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Middle East Environmental Law

Water and Land Use in the Middle East

Roughly 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water; 98 percent of that is in the oceans, and therefore unsuitable for consumption. Of the remaining two percent not in the oceans, 1.6 percent is locked in the polar ice caps and glaciers. The precious 0.4 percent that remains is what sustains much of life on this planet. This chart shows the earth’s water system:earth's water distribution graph

Water scarcity fuels many conflicts around the world, Due to urbanization, inefficient water consumption, population growth, and climate change, water is only becoming scarcer. Some believe that we are in the "water wars" era. The Middle East has always been faced with water scarcity. This region is recognized as an arid and semi-arid region, which means that it has less than 1000 cubic meters of water per capita. This measurement is based on stream flow within countries with evaporation calculated based on local climate and subtracted from the total. With some portions of the Middle East now receiving an average of less than 10 cm of rainfall annually, this region is considered a water stressed area.

Precipitation and Water Use in Middle East countries ( TARWR: Total Actual Renewable Water Resources)


Total use percent TARWR

Population (1000,000)

TARWR Per Capita(m3/yr (2005)































Saudi Arabia




















Source: World Water Development Report 2, UNESCO 2006

Traditionally, oil and gas have been identified as the primary cause of war in the Middle East region. However, growing demand for water because of urbanization, population growth and climate change very well push the region into conflict over water. According to 2007 estimates, the population in the Middle East, including Northern Africa, rose from less than 50 million a century ago to over 331 million. The population is expected to reach 385 million by 2015.

The water consumption rate in the region is much higher than in other non-arid regions. For example, per capita water use in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is about four times that in Europe. Annual per capita water use in Iran is around 4,450 liters, while the annual per capita consumption rate worldwide is 3400 liters.

Due to poor agricultural techniques, agriculture is the major consumer of water sources in most of the region's countries. There is a low level of efficiency in the utilization of water in all sectors that use water. This has generated a range of problems such as water logging salinity, low productivity, infertility of soil and the deterioration of the quality of ground water. There is a conflict between rapid economic development and scarce water resources in the region. The number of water-scarce countries in the Middle East region has risen from three in 1955 (Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait) to nine by 1990 (with the inclusion of Israel and the Occupied Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen). Another four countries are anticipated to join the list by 2025 (Egypt, Iran, Oman and Syria).


Cropping and irrigated agriculture have been practiced in the region since at least the 5th century BC. More than 85 percent of the extracted freshwater resources are consumed in agriculture. This number varies from country to country, but the largest users include Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, all of which devote more than 90 percent of their water resources to agriculture. Israel at 63 percent and Turkey at 75 percent are the only countries in the region that fall below the average.

The region is sensitive to climatic effects on agriculture production and already imports some 12 billion dollars worth of food annually. Food imports account for between 10 to 35 percent of all imports. In different countries in the region while increased water use efficiency can improve the productivity within a group of crops, the more difficult issue of where to allocate scarce water resources needs to be addressed.

The Middle East also is home to bodies of water and rivers that are a source of life and also a source of conflict. About 60 percent of the available freshwater is in transboundary basins such as the Jordan River basin that Israel, Jordan, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories share , and the Euphrates and Tigris River basins that Syria, Turkey and Iraq share. In the Euphrates basin, which has a surface area of 450,000 km, the 2,735 km long Euphrates River rises in Turkey and flows through Syria before entering Iraq where it joins the Tigris and forms the Shat al-Arab that empties in the Persian Gulf. In Tigris basin, poor irrigation practices have led to severe salination and land degradation in the basin. The Jordan River suffers from over-extraction, severe pollution and salinity problems. Extensive dam construction and diversions for agriculture have in effect stopped natural flows in the Jordan River. Only between 5-20 percent of the natural flow is reaching the Dead Sea. The annual flow of the river has plummeted from 1-3 billion m3 to just 100 million m3, with severe environmental and social consequences, including the formation of sink holes and retreating sea levels.

Better water resource allocation in the region continues to be all urgent and pressing issue. Today, water shortages in the Middle East have forced countries to reuse treated wastewater for agriculture, industry, recreation and to recharge aquifers. A primary concern with using treated wastewater for agriculture is the possible health risks from wastewater containing bacteria, viruses, and a wide range of parasitic organisms.

The Middle East region needs definitive action at the national and regional levels through cooperation and international assistance to resolve water shortages. Countries need to review their laws and policies achieving efficient water consumption. Demand for water has been met through drilling and pumping for underground water, desalination, and building dams on surface waters. However, these resources are finite, and without more efficient consumption, the region will face a serious water shortage.

The challenge of addressing water scarcity in the Middle East is aggravated by the regions ongoing population pressures. Utilizing new sources of water to meet increased demand for fresh water would relieve some of the regional shortages. But as new sources of water become more expensive, they become less accessible to countries with limited financial capabilities. Regional cooperation and political, legal and institutional support are critical for enabling countries to address their freshwater shortages. Sound government policies regarding water allocation, distribution and use can help countries to adopt better strategies to manage their scarce freshwater resources.


1. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report, 2006, Water Scarcity Challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Stockholm International Water Institute, Hakan Tropp & Anders Jagerskog.

2. World Bank Report, Dealing with Water Scarcity in Middle East and North Africa, available at :

3. Water is focus of climate change in Middle East and North Africa, World Bank, available at :

4. The United Nations World Water Assessment Programme, "Climate Change, Water Security and Possible Remedies for the Middle East", Jon Matin Trondalen, Scientific Paper, (2009).