the country, including the capital city of Damascus. At its worst in the summer of 1993, portions of Syria outside Damascus had power for only three to four hours per day.
Ankara charges that Syria had supported the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, or at least provided the terrorist organization with a safe haven for cross border operations. The Turks believed that the Syrians used support of the PKK as leverage in its water negotiations. Syria, of course, denies the charge, but there appeared to be a pattern of cross-border PKK activity coincident with decreases in the flow of water from Turkey to Syria.
In 1974, Syria began its own series of water projects on the Euphrates with the inauguration of the Al-Thawrah (Revolution) Dam at Tabaqah. When the Syrians began to fill the reservoir that has become Lake Asad, the flow of the river to Iraq was reduced by to as little as 25 percent of the normal rate. Iraq moved troops to the border with Syria and threatened to bomb the dam. Syria responded with the deployment of large numbers of aircraft to counter any Iraqi air action.
Diplomatic activity by the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia defused the situation peaceably. Since then, Iraq has seen the levels of water reaching its borders decrease. Not only has the quantity decreased, but also so has the quality of the water. Turkish and Syrian water projects take water from the top and middle flows of the river, where the water has less salinity and turbidity. The water reaching Iraq is less suitable for agriculture. Yields have decreased as salinity has increased.
In October of 1998, the Syrians and the Iraqis decided to coordinate their actions on the Euphrates (and of less importance to the Syrians, the Tigris) water issue with the Turks, putting aside other political differences. At the meeting, the two countries decided to boycott companies involved in the GAP. They coincidentally condemned the military agreement between the Turkish and Israeli armed forces. Turkey will continue its GAP development; it is too large of an investment.
Technically, the Turks are still ensuring that the flow of the Euphrates meets the minimum levels per its agreements with Syria and Iraq, but these levels are insufficient to meet rising Syrian and Iraqi future needs. Although the PKK has been severely crippled with the arrest of its leader Abdullah Ocalan, Syria will still finds ways to pressure the Turks. Iraq will continue to suffer with little recourse.
The Golan Heights
The Golan Heights (Ramat Hagolanim in Hebrew; Al-Murtafa’at Al-Jawlan in Arabic) are the key to the Syria-Israel track of the Middle East Peace Process. Syria's primary, and non-negotiable, demand has always been the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since June 10, 1967. On December 14, 1981, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights, complicating matters, since Israeli law does not allow annexed territory to be returned to its previous owners.
The Israeli rhetoric
"We have always insisted on the self-evident claim that the Land of Israel must include the sources of the Jordan all the way to Mt. Hermon . . . "
-- David Ben-Gurion, 1920
The Golan Heights hold tremendous emotional appeal for the Israelis. Prior to 1967, Syrian artillery units bombarded settlements in northern Israel from positions in the Golan. The heights enjoy a commanding view over the Sea of Galilee and the entire northern plains of the Jewish state. Many Israelis claim that the heights should remain in Israeli hands to prevent a reoccurrence of the shelling. However, technology developed since 1967, especially the advent of ballistic missiles, render the heights much less important militarily. If it wished, Syria can place high explosives, or chemical munitions, almost anywhere in Israel from locations north of Damascus.
In 1996, following the election of the Netanyahu government and the collapse of the Syria-Israel talks, the Israeli public relations machine revived the “cold start” theory, that Syrian forces could launch an attack to seize the Golan without warning. Given the dismal state of Syria’s armed forces and the state-of-the-art Israeli intelligence and surveillance stations on the Golan ridge and the 9,000 feet high peak of Mt Hermon (Jabal Al-Shaykh) – both of which can observe as far north as Damascus – a “cold start” is unrealistic.
The Golan Heights is home to many rivers and streams that are the major source of water for the Sea of Galilee, as well being a major source of water for the Yarmuk River on the Syria-Jordan border, and the Ruqad River in Syria. These constitute the headwaters of the Jordan River. The Sea of Galilee basin supplies as much as 40 percent of Israel's water requirements. There are two underground water sources – the Sea of Galilee is the country’s only surface catchment area – but all three together barely meet Israel’s needs. The situation will worsen as the population increases, and as neighboring Jordan expands its exploitation of the Jordan River that forms the border between the two countries. Israel has fully exploited the Jordan on its side of the river.
