Prospect of a parched future.

Position:Water in the Middle East

WATER IS ONE commodity where the Middle East is desperately short and countries in the region are now trying to act to avert a water supply crisis by cutting consumption and boosting output at desalination plants, and harnessing underground water resources and river supplies. Water shortages during dusty hot summer months are now a feature of almost all Middle East cities from Istanbul to Jeddah.

According to the director of water projects in Jeddah, Mohammed al Faar, the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture and Water is implementing a water network expansion plan which when completed will cover areas in the south to the far north of the city.

Istanbul's water problems are assuming huge proportions. Its population is set to explode to 23m over the next two decades and the city has a leaky water pipeline system which wastes two-fifths of water channelled into it. According to Ergun Goknel, general director of Istanbul's Water and Sewage Administration, Istanbul has always suffered from a water shortage.

The city's water comes from distant lakes and rainwater collected in underground aqueducts built by the Romans. Istanbul uses 1.5m cubic metres of water a day and disposes of the same amount of sewage. Now the city plans to invest $14bn to meet its long-term water needs.

Alarmists have for years now been predicting "water wars" between Israel and the surrounding Arab states over access to the waters of the Jordan river and between Turkey and its Arab neighbours over the Tigris and Euphrates. These are certainly matters of contention, but they are resolvable. Sharing out water resources is one of the issues on the agenda of the Arab-Israeli peace talks. And if Turkey can agree on a plan with Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan to link their respective electricity networks by 1997, there is no reason why they cannot devise a plan to cooperate on harnessing water resources.

Water is a particularly sensitive issue, however. The completion of the massive Ataturk Dam at the headwaters of the Euphrates last year prompted Turkey's prime minister, Suleiman Demirel, to claim that his country could do what it liked with the water. Talks between Ankara, Baghdad and Damascus broke down in October amid bitter recrimination.

The water crisis in the region means that development of resources will attract massive state investment, foreign aid and private sector funding as countries scramble for self-sufficiency over the next two decades. The European Investment Bank...

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