Nile Water to Israel? — Part Two

The Scheme Dies and Comes to Life

In 1989 the Israelis were apparently forced to withdraw their hydrologists and surveyors from Ethiopia in the face of threats of war in the Egyptian people’s assembly. The Israeli experts were looking into the possibility of building a dam on the Blue Nile.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 1991 Egypt agreed to abandon the Nile diversion project to the North Sinai (NSADP) due to the concerns of the World Bank and donor countries about financial and environmental difficulties. Nevertheless, in spite of a negative environmental impact assessment which strongly recommended that it should not go forward, the plan was reactivated in 1992. Both the Egyptian government and the World Bank ignored the environmental study and it was kept a secret.(19)

One theory as to the revitalization of the project comes from Salah Bediwi, a journalist and a respected agriculture expert jailed briefly in October 1993 by the Egyptian government on charges of “endangering the national interest” and “humiliating the president.” Charges were presumably brought against him because of his opposition to Egypt’s Nile diversion projects. In a book published in Egyp t, Bediwi charges that USAID — at Israel’s behest apparently — had a role in resurrecting the NSADP.

In his book Bediwi reprints a January 1989 letter from Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, Abraham Katz-Oz, to “the President” of USAID, thanking him for U.S. “cooperation in the Arid Land Development Project, presently being implemented in the Negev of Israel and in Egypt.” The project, the Israeli minister wrote, “will have a strong impact … on the strengthening of international cooperation in desert development in general and peace between Israel and Egypt in particular.”

In August 1993 the Governor of North Sinai, Gen. Mounier Shash, surprised observers when he indicated that the El-Salam Canal would extend past the Al-Arish valley, 40 km from the Egyptian-Israeli border. In an interview published in Al Ahram, the general asserted that the El-Salam Canal would reach Rafah (the border town at the Gaza Strip).

Yet another hint of Israeli intentions and the viability of the project came indirectly from the PLO. According to an article in the influential Cario weekly Ros Al-Yousef (October 1993), the PLO submitted a proposal to Israel to unify the Egyptian and the Palestinian parts of Rafah and establish “bilateral projects.” Some speculate that “bilateral projects” is a reference to connecting the El Salaam Canal to Rafah’s water supply. According to the article, Israel has agreed to the proposal.

With the end of the cold war and the dawn of “peace in the Middle East,” Egypt may be feeling an even greater need to earn generous American subsidies by doing the bidding of the greater power. And t he U.S. may have felt a greater freedom to make demands of Egypt on behalf of the Israelis in the wake of peace agreements signed by the Jordanian Government and the Palestinian Authority from 1993 to 1997.

Environmental Costs of the Project

The concept of transferring water from the Nile delta to North Sinai reclamation projects is based on the erroneous idea that in the winter the Egyptians “dump” two to three billion cubic meters of unused Nile water into the Mediterranean. The truth is that Egypt is already suffering from a severe lack of land and water for irrigation and other uses. Every available drop of water from the Nile is now being used. The so-called “extra” winter water is required for navigational and electrical generational purposes.

According to some sources, Egypt is already taking about 2 billion cubic mete rs more than its 1959 treaty allotment with the Sudan of 55.5 bcms. When added to its 2 bcms of underground water and 4 bcms of recycled drainage water, Egypt barely manages to keep up with its 1995 needs of 64.5 bcms (projected figures). Furthermore, according to one estimate, Egypt will need 79 bcms of water by the year 2000 if it is merely to keep up with its (1986) per capita figure of .02 feddan of cultivated land.(20)

Other projections of shortfalls of Egyptian water requirements are similarly grim. For example, the USAID Bureau for the Near East, in its 1993 “Water Resources Action Plan for the Near East,” states that “Egypt, which already uses more than its share of Nile waters, is projected to experience a deficit of from 16 to 30 percent by the end of the century.” Also, the World Bank predicts in a 1993 report that Egypt will face water shortages ranging from 2-6% to 22-27%, depending on climatic cycles.

Reductions to Egypt’s supply of water from the Nile could also come from development pressures in Ethiopia. According to Sandra Postel, “it is only a matter of time before Ethiopia begins to tap these waters [the headwaters of the Nile]. Indeed, in early 1990, Egypt was reported to have temporarily blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for a project that Cairo feared would reduce downstream supplies. As Egypt’s water security becomes increasingly jeopardized by new projects in Ethiopia, tensions between the two countries are sure to build.”(21)

By early 1996, World Bank observers found that farmers in Sudan and Ethiopia were building increasing numbers of small earthen dams (3-7 meters) on the tributaries of the Nile taking about 2-3 mcm/yr out of the river. The 1959 tr eaty allows for the building of such small dams.(22) If the trend increases significantly, it could amount to a serious diminution of Nile water reaching Egypt.