If Israel were to return the Golan Heights to Syria, virtually all of the headwaters of the Jordan would fall under Syrian control – they are in Syria proper or in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. In the early 1960’s, Syrian engineers attempted to divert the some of the waters that feed the Sea of Galilee into the Yarmuk basin. Israel regarded this as a threat to its security, claiming that Syria had plenty of water and that these actions were aimed at causing water shortages in Israel.
Israeli hardliners believe that only Israeli sovereignty, or at the very minimum, Israeli control of the Golan Heights will guarantee Israel’s water supply.
Even before the establishment of the state of Israel, the leaders of the Zionist movement realized that water was the key to economic survival. In negotiations with the British during and after World War One, the Zionists asked that boundaries for the promised Jewish homeland to go as far north as the Litani River (in what is now Lebanon) and east to include all the source rivers of the Jordan River, the major ones being the Hasbani (in what is now Lebanon) and Baniyas (in what is now Syria). They even proposed that the new state include all the tributaries of the Yarmuk River on the present Syrian-Jordan border.
By 1979, Israeli engineers determined that all available water resources within the country's 1948 borders had been fully exploited. In fact, Jordanian irrigation specialists complained that they could not support any future development of the Ghawr Valley of the Jordan because Israeli projects had siphoned off almost all of the water. By the early 1980s, Israel was getting half of its water from Arab sources located in territories seized in the Six Day War of 1967. Calls by the international community for Israel to return to its pre-war borders as required by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 would cause economic turmoil in the country.
Further, in 1981, the Knesset formally annexed the occupied Syrian Golan Heights into Israel proper, securing the headwaters of the Jordan River for Israel. The large-scale immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel in the late 1980s increased Israel’s water requirements. By 1990, Israeli experts estimated an annual water deficit of up to 500 million cubic meters. By 2000, that deficit reached had quadrupled to over two billion cubic meters per year.
In addition to the exploitation of the Jordan River and securing of its headwaters on the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon has been a source of water. The Hasbani flows from Syria to Lebanon, and then into Israel where it joins with the Baniyas to form the Jordan. This part of the Jordan River provides 40 percent of Israel's water supply. For years there have been claims by Arab groups of Israeli attempts to divert the Litani River. The Litani begins in Lebanon and empties into the Mediterranean on the Lebanese coast, making the river’s course entirely in Lebanon. For this reason, the Lebanese identify their nationalism with the Litani and any Israeli efforts to divert its waters, true or not, enrage them. Israel did undertake feasibility studies about diverting the Litani’s waters into Israel. The study was made in 1954. After Israel invaded Lebanon in the summer of 1982 in the Peace for Galilee operation, it made no attempts to exploit the Litani. With the withdrawal from most of southern Lebanon in 2000, the threat of diversion has subsided if not disappeared.
The Hasbani is another story. The Hasbani flows from its origins in Syria through Lebanon and into Israel. Since the Israeli withdrawal, control of the Lebanese portion has reverted to Lebanese authorities. Recent Israeli military intelligence reports claim that Lebanon has begun a project that will pump waters of the Hasbani River. Pumping water from the Hasbani would lessen the flow of water across the border into Israel. Israel consumes over 120 million cubic meters per year from the Hasbani.
In early March 2001, Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Avigdor Lieberman threatened military action if Lebanon proceeded with a plan to pump water from the Hasbani River. This was accompanied by a request from the director of the primary Israeli water company, Ori Saghi, to the Ariel Sharon administration to prevent Lebanon from pumping waters from the Hasbani. Saghi, a former military intelligence officer, claimed that access to the headwaters of the Jordan River was a strategic Israeli interest and also intimated military action. This was followed by remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer that although the Israel Defense Forces had withdrawn from Lebanon, it retained the capability and conduct operations there if ordered. These statements by three senior Israeli officials underscore the importance Tel Aviv places on the waters of the Hasbani.
