Water is a prominent topic in discussions about the Middle East. Yet media coverage, policy reports and scholarly works often fall into simplistic accounts of scarcity, imminent crisis and potential water wars. “Water in the Middle East,” a primer in PDF format by Jessica Barnes, offers a valuable introduction to the topic that challenges these dominant narratives.
Two quiet but revealing developments related to Middle East water were announced in the spring and summer of 2015. On February 26, Israeli and Jordanian officials signed an agreement to begin implementation of the long-awaited and controversial Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. And, on June 9, a civil society-based coalition led by EcoPeace, a regional environmental NGO, released the first ever Regional Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley. The two schemes represent very different approaches to solving water problems in the region—the first is an old-school engineering fix requiring massive new infrastructure, while the second is a river restoration project rooted in sustainable development principles.
Sa‘id has always loved swimming. When he was little, he spent summer afternoons with his friends on the banks of Syria’s Barada River. When the river level started to drop, in the mid-1990s, he went to a swimming pool newly opened in the nearby village of Basima. The pool belongs to the Abu al-Nour Foundation, an Islamic organization based in the capital of Damascus, where thousands of students come from across the world to train as imams. Within a few months of his first visit to the pool, Sa‘id had started attending the twice-weekly lectures delivered by the grand mufti of Syria and founder of Abu al-Nour, the Sufi sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro.
In 1923, a crippling drought pushed the nomads of the Algerian Sahara as far north as Bou-Saada, just 150 miles south of the Mediterranean coast, in search of sustenance. The French colonial authorities worried that fighting would break out between the nomads and locals over scarce water. From their perspective, indeed, nearly every year between the early 1920s and the late 1940s was exceptionally dry.
For immediate release July 18, 2014 Middle East Report 271 Summer 2014
FUEL AND WATER: THE COMING CRISES
When ‘Ali was a little boy, he spent his summers swimming in the Barada River and playing in the orchards rustling in the breeze along the banks. “Summers in Wadi Barada were amazing,” says the 28-year old from the village of Kufayr al-Zayt to the west of the Syrian capital of Damascus. “I can still hear the water rushing down the valley, and the screams and laughter of children playing in the river. We would spend all day on the banks of the Barada playing in the water, picking blackberries and building campfires in the evenings.”
Demand for water in the Middle East and North Africa is rapidly increasing. Projected population growth alone through 2025 will lower per capita water availability by 30-70 percent over the next few decades, assuming that renewable water supplies remain constant, which is unlikely.  Demand for energy is also rising quickly across the region. As with water, energy demand is driven not only by population increase but also by energy-intensive industrialization, desalination plants and changing lifestyles.
The grinding war in Syria brings new horrors with every passing week. The death toll and the number of displaced people continue to soar, as more areas of the country are reduced to rubble. This month, two additional issues with dire long-term consequences have been gaining attention: the possible drought affecting the northwest and the entrenchment of a war economy.
The flooding of most of the Indus River valley in Pakistan has the makings of a history-altering catastrophe. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 20 million Pakistanis are in dire need, many of them homeless or displaced, others cut off from help by fallen bridges and submerged highways, untold numbers lacking supplies of food and potable water. In the August heat, waterborne disease is a mortal peril, especially to children, 3.5 million of whom are said to be vulnerable. Measured in numbers of people affected, says OCHA spokesman Maurizio Giuliano, “This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.”
In the waning years of the twentieth century, it was common to hear predictions that water would be the oil of the twenty-first. A report prepared for the center-right Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, forecast that water, not oil, would be the dominant source of conflict in the Middle East by the year 2000. This prognosis rested in part upon the estimate of US intelligence agencies that by that time “there will be at least ten places in the world where war could break out over dwindling shared water, the majority in the Middle East.” 
Yemen is one of the oldest irrigation civilizations in the world. For millennia, farmers have practiced sustainable agriculture using available water and land. Through a myriad of mountain terraces, elaborate water harvesting techniques and community-managed flood and spring irrigation systems, the country has been able to support a relatively large population. Until recently, that is. Yemen is now facing a water crisis unprecedented in its history.
The abundance of oil in Saudi Arabia is staggering. With more than 250 billion barrels, the kingdom possesses one-fifth of the world’s oil reserves, affording it considerable influence
“Look at that!” said Muhammad ‘Asfour, an environmentalist and avid nature photographer, pointing to a picture of a boat and wooden staircase perched well above the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. “Do you see how far they are from the waterline?”
The Middle East is running out of water.
Severe drought conditions, only recently ameliorated by heavy winter rains, and the current hostilities have exacerbated the fundamental inequality in division of the scarce water resources of Israel-Palestine between Israelis and Palestinians. Water is becoming a weapon of war aimed at quelling Palestinian support for resistance to occupation.
Around 10,000 of the estimated million people employed in Egypt’s ﬁshing sector are based in ‘Izbat al-Burg, situated at the northernmost tip of the Nile’s Damietta Branch and bordered on the east by the vast Lake Manzala. As recently as nine years ago, Lake Manzala was a major ﬁshing area and a collective asset for this community. Small-scale ﬁshers used simple, cheap ﬁshing boats and equipment, faring well alongside larger operators working in both lake and sea ﬁshing. But at the turn of the century, the lake is no longer regarded as rizq (a source of livelihood). Increasingly, local ﬁshers have been prevented from ﬁshing in Manzala by state-licensed private enclosures that have virtually sealed off access to the lake’s northwestern shorelines.