- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

AMMAN, Jordan. — The next major Middle East war could well be fought not over land, oil or religion — the traditional causes of conflict to date — but over water, a precious commodity becoming rarer by the day.

Addressing top leaders in industry, business, banking and the media in his speech at the opening session of the World Economic Forum held on the shores of the Dead Sea last week, King Abdullah II of Jordan raised the alarm over the scarcity of water in the region and warned of the dire consequences of water shortages for not only the developing nations but on the developed world as a whole.

Indeed, much of the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute centers on water rights, as both communities battle for control of extremely limited resources.

And Israel has long envied Lebanon’s Litani and Zahrani rivers that flow through the south of the country. During the last three decades Israel has launched repeated military operations in southern Lebanon in which Israeli troops found themselves in control of the rivers, albeit temporarily due to international pressures to withdraw.

In previous years, Egypt had threatened to go to war with Sudan to prevent Khartoum from trying to alter the natural course of the Nile River — the lifeline of Egypt, without which the tiny strip of arable land on either bank of the river and its loamy delta would become engulfed by the desert sands. Similarly, tension between Syria and Turkey neared the danger point a few years ago over distribution of the water of the Euphrates River, which flows through Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

“One critical challenge is water,” said the Jordanian monarch. “From the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains to the Empty Quarter of the Arab Peninsula, most of our region’s countries cannot meet the current water demands,” the king said.

“As a region, if we do not plan how we will meet this most basic need, if we do not commit the necessary investments to resolve this problem, we will not be fighting for peace, we will be fighting for our lives. We need to rise to this challenge.”

A witness to the king’s testimony over water shortages was only a stone’s throw from the convention center and easily visible to anyone who took a few minutes to venture onto the terrace facing the Dead Sea.

The sinking Dead Sea waters have authorities both in Jordan and Israel seriously worried. The current rate of decline is about 1 meter a year. During the 20th century, the level of the Dead Sea dropped from about 390 meters below sea level in 1930 to 414 meters below sea level in 1999, with the average rate of fall accelerating in recent years. Today it stands at 418 meters below sea level.

For years, Israel has drawn up plans to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to raise the Dead Sea’s water level, a project not without controversy.

With 325 million people spread across the Arab world and growing fast, this region of 23 countries — 22 Arab states and Israel — will only increase its need for water in years to come. “It is larger than Europe, larger than Canada, larger than China and larger that the United States,” Abdullah said of the Arab world.

Yet unlike Europe, with its abundance of rivers and rainfall, the Middle East has few water resources and little rain. Some countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have turned to the sea for fresh water. But desalination plants are expensive.

Further complicating water-sharing is the lack of peace in the region. Yet despite the explosive situation, with fighting in Gaza, Iraq and Lebanon, the king believes it is important to “begin asking a new question: ‘What about the day after peace?’ ”

“The time has come to stop thinking about peace as an end; an end to conflict, but as a beginning, a beginning of sweeping new opportunities and benefits for the people of this region,” said Abdullah. “A region with ample, clean water in every home and a healthy environment that protects its people and its natural heritage.”

But despite the king’s optimism, until his vision of a conflict-free Middle East is achieved, a lot of water will flow under the bridge. A lot of wasted water.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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