Ruinous Diversion Projects

For the most part, Egypt’s desert reclamation attempts have been environmental and technical failures. Typically these Nile diversion projects are very expensive and the economic returns are minimal. Moreover, investments currently spent on desert reclamation could be put to better use in the fertile delta area. Sorely needed are drainage systems to save the lands that are currently being lost to salinization and to the rise of the underground water table (a side effect of the High Aswan Dam). Also, agricultural investment is required in already reclaimed lands to install new irrigation technologies that use less water.

A characteristic problem with these projects is that many of those who are sent to farm in the desert are given no special training. Usually they are recent graduates with no agricultural experience, and they use the old method of flooding the land with water, instead of drip irrigation. Since much of the land is desert, water is wasted as it seeps more rapidly underground due to the larger size of the sand particles.

Security Implications

In her widely cited article, “Redefining Security,” Jessica T. Mathews (23) endorses “broadening [the] definition of national security to include resource, environmental and demographic issues.” Pointing to the interrelated impact of population growth and resource scarcity, she forecasts a bleak future of “[h]uman suffering and turmoil,” conditions ripe for “authoritarian government,” and “refugees… spreading the environmental stress that originally forced them from their homes.”(24)

In “Environmental Security,” Richard Matthew(25) states that a vast amount of literature, generated partly in response to the 1994 Cairo Conference, reflects a disagreement generally associated with th e long-standing debate between Paul Ehrlich, who regards population growth as the principal problem facing humankind(26) and Barry Commoner, who contends that the real problem lies in inefficient and unjust economic practices.(27)

The case of the Nile basin is an excellent example of the impact of population growth, resource scarcity, human suffering and turmoil, authoritarian governance, the creation of refugees, the spread of environmental stress and inefficient and unjust economic practices. Although it is impossible to predict the particulars of future internal or external conflict, Egypt’s rapidly growing population — currently more than 63 million (1996) and growing at a rate of 2.0% a year — is dangerously pressing against the natural limits of land and water.

Current diminishing per capita resource trends are a prescription for increasing social and political tensions. As Thomas Homer-Dixon writes, “environmental scarcity can be an important force behind changes in the politics and economics governing resource use. Scarcity can cause powerful actors to strengthen an inequitable distribution of resources in their favor.”(28) Increasing signs of internal frictions in Egypt, especially over the last two decades, may be due in part to the general perception of increasing inequities of resource distribution and the inability of the state to provide economic opportunity for its growing population.

Israel’s Water Needs and Regional Instability

Leading Israeli spokespeople and government officials have typically not been shy about emphasizing their country’s need to develop more and more water resources. In “The Living Waters,” a chapter in his 1993 book, The New Middle East, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, stressed the need for rapid increases in Israel’s water supplies. According to him, Israel cannot wait 20 years for a proposed pipeline from Turkey to bring millions of cubic meters of water to Israel.(29)

In his chapter on water, Peres stressed the demographic bomb of Arab population growth, especially in Syria and Egypt,(30) though he made no mention of Israel’s policy of encouraging large numbers of Jewish immigrants to Israel, nor does he address the drain on area water resources due to Israel’s population growth. Instead he writes smoothly of addressing Israel’s water needs by transferring water “from areas of plenty to areas of need…” He observes that “the best sources [of water] are always located out side the boundaries of countries that need it most …,” and that therefore the best solution would be “an international pipeline to bring water from country to country.”(31) Perhaps he is hinting that since a pipeline from Turkey to Israel will take too long to develop, the Egyptian pipeline would be more efficient.

Israeli schemes for bringing Nile water to Israel must be seen in the context of Israel’s thirst for, and appropriation of, Arab water. Arguably 50% of the water that Israel uses comes from water in Arab lands that would otherwise be used by the Arabs themselves.(32) Israeli per capita water consumption is a multiple of Palestinian consumption — anywhere from three to ten or fifteen times as high .(33)

In the Golan Heights in 1984, the Israelis began to meter and tax Syrian Druze rainwater tanks used for irrigation and forbade further construction of water collection tanks by Druze villagers.(34) Presumably the Israelis wished to prevent diminished flow into the headwaters of the Jordan River which they take virtually all for themselves.

In spite of the positive publicity that Israel has received for its water sharing agreements with Jordan and with the Palestinians, Israel’s share of area waters as a result of their agreements with the Arabs will be reduced marginally if at all, while the Arabs’ share will be increased by only a relatively tiny amount.(35) For the Palestinians, additions to the water supply will be barely sufficient to cover minimal personal needs but not nearly enough for any kind of meaningful economic development.(36)

Israel’s determination to maintain and perhaps to expand its current share of water resources raises questions about the implications for future inter-state and inter-ethnic tensions. In February 1996, in connection with proposed negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights, Israel’s foreign minister Ehud Barak, said that he would not give “a drop of water” to the Syrians.(37) It’s possible that Israeli designs on Syrian and Lebanese water was one of the silent but underlying elements in the Israeli decision to bombard the civilian population of Southern Lebanon for 16 days in April 1996, a repetition of the week-long air, naval and artillery barrage of July 1993.

