ALREADY troubled by economic woes and sectarian conflict, the Middle East is facing an imminent new danger that could plunge the region into famine and war. Water resources, historically in short supply, are on the verge of being overwhelmed by runaway population growth, placing a huge strain on fragile political and ecological systems.
Experts and government officials in half a dozen Middle East countries say that, together with the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons, over-taxed rivers and falling water tables are creating the most worrisome long-term trend in the region.
``Sometime around the beginning of the century, the problem of water scarcity will break out into an acute crisis,'' says Meir Ben Meir, a former water commissioner of Israel.
``The Middle East is living on a time bomb,'' adds Elias Salameh, director of the University of Jordan's Water Research and Study Center. ``It could explode at any time.''
The effects of a prolongued water shortage, experts say, could include a deterioration in water quality, a dramatic reduction in living standards, the loss of food security, huge food import bills leading to crushing foreign debts, and political instability.
``This issue could decide the fate of the region,'' says Usama al-Baz, a senior advisor to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. ``If the water problem is not solved you will have famine. And this will destabilize big countries and instability will move to neighboring countries.''
Experts attribute the gathering crisis primarily to the pressures of population growth, which have stretched available resources to the breaking point in the region's three main river basins - the Nile, the Jordan, and the Tigris-Euphrates. Unless population growth rates, now averaging 3 percent in the Middle East, are curbed, excess population will wipe out all projected gains in water development and conservation within 30 years. If conservation efforts falter, the crisis could come much sooner.
Worsening water shortages are also a function of climatic changes which have intensified drought cycles, and of inefficient water management. In Saudi Arabia, for example, irrigation for growing wheat, which the country could import far more inexpensively, could deplete underground aquifers - the source of 90 percent of the kingdom's water - within 20 years.
Regional politics also contributes to the growing water problem, as the nations that share the region's main river systems have been unable to rise above historic rivalries to cooperate in the development and allocation of precious water supplies.
Experts warn that in the foreseeable future there will be no panacea in dealing with the impending water shortage. Desalinating sea water for mass irrigation will remain prohibitively expensive until the technology is advanced and energy costs are lowered by breakthroughs in solar energy or nuclear fusion. Impressive recent advances in biotechnology, which have produced more water-efficient crops, are not keeping pace with growing food demands.
As a result, unless population growth rates are curbed, irrigated agriculture restricted, and conservation efforts dramatically expanded, the supply and demand lines on the Middle East water graph could soon cross, with potentially disastrous consequences.
The growing likelihood that water disputes could fuel regional tensions stems from three factors:
Fifteen nations now compete for the dwindling resources of the Euphrates, Jordan, and Nile each controlled by a non-Arab state (Turkey, Israel, and Ethiopia).
Because of existing political tensions, none of the three basins is governed by a comprehensive water-sharing agreement.
International law, which is contradictory, has not provided a clear basis for such agreements.
Throughout the region, water is replacing oil as the most prized and contested commodity.
Since the days of the pharoahs, life along the Nile has conformed to the inexorable cycles that ensured an eventual flood after every drought. But for reasons that remain unclear, the amount of water in the Nile has decreased over the past century, according to a study by Princeton University expert John Waterbury. If the trend continues as the country's population soars, Egypt will fall further behind in food production.
``Whatever the explanation, we'd do better to plan on decreasing discharges,'' says Dr. Waterbury of the Nile's yield. ``It would be foolish for planners to assume they are going to increase.''
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Turkey's plans to tap into the Euphrates for its massive southeastern Anatolia development project have sounded alarm bells in Syria and Iraq, which both rely on the river for agriculture and power generation. Competition over the Euphrates could exacerbate existing tensions created by raids on Turkish territory by Kurdish guerrillas operating from Syria and Iraq.
The biggest problem lies in the smallest river basin, the Jordan, where competition for water resources between Israel, Jordan, and Syria has already led to bloodshed and now threatens to put peace between Israelis and Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip beyond reach.
Experts say the incipient water crisis could serve as a catalyst for political cooperation, spurring the fractious nations of the region to find ways to develop and share common water resources.
But if water is the best way to peace, it could also prove the shortest route to conflict in a region already beset by old feuds and now armed to the hilt with sophisticated weapons.
``The politics of the Middle East after 2000 will be a struggle over water,'' says former Egyptian diplomat Tahsin Bashir.
Adds a Syrian official: ``No region on earth is as vulnerable to war because of conflicts over water between neighboring states.''