We all have heard the moralistic aphorism: “Man cannot live by bread alone.” However, in the Middle East the proper aphorism is: “Nations in the region cannot live on oil alone.”
Water is, in fact, a much more valued commodity there. Conflicts and wars have arisen and may yet arise between nations in the region over the control of water resources.
In late 1964, Syria and Israel were close to war when the Syrian government attempted to divert the rivers Hazbani and Banias, which flow into the Jordan River. Syria was determined to prevent Israel from using the waters of the Jordan River for its national carrier. The Syrians planned to direct the waters of the Hazbani away from Israel by building a canal that would carry the water of the Banias River into Jordan.
Nearly a quarter of a million farmers in the Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria have, in the last few years, been forced to abandon their farms and migrate to urban centers due to the scarcity of water. The Euphrates River, Syria’s primary source of water, is drying up.
The Euphrates source is in Turkey, and the Turks are limiting the outflow of the river’s waters to Syria and Iraq. The rapidly increasing Turkish population has led the Turkish government to create a number of dams which have siphoned off much of the Euphrates waters.
According to the findings of a special study by the United Nations, the Euphrates is expected to become completely dry outside Turkey’s boundaries. The scarce water Syria does receive is brackish and harmful to the fish population, and it has destroyed the livelihood of local fishermen.
The frequency of droughts in these past few years has had a particular effect on Syria, threatening to shut its other important water source — the Aasi (Orontes) River. The river is drying up, becoming saltier and contaminated. As a result, the fish are dying off and with it the entire fishing industry.
Syria has been a major farm commodities producer in the region. Sales of wheat, olive oil, cattle, and fruit and vegetables contribute 20 percent of its $45 billion GDP, and about half of its 20 million people earn their income from agriculture.
The country’s water sources are its rivers and 420,000 ground wells, half of which were dug illegally over recent decades. The drought and mismanagement of water resources have hit agriculture hard, especially in the Hasakah (Kurdish) region bordering Iraq. Hasakah’s wheat production is forecast to drop to 892,000 tons this year, compared to a planned 1.9 million tons.
Most of the farmers leaving the villages are Kurds, and they have accused the Syrian Baathist regime of deliberately ignoring their plight. For several years now, these Kurdish refugees have been living in tents near the big cities. About one half million Kurds have been made stateless in recent decades on top of the new refugees.
Considering these facts, it becomes apparent that the Assad regime is carrying out an anti-Kurdish policy. While the Syrian regime has ethnically cleansed the Kurds, it has also mismanaged the economy and agriculture in particular.
In the 1960s, the ruling Baath party decided to turn Syria into a grain-exporting state. The regime sought to present itself as being victorious in its agrarian revolution. As such, they forced farmers to shift from herding on semi-arid land to grain production. All along, the regime ignored the hundreds of thousands of wells being dug by the farmers in order to water the grain. Any economist who dared criticize the regime’s policy was thrown into jail.
As a result of Syria’s misguided agricultural policy, it is now importing grains to feed its people. Still, with 500,000 people added to its population each year, Syria must reconsider its priorities and overhaul the agricultural policy according to Rim Abed Rabu, head of the Syrian water safety division at the Environment Ministry.
Agriculture consumes as much as 90 percent of the available water, and 60 percent of the supply comes from ground wells whose levels have sunken sharply, thus raising the cost of agricultural production and alarming landowners. Since water has become an existential issue for Syria, and because Syria is unlikely to attack Turkey and take over its water resources, there is only one source of water the Syrian regime would like to lay its hands on: Israel’s Sea of Galilee.
In both of the U.S. sponsored Syrian-Israeli talks — 1995 in Washington, D.C., and 1999 at the Wye Plantation in Maryland — the Syrians demanded access to the Sea of Galilee. Syrian demands remain unchanged: complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, complete dismantling of Israeli settlements, and return to the 1967 borders, including access to the Sea of Galilee. The sea has been, in its entirety, within the Green Line boundaries of Israel. Considering Syria’s previous attempts to divert waters away from Israel, and in view of Syria’s poor record of water management, it is unlikely than Israel will be willing to give Syria access. That said, Israeli negotiators in the past, as a gesture of good will, offered the Syrians some fishing possibilities in the Sea of Galilee within the context of peace.
Given Syria’s desperate water needs the Assad regime might resort to an adventurous war with Israel in order to capture the Sea of Galilee. And the Turks, while robbing the Syrians and Iraqis of the Euphrates water, are simultaneously seeking to serve as honest brokers between Israel and Syria. It would be in Turkey’s interest to support Syrian claims to the Sea of Galilee, but in Israel’s interest to seek a different mediator.
The Obama administration is eager to push for the resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks. Before Obama and the U.S. get involved in a replay of hitherto unsuccessful talks, President Obama should learn the facts pertaining to water resources before putting pressure on Israel.
Water in the Middle East being scarcer than oil could serve as a pretext to a future war. A wise president would make every effort to prevent this from happening.