In addition to causing an estimated $500 million damage to Lebanese infrastructure, the U.N. reported that in the 1996 bombardment, the Israelis damaged two water reservoirs and 91 water tanks. Given the intense Israeli interest in water, it is possible that many of these water installations were deliberately targeted with a view to increasing Israeli water flows from southern Lebanese sources.

Syrian-Israeli relations seem to have been set back by the advent of the Netanyahu government. Shortly after the April 1996 elections the Israeli media began to speculate openly about war with Syria. (38) In February 1997, on the occasion of his trip to Washington, D.C., Prime Minister Netanyahu took the opportunity to reiterate his government’s unwillingness to return the Golan Heights to Syria because of “security” considerations. For its part, the Syrian government announced that it would refuse to reopen negotiations with Israel unless the Netanyahu government honored commitments made with the previous Labor led government.

By mid-August 1997, the Netanyahu Government oversaw the steepest deterioration in relations with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. And in Lebanon, the cease fire in place since April 1996 and the subsequent agreement by the parties not to attack civilians had broken down.

Despite such ominous signs, government officials and the media tend to highlight whatever gains they can point to in the ongoing “peace process.” At bottom, however, ever-increasing per capita demands on resources such as land and water are likely to yield increasing political tensions. Apparent gains on the diplomatic front tend to mask the continuation of the bitter ethnic conflict set in motion by the advent of Zionist immigration to the Middle East more than 100 years ago.

Perhaps something may be made of the notice paid to Joel Cohen’s recent book, How Many People Can Earth Support?.(39) Media attention might be viewed as a sign that academics and policymakers are taking more seriously the fundamental issue of too many people chasing too few resources. In such a world, Darwin’s law seems to obtain: only the strong and the fortunate survive.

The End


19. The Economist Intelligence Unit, “Egypt: EIU Country Profile 1992-93,” 1993, pp. 20-21.

20. Albarghothy, op. cit.note 15. The figure of .02 feddans has apparently since been reduced by increasing population to .015 feddans per capita.

21. Sandra Postel, “The Politics of Water,” Worldwatch, July-August, 1995.

22. Personal communication from Thomas Naff in November 1996 based on his interviews with World Bank and U.S. government officials. The Wall Street Journal found that Ethiopia “has already completed work on more than 200 dams that use 624 million cubic yards of Nile water a year.” Marcus, op. cit., note 3.

23. Jessica T. Mathews, “Redefining Security.” Foreign Affairs, 1989, 68:162-177.

24. Ibid., p. 168.

25. Richard Matthew, “Environmental Security: Demystifying the Concept, Clarifying the Stakes.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, Woodrow Wilson Center for Environmental Change and Security Project Report, Issue 1 (Spring 1995).

26. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, New York: Ballantine, 1968.

Paul R. Ehrlich, and Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

27. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology, New York: Bantam, 1971.

28. Thomas Homer-Dixon, “Strategies for Studying Causation in Complex Ecological-Political Systems,” Journal of Environment and Development, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 1996, p. 137.

29. Shimon Peres, The New Middle East, New York, Henry Holt, 1993, p. 130.

30. Ibid., pp. 124-127.

31. Ibid., p. 129.

32. See Ronald Bleier, “Israel’s Theft of Arab Water: An Obstacle to Peace,” Middle East Labor Bulletin, Vol 4, No. 4, Spring 1994, pp.3-4ff.

33. See Joe Stork, “Water and Israel’s Occupation,” Middle East Report, July-August 1983, p. 21; and Sharif Elmusa, “Dividing the Common Palestinian-Israeli Waters: An International Water Law Approac h,” Journal of Palestine Studies, No. 87, Spring 1993.

34. Virginia Tilley, Destroyed Villages of the Golan Heights, Pamphlet, Settlement Watch, 1992, p. 6.

35. See Libiszewski, op. cit., note 10, p. 73. Libiszewski agrees that at least for “the very short term” Jordan will get a minimal amount of new water. See also Frederick C. Hof, “The Yarmouk and Jordan Rivers in the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty,” Middle East Policy, Vol III, Number 4, April 1995, pp. 47-56. Hof confirms that in the near term Jordan will get very little new water and both writers agree that larger amounts for Jordan are dependent on external funding for joint water projects.

36. Stephen Langfur, “Oslo-2 and the Water Question,” Challenge (Jerusalem), November-December 1995, pp. 4-7.

37. Ehud Barak quoted in Jerusalem Post, February 17, 1996.

38. See for example Ehud Ya’ari, “The Talk of War,” Ma’ariv, June 28, 1996, reprinted in From the Hebrew Press, Monthly Translations and Commentaries from Israel by Dr. Israel Shahak, Supplement, September 1996, pp. 7-8; and Aluf Ben, “The War [with Syria] Is Already in Our Living Rooms,” Ha’aretz, October 25, 1996.

39. Joel Cohen, How Many People Can Earth Support?, New York, Norton, 1996.


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