DEFYING the chill winds of a bleak winter day, the small green shoots of a chickpea plant venture out of the black Syrian soil. Highly sensitive to cold and humidity, these protein-rich legumes - one of the staple food items in the the Middle East - have usually been planted in spring, too late to avoid the wilting, crop-stunting heat of summer.
But with a little genetic toughening, the plants on this experimental farm near Aleppo have learned to cope with winter, taking full advantage of limited seasonal rains, and thus prospering on the kind of semi-arid land prevalent in the region.
The new strain of chickpea, developed by agronomists at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), is one way the Middle East is preparing for a future in which there will be less water to go around. For a region that relies heavily on irrigation to grow food, coaxing bigger harvests out of rain-fed land has become a top priority.
Greater farm output and more-aggressive water-conservation efforts may not rescue the region from a drier future. Indeed, the Middle East is merely borrowing against the day, not far distant in the opinion of many experts, when spiraling population growth creates food demands that will be impossible to meet with available water resources.
But in a region that was largely excluded because of its dry soil from the benefits of the ``Green Revolution'' of the 1960s, the prospect of doubling output on some rain-fed lands has generated considerable enthusiasm among farmers and government officials alike.
``In these marginal lands you can make fantastic contributions,'' says Aart Van Schoonhoven, ICARDA's research director. ``By doubling the efficiency of water use, you have the equivalent of two times as much rain.''
One obvious way to control consumption of what is fast becoming the Middle East's most valuable resource is to charge more for water to effect rationing by price.
But few governments in the region are eager to risk the violence that has greeted price hikes in another basic commodity, bread. As a result, millions of gallons of valuable water continue to be squandered each year watering golf courses and washing cars.
In countries like Jordan, where up to a quarter of the water used for domestic and industrial needs is illegally siphoned off before reaching the meter, the effect of price increases would be blunted in any case.
``Because it's [practically] free, it's freely used,'' says ICARDA director Nasrat Fadda.
Instead, Middle East states have chosen less drastic means of improving water management and conservation in an effort some experts worry may be too little, too late.
In Israel, a growing network of treatment plants purifies waste water for agricultural use, making more fresh water available for domestic use.
In Egypt, where rain-fed agriculture is virtually nonexistent, an inefficient 20,000-mile network of public canals used to irrigate crop lands bordering the Nile is being upgraded. Some canals are being lined to minimize seepage, while 300,000 acres of new lands east and west of the Nile Delta are being fitted with more efficient ``drip'' irrigation systems, according to Egyptian government sources. Plans are also under way to capture more than 2 million cubic meters of irrigation runoff a year in Egypt's northern lakes before it drains into the Mediterranean Sea.
In Syria, farmers are being taught how to manage rain-fed crops more efficiently to maximize harvests and decrease reliance on irrigation. One technique: ``harvesting'' sparse rainwater by concentrating it in limited growing areas.
ICARDA agronomists are also teaching farmers how to use fertilizers more effectively, how to till croplands to minimize runoff, and how to rotate crops to intensify production.
Meanwhile, scientists around the world are seizing the last brief respite before the water crisis hits to develop and implement new technologies to make available water supplies stretch further.
By developing food crops with greater resistance to salt and viruses, an incipient revolution in biotechnology is opening the door to more water-efficient agriculture.
The ultimate technological challenge is finding a practical way to desalinate sea water.
``Desalination is the foremost challenge to the human race,'' says Meir Ben Meir, a former Israeli water commissioner. ``The sea will be our main salvation in the future.''
Less promising in the context of the Middle East have been schemes for regional cooperation in using water.
One technically feasible proposal is a canal that would link the Yarmuk River, which forms the border between Syria and Jordan and between Jordan and Israel, with the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) in Israel. During the winter months, the canal would funnel rains, that would otherwise be lost, downstream into the sea. Some of this water could then be used to replenish underground aquifers in Israel and the occupied West Bank. During the dry summer months, water could be pumped back through the Yarmuk into the 42-mile long Ghor Canal that irrigates the Jordanian side of the Jordan River.
``It is the most attractive water-resources development scheme in the region, both in terms of cost and the quantities of water involved,'' says Israeli water engineer Elisha Kally.
Another proposal, first put forward by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the time of the Camp David negotiations in 1978, is to divert Nile waters across the Sinai Peninsula into the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, and perhaps even into southern Jordan and Israel's Negev Desert. But these and other propositions have run afoul of the hard realities of Middle East politics.
The absence of relations between Israel and Jordan precludes even technical cooperation. Meanwhile, the kind of water-basin transfers that have proved so successful in the United States are considered unworkable between states that are real or potential adversaries. Israel is unwilling to place its water security in the hands of an Arab country. At the same time, Egyptian officials have long since pronounced Sadat's proposal a dead letter.
``We have no intention now or in the future of transferring water outside Egyptian territory,'' says a well-placed government source in Cairo flatly. ``It will never happen.''
In the end, the biggest obstacle to water self-sufficiency is not politics but population growth. Few experts say a solution to that problem is anywhere in sight.
Until inroads are made on birth rates, even the most ambitious conservation plans are bound to be inadequate in the long run.
``We're merely delaying the crisis,'' says Mr. Fadda about ICARDA's success in improving dry-land productivity. ``We're buying time to make the adjustment either until population growth is brought down or until technological advances are made.''
``This will postpone for a time the onset of the crisis,'' adds the Damascus-based director of a Western development agency, referring to water-saving measures now being instituted throughout the Middle East. ``But it may not prevent the crisis from happening.''
This is the last in a four-part series. The first three parts ran March 8, 13, and 14. Editor of series: Susan Llewelyn Leach.