Water Insecurity in the Middle East

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SEATTLE, Washington — Water insecurity in the Middle East has been one of the triggers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967. Millions of people are at risk due to the significant natural, socio-economic and political developments directly affecting the supply and demand of water in the region.

Unequal Distribution

The Middle East North Africa (MENA) region is the most water-scarce region in the world. Its water demand surpasses the natural amount of water available by nearly 20 percent. Most water resources in the region are shared between two or more states. Water instability is a shared national security concern due to its capability of generating instability and conflict.

However, water resources are disproportionately allocated due to the Oslo II Accords that were signed in 1995. The Accords gave Israel control over 80 percent of water reserves in the West Bank. Israel claims 75 percent of the total Mountain Aquifer (the main source of water for the West Bank), leaving 25 percent to Palestinians. This unequal distribution of water resources has radicalized many Palestinians.

A 2012 U.N. report concluded that by 2020, Gaza will be unlivable for its two million inhabitants mainly due to water, sanitation issues and the lack of electricity. This raised Israeli concerns and prompted a change in attitudes towards their policies regarding the sharing of resources. In 2016, the Israeli desalination plant Ashkelon, which supplies 15 percent of Israel’s potable water, closed down for several days due to sewage flows out of Gaza. The water crisis in Gaza in 2014 and 2016 further contributed to Israel’s changing policies regarding water issues and security.

Health Issues

One of the central underlying determinants of health is clean water and sanitation. This has detrimentally affected Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza due to the ongoing conflict with Israel. In Gaza, the risk to public health is extremely high, strongly due to poor hygiene and water contamination. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 90 to 95 percent of the water supplied to households in the Gaza Strip is unfit for consumption.

It also estimated that “90,000 cubic meters of raw sewage flows out of Gaza daily directly into the Mediterranean Sea” and the central aquifer (a major source of water). The sewage increases the exposure to waterborne disease and infectious diseases. Hepatitis A, typhoid fever and acute diarrhea are commonly transmitted through contaminated water and are endemic to Palestine today.

Aid Assistance

Multiple bilateral and multilateral donor agencies are assisting the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) in meeting its water and sanitation targets for Palestine by 2032 as outlined in the National Water and Wastewater Strategy. The European Union and UNICEF funded the largest seawater desalination plant in Gaza as well as the largest solar field in Gaza. It has the potential to provide potable water to 250,000 people.

An additional USAID program focuses on reducing water losses, improving the reliability of water service and increasing the amount of potable water available daily. Despite these efforts, major projects are hindered by limited international funding as well as the current funding gap. Moreover, the recent $200 million cuts made by the U.S. in bilateral foreign aid could aggravate the situation.

Climate Change

Water security in the Middle East will be greatly impacted by climate change as the MENA region is considered a ‘climate hotspot’ due to its natural water scarcity. Throughout the century, the precipitation level is estimated to decrease by 25 percent regionally and up to 40 percent locally across Jordan, Palestine and Israel. This will further reduce the amount of water available.

The continuous over-extraction of water in the aquifer basins combined with the rise of the Mediterranean water level allows seawater to infiltrate Gaza’s groundwater and decrease the amount of fresh water. Additionally, 9 percent of the Palestinian workforce is in agriculture, which accounts for 20 percent of its overall exports. This will suffer from the decrease in water availability due to climate change.

Changes in water insecurity in the Middle East will greatly affect the social and political stability in the region, making it a national security issue for neighboring countries as well. As current natural sources of water will not be sufficient to fulfill the increasing demand, regional cooperation and negotiations between Jordan, Israel and Palestine are necessary to improve the situation.

Andrea Duleux
Photo: Flickr

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