Serious water problems loom for Middle East

In Alexandria, Egypt, sewage is fouling the water supply. In the Gaza Strip, contamination of the water has reached a critical level, fueling political violence.

In Iraq, pollution from development along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has forced some villages to import drinking water.

And by the year 2000, serious water shortages and contamination in many Middle Eastern nations could bring upheaval throughout the region, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warns.

Some nations are looking ahead and acting.

Turkey, for example, is proposing to share its abundance of water by constructing a multinational ``peace pipeline,'' though the projected cost of $20 billion may prove prohibitive. The United States is already engaged in dozens of projects, but it needs to coordinate these efforts better, the study says. Although diplomatic initiatives should be continued at all costs, technological advances are likely to bring quicker results.

The study proposes that the US government:

Set up a coordinating body for all its Mideast water programs.

Such a body would serve as a clearinghouse for information and could ultimately reduce costs by making US efforts more efficient.

Create a US-Mideast water program to spur development of advanced water technologies.

The program would bring to the US American and Mideast specialists for joint study on pollution control, water reuse, farming, and solar energy.

The second proposal has two hitches: politics and money. Getting Arabs and Israelis to work together is always a problem.

Joyce Starr, co-author of the study, hopes that by basing the program in the United States, specialists from belligerent nations can work together out of the political limelight. And if they are really not willing, they can at least share information by computer, she says. In November 1986, the CSIS managed to get Arab and Israeli government officials together for a conference on water - a meeting so sensitive that it was not publicized until two weeks after it took place and the names of the Arab officials were not disclosed. Syria would not attend because Israel was there.

Arab-Israeli cooperation on the water issue does not pretend to substitute for the peace process, Ms. Starr says, stressing that if the Mideast nations wait for a political solution to the region's problems, the water situation could reach the crisis stage.

``Arabs and Israelis are ready and eager to participate in a US initiative to bring people together,'' she says. The US is currently the only country in the world capable of exerting leadership on this issue, the report says.

The money issue hinges on the US Congress. CSIS proposes that the US foot the estimated $10 million bill for the first three years of the program. This is a trifling amount, Starr says, when one considers the cost of emergency relief for the millions of people who will starve if the water situation reaches crisis proportions.

But Congress is in the business of cutting costs these days, not adding them. And in discussions with congressmen on the issue, Starr has been discouraged.

``We found almost no members of Congress aware of or interested in the problem,'' she says.

``Ironically, those from states with their own water problems (i.e., the Southwest) seemed least interested in helping with the Middle East situation. They say they can't worry about other people's water problems when their own are so pressing.''

Starr and her colleagues are planning a campaign to increase awareness in Congress.

Where risks are highest

Although fresh-water supply is a major issue for most of the Middle East, the outlook for Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, and Iraq is particularly serious.

Almost all major water sources in the Mideast are used by more than one nation, which heightens the potential for conflict. Collaboration is rare.

Some highlights of the Mideast water problem:

Egypt: With its burgeoning population and almost sole reliance on the Nile for water, could be facing a crisis by the year 2000.

Israel: Already using 95 percent of its renewable resources. By 2000, need may exceed supply by 30 percent.

Jordan: By 2000, need may exceed supply by 20 percent. The upper Jordan River is already fully developed. May face conflict with Syria over its development plans.

West Bank: Main water potential is fully exploited, with Israel getting 95 percent of it, according to the West Bank Data Project.

Gaza Strip: Serious contamination of water supplies. Aquifers overpumped. New sewage systems would cost $16 million, which Israel is unlikely to provide. Syria: Shortages mounting, even in major cities. Syrian development of upper Yarmuk River could end up reducing Jordanian water supplies, if terms of recent agreement with Jordan are not observed. The two nations have agreed to construct a dam that would benefit both.

Iraq: Gulf war has slowed development.

Pollution from upstream development on Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is biggest problem.

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