Optimal Water Management in the Middle East and Other Regions

Author:Franklin M. Fisher/Hossein Askari
Position:Professor of International Business at the George Washington University/Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Overview of Middle East water. The optimization model. A global opportunity for the World Bank. References.


Serious conflicts over water pervade the Middle East. How might these be resolved or eased, and how could water management models and international financial institutions help?

Water disputes over river basins-the Colorado, the Ganges-Brahmaputra, the Syr Darya-Ana Darya (in Kazakhstan), and the Nile, to name but a few-are a global phenomenon. The Middle East is one of the regions where water scarcity is most apparent. Water scarcity is an important consideration in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA); it has been one of the elements in the continuing dispute between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq; it has been an obstacle in Syrian-Turkish relations and Syrian-Iraqi relations; and, if it is not addressed, it could become a wider problem affecting the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the PNA, Syria, and Turkey. The foundation for resolving water issues must be the consideration of water as an economic resource. These issues need to be addressed using an appropriate water management (optimization) model, and a credible international organization is needed to assist in the economic management of water in regions around the world.

Disputes over water-among different users (including households, farmers, fishermen, and transportation providers), countries, and regions-are most commonly considered to be zero-sum games: one party's gain (in water) is another's loss. Such a view of water allocation can lead only to conflict. But by considering water as an economic good, countries and regions can manage water optimally and differences can be resolved before they lead to conflict. As is true of any economic good, water is scarce; but, unfortunately, competitive markets cannot be relied upon to allocate water efficiently. Water markets are usually not competitive, because there are few sources of water and few sellers, and the social and private costs of obtaining and distributing water and the social and private benefits from using it do not coincide.

Overview of Middle East water

North Africa and the Middle East constitute the driest region in the world. Annually, it has 355 billion cubic meters of renewable water resources, compared with 5,379 billion cubic meters in North America, 4,184 billion cubic meters in sub-Saharan Africa, and 9,985 billon cubic meters in Asia. Currently, this region of 284 million people (5 percent of the world's population) has access to 1 percent of the world's fresh water.

There are four major disputes over water in the Middle East: control of the Karun River, or Shatt-al-Arab (Iran and Iraq); the Euphrates River (Turkey, Syria, and Iraq); the Jordan River (Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and the PNA); and the coastal and mountain aquifers (Israel and the PNA). (See map below.) These conflicts cause instability in the region, so resolving them would be a good first step in building confidence and in initiating a peace process throughout the region.


The Karun, or Shatt-al-Arab, conflict has not been caused by a dispute about providing the people of Iran and Iraq with a source of water for either domestic or agricultural consumption. While these waters certainly do allow for agricultural development, their most important function is to serve as a transit corridor through which goods from the interior can be shipped to the Persian Gulf for export. The conflict has been, up to now, largely a dispute over the river as a border and over who controls access to it, because the river is Iraq's only outlet to the Persian Gulf.

The issue of controlling the water of the Euphrates is the second significant source of conflict in the region. Syria and Iraq depend to a large degree on Euphrates water to sustain their agriculture and to meet other requirements for water. Meanwhile, at the headwaters, Turkey is developing the vast Southeastern Anatolia Project...

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