Rivers of discontent

"FROM the Nile to the Jordan to the Euphrates, armies have been mobilised and treaties signed over this precious commodity. In recent years, the needs of ever-increasing populations and burgeoning national development have begun to approach and sometimes exceed local hydrologic limits. As shortages become more acute, unilateral plans increasingly impose on co-riparians, physically driving home the potential hazards of resource conflict -- or the benefits of regional cooperation."

Although it may seem an over-simplification to give a hydrological explanation for all the Middle East's troubles, the underlying premise of this book -- that water is somehow behind it all -- does, by and large, hold good. When Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it gained control of the recharge areas for aquifers which flow west and north-west from the West Bank into Israel, and east to the Jordan Valley. The renewable recharge of these first 2 aquifers is already being exploited and the recharge of the 3rd is close to being depleted.

The growing population, along with burgeoning Jewish settlements, strained groundwater supplies, and is exacerbating already tense relations. "Palestinians have objected strenuously to Israeli control of local water resources and to settlement development, which they see as being at their territorial and hydrologic expense," writes Aaron Wolf, whose paper, A Hydropolitical History of the Nile, Jordan and Euphrates River Basins, is likely to have the widest reader appeal of the 7 papers in the book.

Part of the Water Resources Management Series, this book follows Water for Sustainable Development in the Twenty-first Century and precedes Management and Development of Major Rivers. The series is sponsored by the United Nations University International Water Resources Association (IWRA, a professional NGO) with the support of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and United Nations Environment Programme.

John Kolars' paper, Problems of International River Management, focuses on the Euphrates-Turkey basin, where the fact that water is a prime political player has been craftily disguised. For instance, in early 1990, Turkey reduced the flow of the Euphrates when it closed the spillways on the Ataturk Dam in order to complete construction on the river bed and to begin filling its reservoir. Turgut Ozal, the then prime minister, had hinted earlier that such action might be taken if incursions of PKK (Kurdish Socialist Workers' Party) militants from Syria and Iraq continued. When Syrian and Iraqi ministers came to Ankara to protest, Ozal replied that the matter was best worked out by the Joint Technical Committee. His successor, Suleyman Demirel, indulged in similar circumvention.

This book is well-timed because in the post-cold war era, such issues can now take centrestage. Some social scientists and lawyers have been advocating a water convention like the ones on ozone and climate change.

Biswas, however, feels that there are some fundamental differences between the one and the other, since water is more controllable than ozone or climate, and the problems associated with individual international water bodies are very country-specific. Moreover, "Countries sharing an international water body can visualise the problems confronting them not only more tangibly but also directly in terms of perceived economic advantages." A UN study has identified 214 international river basins in the world, although there are many smaller-order basins too, some of which are politically more troublesome. Tackling these would require a major -- and concerted -- international effort.