Water politics in the Middle East

Water politics in the Middle East

As a vital natural resource, water plays a key role in both global and domestic politics, particularly in terms of the need for states to ensure access to sustainable and adequate provisions of water. It is often only when supply levels are adversely affected that water rises to the fore as a political issue, but matters relating to water impact critically on political processes in many parts of the world. Such issues are especially pressing in the Middle East, along with parts of northern Africa.

In this region water concerns are substantial, though perhaps less prominent in comparison to many of the other significant political and socio-economic issues which occupy Middle Eastern politics. Security aspects, for example, arguably dominate attention in the public arena to a greater extent than water resources as they command a higher geopolitical importance in terms of broader international relations. This article gives an overview of some of the main elements of water politics in the Middle East. It shows also how the issue relates to other contemporary political dynamics of the Middle East more widely.


Water politics plays a role in various areas of politics in the Middle East, and it is particularly important in one of the defining features of the region’s political landscape. Water issues reflect a central aspect of the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; namely, the original influx of an additional large population mass to a relatively fragile geographical area of land. As Tony Allan notes, the initial arrival of Jewish migrants into the Middle East occurred ‘in the most water stressed of the Middle East and North African river basins’, putting extra pressure on basic natural resources there, most obviously water and land. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 225] Concerns over water have significantly helped to shape the Middle East’s political development.

International relations and water

Issues relating to water supplies, then, affect international and inter-regional affairs, with disputes over countries’ rights and access to water resources most often the cause of tensions in this arena. The contended nature of some water provisions has tended to mean that certain waters become more prone to political conflicts (those which are primarily prone to this in the Middle East and northern Africa are the Nile, Jordan and Tigris-Euphrates rivers). In order to secure reliable levels of water access for their populations, states must either have a large water supply in terms of economic availability, or their rights to such supplies must be established. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 215]

Studies of water in the Middle East have also suggested that, in a sensitive hydrological location, a country’s existing surface- and ground-water access should be protected as a first priority if it is to begin to address any water difficulties or shortages. Such measures as these can be seen as being the primary responsibilities of national governments or ruling authorities; and water is therefore closely tied up with statehood and geographical territory in international relations, and with the recognition and rights of nation states as the central actors in this field. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 215]

The political process and interactions underlying the international relations of water have been characterised as having three stages. These are that a state must go through a process of; firstly claiming its right to water resources, secondly receiving recognition of this right, and finally seeking to attain its entitlement to water in accordance with the recognition of its claim.

In this regard, water politics in the Middle East has been impacted by changes in the international political order and their implications for the area. The involvement of the USSR in Middle Eastern political affairs was seen to have had a constraining effect upon this process, in terms of claims and recognition in the Cold War era. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 216]

The post-Cold War period, therefore, has since been perceived to offer the opportunity for transforming water politics in the Middle East, in light of the shift which it has brought about in global political dynamics in the region. This potential, however, had failed to be fulfilled by the end of the decade, with states in the Middle East ‘still mainly involved in… asserting water rights over shared waters’. The consequence of this has been that ‘non-agreed water sharing is an unavoidable reality in present Middle Eastern international relations’, with attendant political problems invariably surfacing. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 217]

Middle Eastern river systems

The claims over rights to water in the Middle East are centred around the area’s three major river systems. As mentioned above, these are the River Nile, the River Jordan, and the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. International water agreements in the Middle East have been rare, but the situation regarding regional water relations in the three main basins will be explored below.

The River Nile

As with the other major Middle Eastern river systems, political agreements over access to the water of the Nile have been few and far between. The first such accord was the 1929 Nile Agreement. However, this was an agreement that largely represented the nature of world geopolitical realities at that time, rather than being a mutual expression of accord between the participating parties of the region.

This, it is argued, is because it was essentially a product of British national interest. The priority of the United Kingdom, as part of its strategy as the dominant contemporary political and economic power in the Middle East, was maintaining secure supplies of water to Egypt, and this was what the agreement primarily provided for. [R. O. Collins, The Waters of the Nile: Hydropolitics and the Jonglei Canal, 1900-1988 (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990)]

The next agreement on water use in the Nile did not come for exactly three more decades. The new 1959 Nile Agreement was signed by Egypt and Sudan, and was at this point free from political influence by the UK. However, the limitation of this agreement was that it was not more than a bilateral treaty between the two participant countries and, as such, it provided solely for an agreement on the sharing of water between the two nations. The 1959 Nile Agreement has not been granted recognition by the other states through which the Nile also runs. [R. O. Collins, ‘History, Hydropolitics and the Nile: Nile Control – Myth or Reality?’, in P. P. Howell and J. A. Allan (eds.), The Nile: Sharing a Scarce Resource (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995), pp. 109/35]

The Tigris-Euphrates river basin

The countries which rely upon the Tigris-Euphrates water system remain at the first stage of claiming their rights to water. However, the key player in terms of water politics in this area is Turkey, who Allan reports as having ‘gone a substantial way to [wards] … what it regards as its water rights by its construction programmes on the Euphrates without having them recognised by downstream Syria and Iraq’. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 219]

This refers to the dams built by Turkey from the 1970s, partially funded by World Bank loans. [T. Allan, The Middle East Water Question: Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (I.B. Tauris, London, 2001), p. 255]

The River Jordan

Paradoxically, despite being the site of probably the most fundamental political divisions in the Middle East, the Jordan basin has arguably seen the most progress when it comes to the regional politics of water. The agreement between Jordan and Israel over water is the only one in the Middle East region in which the political process described above has reached its conclusion, with a mutual attainment and recognition of water rights on both sides. Even this relative success story is not without its considerable problems, however.

The water agreement forms a part of the broader political treaty which was signed between Israel] and Jordan in 1994, and the articles relating to water in this agreement do not correspond with Jordan’s rights to water as they were originally claimed. The nature and significance of the wider 1994 treaty meant that the water aspect was forced to cede importance and priority in negotiations, giving way to areas such as borders and security in terms of armed force, which were perceived by decision-makers as being the most integral issues to the settlement. [J. A. Allan, ‘The Jordan-Israel Peace Agreement – September 1994’, in Allan and J. H. O. Court, Water, Peace and the Middle East: Negotiating Resources in the Jordan Basin (I. B. Tauris Academic Studies, London, 1996), pp. 207/21]

These problems can be seen to have emerged in 1999, when the treaty’s limitations were revealed by events concerning water shortages in the Jordan basin. A reduced supply of water to Israel due to drought meant that, in turn, Israel which is responsible for providing water to Jordan, decreased its water provisions to the country, provoking a diplomatic disagreement between the two and bringing the water component of the treaty back into question. [A. Cohen, ‘A dry Israel must cut water flow to Jordan’, in Ha’aretz newspaper (Ha’aretz, Jerusalem, 15th March 1999)]


see also: P.J. Vesilind: "Middle East water-Critical resource" National Geographic Magazine May 1993

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