The Nile River
The Nahr An-Nil, Arabic for the Nile River, is the longest river system in the world, stretching for over 5,000 miles from its major source at Lake Victoria in east central Africa. The White Nile flows generally north through Uganda and into Sudan where it meets the Blue Nile at Khartoum. From Khartoum, the river continues northwards into Egypt and on to the Mediterranean Sea.
Since time immemorial, the Nile has been the lifeblood of Egypt. In the spring, the waters of the river flooded, bringing black soil from the south and depositing it on the banks and creating the fertile Nile delta. Without the waters of the Nile to irrigate the dry deserts, Egypt would cease to exist. Despite the construction of the Aswan Dam in the late 1950’s and early 1960s, the Nile remains the single most important facet of Egyptian geopolitics. Although there had been dams constructed near Aswan as early as the late 19th Century, the first effective effort to control the flow of the Nile was the Aswan High Dam. The project itself underscores the politics involved in the river. To finance the massive project, Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd Al-Nasir (Gamal Abdul Nasser) nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Construction on the dam began in 1960 with Russian (Soviet) technical and financial assistance. The lake created by the dam flooded numerous ancient archeological sites and modern villages, many of which were relocated at great expense. In conjunction with the building of the dam, Egypt and Sudan entered into the Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters, signed in Cairo on November 8, 1959. This agreement replaced a limited agreement signed in 1929 between the two countries. The new agreement established the minimum flow of the Nile, and provided monetary payments to the Sudan for damages to be caused by the construction of the High Dam.
First and foremost among Egypt’s vital national interests is the unimpeded flow of the Nile River. The phrase “Egyptian interests” has become synonymous with the flow of the river. Egypt has stated that it will protect the flow of the Nile even if that requires military action outside its borders. It has demonstrated that on numerous occasions. As early as the 1970s, Egyptian Air Force bombers and reconnaissance aircraft routinely patrolled Sudanese skies.
In 1983, Libyan leader Mu’amar Al-Qadhafi sponsored a coup attempt in the Sudan. Egypt responded with the deployment of fighter aircraft to Egyptian airfields capable of striking targets in Libya, and deploying additional fighters to Sudan. Cairo also requested assistance from the United States, which deployed U.S. Air Force surveillance planes to support Egyptian operations.
In 1984, when Libyan bombers struck targets in Omdurman, Sudan, Egypt once again moved aircraft to defend Sudan against Qadhafi’ attempts to destabilize the government. Although the Libyan bombings were in response to Sudanese support for Chadian guerrillas operating against Libyan expeditionary forces in Chad, Egypt assessed any threat to Sudan as a threat to the Nile.
Relations between Egypt and Sudan have not always been good. Changes in Sudan took place n the late 1980s, and anti-Egyptian governments came to power. In 1995, Cairo blamed Sudan for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, further souring relations between the two nations. Despite the strained relations, Egypt and Sudan still cooperate on Nile flows based on the 1959 agreement.
In 1998, faced with construction of new dams in Ethiopia, Cairo issued subtle statements that Egypt had no objections to continued development of the Nile’s headwaters as long as they did not “impact on Egyptian interests.” Ethiopia got the message, and in 2000, Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia signed an agreement that guarantees the uninterrupted flow of the Blue Nile.
Without the waters of the Nile River, Egypt would cease to exist – quickly. From an aircraft flying over Egypt, it is easy to see the stark contrast between the green narrow strip of land that borders the Nile and barren desert a mere few hundred meters away. Any threat to the flow of the Nile is a direct threat to Egypt’s national survival. The countries of the Nile’s headwaters are in no condition to take on the Egyptian military. The primary nation, Sudan, realizes that to disrupt the Nile River would trigger swift and decisive Egyptian military action.
In the west, it’s oil. In the Middle East, it’s water.
March 16, 2005